Scripture: Acts 2:1-21. New Revised Standard Version
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.’
Pentecost is often misunderstood and proves to be a controversial topic among we who follow Jesus. The details of the historical event in the church make some, perhaps many, uncomfortable. We are all good with a God who loves all and accepts all. We feel glee in knowing that God is ever present with us. We relish in the joy of salvation we have in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, as he overcame sin and death and brought us into good standing with God. That our Father/Mother God is comforting. That a relationship with Jesus is life-changing. But many of us stumble step when we try to figure out the actions of the Holy Spirit.
We see this in our Federated Confirmation classes as we engage the students to move away from the concrete thinking of a younger child and move into thinking more abstractly about matters of faith.
Early in my ministry I heard the story of a younger grade schoolgirl which depicts the concrete, black and white thinking of children. The little girl was resisting a relationship with Jesus. Her mother asked her why she would not accept Christ and becoming a follower of Jesus. With the seriousness of a 10 or 11-year-old, she told her mother she would not follow Jesus because Jesus killed her beloved grandfather. Her mom was stunned. “Why do you believe that Jesus killed Papa?” She told her mother that Papa always told her that Jesus lived in his heart. So, when Papa had a heart attack and died, she figured that Jesus must have dropped something while living in Papa’s heart which in turn, killed her grandpa.
In abstract thinking, we realize that Christ in our hearts is not literal, but that by the Spirit of God, Christ resides with us. His promise is, “I am with you always.”
So why is it so hard to grasp the events of Acts chapter 2, as the church is birth and gifted? What makes embracing the story so challenging?
I think that some has to do with words like ‘mighty wind’, ‘spoke in tongues’, ‘tongues of fire’ and the sort. Words that are rich in expression, but not particularly clear in understanding the meaning of Pentecost. I began to wonder what Pentecost might look like. Being a curious sort, I thought I’d look at some art depictions of the Day of Pentecost.
[Pictures referenced occur at the end of the sermon text.]
I found wildly contemporary images. (picture #1)
And paintings that were mystical. (picture #2)
The caption for this one simply said it was bad art. I think that’s a bit rough. (picture #3)
Asian artists have pictured the event of Pentecost as it may have appeared in their early culture. (picture #4)
As have African Americans (picture #5)
Modern artists with a Cubism leaning have pictured Pentecost. (picture #6)
And some have interpreted the event by rejecting all of the mentioned landmarks, like an upper room and 120 people, and given an interpretation which featured the idea of Spirit over humanity. (picture #7)
There were many portraits of Pentecost by classical or Renaissance artists, such as this painting by Spanish painter, El Greco. (picture #8)
Some were rather stark and moody. (picture #9)
Furthermore, a number of paintings featured Peter’s speech after the Holy Spirit fell upon those gathered, as he shared with a new courage and certainty that Jesus had come, was crucified and resurrected. Here Peter is shown explaining the work of the Spirit and puts to rest that the early church was drunk and partying a 9am in the morning. (picture #10)
The struggle with Pentecost has always been how to understand and interpret this strange yet essential event in Christianity in ways that places the story in us, and us in the story. There is a wrestling that occurs as we attemp to picture it, as we have seen in the illustrations. Picture the mentioned events – 120 people, the dove descents, blades of fire over each head, new languages spoken and understood, unprecedented power and confidence, a new direction for faith with the birth of the Christian Church. So much of the portion we read today is the reaction and Peter’s application of events. There are only four verses describing the actual work of the Spirit.
I believe that one of the problems is that it is difficult to make the story of Pentecost our own story. We can read of Jesus healing others or showing power over any evil presence like demons and wicked people. We can relate to the stories of God’s love for us, and with careful study, we can comprehend God’s judgements and punishments upon humans behaving badly. But how do we experience an account of burning fires just above our heads? Or knowing and speaking languages, which apparently were not only known languages used at the time, but also the languages of the Spirit in speaking in tongues which some call their Heavenly language. Some call this the ‘Tongues of Angels.”
We teach our children and youth that the biblical stories are their stories. Jesus calling the children unto himself. Jesus teach in parables, like the Lost Sheep and the Good Samaritan. We can easily accept the lessons of the parables and live them.
But when we talk about Pentecost, it often seems like we reflect with uncertainty. How is that my story? My hair may gone now, but it wasn’t from a blade of fire atop my head burning it off.
So, what is missing in our understanding? Perhaps this story will help.
