Today is Pentecost in the Christian Church. Pentecost means 50 days. Before it was a Christian Holy Day, it was a Jewish festival that happened 50 days after Passover. The Jewish Pentecost celebrated the giving of the Ten Commandments through Moses to the Hebrew people.
As we hear this story from Acts, Jews from all over the middle east of the first century were in Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost...Jews who were from many countries and spoke many languages and had different cultural customs, but who gathered as one people to celebrate Pentecost.
Part of the group of Jews who gathered in Jerusalem were the followers of Jesus from Galilee including Peter, who just 50 days ago had experienced the resurrection of Jesus following his brutal execution. In these 50 days Jesus had appeared to them and broke bread with them; and then as he went back to God, Jesus told them to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit to come upon them. The Holy Spirit would give them the power to be witnesses to Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth.
“The Message” by Eugene Peterson
1-4 When the Feast of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force—no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them.
5-11 There were many Jews staying in Jerusalem just then, devout pilgrims from all over the world. When they heard the sound, they came on the run. Then when they heard, one after another, their own mother tongues being spoken, they were thunderstruck. They couldn't for the life of them figure out what was going on, and kept saying, "Aren't these all Galileans? How come we're hearing them talk in our various mother tongues?
14-21 That's when Peter stood up and, backed by the other eleven, spoke out with bold urgency: "Fellow Jews, all of you who are visiting Jerusalem, listen carefully and get this story straight. These people aren't drunk as some of you suspect. They haven't had time to get drunk—it's only nine o'clock in the morning. This is what the prophet Joel announced would happen: "In the Last Days," God says, "I will pour out my Spirit on every kind of people: your sons will prophesy, also your daughters; your young men will see visions, your old men dream dreams. When the time comes, I'll pour out my Spirit on those who serve me, men and women both, and they'll prophesy. I'll set wonders in the sky above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billowing smoke, the sun turning black and the moon blood-red, before the Day of the Lord arrives, the Day tremendous and marvelous; and whoever calls out for help to me, God, will be saved."
It’s quite the scene, isn’t it? Gale force winds blowing through a house that still stands. As Peterson tells it, the Holy Spirit spread like wildfire. In another version it says tongues as of fire rested on each person; and a cacophony of sound filled the air as all these languages were spoken. Each person heard their own language—heard these earthy Galileans speak so that everyone present could understand. “They’re drunk” was the cry. Then Peter steps in and says no—they are not drunk.
Wind and fire are symbols for Pentecost, but more so for this elusive thing we call the Holy Spirit. Even those of us who have been going to church most of our lives find it difficult to comprehend how this event could have happened. We live in a world where we want proof. The ancients lived in a world where the story was believed. For them the wind and fire possessed what we now consider properties of liquids. This is why the scriptures speak of the spirit being “poured out.” The ancients believed this elusive spirit was real; and the rushing wind and tongues like fire made it all the more tangible.
So if we were to experience a Pentecost today—the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, what would you think or do? Non-rhetorical…tell me—if the Spirit like the wind blew through this place, what would you do? We seldom need to take Annie Dillard’s counsel to lash ourselves to our pews and put on crash helmets on Pentecost or any other Sunday at church. But, what if we encountered the wildness of God’s Spirit, awakening, energizing, and enlightening? What if we felt God speaking in our words and thoughts, or experienced our hearts and bodies strangely warmed in an unexpected, but lively and healthy way?
I spent the first 11 years of my life in a Pentecostal church—a church that was never quiet in prayer time, a church where the spirit was expressed in ways that would seem peculiar to us. People moved by the Spirit prayed with words I didn’t recognize—they called it speaking in tongues. I’ve come to know the Holy Spirit can be expressed or experienced in many ways—from voices raised in spontaneous, out-loud, “everybody praying their own words” prayer to the unison Lord’s Prayer raised by the family in our time of worship to the stillness of breathing as prayer.
