NRSV ACTS 2:1-21
2 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 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. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.
6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs–in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14 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.
15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.
16 No, 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.’”
I’m glad we are out here, doing something different for Pentecost. Pentecost is, after all, the third great festival of the church. But with all of the recent publicity on it, the birthday cakes and balloons and asking people to wear red, it is still a day that leaves people scratching their heads.
Maybe it’s because Pentecost doesn’t have a flashy icon; you know, an image or symbol to catch people’s attention. Consider her more popular siblings. Christmas is all trees and ornaments and Santa Claus, gifts given and received. All because of a birth. Well, not just any birth, as we all know. God taking on flesh and dwelling among us. Incarnation. Fancy words but they speak a very basic and beautiful reality – Christmas is about birth, the beginning of life. We know about births. We’ve had one, we’ve seen them (some of us), maybe we are anticipating them in our families.
Then comes Easter. This is the High Holy Day for us, the climax of our religious celebrations. The Day of Resurrection. It also has some commercial aspects to it, with the Easter bunny, chocolates and all kinds of fancy outfits. We may wonder about resurrection – unlike births, we may not think we have had one or seen one yet. But in our faith we hold that the resurrection of the Christ is the center of our faith.
Pentecost is another matter. I know I grew up hardly ever hearing about this day. The only thing I remember from youth was the time my home church on Long Island let a bird fly inside the Sanctuary during the service. The symbolism was great but I don’t remember an explanation to it, leaving us to our own devices to figure it out.
Which can probably be said for this day as a whole. You can’t commercialize it, you can’t stick a label on it and have that completely describe what this day is all about. And yet I think that is one of the beauties of this day – it defies explanation. You can say that about Christmas and Easter, too, but you have some basic, common, human experiences that make a connection. With Pentecost, it is the giving of God’s Holy Spirit; that majestic, mysterious, unexplainable presence, arriving like the sound of a mighty wind, with images like that of tongues of fire. Luke had it right – you cannot describe Pentecost, other than to say it is like something.
Of all of us post-Enlightenment folks who think there is an explanation for everything we Presbyterians have particularly had a hard time with this day, and with the whole concept of the Holy Spirit. Maybe it’s our appreciation of an educated clergy, as well as an educated laity, out of which develops a thought that everything can be logically explained; maybe it is our penchant for doing all things decently and in order; maybe we have seen how some communities of faith – or individual Christians – can get so carried away by the gifts of the Spirit that in their self-righteous fervor they can cause no small amount of dissension.
But I love this day, and like I said I am glad our Session saw fit to mark it by doing something special, like moving it out here. Sure, it’s not far, just right next door. And I know that worshipping outdoors doesn’t please everyone. But there is something about being out here, with the potential danger of papers blowing in the wind as well as other potential disasters that makes it so, well, Pentecost-like. There is an unpredictability about God’s Spirit. Those ancient disciples weren’t expecting it; they were still looking for an army from heaven to come and drive out the Romans. They had no idea that God would send something much better, empowering them to change not just their country but the world; to transform not just their time, but all times.
So it is with us. When the Spirit of God comes – and the Spirit of God always comes, whether we are aware of it or not – there are all kinds of things and people who get blown away. We get blown away by the power of God that gave those of long ago voice to speak in other languages – not just gobbledy gook to show off, but the language of other people. Can you imagine being from Cappadocia or Pamphylia living in Jerusalem, and hearing about God’s deeds of power in your own language? Having been to other countries I can tell you how special it is to hear something – anything – in your own language. You’ve been straining to try to understand people who speak another language, and then from a distance someone speaks English – and not just English but US American English – and your ears perk up right away and you feel refreshed. You almost feel like you are home again.
That is what it was like, I think, for all those devout Jews, a long way from home, hearing something in their own language. They were, as John Denver used to sing, “Coming home to a place he’d never been before.” They were in a new home, one marked not by rule following or impressing others, but by a Divine Love that defies description, one that wraps them all up in the movement of God’s Spirit which calls people home when they least expect it.
