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Pentecost Sunday, May 20, 2018 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Christians, for instance, are not,
properly speaking, believers in religion;
rather, they believe that Jesus of Nazareth,
crucified under Pontius Pilate,
rose from the dead and is now,
by the power of the Holy Spirit,
present to his church as its Lord.
David Bentley Hart
The day of Pentecost has come. In Jewish tradition, Pentecost commemorates the giving of the law, or Torah, by God on Mount Sinai, a period of seven weeks (of fifty days) after the Passover. So today’s story begins, “When the day of Pentecost had come . . .”
For us here today, the arrival of the day of Pentecost comes with the annual commemoration of this sanctuary’s dedication in 1914. It also includes new members joining the church and Confirmation. Several people from the church are away at family camp this Pentecost, too, because that happens every year the week before Memorial Day.
Pentecost comes with summer weather (supposedly) and graduations, too.
Its arrival is due, for sure. Perhaps not many of us wait eagerly for Pentecost each year, but the day is surrounded on all sides by these other eagerly awaited things.
So here we are. The Day of Pentecost has come.
When the day of Pentecost had come for the women and men of the early, early church, they were all together in one place. You can almost see them, all crowded into the room upstairs in Jerusalem where they’re staying. Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. Matthias, the newly elected apostle. That’s a lot of people in one room; and that’s not all. There are certain women there as well, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
You can almost see them there, all together in one place in the middle of the city. You can almost see them constantly devoting themselves to prayer, as Luke, the author of Acts, tells us they were all doing in chapter one. Do not leave Jerusalem. That was Jesus’ order to them. Wait there, he told them, before he took a cloud away out of their sight.
So waited they did, hidden away in an upstairs room, surrounded on all sides by citizens and soldiers who, mere weeks before, had first arrested, then tried, and then executed Jesus—the Rabbi they called “Lord” who had brought them all here, so far from their homes in Galilee.
Can you see them? Waiting? Praying? Nervous? Disappointed? Guilty? Frightened, even? Homesick? All together in one place?
Of course we can see them. Look around. We are them. For we, too, have gathered all together in one place, in the middle of the city, to pray and to wait. On the third Sunday in May for the 104th time since this sanctuary was dedicated, all together in one place—this place.
And though this grand neo-Gothic sanctuary is worlds removed from an upstairs room in Jerusalem, the people all together here are like the people all together there in important ways. For we too bring with us questions and anxieties, doubts and fears. We too come with disappointment and sadness; ten more school students died in a gun attack this week, and nobody I’m talking to has much hope that this tragedy will change things any more than any of the previous tragedies—going back at least three decades now—have done.
So we’re all together in one place, and I’m glad for that. I’m glad that there is a community here of women and men, children, youth, adults, older adults—a community seeking answers, a community praying, a community waiting, waiting, waiting for things to be set right. That is, a church.
I’m happy to stop there. I have to confess that it feels like enough to me to be this community, all gathered together in this place. In this age when so much threatens to pull communities apart and isolate people into increasingly individualistic enclaves, being a community feels like more than enough work. And in a culture that chases novelty and growth as ends in themselves, being a community that tends to traditions and to a space like this feels like important work.
The place where I’m happy to stop, though, is the place where God is just starting. The church is a community, for sure, but a community filled with the Holy Spirit.
This is the good news we claim at Pentecost, the good news that Peter was breathlessly explaining was coming true: that the Spirit of God fills this community, all of it. Sons and daughters, young and old—“all flesh.” That’s good news.
The oldest and the youngest member of the church alike are filled with the Spirit and given gifts for building up, and so they do. The wealthiest and most cash-strapped persons in this community are alike filled with the Spirit and called to serve those in need with love, and so they do. The strongest and the most frail here are alike emboldened to speak good news to people anesthetized by the drip-drip-drip of bad news, and they do.
The church, friends, is a Spirit-filled community. I know, I know. Presbyterian is not the first thing you associate with Spirit-filled. But maybe that’s because we restrict our sense of what is “spiritual” to that which is ecstatic. Maybe that’s because we take the story of Pentecost to be a template for the church in all times and places instead of as a story about the inauguration of the church at that time and in that place.
On Friday night our church session, the elected board of elders, spent some of its monthly meeting time examining eighth-graders who have completed Confirmation this year and who will be professing their faith and be received into active membership later this morning. It’s quite a spectacle to take in, these young people and church elders sharing together about their faith and their life in the church. There is a spirit about it that you can’t miss.
When that portion of the meeting ended and the students were leaving, one of them, who had previously decided that they were not certain enough to take the step of professing faith, approached me and asked, “Is it too late to change my mind?” First, that is the easiest question that was ever asked of a pastor, and the four-word answer just rolls off the tongue: “it’s never too late.”
Was there something of the Spirit at work in something as un-ecstatic as a session meeting, something of the same Spirit that speaks into the hearts and minds of all of us from before we even know to pray? I believe so.
