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Pentecost Sunday, May 20, 2018 | 8:00 a.m.
Multiplication and Division
Judith L. Watt
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 writer of the Gospel of Luke is also the writer of the Book of Acts. You wouldn’t automatically know that unless you’ve done some Bible study. It’s always been a mystery to me that the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts aren’t together in our Bibles. The Gospel of John comes between them. I’ve always thought they should be together, because Acts is like a sequel to Luke. The Gospel of Luke is Luke’s recounting of the story of Jesus’ life, and the book of Acts is Luke’s recounting of the life of the early church. The life of Jesus in Luke; the early life of the church in Acts.
Acts begins with a recap of the last few verses in Luke’s Gospel—the last few days that the resurrected Christ spends with the disciples. Luke recounts their questioning of Jesus and their desire to know what will happen next. Jesus tells them that they can’t know all the answers about the future, that they can’t know what happens next, after he is gone, but he makes a promise to them. He says, “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.”
Today’s story from chapter 2 lets us see what Jesus was talking about, lets us see what happened when that promise came to be, when the Holy Spirit came upon them.
The disciples were sitting together in one house. I imagine them sitting together having a discussion about what they might do next. Drafting a vision statement maybe, but finding little energy for it. They’d lost their teacher. They were on their own, and they had no idea what Jesus’ promise meant. I doubt they thought anything really big would happen. They were dejected and grieving in the midst of complete and utter loss.
You have all had similar feelings during times of great loss: grief and despair, not being able to imagine a future.
Outside, people of all sorts had gathered for the Feast of Pentecost, which was a celebration of the end of the spring harvest. It was a diverse crowd. Think Lollapalooza or Taste of Chicago or the people gathered throughout the streets of Windsor to get a glimpse of Harry and Meghan.
In that crowd were what Luke describes as devout Jews who had come to celebrate the end of spring harvest, too. Margaret Aymer describes the Jews who had gathered all throughout Jerusalem as immigrants, people of all kinds of languages, people who had been dispersed to regions far beyond Jerusalem. They were back for this religious festival. The cultural diversity was immense. The different languages being spoken were mind-boggling.
Then, all of a sudden, there comes a sound, like a huge rushing wind. It filled the entire house where the disciples were. Have you ever stood on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Chestnut or Delaware when the wind was blowing? Sometimes the wind is so strong you have to brace yourself with one foot in front of the other so you won’t be blown away. That’s how I imagine the wind that blows through the house where the disciples sat.
There’s also this strange thing about divided tongues, as of fire. I think the image is that of a flame, which can look like a tongue, right? Divided tongues as of fire resting upon them. What you probably don’t know is that this same image was found on Roman coins over Caesar’s head. It was an image that signified authority. Divided tongues as of fire appeared over the disciples’ heads. Signs of authority.
Rushing winds. Fire as of divided tongues. Lots of special effects in this story.
And then it happened. They were still in the house when suddenly the disciples began speaking in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability.
The Jews outside the house heard the commotion and gathered near. The story says they were amazed and astonished. It wasn’t the kind of amazement one has when one watches a child learn a new skill or do a great gymnastics stunt. It was amazement as in being flummoxed and totally bewildered. They couldn’t figure out why these simple Galileans were now speaking languages each one of the Jews, no matter where they came from and what language they spoke, could understand. The disciples were speaking about God’s deeds of power, and people could understand. All of them. It was an aha moment. All the barriers came down. The Holy Spirit gushed forth, came upon the disciples, lifted them out of their confusion and discouragement, and allowed them to speak again so that crowds of people could understand and be understood.
The movement of the Holy Spirit reanimated those disciples and their defeat. The Holy Spirit came upon them, and they were motivated in a new direction. They were given the power and ability to speak about God’s deeds of power, to testify, and people came together and understood.
As events have flared up again to new levels in the Middle East, as another school shooting has taken place, wouldn’t it be wonderful if barriers could come down, and language and desires could be understood, and leaders of nations could be impelled to new directions that were inclusive and expansive rather than exclusive and protective?