Not that it was openly accepted and appreciated. There were and there will always be those who are skeptical of this new life that God gives through the Spirit. But in the face of that opposition Peter reminds them of a prophecy from long ago by Joel – one that had all kinds of images of gloom and doom. But because God’s Spirit has now blown them all away, those words are transformed into words of salvation – not just salvation for eternal life. But salvation in the sense of being made whole for a ministry now, in this life, with people they didn’t know, but whose presence they embrace because of the gifts of God’s Spirit.
This day has so much to offer us, so much that cannot be explained. It can only be experienced. Much like the Holy Spirit. You can talk about God being this or being that. But when you come down to it, you can only talk about how God showed up suddenly in your life and really messed with your head. But that mess turned into your salvation.
There was a story told on NPR recently about a group of people who gathered for a backyard dinner party in suburban Washington. It was a magical evening – that is until someone walked in with a gun. He threatened one person after another, telling them in a fierce, angry voice, “Give me your money.” As the teller of the story noted, “Fear rose around the table. This man was not joking around.
“The man’s gun was their first problem; the second was his demand. Like so many people today, not a single one of them had any cash. What he wanted, they couldn’t give. No one had any money. So they started talking, grasping for some way to dissuade the man. They started with guilt. ‘What would your mother think of you?’ one person asked.
“’I don’t have a mother,’ he replied, with a few expletives. ‘Give.me.your.money.’
Several of them remembered thinking this was definitely going to turn out badly. But then one of the ladies said, “You know, we are celebrating. Why don’t you have a glass of wine?”
“All of a sudden, the look on the man’s face changed. It was like a light switch. He took a sip of wine. ‘That’s a really good wine,’ he observed. Then he reached for the cheese and, as he did so, he placed the gun in his pocket. He drank his glass of wine. He ate more cheese. Everyone stood there, watching, frozen in that moment.
“And then the intruder said something that no one expected. ‘I think I’ve come to the wrong place.’ Quickly, everyone responded with things like, ‘Oh, hey, yeah, I understand,’ and, ‘Of course, this kind of thing happens.” For a moment, they all sat there with the twinkling stars overhead and the sound of chirping insects in the night. And again the intruder said something that nobody expected. He said, ‘Can I get a hug?’ It was someone’s wife, who had a gun pointed at her just minutes earlier, who gave him a hug. And then another person from the dinner party. After those hugs, he asked, ‘Can we have a group hug?’ And everyone got up and formed a circle around the man. The experience was beyond strange. When the group hug finished, he simply said, ‘I’m sorry,’ and walked out of the front gate with a glass of wine in his hand. Later that evening, after everything had calmed down, the friends found that wine glass neatly placed on the sidewalk by their alley – not thrown, not carelessly discarded – placed.”
Though the word wasn’t used, that was a Pentecost moment for those people. And they are not alone. I truly believe that we all have stories – maybe not as dramatic as that – but accounts where we felt the definite presence of God’s Spirit, undergirding us, giving us the right word to say, granting us a peace beyond words. There are moments in our lives where we have truly felt blown away by the love of God, which despite all the obstacles we or the world places has a wonderful way of showing up.
And it is especially important that we reflect on the ways God’s Spirit shows up in our lives as we come to the table of our Lord. I can remember many times when I was having an issue with someone – an elder, a member of the church, or just with the church generally. And then came the time to do what we are doing this morning – to share the bread, to extend the cup and say, “The body of Christ given for you.” “The blood of Christ shed for you.” Those are spiritual moments. They are moments in which we are reminded of how special it is to be connected by God’s Spirit, and by God’s love.
That’s what makes this day so special. It reveals to us those times when the curtains of our own anger, disappointment or fear were parted, and we were given a vision of a God whose love truly blows us away. Whether or not that kind of experience happens for you or not on this Pentecost, I truly pray for you and for me that we will recognize those moments, those moments in which God’s Wind, God’s Breath, God’s Spirit blows us away – and creates within us a deep feeling of thanks and peace that God still keeps showing up. Amen.