The church is a community filled with the Holy Spirit. And sometimes we even get to see it.
Sometimes the world outside sees it, too.
Another Confirmation anecdote: on the bus ride to the spring retreat in Holland, Michigan, one of the eighth-graders shared with me that earlier that day they had been ridiculed by classmates for spending the weekend at a retreat with . . . church.
I hear this kind of thing from students with some regularity, that their belonging to a church is scorned by their peers. I get it. If you had asked me when I was in junior high or high school if I went to church, I would have flatly denied it. I’m pretty sure I did flatly deny it. You’re just so certain in adolescence that everyone is judging you already, why give them one more weird thing to use against you? That was my reasoning anyway.
But it isn’t only youth. I’ve had people ask me to not mention that I’m from a church when I call them at work.
Again, I get it. Church—Christianity—is mostly identified among our peers as a force for intolerance, something willfully opposed to science, heartless and hypocritical. To be identified with that at school or in the workplace can expose you to scorn.
This inaugural collective of disciples we hear about in Acts 2 was certainly exposed to scorn. The crowds accused them of being filled alright, only not filled by anything more holy than new wine. It would have been easy for a bystander to assume these women and men all talking at the same time and in different languages were performing some sort of Roman mystery religion rite. So they sneered.
There is always the sneer.
Not just the sneer, though. Also amazement. Perplexity. Bewilderment. Astonishment. They’re hearing something, something they’re heard before certainly, though not like this and not from these people. They notice. They stop what they’re doing and they listen, not in spite of their being perplexed and bewildered, but because of it. They are experiencing the power of God here in a way that is breaking their world open.
Because the activity of the Holy Spirit is public. The Spirit won’t be confined to walls of a church. The Spirit turns disciples inside out and projects their mouths and their bodies out into the world. You have to ask, then, if nobody is perplexed, if nobody is amazed or bewildered or astonished at what they see coming from the church, is the church doing anybody any good? If nobody is sneering, what are we even doing?
We’re not about the spectacle, though. Listen to what this crowd is saying. Pay attention to why they are so confused. It’s because they understand. “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”
There is more going on here than linguistic theatrics. There is hearing and being heard, understanding and being understood. Willie Jennings says, “When you speak a language you speak a people.” What is amazing to the crowd is that their language is being spoken, and by the Spirit of God.
Language is so much more than words, isn’t it. So much of our humanity is contained in language: memory, community, family; language involves your body, the way the muscles of your mouth and the gestures of your hands and face all work together to convey meaning. Language is intimately connected to culture. Language is planted and grows out of the land.
Look at what God is doing here. God is connecting the church to practically the entire known world through language. That is the miracle of Pentecost: not only that some Galileans could inexplicably speak in Mesopotamian and Egyptian, but that the Mesopotamians and Egyptians could hear themselves addressed by God in the language of their own land, their own people, their own bodies.
God does not disdain their language. Because, in another terrific expression of Willie Jennings, “God speaks human. Fluently.”
A group of people from our church in California went to Peru, to a village in the Andes called Ayacucho, to help install a water purification system. One of the Californians was actually a Canadian named Will who took the first chance he got to greet the people of that village, not in English, not in Spanish, but in Quechua, their native language. If you’ve ever heard Quechuan in a Canadian accent, you wouldn’t understand a word of it, and I don’t think our hosts did either. They understood something else, though, and that was that the church valued their humanity enough to try to speak their language.
The miracle of Pentecost is the Spirit enabling the church to use peoples’ language to tell them the story of God, the story of their own life and salvation, a global, cosmic good news story.
It is harrowing to note that all of this is taking place in Jerusalem, and that the bewildered crowd is made up of “devout Jews from every nation under heaven.” It’s harrowing because Jerusalem was and still is a charged cocktail of language and land, occupation and aggression, resistance and terror. It’s a bloody, beautiful, mess.
The church that hears today the story of its inauguration at the festival of Pentecost in Jerusalem all those centuries ago still believes in the beauty and the dignity of all the languages—all of the memories, all of the land, all of the bodies—clamoring for recognition there today. Because God speaks all those languages, fluently.
It needs to be explained, of course, and so Peter gets up to give the first sermon in the life of this young church. But Peter doesn’t stand alone. “Standing with the eleven,” the story says. Peter stands with the whole company of the church to address this good news, that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” They stand in solidarity of witness.
We do that. We stand together to profess faith and answer the questions for membership, as new members and confirmands will do later this morning. We stand together to affirm our faith, as all of us will do in just a moment. We stand together to state that “we believe in the Holy Ghost,” and we mean this, the Spirit that filled all those women and men centuries ago and that fills us today, the Spirit that speaks human, fluently, that is turning us inside out for the sake of all who hear, all who sneer, and all who stand far off.
We stand. Together. In one place. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.