I think this story today speaks to us in the collective discouragement we all carry. It’s as though we are sitting in that house with the disciples wondering what is next. What can we possibly do about the increasing polarization apparent all around us? About opinions being spouted as declarative rather than as invitations to hear what another person might think? About diatribes rather than dialogues? Not just in our world order but also in our church—the wider church—because you and I all know that to say you are a Christian means different things to different people, and we’ve become afraid to claim our Christianity for fear of being misunderstood or typecast. Like the disciples, we aren’t sure what will happen next, and we yearn for leading. And we yearn for unity. We wonder if the Holy Spirit has the power any longer to overcome all of the division that we see.
I don’t want any of us to start thinking the Holy Spirit is only the Holy Spirit when it comes in big cataclysmic ways like this. Jana Childers, a professor of preaching, remembered how the Pentecostal church of her childhood referred to the Holy Spirit as “a gentleman, never forcing his way, going only where invited.” Despite the male reference, whether he or she, the implication is that the Holy Spirit is more like a gentle breeze, experienced only as a still small voice. And often that’s the case.
You’ve had those moments—the still small voice, the gentle breeze that moves you in a new direction and uplifts you so you can face another day or a big problem. But the event at Pentecost was a big Holy Spirit movement. A big God with a big word at work, expanding out into a big world, says Jana Childers. It resulted in understanding and new directions for a lot of people at one time. Three thousand new believers who established community and continued on.
I’ve been thinking about the concept of multiplication and division. The Pentecost event was a multiplication. People were added to the little band of Christian followers. The multiplication continued, but there was also division, too. Not everyone believed what had happened and some, in fact, passed it off as drunkenness. Not everyone joined the new group. The concepts of multiplication and division are in so much of our lives. Our cells divide and multiply. Our families grow when we have children and then the children go off, divide from us, and then multiply again. We speak of all the denominations that exist in the church: they are all results of divisions and arguments about petty stuff or corrections to what have become big abuses. The Reformation was an act of division—dividing from the Catholic church, for a variety of reasons. We could say it’s too bad that there are so many outgrowths of the Christian faith. We would prefer more unity. But what happened in the Reformation and in every one of these divisions was also a multiplication. Think about how many more believers came into being as a result of the splits that took place during the Reformation. Think about the people who have been added because of the creation of denominations and nondenominational churches: a multiplying effect going on in the midst of the divisions.
In our present state of the world and the church, when it seems as though there are so many divisions, could it be that little cells of people are having their moments of talking across barriers and that sudden understandings are being realized? Interfaith discussions. Discussions between people of different races. That underneath what we read about in the papers, there’s this dividing and multiplying going on, bit by bit by bit, in quieter Holy Spirit ways. I wonder. The Holy Spirit moves in big ways and but also in quieter and gentler ways. And what’s more, the Holy Spirit is ever present, always present, pulsing through the world even when it is so hard to detect. Our hope and maybe our commitment should be that we keep inviting that Holy Spirit, that our prayers would be “come, Spirit, come; come into my life and into the world.”
One thing I know for sure is that all of us, sitting here, are sitting here as a result of what happened on that Pentecost day long ago, because someone somewhere spoke about God to some ancestor of ours long ago or maybe more recently. Because of it, there was a choice—a choice to led to following Jesus. Someone was Jesus’ witness to a person in our family lineage and here we sit, here at the very ends of the earth, because of it. Jesus said to those disciples, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and you will be given power to be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.” We are proof that the promise was realized, because here we sit. I hope that as you come forward for Communion today, you’ll look at who is in front of you and who is behind you and remember that all of us are here because Jesus’ promise came true—that the Holy Spirit was poured out on those disciples and they were given power to be Jesus’ witnesses to the ends of the earth, even as far as Chicago, Illinois. May we be given the same power to speak about God’s deeds of love, for we haven’t yet exhausted the ends of the earth. May it be so.