THE EXCELLENT WAY, 20: THE KNOWN UNKNOWNS
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
June 1, 2017; Day of Pentecost, Year A
Numbers Acts 2:1-21
“All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’”
What do you do after you see a dead man walking? And what do you do after you see him lifted up into the heavens?
For the disciples of Jesus Christ, what you do is gather in an upstairs room and devote yourselves to prayer.
That’s what Luke tells us the disciples to do, there in Jerusalem. After witnessing those life-shaking events, they gather in one place, to pray — and wait.
What they’re waiting for, exactly, they don’t know. But they have a sense that God hasn’t brought them to this place simply to break up their little band and have them all return home. They have an inkling God has something greater planned.
Well, more than an inkling. Jesus himself told them. Acts 1:4-5 says Jesus:
“…ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’”
Of course we know what happens. We just heard it in our scripture lesson:
“…suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” [Acts 2:2-4]
Wind. And fire. Ancient biblical symbols of the power of God. In the book of Exodus, God led the people through the wilderness with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (no doubt, a mighty wind was needed to pile those clouds up into pillar formation). When the prophet Elijah grows discouraged and tries to flee from God, the Lord speaks to him in earthquake, wind and fire — before bringing the message home in a “still, small voice” (or, as one translation puts it, “a sound of sheer silence.”)
Wind and fire are the lingua franca, the common tongue, of the divine. And so it’s no surprise that, when God blows the doors off the expectations of Jesus’ disciples, it happens by those means.
First there’s the rush of wind: a warning, if you will, of what’s to come. The faith of the Jewish people had been formed, many generations past, in the high pastureland, and in the places of desert wandering. In such desolate landscapes, the wind is a constant companion: harbinger of storm, mysterious energy that sways the trees, awesome power that, one moment, whips your face with blown sand and caresses your cheek the next.
Then there’s fire: primordial tool of human beings, that differentiates us from the animals. Gazing into a desert campfire, watching the flames dance and the sparks rise upward to the starry constellations, the ancient people knew this firelight symbolized, somehow, the power of God.
They also knew wind and fire are mysteriously related: how, kindling a blaze from a handful of dry tinder, you have to gently blow upon it. They’d seen, as well, how quickly the power of wind can whip a tiny grass-fire up into a blazing conflagration.
The fire God sends, that first Pentecost, bears nothing like that power of destruction. “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” This is no wildfire. It’s controlled, channeled, directed by a higher power for a certain purpose.
Then there’s the other Pentecost miracle: the gift of language. The disciples discover they’re now able to speak the good news of Jesus Christ in ways others can understand. Suddenly, this band of very ordinary people are no longer fisherfolk and tax collectors, shepherds and farmers. They are apostles: bearers of the good news to a hurting and desperate world.
Is it any wonder that, in describing the reactions of those who were present that day, Luke tells us “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’”
Amazed and perplexed. They don’t get it. They know they’ve experienced something extraordinary, but they have no idea what it is, or what it’s for.
We’ve been making our way, slowly, through 1 Corinthians 13, and as near the end of that great chapter, we come today to a line that has a lot of similarities to the reactions of those who witnessed the Pentecost miracle. Last week we heard how Paul promises that “Love never ends.” Many things do end, he goes on: including those very things the Corinthians have been arguing about, amongst themselves: prophecies, speaking in tongues, esoteric knowledge. Maybe these things do come from God, Paul is saying, but they won’t last. The one spiritual gift that does last is love.
Be a little humble, Paul’s saying. You’ve been misusing the gifts of the Spirit. You’ve been using them to puff yourselves up, to claim you’re more important in God’s eyes than others. “Look at me: I can prophesy!” “Look at me, I can speak in tongues!” “Look at me, I have insider knowledge!” All these holier-than-thou Christians have been using God’s good gifts to sow dissension in the community.
Think of how the gift of tongues functions in Acts chapter 2, the Pentecost passage. It doesn’t tear people apart. It brings people together! Amongst the Corinthians, though — some years later — it’s become just the opposite. The same gift has been misused, to nurture envy and resentment!
Then, Paul says this:
“For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
In these three sentences he gives us two examples of partial knowledge. Partial knowledge is like the incomplete, half-formed knowledge of a child. It’s also like what you see in a mirror — or, as the King James Version put it, “through a glass, darkly.”
We’ve got to stop a moment, now, and unpack that mental picture, because Paul’s not talking about the same sort of mirror we all have on our bathroom wall. The mirrors we have today are crystal-clear. They’re made of glass, with a silvery, reflective material behind it. As long as you haven’t fogged them up with steam from the shower, our mirrors portray exactly what’s in front of them.
