(sermon 6/4/17 – Pentecost Sunday)
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 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. 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.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 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: ‘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. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ – Acts 2:1-21
Take a minute, if you will, to imagine what Jesus’ disciples have gone through in just a month and a half, leading up to this story that we just heard. Within that short time, Jesus has been arrested and executed; they’ve been demoralized, scattered, terrified; they’ve seen Jesus raised from the dead and ascending into heaven. After that, they gathered together – we’re told that there were about 120 of them – and they started to figure out what they’re going to do next. One of the first things that they did after Jesus’ ascension was to fill the leadership vacancy left by Judas Iscariot, selecting a man named Matthias to replace him. Then they started getting down to the business of what they do now.
And so it was on this one particular day – it happened to be the Jewish festival of Shavuot, or Pentecost, which was a festival celebrating the wheat harvest that came fifty days after the second day of Passover – Jesus’ followers were all gathered together, maybe meeting to develop a mission statement, when it happened. Suddenly, throughout the whole city, there was a loud, chest-shaking sound like a powerful wind that confusion, and undoubtedly some fear, in the hearts of everyone who experienced it. It caused people to run out into the streets to see what was happening. Inside the house, Jesus’ disciples heard it and felt it too, and added to the noise were the flame-like appearance over all of their heads, and their suddenly speaking in languages that weren’t their own.
As they went out into the street, they encountered the other people of the city – all of the Passover pilgrims and visitors had long since gone home; these were the actual residents of the city now. As we heard in the reading, these residents included people originating all the nations surrounding Judah, and speaking all of those different languages. Jerusalem had a very diverse, pluralistic population, and now here they all were, encountering these Galileans with flames dancing on their heads and all speaking their own native languages. I’d imagine this just made people even more confused and knocked off balance, wondering what all this really meant.
In the midst of all the confusion, Peter gets out in front of everyone, and just weeks after he and all the others were cowering behind locked doors for fear of their lives, he boldly tells them what this is all about.
Our observation of Pentecost is a celebration of this event – this coming of the Holy Spirit and filling and energizing God’s people, certainly not for the first time, but definitely in a bold, unmistakable way, and in a way that gave those disciples the courage and the tools to quit hiding behind locked doors, to come out into the open and proclaim God’s truth and good news for all people, from any nation, any language, any background; in a way that enabled them to get on with the work that God had called them to. So for that reason, we observe Pentecost.
But we don’t celebrate it as just a remembrance of a single historical event; a single, finite point on a timeline. We see it as an important milestone, but just one milestone, in the overall history of the work of the Holy Spirit in human history, which continues to this day. On that day, the Holy Spirit filled those disciples with a combination of courage, and comfort, and challenge, and uncertainty, all at the same time. And the Spirit does the same thing within our lives, in our time, too. God certainly works within us to equip us and embolden us do whatever it is that God is calling us to, drawing us to, in our own individual mission and ministry in God’s kingdom. But as clearly as we can see that, we also know that we also have some uncertainties, maybe about where it will all lead. It has always been that way.
That day in Jerusalem, we see the Holy Spirit enlightening and empowering people and maturing their faith and sending them out beyond just their own small body of the faithful, even in spite of what had to be some misgivings. And we see the same thing happening over and over again in the lives of God’s people. In just one example, we saw the Spirit at work in this country in the 1960s, in the Civil Rights movement, in the life of Eugene Carson Blake, who was the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church at the time. Blake was asked to be part of the famous March on Washington organized by Dr. King in 1963. There are historical photos of Blake taking part in the day’s activities and that we can point proudly to. But looking through Blake’s papers, it turns out that he really was torn about participating; he didn’t originally want to do it. He was worried that his participation would cause further dissention and division within a denomination that already was not of one mind on the issue of civil rights. And he also worried somewhat about his own personal safety, too – to be that close to Dr. King place one’s self in potential harm’s way, to be sure. In the end, though, Blake knew that the Holy Spirit is leading him, drawing him to do it, because it was the right thing – the God thing – to do. To stand up for justice and equality wherever it’s being denied is always the right thing to do. And so he did it. He put on his clerical collar, and his iconic straw hat, and he marched, literally arm in arm with Dr. King at the head of that march, and he delivered a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial just a few minutes before Dr. King delivered his now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
And today, as we observe Pentecost Sunday, we see this same work of the Holy Spirit in our midst just as clearly as it was in today’s reading, too. We see the Holy Spirit leading us into new things, new ventures, new ways to worship, just by virtue of being out here in the park. And most importantly, we see and we acknowledge God’s Spirit present and working in the lives of these young people who are being confirmed this morning. And we see it in the lives of the high school students who we’re commissioning to represent our congregation at the youth gathering at Montreat this coming week. Both of these groups of young people, and the adults who are traveling with the high schoolers, are evidence that God continues to work in our lives, challenging us to understand God, our faith, and ourselves more deeply; and challenging us to move out beyond our own small church family and out into the broader church, the broader world, in service to God.
So today we celebrate the work of the Holy Spirit who has always been sending the church out to new and different places by worshiping in a new and different place, and by seeing God at work in the lives of each one of the people we’ll confirm or commission today. For each of them, and for the love of the God who dwells within them, we say
Thanks be to God.