As written and preached by Amy Christine Hanson
Grace, Peace, and Mercy are yours from the Triune God. Amen
Today is the day in the church year that we call Pentecost. This festival occurs about fifty days after Easter and after the ascension of Jesus into heaven after his Resurrection. Pentecost is the pouring out of the Holy Spirit into the world. Up to this point, knowledge of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was limited to a select few. In Pentecost, all of that is blown apart and the life and death of Jesus is for everyone. Pentecost is a sending out of God’s people into the world. It is the birth of the wildly diverse Body of Christ, the Church, on earth.
In today’s reading we hear that the disciples are gathered in Jerusalem. The eleven apostles who remained after Judas betrayed Jesus had just decided to elect Matthias to join their ranks and they were undoubtedly making a neat and orderly strategic plan for how to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. At this time there was much debate about who could be a part of this Jesus movement and who could not. It was no doubt pretty ugly at times. Peter remarks to the crowd, about 120 people, that the scriptures had been fulfilled and they were going go out into the countryside to bear witness to all that they had seen. They were in the city at the same time that a huge Jewish festival called the Festival of the Weeks was occurring, and were in a crowd of thousands… The Holy Spirit was about to show up and it’s not in her nature to adhere to the best-laid human plans.
Imagine for a second the situation that we hear about in today’s text. The disciples are all gathered in one place, probably a fenced courtyard of some type, because they were afraid of the crowds in the city. Crowds that were hostile towards them and what they believed. They were trying to keep some semblance of order, and out of nowhere, they hear a rush of violent wind, imagine a tornado or a particularly spectacular thunderstorm, and then tongues of fire. An inferno that engulfs each one of them. Then an uproar of speaking in other languages. Absolute chaos. And it gets worse.
The devout Jews who are in Jerusalem for this particular festival are drawn to the spectacle. They are astonished at the sights and sounds and in particular, that this strange group of people is speaking many languages. And the content of this speech is about what God is up to in the world. This violent in-breaking is the very spirit of God coming into the world and smashing apart every distinction of language and ethnicity and every possible flimsy construction we have for understanding who God is. The Holy Spirit is wild and unpredictable and dangerous. She brings together people who wouldn’t be associating with one another in a million years. She breaks down walls of misunderstanding and builds up something even stronger in their place. The onlookers think that this can’t possibly be for real, and try to explain it away saying, “They are drunk, not to mention probably crazy.”
Old reliable Peter, who is never at a loss for words, remarks, “they are not drunk, it is only 9:00 in the morning. No, all of this was foretold by the prophet Joel: God declares ‘I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy and your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams…and on and on…and then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” The prophet Joel’s words galvanize the people to go out into all the lands and talk about Jesus Christ and that is how the church was born. Forever and ever. Amen. The End.
And that is how we understand Pentecost most of the time. This quaint little idea of The Birthday of the Church. Something that happened once, a very long time ago. We take the wildly unpredictable movement of the spirit and domesticate it into a neat and tidy little understanding of what it means to be church and do church.
I think it is worth exploring a different idea of what Pentecost is. Let’s consider that Pentecost is not a one-time event that happened a really long time ago. Maybe it is something that happens over and over again. The Holy Spirit is moving about right now, right here in this room. Breaking us open and forming and reforming us, the body of Christ, the church, every single day. In fact, the second that we think we have the spirit pinned down into a neat little box of our own understanding, it is blown apart and positively incinerated.
I think that we all sometimes operate under the mistaken assumption that when the Holy Spirit enters into our lives and starts remaking us, it is going to feel good. The Holy Spirit not only forms and reforms us as a church, it also forms and reforms us as individuals. I am not sure where we get the idea that the Holy Spirit is a gentle dove that is guiding our way, because the Holy Spirit that we hear about in today’s reading is downright terrifying. Flames and noise and confusion. But this Spirit…she speaks truth. The truth is often painful to hear and might not be what we want. Just as the Holy Spirit gathers together an improbable collection of people in today’s text to form the body of Christ, she continues to do so even today. What if Pentecost is less about the establishment of the institutional church and more about being broken open and baptized by a fire of truth over and over again?
In just a few minutes we are going to all get up and work on creating a visible representation of Pentecost. But before we go to it, I want to share a story with you about how I experienced the Holy Spirit this week. In the heartbreakingly truthful way that she often works upon us. I spent most of last Monday at the capital building as we awaited the results of the vote for marriage equality in our state. I was with friends, surrounded by at least a thousand of others chanting and singing. You could feel the spirit move as we implored our senators to “be on the right side of history” and “make the right choice” and generally we all got caught up in the joy and excitement. I went outside to get some fresh air and that is where the Holy Spirit really got me. In the midst of a sea of orange t-shirts and rainbow flags was a lone middle-aged man wearing a polo shirt and khakis sitting on the steps holding a pink “Vote No” sign. It was clear that he was fearful and uncomfortable. I really wanted to dislike this guy because he was invested in the idea that people like me and so many of those whom I love should not be allowed to marry. Instead of hatred, I only felt compassion. This man was trying to be faithful in the best way that he knew how, just as I was attempting to do the same thing. And believe me, I am not a good enough person to pull this off on my own. The Holy Spirit is behind this one. It would have felt good to be angry with this guy, even to hate him, and instead, my eyes met his and I felt my heart break. Even though I didn’t want to claim this guy as a fellow worker in the Kingdom of God, an integral part of the Body of Christ, he’s most certainly a part of it, and it’s not my job to decide whether he is in or out and not something I can do on my own. THIS is what the Holy Spirit will do to you.
This very Spirit is God coming into the world and smashing apart every human judgment and every disagreement and every possible flimsy construction we have for understanding who God is. The church that was created on Pentecost is not a building and not a denomination and not a place you go on Sundays, but a body of wildly diverse people who are continually being made and remade in the image of God. And we need each other. That is what we celebrate with Pentecost. Thanks be to God.