On Pentecost, the spirit inspires the community to mission. Good news can’t be sequestered or kept to ourselves. Spirit bursts forth. The first Christians were driven to the streets, sharing good news, speaking in unfamiliar voices and being heard across culture and ethnicity. Everyone got the message. Diversity is no longer a barrier to unity but precisely the vehicle for the Spirit’s movements. Medes and Parthians remain Medes and Parthians; there is no need to sacrifice the gifts of their cultures. Each culture’s gifts become part of a rainbow kaleidoscope, reflecting God’s delight in a diversity that deepens our experiences of unity and solidarity.
Peter’s speech is universalist; that is, everyone can experience God and all are invited to healing and salvation. Peter quotes the prophet Joel whose words indicate there is no one path to experiencing God: some dream, others see visions, still others ecstatically share God’s wisdom. No age, sexual, or economic community is left out of in this lively democracy of the spirit. No Calvinist, separating sheep and goats, elect and reprobate before creation, Peter’s Universalist spirit invites all to say “yes” in the dynamic call and response of God and humankind. And in a time of theological polarization and exclusion, that’s amazing.
A mythical story about the day Jesus arrived in heaven after his earthly life says Jesus found his way into the presence of God. After welcoming him home, God asked, “What finally happened? What did you do to ensure that my dream for the world would finally come true?” And Jesus told of how he had gathered some fishermen, a tax collector, some women and a few others and had taught them everything he knew and now had entrusted them with the dream. God then asked, “And what happens now? What if they fail? Do you have a backup plan?” And Jesus replied, “There is no backup plan; I am counting on them.”
While our world would be unrecognizable to the ancients, the human condition would not. They would see there are issues of justice that still need to be solved. They would see that hunger and loneliness and alienation from God and one other plague our world as well. From the realms of the world beyond they watch our world and they hope we will not let the fire of Pentecost go out.
There is no back-up plan—God’s plan is now in our hands. We, humankind, are the ones who are filled with the Spirit and on whom God is counting. But the challenges we face can seem overwhelming. The sheer volume of information we must process, the frantic pace of life, the increased complexity of moral decision making—all these things and more make us want to get in bed and pull the covers over our heads.
Yet I dream that every one of God’s children will know and feel the healing and reconciling love of God that is evidenced in the life and ministry of Jesus, no matter how broken they are, how defeated they are, no matter how sick, depressed or demoralized. I dream that God’s love will be known to any and all in need, strife or affliction, and I dream we will be the people to carry that love to the world. And now that dream needs my sweat, my hands, my passion.
What do you dream? What is your holy longing? What sets you on fire? All week long Alicia Keys has been singing in my head every time I made preparations for this worship service. You know—“this girl is on fire.” Except she’s been singing, “This church is on fire.”
Today is our Pentecost. The Spirit is sweeping through this place whether we know it or not. The Spirit is calling us to share what we experience in this place—all are welcome just as we are. Pentecost isn’t a once upon a time story—it’s our story. We can’t give up because someone has told us that we are wrong and would stand outside our door with a picket sign. We can’t give up because our family has rejected us. Jesus didn’t give up. The disciples didn’t give up. Slaves didn’t give up. Women didn’t give up. We are descendants of a God who swoops through and sets us on fire, so the world will know God is a God of love for all the people.
And while it would be great to see this church grow, what’s more important is that someone’s life is transformed, whether they ever come to worship here or not. I’d like to think we have something good here, but that’s not what matters. What matters is transforming lives and making this world a better place. It won’t happen by osmosis.
An English bishop visited a sleepy little parish along the river Thames. The village priest was discouraged and depressed, not really accomplishing very much. Finally, the priest confessed, “Bishop, I can't say that we are setting the Thames on fire.” The bishop looked him sternly in the eye and said, “Young man, I am not the least bit concerned about setting the Thames on fire. What I want to know is, if I take you out and drop you in it, will you sizzle?”
Are we on fire?
Benediction William Blake
Unless the eye catch fire, God will not be seen.
Unless the ear catch fire, God will not be heard.
Unless the tongue catch fire, God will not be named.
Unless the heart catch fire, God will not be loved
Unless the mind catch fire, God will not be known.