Acts of God

By Pastor Jerry Donovan

We’ve all witnessed a wide variety of events in our world that tend to be categorized as “Acts of God.” These include things like hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. Historically the phrase made sense because people didn’t understand the natural causes of catastrophic events. When the volcano Vesuvius exploded and destroyed the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, it had to be an “Act of God” because people didn’t understand the forces of geology. When an earthquake destroyed the medieval city of Lisbon in Portugal, it had to be an “Act of God” because people had no idea about the movement of tectonic plates.

In our world, most of us are familiar with the phrase Acts of God because insurance companies use it to describe any number of natural disasters that they exclude from your coverage. Most people no longer believe that these events come directly from God any more. We know that a hurricane occurs when a low pressure system hits warm water and starts spinning around, and we know that a tornado is the result of warm air hitting cold air. Through science and observation, we have learned to explain the natural causes of all of these Acts of God. Much of what at one time would have been attributed to some mysterious or miraculous “Act of God” now has a completely rational and natural explanation.

This shift may even have affected the way we practice our faith. The Protestant branch of the Christian family uses a worship approach that is reasonable, seeking to explain all things spiritual in terms that everyone can understand and grasp. Therefore, the sermon became the focus for Christian worship instead of the Communion table. In the Catholic Church, the whole point of the service is the mass, the miracle by which the material elements become Jesus’ own body and blood. It is a great mystery, not to be explained, but to be experienced. In the Protestant churches, however, the sermon became central to worship, because the point of worship is to explain all things related to faith. However, the audacity that assumes we can explain everything; even matters that the wisest elders recognize belong firmly in the realm of mystery, doesn’t leave much room for wonder, for awe, for faith, and perhaps even for God.

The book of Acts of the Apostles 2:1-36 tells the story of the outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, the response of the people who witnessed it was not one of calm, rational understanding, but rather they were “mystified,” “surprised and amazed,” and “bewildered” (Acts 2:6 ,7, 12). This event was a real “Act of God,” and beyond their or our ability to understand or explain. It left them in a state of confusion: “12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?’” (Acts 2:12).

Most of us don’t like what we can’t understand. I am uncomfortable with confusion. Many may point out that what Peter did was precisely to “explain” this event. While others may point out that the “miracle” of Pentecost was that the languages of the Apostles were fully understood by the people of many different dialects from all across the Roman Empire. I wonder if part of the problem with our churches today is that we insist on keeping God firmly within the box of what we can understand and explain. Do we really want a God who keeps everything nicely and neatly in the field of what we can explain over Sunday School refreshments? What kind of a faith is that? How in the world does that motivate us to live for the peace and justice and freedom of God’s kingdom in a world that is so unfree and unjust?

The event of Pentecost itself is something astonishing and can’t be rationally explained. One of the lessons of Pentecost is that when “God happens,” it will be something astonishing, just like Pentecost itself. If we want to see some genuine “Acts of God” in our midst, we need to be prepared for some amazement, some confusion. If we want our faith to be something living, if we want our church to be alive with the power of the Spirit, we have to expect that it will only happen to the extent that the God of Pentecost comes to us and shakes things up and blows things around.