When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
“‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls
on the name of our God will be saved.’[c]
On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.
Will you pray with me? Holy One, you speak to us in word and flame, in spirit and in water; give us grace to hear you, to open our hearts to your spirit descending upon us anew. May our words and actions reflect the love and care we have had from you. In all your names, amen.
Pentecost—the birthday of the church! When my birthday rolls around, I like to take stock, see where I am, what I have done and felt and shared since my last birthday. Sometimes there has been a lot—deaths, moves, new friendships or relationships, new involvement in the community. And some years, it has been quieter.
Since this is the birthday of the church, let’s take stock of where the church is, what has changed and how. The disciples were waiting for Jesus to return—well, we are still waiting. They weren’t quite sure what to do next—yes, that is us, too. There are so many books and blogs and articles out there, all of them claiming to have the best idea for what “the church” should be doing—or not doing—right now. Some observers laughed at them; but others were intrigued. Some of the people could understand what some of the disciples were saying—they heard their own languages spoken—but no one was speaking every langue. Today? The church has become many churches—Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Episcopal, United, Baptist, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormon, and on and on. But each one speaks to a group of people—we may not be comfortable with some of those groups, but each of them finds God speaking to them in their own language within that group.
So we are in pretty much the same situation, aren’t we? What can we learn from that Pentecost experience that we haven’t yet?
I want us to notice two things. One is that this was not a new holiday, a new church feast. Pentecost is rooted in Jewish tradition—it is a celebration of the giving of the Torah, or commandments—literally “words”—given to Moses. In Jewish tradition, this took place fifty days after the Passover, and in a mystical way, all generations of Jewish people as yet unborn were also present at that giving of the Torah, and so they also accepted it and took into their hearts.
Now, the second thing I want us to see is this—the early church, the disciples, took this holiday and grafted new meaning onto it. Just as future generations took on the responsibility of Torah, just as that was a universal event for Jewish people, the early Christians made it a point that everyone in the world was to be part of this—thus everyone heard a disciple speaking in their language. No one was left out. That’s why there is a long list—the bane of readers on this Sunday—of all the countries that people came from, that first Pentecost. That list pretty much covers the world as it was known at that time—and I like to think that some people spoke in tongues that hadn’t been invented yet, like French and Esperanto—and some that have yet to be invented.
And how is this possible? The disciples deny the use of mid-altering substances—i.e., they are not drunk. No, this is the work of Spirit—that comforter, that advocate that Jesus promised. And yes, this is a new way of experiencing God’s actions in the world. The ancient Jewish prophets fell into “prophetic frenzies” but those were something different—human understandings of events, not God speaking through Spirit and these human, which is what Pentecost is.
It’s not that Spirit wasn’t present in the world before Pentecost—clearly Spirit was. At Jesus’ baptism, for example, Spirit descended in the form of a dove. But now, this time, the disciples—and us, too!—are able to be open to Spirit, to take in the message of Spirit, and—here’s the important part—share it with the world.
That seed of Spirit is in, with, part of, each and every one of us. The Hindu greeting “Namaste,” recognises God’s presence in each other. Spirit can speak to spirit, sharing the good news, sharing the pain or struggle—whatever is needed.
So where are we, how have things changed since that first Pentecost? Not so much, eh? We are still gathering together, remembering Jesus and his teachings, sharing the meal he gave us, experiencing the presence of Spirit, taking God’s message of love and acceptance out into the world, trying new ways of sharing an ancient story…
The work has not been completed, and won’t be. Not until the end. We don’t know when that is, or will be. And that’s OK—we have enough to do. The tasks we have been given are not simple or light, but are our tasks. And when God gives a task, God also gives the abilities to perform it—maybe not in the ways we think are “proper” or “logical” but in ways that will and do work.
My friends, as you go through your week, recognise God’s Spirit present in others. In word or action, acknowledge that presence; remind yourself that God is as present in that person as God is present to you. Remember the flame of Pentecost—given to each person, and shared with others, through the blessing of Spirit. Share and remember. In all God’s names, amen.