Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Acts 2:1-21 The Coming of the Holy Spirit
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.’
Peter Addresses the Crowd
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.”
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. 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. What this means is that a lot of Jewish people from across the diaspora were in Jerusalem, including Jesus’ followers. The religious pilgrims spoke a variety of languages. The 120 followers of Jesus were all smooshed together in one space when, all of the sudden, a terrible wind kicked up. 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, rattled these stained-glass windows, made our papers fly everywhere, and knocked over the zoom camera, we'd more likely be frightened than amused. These disciples, all 120 of them, are probably more frightened than amused by what was happening.
The next part of the story probably only adds to their confusion. You see, the people thought they saw fire... inside the room... in the air... leaping across their bodies. They knew the ancient stories. Scholars remind us was the disciples likely knew: in their religious tradition, fire in unexpected or strange places was often a sign of God. 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. While seeing fire in a building is frightening, this fire is awe-inspiring because it is more like those Holy Fires than a forest fire. As the wind whipped around them, the fire was on top of them, maybe even inside of them, and filling them up with the presence of God through the Holy Spirit. That Holy Spirit would soon spill out and do something none of them expected.
We should remember that these 120 disciples are all Galileans. In their everyday life, scholars remind us that they likely spoke Aramaic or Greek. They probably understood a little Hebrew for religious purposes. They might know a smattering of Latin because Rome had conquered their home. I note the languages they likely spoke because the Holy Spirit would help this crowd of Galileans communicate in new and fantastical ways. In the story it says that a crowd of other people gathered around this group of Galileans when they heard the wind and fire. We don't know exactly who was in the crowd, whether it was Jewish pilgrims from across the Mediterranean who had settled in Jerusalem or Jewish pilgrims who had traveled to the city for religious observance. Whomever it was, the crowd suddenly realized they were hearing words in their own mother tongues. More than a dozen regions are named in the reading, and the scripture tells us that people from each of those dozen places understood the words the disciples were saying. And, the crowd was astonished... the confused and surprised and suspicious kind of astonished. Some even wondered if they weren’t really hearing their language and instead were the words just the almost-coherent ramblings of a bunch of morning drunks.
Isn't this an arresting image of the church: people from wide ranges of regional identities, 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. What an incredible story about God being so generous as to make sure that each one of them could hear something familiar, even as they would miles and miles away from home. They were bewildered, though, because none of this was expected. And, yet, it seems like this situation is just exactly what God intends. At least that's how Peter later explains what is going on.
The book of Acts is the sequel to the book of Luke. So, themes and storytelling devices are carried from one work to the other. In Luke, Jesus rooted his own ministry in the works of the prophet Isaiah. In Acts, Peter explains this Pentecost moment as being an expression of the work of the prophet Joel. He tells the bewildered crowd that they will know that God has come close to them when the differences within humanity are no longer excuses for people to avoid coming together in community. Peter heard all these people speaking different languages and immediately understood that God will empower all kinds of people and bring them together across their differences. 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 also that advanced age will be linked with creativity. The enslaved with share a place of righteousness with the free and they will speak truth to all. Peter saw, through the prophecies of Joel, that our differences won’t stop us from being able to speak of God and that God will work through them to draw us together.
I believe this Pentecost story sets a foundation for us to understand the differences in our life experiences and religious experiences as a gift from God, and as an asset to our faith. Without these varying testimonies of God... the variety of faith languages we speak... our faith becomes static and closed-off, just the opposite of this wild, rowdy, holy gathering presented in this part of Acts. This unruly and unexpected testimony is what allows faith in Jesus to spread, first through a diverse diaspora of Jewish people, and then through Gentile communities. And, all of the future mission is set in motion right here, by the Holy Spirit making sure everyone could hear a word of God that moved them and inspired them to live differently.
A while ago, I read a commentary by the scholar Margaret Aymer who reminds we who have heard this story a million times and think of it as celebratory, that it was intended to be bewildering and confusing. That is a helpful reminder: the church is born, and likely reborn, in disruption and confusion. When we think about our own church life, we can’t always view disruption as a bad thing... even if it does feel bad and weird in the moment. The church was born in the midst of that which is unexpected and confounding and maybe frightening. And yet, even though there is chaos in this story, Aymer also says, "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. This story shows the disciples demonstrating the fact that anyone who calls upon Jesus’ name, from whatever language, in whatever age or gender or social class, can be saved.
We know that Jesus 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, this story reminds us that the Body of Christ will be strengthened 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, can dream dreams and serve our neighbors. May we be willing to be moved by what we learn from testimonies that surprise and rattle us. And, may the Holy Spirit still move within us in new and surprising ways.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
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.