Sermon for Pentecost (5.23.10)
Psalm 104:24-34; Acts 2:1-15; Romans 8:14-17; John 14:15-17, 25-27
Please pray with me: “May our meditation be pleasing to God, for in God we rejoice.” Amen. (from Psalm 104)
From today’s Gospel: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you and he will be in you”
We all seem to like excitement, especially when it involved drama or danger. How many times on a Saturday night, when I’m sitting in my office, have I heard the fire sirens go off. And then how many times on Sunday morning are those sirens the first topic of conversation. “Did you hear them? What was going on?”
Something of the sort happened on the Pentecost after Jesus’ Ascension. This holy day, still called Shavuot by observant Jews, was one of the three great festivals of Judaism. Held on the “fiftieth day” after Passover—Pente-cost, it was a time when the first fruits of the harvest were given to God and it was a celebration of the giving of the first five books of the Old Testament, called the Torah, and, within the Torah, the Ten Commandments. Let’s not miss an exciting connection here. In both cases, it’s a question of something new: the excitement of the first crops of the season juxtaposed to the memory of early covenants with God, a Promised Land, and new rules—the Ten Commandments—for governing the community of faithful and oneself. And so this was considered a time to honor once again the covenants of God with God’s people and to renew covenants.
Jerusalem must have been crowded, not only with pilgrims to the Holy City for this festival, but with immigrants—“devout Jews from every nation”—who were living there. This immigrant group is important to the story. Chances are that they were at least bilingual. They probably spoke Greek, the language of the Roman military and the language of business for that period. But they also probably spoke their native language, and that often only at home or with those from their home country. And here, let’s not miss the contrast: there is the language of Empire spoken by those subject to Empire and there is the language of childhood and safety and comfort.
There is a third group in this story, the group that we begin with: “They were all together in one place.” The “they” and “all” seem to refer to the entire community of Christians, some 120 according to the previous chapter of Acts: women and men, the Disciples, and all those others whose names have been forgotten. The space must have been large, probably the courtyard of the temple, and it is this group that the fire engines can be imagined rushing to.
It’s not just a question of son et lumiere, a sound and light show. Suddenly there is what might to be called chaos. Out of nowhere and into the space where they are sitting comes the sound of a roaring wind, and then there are flames dancing, with a tongue of flame, “as of fire,” on the ready, above each head. We grownups know that in the Bible this kind of energy can only come from God: think Moses (Exodus 19), think Elijah (I Kings 19). But it’s really wonderful to give Sunday School students paint—lots of it, mural paper, and time to express this event, to really go for it. For what Luke is trying to capture here is something so mind-blowing that only images such as “as of fire,” can approach it—images, and then the crowd that quickly gathers.
Their curiosity and their group identity are soon transformed as each hears about “God’s deeds of power” in his or her own native language. This is no propaganda spoken in the language of Rome. The speakers seem to be Galileans, but their words, provided by the tongues of flame, burn into the hearts of the crowd. Acts records that 3,000 that day were baptized
I wanted us to hear Scripture read by youth this morning because I wanted to capture some of the freshness of what happened on that first Pentecost. These youth will shortly enter a Confirmation class and that means new beginnings and new commitments, both of which were there on that first Pentecost. I also wanted a surprise and some sense of overlapping realities as we heard the languages of the various prayers all at the same time: Italian, French, German, Spanish, and English.
I’ll bet that a literal translation of those first “deeds of power” would not have been identical. So for today, I asked people to think of a prayer; I didn’t tell them what. I hoped each person would concentrate on their particular text or message as they spoke. Obviously it’s not a question of out shouting one another. On that first day, the words were intended for specific ears and apparently reached them, despite the din.
It was interesting to call people this week to find who might be able to speak in another tongue. Those you heard this morning seemed really willing to take on the challenge and to think about how to pray in a language that they do not use every day. As a result, I began thinking about how differently we each pray all the time, even when we are given the same words, and about how right it is that we can do this. I began thinking too about praying and then acting upon those prayers in a way that transcends differences of cultures, backgrounds, circumstances. Such praying, speaking, and acting transcend the world’s expectations.
The first Pentecost promises us an Advocate, a Holy Spirit sent by Jesus Christ that abides with us, even though the world with its conventional wisdom cannot understand or accept such power. For me, this morning, this story of the first Pentecost is about the miracle of speaking so that the people who need to hear us can do so, whether they be family members, colleagues, or strangers, and it’s about hearing what God wants us to hear. We can wish to do this all we like, but the actual doing comes as we invite and allow the grace of the Holy Spirit to breathe deeply into our lives and actions. After all, every day the Holy Spirit invites us to use a new language, to find a new way of doing things.
And so is today the birthday of the church, as it is often called? In terms of the number of believers who are added and the way of life that they begin to follow, one might say so. But it seems to me that today is far more the arrival, and hence the birthday, of the Holy Spirit, sent by Jesus, to quite literally enlighten the disciples and those that happened to be around them that day. That same Holy Spirit animates our churches and each one of us. Through it, God’s word is still active, still brooding over the waters, still creating: now serenely, now restlessly. God’s covenants with us never grow old. The Spirit of God is something that church can help us experience. It is also something that each of us can bring to church and that can transform that institution into the sacred body of Christ, thus bringing a little closer the day of the Lord.
Let us pray: Dear Lord, help us to obey the Spirit’s call, both through speaking and listening to the languages you want us to hear. Remembering the light of our Christ candle and the living presence of Pentecost, let us show forth the glory that you are shining on us today. Remembering our Christ and the living presence of Pentecost, let us proclaim God’s deeds of power and God’s love, even when the world thinks otherwise. Remembering our Christ and the living presence of Pentecost, let us be the active peace of Christ to all whom we meet and to this earth that God has entrusted to us to share. We trust your sweet Holy Spirit to stay right here with us. We pray in Christ’s name. Amen.