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.”
Every time I feel the Spirit: Acts 2:1-21
The professor and preacher Dr. Fred Craddock once shared a story about the first church that he served as pastor. It was a small church in East Tennessee, not to far from the city of Oak Ridge. As you may know, Oak Ridge became a center of the atomic industry. As the city grew, the small towns and country communities around it also grew, filling with single men and families drawn to the area to work. Some people even lived in tents while they worked to save enough money to either return home and buy a place, or settle more permanently in the Oak Ridge area. Craddock's church was located very near where all these new folks had moved. It was a lovely little church with a pump organ and kerosene lamps hung all around the walls. The congregation sat in pews that had been hand hewn from a giant poplar tree. It was a warm and inviting-feeling little church. Dr. Craddock felt like they should be inviting some of the newcomers to help fill it. Imagine his surprise when his congregants weren't as excited to invite new people as he was.
He consistently heard "Oh, I don't know" and "I don't think they'd fit in here" when he raised the suggestion. Someone even objected to inviting the new folks because many of them seemed to only be there temporarily. Why spend the energy on outreach when the "construction people," as someone called them, would be leaving pretty soon. Dr. Craddock countered by encouraging the church to invite the people in and make them feel at home, even if they would only be local for a while. Craddock said that they argued round and round about it, choosing to put a vote about next steps off until the following Sunday. When they sat down the next Sunday, a member of the church stood up and said, "I move that in order to be a member of this church, you must own property in the county." Someone quickly seconded it. Unfortunately, the measure passed. When the pastor voted against the measure, he recalls being reminded that he "was just a kid preacher" and he didn't have a vote. Not long after this very inhospitable vote, Craddock left this pastorate.
Years later, he and his wife were traveling near Oak Ridge. He decided that he wanted to take her to see that church. It was diffcult to find. In the intervening years the roads had changed. They eventually found the state road, then the county road, and then the little gravel road that would take them to that pretty little church with the kerosene lamps and the pump organ. As they drove down the gravel road, he finally saw the church set back in the woods, gleaming white. Much to his surprise, the parking lot was full! He saw trucks and cars and motorcycles squeezed into every available spot. They drove around and saw that the church even had a new sign on the front of the building. The sign said, "Barbecue, all you can eat." Craddock quickly realized that the church was no longer a church. It had become a restaurant. It was packed with all kinds of people: locals, tourists, single folks, parents with little kids, construction workers, scientists, Medians, Parthians, and people from Mesopotamia. Fred looked over the crowded former sanctuary and then over at his wife, Nettie and said, "It's a good thing this is still not a church, otherwise these people couldn't be in here."
The restaurant was packed with all kinds of people. We heard the same thing about Jerusalem, too, in today's reading from Acts. Faithful people from all over the Ancient Near East had gathered in the city for the Jewish festival of Pentecost. The city would have been full of people, many of who could speak Greek to one another but also spoke their own, more local dialects. Aramaic, Egyptian, Latin, Phrygian, and many other tongues would have filled the air in the Holy City. People who had been born into Judaism and people who had converted later would have filled the streets, coming to celebrate the law that had brought them all together.
But something strange happens. In other Bible stories, God's presence is symbolized by wind and fire. God becomes present here at Pentecost in the same way. The presence of the Divine is described as a violent wind that fills the house that the disciples were in. In a scene that is even more surprising than that old church turning into a barbecue joint, the author describes bits of the Holy Spirit alighting and then settling onto each of the disciples. The author said that it looks something like divided tongues of fire. With this wind and fire, the disciples feel the presence of the Holy Spirit and began speaking languages that they didn't even know. The people gathered for worship were astounded. "How could these simple Galileans suddenly know all these different languages? These Galileans are speaking to us in words we understand about a God we all know. But, they are telling us new deeds that our God has accomplished. What is going on?"
Now, if I was in a barbecue joint, and smelled a little smoke, I probably wouldn't be too worried. There's supposed to be smoke and flames there, though, admittedly most people would prefer not to have the flames on them. And, if I heard people shouting about God, using words I know and words that there was no chance that I could understand, I might be tempted to blame the loud, ostentatious talk on day-drinking, just like some of the folks who heard the disciples did. But, the disciples weren't in a barbecue joint when they saw Holy Fire. They were in the midst of a religious festival and their revelry was due to the Holy Spirit, not to many hard spirits imbibed too early in the morning. Peter stood up to explain, as best he could, what was going on.
He reminded his fellow Jews of the words of 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 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." He goes on to describe signs in the heavens and on earth that with help people know when God's reign of peace will break into the world. At that time, when God's Reign is fully realized, everyone... all people... will have the opportunity to join God's Kin-dom. Notice, Peter did not say that all people who own property in the county will be invited. No. All people will be invited. Migrant workers, townies, people who are just passing through, people who will never leave. Hondurans, Iraqis, Somalis, and French Canadians. Young, old, somewhere in between. Women, men, people in between. Enslaved and totally free... All people will be welcome and all those borders and social conventions that we have constructed to keep us separate from other humans, those walls will no longer have the power to keep someone from accessing God.What Peter said was, even if you don't own property in the county, you have a place in God's kin-dom.
I am sure that you are just as frustrated as I am by the idea that a barbecue joint is more welcoming than a church. That doesn't seem right at all. I bet, though, you aren't surprised that it happened. We've all heard of churches that have chosen to close ranks rather than be open to the Spirit who calls us to make this Body of Christ ever broader and more diverse. Thank God that this church has been open to the Holy Spirit's inspiration that has taught us to speak new languages to help more people learn about God. For example, a while ago you decided to change some of the language used for parts of the building that might unfamiliar to people who didn't grow up in church. That helps people feel less like they have to know a special church code in order to fit in. You put in an elevator and you put up signs to help show people around the building. You declared yourself Open and Affirming of all people, regardless of class, gender, sexuality, ability, or ethnicity. While you haven't started shouting in Median yet, you've learned enough Spanish to welcome our Honduran friends when they come visit, and you have traveled regularly to serve with and learn from them. Surely these acts are signs of a Pentecostal spirit, even if they are a bit quieter than that Pentecost long ago.
And, yet, what is our next Pentecostal step out into our world? What new words is the Holy Spirit teaching us so we can reach out just a little farther than we have before? Who are the people who would surprised if we showed up, speaking a language they didn't realize that we know, sharing how God has moved in our lives and still moves to make this world more just, merciful, and loving? That's what the author of Acts, who is also the author of Luke, wants us to think about. How will the Holy Spirit help us continue to spread the Gospel in this world? The Spirit is right here, ever ready for us to share a new word about God's reign of love and justice. Let's pay attention to where the Holy Wind is pushing us. New life is there. I wonder if there will still be barbecue?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources when writing this sermon:
Fred Craddock, "The Softer Side of Pentecost" in The Cherry Log Sermons (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001)
Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, eds. Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001)
Gail R. O'Day, "Acts" in The Women's Bible Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Matt Skinner: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2837
Brian Peterson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1630
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4641
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.