Scriptures: Acts 2:1-21 Psalm 104:24- 35
Romans 8:22-27 John 15:26-27, 16:1-15
Today is Pentecost, when we mark the coming of the Holy Spirit, that mysterious third person of the Trinity. Pentecost was the Greek name for the Jewish festival of Shavuot, from the Greek root “pente” meaning fifty – Pentecost comes fifty days after the 2nd day in Passover. And so as we celebrate Pentecost as the day on which God sent the Holy Spirit, at the same time – this weekend – Jews celebrate Shavuot – Pentecost - as well. Shavuot was originally a festival to commemorate the first fruits of the wheat harvest, as prescribed in Exodus 34:22: “You shall observe the festival of weeks, the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the festival of ingathering at the turn of the year.” Over time, the festival was reinterpreted to commemorate the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai – and for us as Christians, the Spirit in a sense writes the law, not on tablets of stone, but on our hearts, so that God’s commandments are within us, a part of us. As Jesus said in today’s reading from John’s gospel: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.
The Jewish festival of Shavuot or Pentecost was a pilgrimage festival, when Jews were to travel to Jerusalem to offer loaves of bread from the wheat harvest at the Temple. And so, as the book of Acts tells us, there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven, that is, from everywhere in the known world of the time, gathered in Jerusalem to make their offerings at the Temple. We’re told that there was the sound of a violent wind, and divide tongues of fire were on each of the disciples there. They began to proclaim God’s deeds of power as done through Jesus. And these pilgrims were amazed, because these disciples were Galileans – from the hinterlands, presumed to be rubes, hicks from the sticks, rustic, uneducated. And yet all of the pilgrims who were there, regardless where they’d come from or what language they spoke, each could hear in his own language the testimony of these disciples. Of course, some scoffers said that the apostles were just on a drunken rant. Peter stepped forward to remind the crowd that it was only nine in the morning, and that what was happening was not the effect of wine, but the work of the Spirit, as described by 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…..then everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”
We tend to concentrate on the special effects – the sound of rushing wind, the tongues of fire – but what had the most lasting effect was the Spirit’s work of bringing people together in understanding across lines of language, race, and nationality. In a sense it was like the Tower of Babel in reverse: At Babel, humans had shown hubris and built a tower in rebellion against God, and God confused their languages and scattered them. Now God was bringing humankind together, not restoring everyone to a single language, but enabling understanding across the multitude of languages. When I was at Old First years ago, on Pentecost, part of the call to worship would involve people of different nationalities saying, “Come, Holy Spirit” in their own language. “Come, Holy Spirit”, “Ven, Espiritu Santo”, “Komm Heiliger Geist”, and on and on.
For Luke, who also wrote the book of Acts, the work of the Spirit was in bringing people together. For Paul, in our brief reading from his letter to the Romans, part of the work of the Spirit is to pray within us on our behalf when we ourselves can no longer pray. For the writer of John’s Gospel, the Spirit has several functions, as a teacher, and also as a kind of heavenly attorney, to advocate on our behalf, and to convict the world of sin. Jesus says that the Spirit will prove the world wrong about sin, and righteousness, and judgment. Jesus is speaking in a kind of shorthand, understood by his listeners but perhaps a little obscure to us, and I’d like to try to unpack his words a little. Jesus knew that he was sinless, and yet was to be accused and convicted of sin and executed. Jesus was basically saying that the false accusations made by the religious authorities and the Roman authorities said more about their own spiritual darkness and blindness, their own brokenness and sin, than it did about Jesus. They saw Jesus as sinful and themselves as righteous, and yet the exact opposite was true. From the perspective of Jesus, the religious and political leadership of his day lived in some weird spiritual bizarro world in which down was up, black was white, wrong was right. It’s sort of like the lady in the insurance commercial telling the other lady who was playing out some weird version of Facebook on her living room wall, “That’s not how this works! That’s not how any of this works!” And that was basically Jesus’ verdict on the religious and political leadership of his time – and his verdict on us as well, when we act in the same way – which we do more often than we know.
When I read this passage, I tend to gloss over the special effects – the rush of wind, the flame of fire – and so I’m grateful for the message of our Conference Minister, the Rev Bill Worley, in this week’s bulletin insert – “Is there any fire left in the belly of the body of Christ.” Bill writes, in part ”If we didn’t know it before, we surely know it now, as the second chapter of Acts unfolds: this is no tame God who comes to us, no safe and predictable deity…This is the God whose loving sometimes takes the form of scorching. And should. There are fears, “-isms”, and cynical spirits that need to be burned away from your church, from your Christian life….Before he left, Jesus told his friends he would send them the Advocate, the Comforter. Now on this Pentecost Sunday, the Comforter comes as wind and flame, reminding us that comfort is not always comfortable. It makes itself known in community where we find the most searing challenges – and the deepest blessings – we will ever know.” I invite you to read the rest. I also invite us to consider that when the Spirit brings us together, it’s for a purpose – not just for a big group hug, as much as I think we could use one sometimes, and not for a pajama party, but for a purpose. And, yes, fire has many purposes – to burn fuel for energy, to refine and burn away impurities. Our church, Emanuel Church, is a small but lovely gem in the making, a diamond in the rough, a lump of gold ore awaiting the Spirit’s fire. And I see the work of the Spirit’s fire in our midst right here in this place. We are welcoming people who at one time might not have felt welcome, as attitudes of exclusion and standoffishness are slowly being burned away. We have energy for community outreach that at one time wasn’t there. And so, when Rev Worley asks, “Is there any fire left in the belly of the body of Christ?”, we can join Bill in offering a resounding YES!
Our world needs the work of the Spirit. In a country that’s so divided we can hardly hear – or even bear the existence of – those who disagree with us, we need the Spirit to translate God’s will to those on all sides of every divide. In a country that’s armed to the teeth, where angry, disturbed young men express their rage by shooting up schools, where African Americans risk arrest not only for driving while black but for walking while black, sitting in a coffee shop while black, stepping outside their front doors while black, breathing while black, we need the light of the Spirit to reveal ourselves to one another as sisters and brothers regardless of the color of our skin. In a world in which any number of simmering conflicts are at risk of boiling over into global war, we need the Spirit to help us speak in each other’s languages and to bring peace. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said in 1964 that we must live together as brothers or perish together as fools. More than fifty years later, with climate change adding even greater urgency, his words are more true and more urgent than ever. To put it bluntly, if we cannot live together in harmony with the creation, if we cannot live together with one another in peace, we will rot together in pieces. The choice facing us is just that stark, because our lives are connected, as much as we tell ourselves otherwise. Only by being willing to make difficult changes that result in life for others and for the creation can we hope to survive ourselves.
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us. Melt us, mold us, fill us, use us. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us. Come, Holy Spirit, Come to Emanuel Church. May the fire of the Spirit bring light in darkness, and burn away everything in our lives that keeps us from being the persons God wants us to be. May the wind of the Spirit bring the breath of new lives to us and to our neighbors. Come, Holy Spirit. Amen.