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Scripture Reading: Romans 8:14-17

Show and Tell

We’re at the baptismal font to tell the story of four baptisms. These four kids were born into Presbyterian families. When they were baptized, they were welcomed not just into those families, but into the church family. We mark that they belong to us with this symbol of water on their head, to claim them as God’s people. Listen to this story for something else that goes on people’s heads to claim them as God’s.

Scripture Reading: Acts 2:1-12


Bonnie read to us from the Good News Translation of the Bible. This translation was part of a great surge in Bible translation in the late 20th century. During this time, all kinds of different translations appeared, to render the Bible into the language people actually used. Before that, the newest translation was the dignified Revised Standard Version, which struck kind of a compromise between the King James Version and everyday English. The “old” King James had been itself a replacement of the Latin Bible no one could understand – but 350 years later, the English language had changed again. What’s more, even the KJV replaced not the original language but a prior translation, that Latin text. The originals were all in Hebrew and Greek, but in the fourth century, a large part of the church didn’t know those languages. The musty old Latin text was first a translation into the “common language” of the church.

So now we read a text that is less than 50 years old on the one hand and wildly ancient on the other. Regardless of the updated language, the Bible inherits cultural ideas that may no longer make sense – ideas about the structure of universe and even about the nature of God (see for instance the Lord walking through the garden in Genesis 3). Culturally, some of the most important questions today are about whether one story can even contain all the truth we need to know. In light of that question, turning for guidance to something written 2,000 years ago and more seems no longer quite sensible.

Well, it hasn’t been sensible since Rene Descartes started asking questions 500 years ago. His philosophy of rational doubt breaks the Bible. Before that Nicolaus Copernicus broke it too, with his discovery that there’s no earth at the center of the universe and that heaven is not above us. And before that – before half the Bible was even written – Aristotle and Plato broke it with an approach to philosophy that tries to reach beyond ancient stories. The Bible has never made sense as a philosophical text or a scientific description. It’s not meant to be either of these things. It’s meant to be the story of God in the world.

There’s nothing new about this understanding. Way back in the first centuries of Christianity, Augustine made the point that if science or reason contradict a part of the Bible, we have to read that part as a metaphor, something that tells the truth about God if not about history. That is, we have to look beyond words to find what God is doing there. Our particular theological tradition values the “plain meaning” of the Bible, acknowledging that allegory can go too far, but sometimes the “plain meaning” is that something else is going on here.

To explore beyond the simple answer when two truths come into apparent conflict is to assume that God is present and faithful, in the text and in the world. The trick is to ask the right question. The question is not, “Where can I find some less-threatening facts so I can hold on to what I thought before,” and it’s not, “How fast can I jettison what I thought I knew before I saw this?” The right question is, “What does the old story reveal in light of this new knowledge?” What’s going on and how is God present and active here?

Well, there were 120 (or so) early followers of Jesus. They were all gathered together after Jesus had left, and the Holy Spirit came to them. It did something incredible: it filled them with languages they didn’t know, but that others did. And people responded in two different ways. One was to dismiss them: “They’re drunk!” But the other was to ask, “What does this mean?” What’s the meaning behind this? What’s God up to with this? That’s the right question to ask when strange things happen.

When we ask, we’re drawn into the question where we’re able to see what God is up to. God is not revealed in our grasp of facts, not in our memorization of creeds; God is revealed when our facts and our ideas bump into each other. The right question is not how to make this fit, it’s, “What is God doing here?” That question applies both to science, as in our earlier conflicts, and to people – because we regularly conflict too. “What’s God up to in the strange things people say?” When we ask that, especially in the midst of disagreement, we can recognize and experience God in ways we couldn’t before.

So what I want our confirmation students to know is this. What you’re being invited into is not a set of right answers. I don’t want you to know that this is the only way it can be. I want you to know the presence of God in the world, to know that God can be trusted. I want you to know that the Holy Spirit that is among us has named you long ago: you are God’s beloved.

And know that this God is with you, though not because you believe and say the right things today, and not even despite the other things you’ll say and think later in your life. I want you to know that God’s presence is greater than our ideas and our understandings. God is so much greater, he’s present even when our knowledge vanishes and our truth falls apart. That is, I want you to know that God is with you. Love supports, surrounds, and sustains you. The Holy Spirit breathes in you – today, yesterday, tomorrow, and forever.