That wasn’t true of mirrors in Paul’s day. They didn’t have our modern glassmaking techniques. They couldn’t make glass at all, except to fashion tiny perfume vials or items of jewelry. The only way to manufacture a mirror, in the Roman world, was to take a sheet of metal and polish it to a high sheen. Even with the best polish, applied to the smoothest metal surface, what you saw when you looked into such a mirror was “dim” or “dark.”
What you people imagine to be so precise about your beliefs, he’s saying to the Corinthians, is not nearly so clear as you think. So, get off your high horse, stop spouting off your strong opinions, and start listening to those you disagree with!
There are many things about our faith, Paul’s saying, that are still a mystery: things we don’t fully understand. And we need to be honest about that.
How different that is from what we hear so often — even today — from people engaged in theological debate! They sound so cussedly certain of their position. That’s why that old piece of advice has come down to us: you know, about the two things you never talk about at a party? What are they? Politics and religion! Paul knows it’s so easy, in talking to others about what we believe, to start digging foxholes. What so often goes out the window, as the theology wars crank up, is love.
It’s like that famous old Peanuts cartoon when Charlie Brown goes out to visit Snoopy. He’s sitting on top of his doghouse, as usual. As Charlie walks up, Snoopy’s pounding on the keys of a typewriter.
“I hear you’re writing a book on theology,” Charlie’s saying. “I hope you have a good title.”
“I have the perfect title,” Snoopy thinks to himself. Here’s his title: “Has It Ever Occurred To You that You Might Be Wrong?” Best – theology – title – ever.
So, is Paul saying, here, we should never bear witness to our faith, never speak to others about the truth we know? Of course he isn’t! The whole thrust of the Pentecost miracle was to send those apostles out into the world to share the good news. Paul saw himself as part of that very mission. Although he hadn’t been there in the upper room, himself, to feel the rushing wind and see the dancing tongues of flame, he did number himself among the apostles.
What Paul is saying is that love should guide our witness: love, that greatest of spiritual gifts. If you really do love other people, would you want to withhold the good news that could transform their lives — both in this world and in the world to come? Of course you wouldn’t! But — and here’s the important point — we really shouldn’t be sharing the truths of our faith in a way that steamrollers over the beliefs and convictions others hold dear. Far better to be honest about our doubts as well as our certainties. Far better to be forthright when we share an article of faith whose details are still a mystery to us.
Years ago, Donald Rumsfeld, then Secretary of Defense, was answering some questions about the war in Afghanistan. The reporters wanted to know how certain Rumsfeld was, based on military intelligence, about the strategy he was proposing. Here’s how he responded:
“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
Now, Donald Rumsfeld is a highly intelligent man. I’m sure he knew what he was talking about. But there were a lot of reporters who left the room that day scratching their heads, trying to make sense of the Secretary of Defense’s remarks.
What’s true of military intelligence is also true of faith. There are known knowns: there’s no question about those points. But there are also known unknowns: things we’ll probably never know for certain in this life, but which we hold onto, nonetheless, as articles of faith.
If you ask me how it is, exactly, that Jesus Christ is both God and human, or why bad things happen to good people, or what really happened on the Day of Pentecost, I can’t explain those things. And I’ve got a Ph.D. in theology!
I don’t think you can explain them either. If you could, they wouldn’t be articles of faith, would they? They’d be scientific facts, easily verified according to physical evidence.
But there are times we can’t wait around for the known unknowns to become known knowns. We’ve got to step out in faith and decide we’re going to believe in them, despite the uncertainty.
The standard we Christians are meant to use, in making that decision, is the standard of love. Here’s the genius of Paul, in helping the Corinthians get beyond their incessant theological conflicts. Start by making love your aim, he’s saying to them. Win hearts before you win minds. If you get the love thing right — if you genuinely embody the love of Christ — all those other pieces will eventually fall into place.
You may know the name of Archbishop Desmond Tutu: one of the great leaders of the black and colored South African churches in the struggle against apartheid. Some of Tutu’s colleagues in the movement used to grow impatient at times with how forgiving and tolerant he was, even of his most racist opponents. One of his friends said this about him: “At his age you’d think he would have learned to hate a little more. But there is this problem with Tutu: he believes literally in the gospel.”
That down-to-earth, approachable archbishop, with the winning smile, is a fine example of the sort of love Paul’s advocating in 1 Corinthians 13. That love is nothing less than the fire that burst forth on Pentecost. Sure, there are things about our faith that are the known unknowns, things that make us “amazed and perplexed,” even tot his day. But there’s one standard that’s simple, unwavering and very, very clear: the standard of love. Keep that standard ever before you, and you will not waver far from the way of Christ.
Copyright © 2016 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.