The Day of Pentecost (June 9, 2019)
Acts 2:1-21 – Dramatic Reading
1: When the day of Pentecost had come,
they were all together in one place.
2: And suddenly from heaven there came a sound
like the rush of a violent wind,
and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.
3: Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them,
and a tongue rested on each of them.
All: All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to speak in other languages,
as the Spirit gave them ability.
1: Now there were devout Jews
from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.
2: And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered,
because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.
3: Amazed and astonished, they asked,
All: “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?
And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?
1: Parthians, Medes, Elamites,
and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia,
2: Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia,
Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene,
3: and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,
residents of Crete, and Arabs—
All: in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of
1: All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another,
All: “What does this mean?”
1: But others sneered and said,
2&3: “They are filled with new wine.”
1: But Peter, standing with the eleven,
raised his voice and addressed them:
2: “People of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem,
let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.
3: Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose,
for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.
No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
1: “In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
2: Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
3: And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
1: The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
All: Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
There is an uncommon harmony on Pentecost. All are amazed at what happened when the whole group of Jesus’ followers (not just the eleven apostles) speaks in 15 different languages. And not just a range of languages from east and west of Jerusalem, but in the accents of Galileans. You see, what’s odd about polyglot Galileans is that their region wasn’t associated with… let’s call it… “cosmopolitan-ness.” They were backwater country folk. Which makes it especially odd that Pamphilians and Cappadocians hear them speaking their native tongues.
The best contemporary example I could think of for illustrating how bizarre this was, in context, would entail me beating up on certain states in our beleaguered Union, which just isn’t fair, so I’ll pick on my own people. Clarence Jordan, who was a noted Civil Rights activist, Baptist preacher, and founder of Koinonia Farms in South Georgia, Jimmy Carter’s neck of the woods, told the Pentecost story in his book The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts this way:
When Thanksgiving Day arrived, they were all gathered in one place…Everybody was bursting with Holy Spirit and started talking in whatever different languages the spirit directed.
Now at that time there were a lot of delegates gathered in Atlanta, religious people from countries all over the world. So when they heard this great noise, they all came running together. And then they heard these folks talking to each one of them in their own native tongue, and were they excited! Amazed and astounded no end, they said, “Look, aren’t all these speakers Americans? Then how is it that each of us is hearing it in his own native tongue–French, Spanish, German, Portuguese, Chinese, Russian, Italian, Greek, Turkish, Burmese, Hebrew, Swedish, Afrikaans, Hindi–in our own languages we are hearing them tell of God’s mighty doings.” Everybody was dumbfounded and puzzled, saying one to another, “What’s the meaning of this?” “But others sneered, “They’re tanked up on white lightning.”
In other words, “There’s no way these country bumpkins could be speaking my language! They must be sauced.”
When the gift of the Holy Spirit is given, birthing the church, there is this stunning diversity. But as odd as it is, it’s consistent with what God has been doing up to this point, if you read the Luke’s gospel straight through to the beginning of Acts (they were written as a two-volume set). “The Jesus movement,” as some are fond of calling it, has been an inclusive one—drawing in not just faithful Jewish people from Judea, but Gentiles too. Not just men, but women too. People who are poor too. People who are otherwise marginalized and outcast. So it makes sense, in a way, that the gift of the Holy Spirit on Jesus’ followers would “gather steam” by not only including an international swath of people, but also using unlikely agents for doing so.
That’s one mark of the Holy Spirit in all times and places, in fact: it helps Jesus’ followers connect to people across lines of difference. And that’s often a way you can identify where Christ’s church is—not the building but the community—when there’s an uncommon kinship.
I can’t help but think about how the Spirit breathes a diverse community when I wear this red stole each Pentecost. It was made for me by a member of the last church I served, Raleigh Court Presbyterian in Roanoke, VA. It’s beautiful, hand-stitched, and custom-designed. It’s adorned with flames of different colors and the Hebrew and Greek words for spirit on each end, ruach and pneuma. The person who made it was part of a couple who attended the Wednesday morning 7:00 AM Communion service. We also lived behind each other, separated by a large, ivy-colored hill. We also were separated by politics… And, shall we say, preferred news outlets. I remember one discussion after breakfast that heated up, which was ironic because it was about global warming. Fervent climate change deniers, they were. Our discussions generally went nowhere. We were on opposite sides of pretty much every issue.
But we had also prayed together every single Wednesday morning. We shared the Bread of Like and Cup of Salvation in a circle weekly. And if I needed a tool, which I often did, they didn’t hesitate. When we were raising money for our mission partners in Haiti, they were there. When I was called to St. Mark’s, I wasn’t sure what they’d say. “There’s no person more deserving of this call.” Was that tongue-in-cheek? But they meant it. “We’re so happy for you,” they said.
We basically spoke different languages. But, every now and then, the Spirit would help us hear each other.
I’ve been blessed to witness other Pentecost moments lately. As many of you know I walked the Arizona Migrant Trail the week before last. It was a 75-mile trek from Sasabe, Sonora to Tucson. We walked to remember the thousands who have died in the desert, died at the hands of our border enforcement policies. We walked, we marched, every day for seven days, sometimes in the desert sand and rock, sometimes on the road. It was part pilgrimage, part protest. There was something so very powerful for me about walking for days with these people from different countries, different states, different ages, different professions, all unified by the moments several times a day when we held those crosses high, shouting “Presente!” for those who died senselessly. That word made sense to all of us. It was intelligible to all of us who feel anger and grief at the humanitarian crises in our desert.
And at night, some of us gathered outside the tent of a Franciscan friar for evening prayer. He’d lay out a bedsheet so we didn’t have to sit on the ground. We’d pray using the Catholic breviary (prayer book). As the sun was setting we prayed Catholic prayers with friars, other Catholics, Presbyterians, a Mennonite, a Quaker, a Buddhist, an atheist. The Buddhist chanted in the tongue of her tradition. And I couldn’t help myself: when it was my turn to read the prayers, I had to change up the gendered language for God a bit, St. Mark’s-style. It was like a miniature Pentecost. The Spirit breathed a community and fostered a uncommon harmony.
I tell my stories in the hopes that you can remember some of your own. What are your mini-Pentecost moments? When and how has the Holy Spirit breathed a community around you, even if that community was just a few people, and there was this powerful connection and unity in purpose, despite apparent differences?
A colleague of mine used to say when he would meet complete strangers and feel an instant kinship with them: “The Christ in me found the Christ in them.” Have you felt moments like that?
I say “felt” because that’s often the realm where the Spirit moves, that affective side of us. And that can make we cerebral types a little twitchy. We Presbyterians tend to favor the other two persons of the Trinity; we do a lot of “God,” a little of Jesus, and a bit of Spirit. As somebody said, “Holy Ghost? Sounds a little spooky to me.”
Yet those images Luke uses for Spirit in this story—wind, fire, noise—are by definition forces outside of our grasp, forces that have a power unto themselves and sometimes grab a hold of us. Maybe that’s why we Presbyterians don’t talk too much about the Holy Spirit; it’s a little too wild for us, too uncontrollable.
Yet this is her day, that Spirit—that ruach, that pneuma. May she seize us in her own way and in her own timing. May that presence—that unpredictable, extraordinary, life-giving presence—warm us, disturb us, amaze us, awaken us, inspire us, and kindle a love within us, so much so that even we are surprised by who else is there.