A little girl was visiting her grandmother one beautiful spring morning. They walked out into grandmother’s flower garden. As grandmother was inspecting the progress of her flowers the little girl decided to try to open a rosebud with her own two hands. But no luck! As she would pull the petals open, they would tear or bruise or wilt or break off completely. Finally, in frustration, she said, “Gramma, I just don’t understand it at all. When God opens a flower, it looks so beautiful but when I try, it just comes apart.”
“Well, honey,” Grandmother answered, “There’s a good reason for that. God is able to do it because God works from the inside out!”
And maybe that’s part of the confusion.
In the works, teachings, miracles and example of Jesus, we see Christ reaching beyond himself and touching the lives of others. We get that. We can do that. And when it comes to missions Federated Church reaches out with great joy and gives abundantly to needs the world over. Even our children and youth are engaged in touching others as Jesus touched us. We are good at missions. These are works of touching others.
That is the great message of Pentecost, isn’t it? God works from the inside out. This is what the disciples finally came to understand at Pentecost. Jesus had ascended into heaven. And He had told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit. They were obedient, doing as Jesus said, and when the Spirit came with manifestations that were miraculous and earth shattering, the church was born.
Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer and theologian, Henri Nouwen, put it this way, “Without Pentecost the Christ-event - the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus - remains imprisoned in history as something to remember, think about and reflect on. The Spirit of Jesus comes to dwell within us, so that we can become living Christs here and now.”
Pentecost makes the Spirit’s story our own story – from the inside out. There is an indwelling of God’s very nature that comes to us in Pentecost. As one writer put it, “Bethlehem was God with us, Calvary was God for us, and Pentecost is God in us. (Robert Baer)
I read a story about life before refrigerators. As some of you know and others may not have even wondered, before your Frigidaire, people used icehouses to preserve their food. Icehouses had thick walls, no windows and a tightly fitted door. In winter, when streams and lakes were frozen, large blocks of ice were cut, hauled to the icehouses and covered with sawdust. Often the ice would last well into the summer.
In one such icehouse, a man lost a valuable watch while working. He searched diligently for it, carefully raking through the sawdust, but didn’t find it. His fellow workers also looked, but their efforts, too, proved futile. A small boy who heard about the fruitless search slipped into the icehouse during the noon hour and soon emerged with the watch.
Amazed, the men asked him how he found it.
‘I closed the door,’ the boy replied, ‘lay down in the sawdust, and kept very still. Soon I heard the watch ticking.’”
Often, we do not hear God speak to us because we do not listen for God from within. That is where the voice of the Holy Spirit will converse with us and guide us. That is where we can ask those confusing questions, we all have, as I did on Tuesday when I missed on my late mom on her birthday. I am not exempt from asking God why. Why is my mom gone? I still feel the sting and miss her deeply. Yet, by the Holy Spirit, I know that God is engaging with me to bring me peace. I am sad, but I am at the same time, comforted by the presence of the Holy Spirit in my feelings and thoughts as I think about all my mom still means to me. She was the kind of woman that would make you a better person just being around her.
And that is the fire of the Holy Spirit. It was lit above the heads of the gathered followers of Jesus in that Upper Room we read of in the book of Acts. It needs to be allowed to be lit in our lives.
William Blake, in a poem on Pentecost, wrote these words:
Unless the eye catch fire, God will not be seen.
Unless the ear catch fire, God will not be heard.
Unless the tongue catch fire, God will not be named.
Unless the Heart catch fire, God will not be loved.
Unless the mind catch fire, God will not be known.
There is a fire of passion and definition that comes to us by the Spirit. It burns away what is unnecessary in our lives and warms us to the new ways of thinking offered to us in God. It illuminates our lives with fresh ideas, with forgiveness - both received and given. And it sparks in us a desire to do great thing with, for and in Jesus Christ.
William Sloane Coffin says, “Christians have no business thinking that the good life consists mainly in not doing bad things. We have no business thinking that to do evil in this world you have to be a Bengal tiger, when, in fact, it is enough to be a tame tabby—a nice person but not a good one. In short, Pentecost makes it clear that nothing is so fatal to Christianity as indifference.”
The fires of Pentecost burn away indifference – meaning all that is insignificant. All that is unimportant. All that is irrelevant, meaningless and of no consequence. It says that we don’t have to fully understand the account of Pentecost to live in the reality of God being present with us, Christ making us new, and the Holy Spirit enlivening us to turn the world on its ear. It is a gift of love. And in that love, Pentecost continues to empower us to boldly act and decisively seek peace and justice for all.
How will you walk in Pentecost? How will you let it burn within you? How will I deepen my own experience with Pentecost?
Like a parent awaiting the first baby steps of a child, God simply can’t wait to see what we do.
Happy Birthday, Christian church!