a sermon for Pentecost on John 20:19-23 and Acts 2:1-21
preached on June 12, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
The day of Pentecost is truly one of the great moments in the life of the church. On this day we celebrate the birth of the church as we know it in the coming of the Holy Spirit, remembering how the followers of Jesus went from expecting God’s presence to be in bodily human form to our being comfortable with God showing up in more of a spiritual way.
There are many wonderful holidays in the Christian tradition, but I particularly like Pentecost because this is our day. Our society hasn’t co-opted Pentecost to be another marker in the cultural year like Christmas and Easter. We don’t find stores overrun with red banners, posters of flames, or other sorts of misunderstood symbols. And on this holiday, we usually don’t have family obligations to deal with, leaving this day for the church family to celebrate together. So each year, sometime in May or June, seven weeks after Easter, we pull out the red paraments, think about flaming tongues of fire, and remember the coming of the Holy Spirit into a crowd of Jewish pilgrims from around the world who were attending a festival in Jerusalem some fifty days after the Passover.
The story of Pentecost seems so familiar – but what was that that we read first? That didn’t seem all that much about Pentecost? But back in the gospel according to John, only hours after the disciples had first seen the risen Jesus on Easter Sunday, Jesus came among the disciples, breaking through their locked door and their great fear to come among them and wish them peace. If they didn’t quite know that it was him, he showed them his hands and his side, and again offered them his peace, with the added injunction, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” But Jesus didn’t leave things there – he didn’t send them on their own. After this, he breathed on them and told them, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” all on the night of his resurrection. Now this seems all well and good, but if we translate this schedule to our current calendar, the Holy Spirit came sometime on the evening of April 24, so we’re about seven weeks late celebrating Pentecost!
But in our reading from Acts, we remember that better-known moment when the early church saw the Holy Spirit coming among them, a moment that looks and sounds a lot more like what we usually think of we when we celebrate Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit. On an otherwise ordinary morning, as pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the annual festival fifty days after Passover, the disciples gathered in a house as was their custom, only to be joined by a loud sound of wind as tongues of fire rested on each of them and they began to speak in other languages. Then the disciples ventured out into the crowd and began speaking to the pilgrims from all around the world in their native languages, telling them about the surprising things that God had been up to in recent days in the life of a man named Jesus. Some people took it all very seriously, thinking that they might could learn something from this new thing happening in their midst, but others dismissed the disciples’ strange speech as nothing more than an early morning binge. Then Peter addressed the crowd, insisting that these strange events were not the product of alcoholic ramblings but rather the fulfillment of words spoken centuries earlier by the prophet Joel. On this day, the promise that the Spirit would come upon all flesh in the last days was fulfilled, for things were starting to change and the world was about to be made new.
Now these two moments of the coming of the Holy Spirit look very different. In John’s gospel, the Holy Spirit comes quietly, unexpectedly, with no visible or immediate sign or clear sight for others to see, and in Acts, the Spirit comes in a loud rush of wind, after much waiting, with a clear mark of something new happening right then and there for everyone around to see and hear. As much as we like to think of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit as coming with great power and glory, with celebrations of red everywhere and the witness of so many languages being spoken seemingly out of nowhere, I think we also can learn a lot from John’s vision of the Holy Spirit coming in quieter, less obvious, and yet equally powerful ways.
You see, the Spirit that transforms us doesn’t always work quickly, with great and visible glory and power, but that doesn’t mean that the Spirit isn’t at work. The Holy Spirit often works in ways beyond our imagination, quietly yet steadily shattering our expectations, speaking in silence and in loud speech to guide us into the way that God intends, and working in small and large moments and in dramatic and ordinary ways to transform our lives and our world.
So watching for the work of the Spirit isn’t always easy, since it truly can come in so many different ways. In recent weeks, our denomination has completed the approval of an amendment to our Book of Order that will permit sessions and presbyteries to ordain practicing gay and lesbian persons. Some in the church have celebrated this change as a sign of the Spirit at work in the church changing hearts and minds to make the love of God and the call of God for all people more visible. Others in the church have called this decision a moment when the church has departed from the clear wisdom of the Holy Spirit, and they insist that the Spirit could never be at work in such a move. People can and will see the movement of the Spirit in places that others do not, but I for one think we need to keep ourselves as open as we can to different expressions of the Spirit.
Just as the Spirit was clear in Jesus’ appearance to the disciples on that first Easter evening and to the crowd on the first Pentecost, so the Holy Spirit might just be at work around us, too, in different ways, in those folks who speak in tongues and in our slightly more staid worship, in televangelists who claim to bring healing by the Spirit and in our faithful and constant prayers for those who need God’s healing grace, and in those who welcome the broadest spectrum of leaders into the church and in those who feel that leadership must be more limited in some way. The Spirit can and will and does move and work in all these places and more, and we are called to open our eyes and our hearts to this work – and to join in where we can.
And so on this great day in the life of the church, I believe that we are called to listen for the movement of the Holy Spirit in the quiet proclamations of the everyday and in the midst of bold celebration, to trust that the same Spirit is at work in our midst when we understand it and agree and when we don’t, and to watch for the bold tongues of fire consuming what needs to be past and the nearly imperceptible movement of all things being made new.
So may the Holy Spirit of that quiet Easter evening and that powerful Pentecost come upon us anew today and help us to join in all that God is doing in our world now and always until all things are made new in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.