Examining Pentecost


A sermon written for Pentecost Sunday, June 12th 2011 based upon Acts 2:1 – 21.

I’ve been thinking more about what’s called the Trinity.  I mentioned last week that for the most part, “the doctrine of the trinity” has struck me as an abstract, intellectual doctrine that leaves me yawning.  But I’m seeing it does point out some important stuff about how we picture God.

For instance we generally have a picture in our head of what we mean by God the Father:  that’s the creator God, who makes the heavens and the earth, who set up the laws that govern this universe.  And we know that when we’re talking about God the Son, well, we’re referring to the God revealed in this particular man who walked upon the earth two thousand years ago.

But the problem with leaving our picture of God with just the Father and the Son is that God can remain pretty far off:   The power that set the universe in motion; the man Jesus who walked on this earth two thousand years ago.

The Holy Spirit is God right here, right now, stirring things up in our lives.   Do we experience God as actively involved in our life, or no?  Is God just an abstract concept, or is God a living, active presence?  That’s what we are pointing to when we speak of God the Holy Spirit.

So there’s a lot going on in this old story of what we call the first Pentecost.  You may have heard the story often, but I want to examine it piece by piece.

In the four Gospels, we hear about the ministry of Jesus, in whom the holy spirit was active in directing and empowering.  We hear about how at the start of his ministry, when he entered the River Jordan to be dunked – baptized by John, he was powerfully infused with the holy spirit – that it came like a dove.   All four Gospels tell us that the culmination of Jesus’ work was his death and resurrection, at which point his work on earth in his physical body was complete.

What then?

In a sense there is a fifth Gospel, and that is the book of Acts.

Acts tells the story of the church, the body of Christ.   Acts was written by Luke, who continues the story.  He tells us that after his resurrection, Jesus hung out with the disciples for forty days, and then left them for good in terms of his physical presence when he ascended into heaven.

But before he departed, he gave the disciples some instructions.  He said go back to Jerusalem and wait until you have received power from on high.

He said in essence the first thing to do is to do nothing.  To wait.

“Just as I needed the holy spirit for ministry, so you will need the holy spirit if you are to be my new body at work in this world.”

The holy spirit can’t be manipulated.  We aren’t in control of the holy spirit.  We aren’t in charge.  Jesus had said as much when he compared the Holy Spirit to the wind that blows where it will.  So go back and wait, said Jesus.

It’s striking though that they are to wait in Jerusalem.  You will remember that the first disciples were all Galileans, unsophisticated folks from the north country.   That’s where they were at home – that’s where they were comfortable.

Jesus had led them to Jerusalem, the power center, and that’s where all hell broke loose.  Jerusalem was a scary place for them – it’s where Jesus was crucified.   Jerusalem wasn’t in their comfort zone.

Left to their own devices, the disciples probably would have gone back to their comfort zone in Galilee.  In Jerusalem they felt like outsiders – they felt threatened.

So one of the things this says is, the holy spirit is more likely to show up – or we are more likely to be open to the holy spirit – when we step out of our comfort zones.

Fear is a big issue in the Bible, and especially in the Gospels.

When he said, “Don’t be afraid…”   I don’t think he meant that there is this switch in your brain that you should be able to just switch off so that you no longer feel fear.  What he means is confront your fears.    Go to the place of fear, wait, and see what happens.

That is the place where the holy spirit is likely to show up.

When the day of Pentecost had come,  they were all together in one place.

In a certain sense, what happened that day in Jerusalem wasn’t the first Pentecost at all.   Pentecost was an ancient Jewish festival that took place fifty days after the primary Jewish sacred celebration – Passover – in which Jews remembered how God, with Moses as his spokesman,  had delivered the Hebrew people with a mighty arm out of their slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt.   In Jewish tradition, Pentecost took place on the anniversary of Moses coming down from the mountain top at Sinai with the Ten Commandments, God’s law for his people.

As part of the remembrance of these events, Pentecost had become a harvest festival, occurring about the time of the first fruits being brought forth from the land.    The people brought an offering of new grain in thanksgiving to the Lord.

