The disciples were gathered together, the Book of Acts tells us. They had just appointed a new 12th disciple, Matthias, to replace Judas, who had betrayed Jesus. And they waited. When Jesus had ascended to heaven, he said to them, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8). So maybe they were waiting for this power from on high, not even knowing quite what it would look like.
Other people were gathered in Jerusalem as well, for the festival time that marked the beginning of the growing year, the first fruits of the season. They were gathered from every known nation in the world at that time. So they talked different languages, they wore different clothing, they looked different from one another. This may be a bit irrelevant, or even irreverent, but I kind of imagine it to be like the bar scenes in STAR WARS, with very diverse folk from around the universe gathered together in close quarters, looking very different and speaking very different languages, yet all getting along happily. Or maybe it was like walking through the mall or the airport and hearing languages and seeing styles of dress from all over the world and realizing how diverse we are. The crowd gathered in our passage was as diverse as it could be.
And all of a sudden a wind blew through them. Whether it was a literal wind or not, it got the attention of everyone there, this moving of the Spirit. There is a song I do with the preschoolers sometimes that says, “When the Spirit says move, you gotta move.” And we do! The Spirit blew through the place like a hurricane wind. And, the story tells us, tongues of fire (That’s what I tried to create in the back of the sanctuary as you entered!) rested on each of them. And they began speaking in many languages. Some churches use this to justify the gift of speaking in tongues. In such churches, someone has to translate what is being said in tongues. Sometimes, no translation is given and everyone revels in this great, mysterious gift. But this was not what happened that day, because everyone understood what was said in their own language. Everyone heard and rejoiced. Well, not everyone understood, because the text says some thought all of these crazy, happy people filled with the Spirit must be drunk.
In the verses that follow our passage this morning, Peter stood up to tell them that what was happening was indeed not due to drink, as it was early in the morning. He quoted a passage from the prophet Joel that talked about the Spirit inspiring prophecy and dreams and visions. He briefly retold the story of Jesus being crucified and raised. He went on for a while, preaching as he was inspired by the Spirit. And many were baptized, and then they gathered together every day after that, for worship and prayer, sharing bread and food and whatever they had with one another.
This Pentecost, this event 50 days after Easter, is often called “The Birthday of the Church.” This afternoon, at Ekklesia, we will have birthday cake to celebrate the church. But truly, the birth of the Christianity came at Easter, when Jesus rose from the dead. What began at Pentecost was the community of the church, the gathering of the faithful. “I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together,” says the children’s song.
In this gift of the Spirit in Acts, we hear echoes of other Bible passages. In Genesis 1, the “wind swept over the face of the waters” to create the world. In Genesis 11, as the people tried to build a tower to reach God in the heavens, God gave them many languages, rather than the one in which they had been conversing, and they could no longer understand one another or cooperate the way they were before. In Exodus 20, Moses received the law on Mt. Sinai in the midst of smoke, thunder, and fire. In the Gospel of John, the risen Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit upon the disciples before he left them. So the appearance of the Holy Spirit in dramatic ways is not unheard of in the Bible before this passage. But it is this passage that always points us to the birth of the Christian church as we know it.
Yet the early church was very different than churches today. There were no big buildings, no cathedrals or multi-purpose auditoriums. New believers mostly gathered in homes or in fields, and they shared what they had with one another. “There was not a needy person among them,” says Acts 4, “for as many as owned lands or houses, sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid them at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as they had need.” (Acts 4:34-35). They often had to hide their worship, because they were persecuted by the government and others for their strange new beliefs. It was risky to believe; it was radical, it was counter-cultural. To live by the Spirit at that time was to live at odds with the world as they knew it. Yet they did it, and their numbers kept increasing.
“Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain,” says Psalm 127:1. God gives the church what she needs to survive and to grow. At Pentecost, the inbreaking of the Spirit was so unsettling that some thought those who felt it were drunk. It was vivid enough to be described in miraculous ways, with a wild wind and tongues of fire and languages understood. Will Willimon says, in his commentary on this passage, that the miracle of this Pentecost experience is not of speaking in tongues, or languages, but it is the proclamation of the story of Jesus. It is also the hearing of the story that matters. We have to hear and believe before we can proclaim. But once we believe, we need to share the good news.
It is sad to say that churches, at least in our country, have wandered far from the visions of the early church for a community anchored in love. The church in America, in general, is depicted as being judgmental, exclusive, science-denying, and supportive of one side of the political climate. Yet that is not the whole story.
In a recent article in “Christian Century” magazine (May 3, 2018), a Princeton professor, Keri L. Day, says:
“In our social and political moment, we need Pentecost. Division, hatred, and pain mark our nation. Hearts must be transformed and attuned to practices of divine love. Even more painful, hostility and bigotry characterize Christian churches, which have more of a tribal ethos, often ignoring and demonizing those who are different from them… Such churches,” she says, “tend to embody Babel rather than Pentecost. We need a miracle.”
John Pavlovitz, whose book A Bigger Table, we read and discussed, and who was here to discuss it with us during Lent, wrote a recent blog called “Good News, Church: You’re Dying.” He cites many reasons he sees the mainline Christian church as dying – because of the hypocrisy that shows an ever-widening chasm between who the church says they are and what they practice on a daily basis; because the church has chosen to ignore science, like climate change, and to ignore facts; because churches have denied rights to aliens, immigrants, woman and those with different realizations of gender identity, and done so much more, all supposedly in the name of Jesus – who would never condone such cruel attitudes and actions! Pavlovitz always provokes us to think deeper.
The Spirit is doing new things with the church. Interestingly enough, new types of churches are growing sometimes more than the old, mainline churches like ours – home churches are emerging again, and there are churches that meet at bars and have “theology on tap.” In our own Presbytery, there is the Farm Church, which counts farming food for everyone to share as a part of their worship, and so much more. The face of the church may be changing, because the church has deeply damaged herself by closing ears to the gospel message of love and compassion that Jesus preached and lived, but the church will live on.
Says Willimon, “A new wind is set loose upon the earth. It brings hope and empowerment for some, confusion and wrath for others.” (Willimon, p. 33) Willimon’s commentary was written in 1988, yet still rings true for today – “hope and empowerment for some, confusion and wrath for others” is where our world seems to be these days. We are divided as if we are talking in different languages again and unable to understand one another. This is too true of our nation and of our churches, and, yes, even of this church. And that is very sad. Somehow we need to get back to a Pentecost, Spirit-led experience, where we hear one another, truly hear one another, in love and respect, and we find a common ground to be church together. Perhaps we “frozen chosen” Presbyterians, as we have been called by more Pentecostal churches, need to listen for the Holy Spirit and be reborn to the gospel of love. Bishop Curry said in the homily at the royal wedding yesterday, “When we discover the redemptive power of love, we will make of this old world a new world.” We do need another Pentecost miracle.
So we pray this Pentecost day – Come, Holy Spirit, come! Fill us anew. Make us into a people who marvel in the miracle of your presence, who embody the love of Christ and live out the words he preached to us (in Luke 6): “Blessed are you who are poor now, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven…” Come, Holy Spirit, fill us anew with life and with love. We ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen.