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.”
Sharing the Spirit: Acts 2:1-21
I always like a story with a good ruckus. Our reading for today, the day we call Pentecost, is certainly a reading with a ruckus. We made a pretty good ruckus while Connie read it, didn't we? (for those of you who weren't here, we acted out the parts of the story as our layreader read it) I mean, you heard the story. It seems only fair that we did. And, our ruckus pales in comparison to the one in the story. Let's walk through the story again to remind ourselves how wild it is. About 120 of Jesus' followers are gathered in one place in Jerusalem. It is the time of year when they celebrated Shavuot, or Pentecost, a festival that follows 40 days after Pentecost. These 120 folks were all smooshed together and a terrible wind kicked up. Now, we made kind of a fun wind sound. After all, we've heard this story before. We know that something good is going to come from the wind. So, we played with it a little, using balloons and quarters to whoosh around. It is wise for us to remember that the wind described here probably wasn't all that fun. If we were in a room, say, like this sanctuary, and a forceful, violent wind suddenly blew open our doors and rattled these stained glass windows and made our papers fly everywhere, we'd more likely be frightened than amused. These disciples, all 120 of them, are probably more frightened than amused by what is happening.
The next part of the story probably only adds to their confusion. You see, they didn't have little sticks with ribbon and neat little paper birds floating around to remind them of the Holy Spirit. In this telling of the story, the people thought they saw fire... inside the room... in the air... leaping across their bodies. They knew the ancient stories. Fire in unexpected or strange places is often a sign of God in their religious tradition. God once spoke to Moses through a burning bush. Their people once followed a pillar of fire through the desert, trusting that God was leading the way. This fire was different. As the wind whipped around them and they saw something that looked like fire, but the fire wasn't outside of them, directing them away. It was on top of them, maybe even inside of them, filling them up with the presence of God through the Holy Spirit. That Holy Spirit was about to spill out and do something none of them had expected... As if they expected any of what was going on around them.
We should remember that these 120 people are Galileans. In their everyday life, they likely spoke Aramaic or Greek. They probably understood a little Hebrew for religious purposes. They might know a smattering of Latin. This story tells us that they began to speak so much more. A crowd of people who had gathered to celebrate the festival, crowded around the group of Galileans when they heard their tumult. We don't know exactly who was in the crowd, whether is was Jewish immigrants from across the Mediterranean who had settled in Jerusalem or Jewish pilgrims who had traveled to the city for religious observance. Whomever it was, they suddenly realized they were hearing speech in their own mother tongues. More than a dozen regions are named, and people from each place understood the words the disciples were saying. And, they were astonished... the confused and surprised and suspicious kind of astonished. Some even wondered if they were just hearing the almost coherent ramblings of a bunch of morning drunks.
Isn't this an arresting image of the church: people from wide ranges of ethnicities, genders, social classes, and ages, all hearing something new and moving about God in a language that they could understand. Even if they didn't understand how it was happening (and it's pretty clear, no one understood how it was happening, at that moment), they heard and could understand something new about God. God had made sure that each one of them could hear something familiar, even as they would miles and miles away from home. It doesn't appear that they were comforted by this, in fact, scripture says that they were pretty perplexed by the whole thing. And, yet, it seems like this situation is just exactly what God intends. At least that's how Peter understands what's going on.
In a manner similar to the time when Jesus rooted his own ministry in the works of the prophet Isaiah at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, here in Acts, the sequel to Luke, Peter understands this Pentecost moment as an expression of the work of the prophet Joel. He explains to the bewildered crowd that they will know that God has come close to them when the differences within humanity are no longer excuses for humans to avoid coming together in community. God will empower all kinds of people. Peter said that God will allow people of all genders to prophecy, erasing the notion at women were not able to speak through the Holy Spirit. Peter said that youth will not be seen as incompatible with wisdom and agedness will be linked with creativity. The enslaved with share a place of righteousness with the free and they will speak truth to all.
It is through this rich, boundary-pushing community that humanity most clearly speaks of the fullness of God. It is as if the amazing differences present in the people give them access to different aspects of God. Different and varied life experiences help people understand God in different ways. This sets a foundation for us to understand our differences in life experience and religious experience as a gift from God, and as an asset to our faith. Without these varying testimonies of God, our faith becomes static and closed-off, just the opposite of this wild, diverse community presented in this part of Acts. This diverse testimony is what allows faith in Jesus to spread, first through a diverse diaspora of Jews, and then through Gentile communities. And, the Holy Spirit sets the whole thing in motion right here, by making sure everyone could hear a word of God that moved them and inspired them to live differently.
I read an article this week where the author was critical of churches that talk a big game on Pentecost but doesn't continue this work of translation and diversification in our everyday lives. In fact, he wondered if too many folks avoided Pentecost situations, events where the Spirit could overflow and connect people across difference, in order to feel safe and stable in what they already knew. I can understand his critique. The chaos of new creation can seem scary and best avoided. As another scholar I read this week, Margaret Aymer, offered another way to understand our place in midst of change. She said, "in the midst of the chaos of Pentecost rests an anchor...." That anchor is the legacy and ministry of Jesus Christ and his first followers. We know that he continues to invite us to hear the Gospel through our own experience and listen to our neighbors interpret God through theirs. And, we know that this experience can be disconcerting and disruptive, like a wind whipping through a quiet room. But, we will be strengthen by the varieties of gifts people bring when they feel truly welcomed into Jesus' community. We can be empowered by the testimonies we have heard so that, we, too, dream dreams and serve our neighbors. The Spirit is always there, waiting to fill us up. May we be willing to be moved by what we learn from it.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
Billy Honor: https://www.onscripture.com/my-struggle-pentecost-church’s-vacation-home-not-its-residence
Margaret Aymer: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3282
Mitzi Smith: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=823
Would you like to hear a recording of a bunch of people speaking different languages and reading the story of Pentecost? Here's a great one: http://alivenow.upperroom.org/2011/06/06/pentecost/
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.