Day of Pentecost
May 19, 2013
You may remember from last week’s readings that, before he ascended to heaven, Jesus promised his disciples that the Holy Spirit would come to be with them. They didn’t know what he was talking about (of course, they seldom knew what Jesus was talking about). So they had no idea of the magnitude of the gift he was giving to them–the gift of having an Advocate, a defense attorney. A powerful ally who would always stand up for them, always be on their side.
But besides their absolute ignorance about who the Holy Spirit might be, Jesus hadn’t given any indication of a timeline when that Spirit might come, nor any indication of how it might happen. So odds are, they did not anticipate anything special happening today when they gathered with faithful Jews of every culture to celebrate the Festival of Weeks in Jerusalem. I doubt anyone anticipated God would show up in a new and startling way. They might have stayed home if they had known.
My hunch is that very few people here today are expecting anything unusual to occur during this worship service. If you realized that it was Pentecost Sunday today, you may have come anticipating that some people would wear red, and that the sanctuary would be decorated with red paraments. You may even have remembered that this is the day many people dread being assigned to read the lessons because there are all those crazy, hard-to-pronounce nationalities in the text from Acts. But beyond that, I’m guessing you aren’t on the edge of your seat, wondering what’s coming next. You may just be settling in for your sermon nap.
Watch out! Because it was at just such a time that, suddenly, the Holy Spirit came and turned the world upside down! There was a sound like a rushing wind blowing through the room and people saw something like flames of fire appearing above each of the disciple’s heads! Then the disciples began to testify about God in languages that were foreign to them, but meaningful to others who were gathered there. No one knew what to make of this, except to guess at the obvious possibility that the disciples were drunk, never mind that it was only 9 a.m. Or maybe 9:15.
That is the kind of dangerous thing that can go on when we pray, “Come, Holy Spirit (Veni, Sancte Spiritus).” Is that really what we want? Are we willing to risk surrendering control, preparing to be surprised by God again? Or maybe you think that the Holy Spirit can’t come to this place, so we’re not in danger. Coming from mostly stoical Northern European stock, Lutherans—while we are big on God the Father and even bigger on Jesus Christ—often overlook the Holy Spirit, probably because She is so unpredictable. We like things to happen “in good order.” And the Holy Spirit seems to thrive on chaos.
Did you notice that the Holy Spirit does not descend among a group of people who were united in heart and soul and voice on this day? The Spirit did not look down out of heaven and say, “Oh, now THAT looks like an amazingly well-organized and harmonious gathering, with everyone looking at things in the same way; I think I’ll go there.” The gathering into which the Spirit comes probably sounded at least superficially rather like Babel.
Do you remember Babel, the city that was so proud of itself it was building a tower to heaven to show that they had immediate access to God? God’s reaction to their gesture was to send multiple languages among them, causing division and confusion where there had once been a common purpose and a common language.
Pentecost, it seems, is the reversal of Babel. The Spirit descends among people who don’t speak the same language—let alone think in the same way!—and unites them with one message: that God loves the whole world. But it comes in ways that might be disconcerting to people who like things to happen in traditional ways – Peter quotes the prophet Joel and announces that women and slaves and young men will be speaking up alongside elderly men who could take their voice for granted in a patriarchal culture. Everyone would see visions and dream dreams, not just those who went to seminary, or who could say the creed without peeking at the words in the bulletin. All kinds of people—even people who are (literally or metaphorically) hard to understand—are inspired by God. I’m not sure if Peter thought that explanation would clear up any confusion in the room, or if it actually did. I do know that onlookers were so baffled they left wondering if the disciples were drunk.
So are we SURE we want to pray, “Come, Holy Spirit”? I have to say, I’m in if you are! Maybe that’s why the Church goes on in spite of all the chaos that occurs inside of it or because of it. Because we need each other. If the world is going to be turned upside down based on the words and deeds of followers of Jesus, we need to be together when we beg for the Holy Spirit to come. There isn’t anyone who is up to facing that task alone. Nor does any one of us on our own have ALL the necessary gifts to fulfill God’s mission in the world.
God’s audacious vision of a world transformed by God’s love in Christ is a world in which poverty and war are unknown, where every child has enough food and water and friendship and education on which to thrive and grow, a world in which God’s love finds flesh in every relationship– it’s just too much for any one of us to address alone. Plus, it’s impossible to keep Jesus’ command to love others if we’re living in some metaphorical cave, isolated from those we are commanded to love. We’re all in this together!
If we are truthful, there are days when we wish that were not so. There are days when we wish we could choose who the Holy Spirit would visit and with whome we would be partnered. Maybe the Parthians and Medes weren’t especially happy to be lumped together on that first Pentecost either? Maybe the Elamites were like, “Oh, not the Phrygians!” It was a topic of much discussion in this week’s Bible study that the word of God was made clear to Arabic-speaking people, long before it was heard by any English or German or Norwegian speakers. And we noted with interest that the United States was not singled out for an address from God, but Libya was. We don’t always get to choose how or where or with whom the Holy Spirit is at work, or in what ways we will be called to partner with them.
What we do get, however, is the vibrant, active Breath of God forgiving us, renewing us, empowering us, gifting us, teaching us, and all the while, imparting in us the faith to believe any of this! Faith itself is not something that comes from within us, no matter how intentional we are. Faith is a gift, given to us at our baptisms, and refreshed constantly by the Holy Spirit. This didn’t just happen once in Jerusalem long ago and far away. It happens now. Here. And, if we believe what Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading about the Holy Spirit abiding in us, we are claiming that The Holy Spirit works in and through and around us, unseen as the wind, regardless of whether or not we understand it.
What REALLY happened on that first Pentecost? What does it mean for us today? All we know is that we are called to share the truth and hope and love of Christ that is in us. We are sent to spread the word that God is a loving God, a uniting God, a strong God. But that’s all the disciples had on that first Pentecost too. And God worked through them.
Because God loves the world, we can trust that as we share the hope that is in us, the Holy Spirit will change our fumbling words into an intelligible and meaningful message for others, just as the Holy Spirit did with the disciples. Or if the Holy Spirit doesn’t change our words, then She will change the ears of the hearers, enabling them to listen and comprehend beyond our capacity to articulate. Or maybe the Holy Spirit doesn’t change words or ears, but somehow opens the hearts of the people who gather around, so that they are moved to approach God in ways we cannot fathom.
It’s not our job to comprehend how the Spirit is poured out on the people. It is simply our calling and our privilege to speak of God’s deeds of power using whatever gifts we have been given by the Holy Spirit! For God’s sake, and for the sake of the world, let us dare to pray “Veni Sanctus Spiritus.”
~Pastor Susan Schneider