The first followers of Jesus were all Jewish, of course, and so they, too would have been going through the rhythm of this holy remembering.

It was singer Bono who said, “It almost seems as though ‘religion’ is what happens when the Spirit has let the building.”

Over time rituals can come to be practiced in such a way that there is little room for the holy spirit.   It is possible to hide from God in rituals.

But the rituals evolved out of sacred stories that convey human insight in regard to the ways of God with people.  At their core there is space for the Spirit to blow.

So what Luke describes happening here is an old ritual having new life blown into it.

And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.

There is an illusion here back to the very first verses of the Bible in Genesis:

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless voice and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

The same awe-inspiring power of God that swept over the primordial chaos and to create and bring order – this same Spirit/wind blows over this small community of broken ordinary people and turns them into nothing less than the body of Christ.

Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.

Fire – powerful, dangerous stuff.    You may remember that when the Hebrew people journeyed through the wilderness, the presence of God lead them, appearing in the form of a pillar of fire.  When Moses went up on the mountaintop for forty days to commune with God, fire is pictured there as well, and when Moses comes down the mountain his face shines like the sun, and the people were frightened, backing away.  They wanted Moses, and Moses alone to encounter this awesome God.    There is no democracy of the Spirit expressed in that story.

But here at Pentecost, the tongue of fire rests on each person present.  The Spirit is not reserved for Moses, or even for Jesus.  All who gather in Jesus’ name are ignited by the fire of the Spirit.

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began  to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Language is powerful stuff.   It is the tool by which we reach out and communicate and connect with others.    But when people speak different languages, there can be a problem – a barrier.   Genesis tells a story that when the power of sin entered the world back in the Garden of Eden – that power that blocks the movement of the Spirit and turns people into themselves and away from God and other people, its effects extended to all dimensions of human life.

We hear of an attempt to build a tower in a place called Babel that will essentially take heaven by storm.   The tower comes crashing down, and the result is that the human race, which heretofore had spoken one language, speaks in many languages.  Suspicion and hostility arises.   Wars arise.

But here on that first Pentecost, the tower of Babel story is reversed.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,  Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’

Because of the festival of Pentecost, there were Jews from every corner of the earth over in Jerusalem that day.  Like the Galileans had felt, they too probably felt like outsiders.  They didn’t speak the local language.  They were unfamiliar with the local customs.  Suddenly, to their great astonishment, they hear these folks speaking in their own language about the wonderful deeds of power wrought by God.    Amazingly, the barriers that have separated them are overcome!  Those who felt like they were on the outside now feel like they’ve been brought inside the circle!

All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’

This is a fascinating little detail.   Why do some people in Jerusalem that day totally miss the miracle that is taking place?  If you think about it, the answer becomes obvious. They were the insiders, the people who lived year round in Jerusalem.  They were the people who were living squarely in their comfort zone.   They were the ones who expected to hear their own language spoken.

When being an insider leads to a sense of entitlement and the ability to pass judgment on others, the holy spirit is blocked.    We are all outsiders who have been brought inside the circle by God’s gracious love.

It’s sad the “insiders” missed the miracle of what the holy spirit was doing.

They accused the apostles of being drunk.  What you’re seeing here is a raucous party at 9 a.m. in the morning.  That’s interesting.  When the holy spirit has its way, it creates that kind of joy. It’s a fun place to be, with laughter, maybe dancing.  People lose their inhibitions, which is what booze does.   Booze has its place, and the way it brings down inhibitions and self-consciousness can be a good thing or a bad thing. The holy spirit empowers people so they can let go and enjoy life.  It’s a better intoxicant than booze.

Peter was broken when Jesus was arrested and crucified.  He came out of his comfort zone big time, and been broken down to his core components.

Sometimes you have to be broken before the holy spirit can have its way with you.  He has become like a little child, open and ready for to be lead by the holy spirit.

Now Peter stands up straight and strong to speak boldly.   It’s no longer about him.  It’s about the wonderful grace he has experienced.

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 1Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 “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.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

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