Thoughts Between Sundays

Some of what crosses my mind between Sundays


On Pentecost they Gathered

The sermon for Pentecost

The Text is Acts 2:1-21

On Pentecost They Gathered

“Birthdays – -everyone has one.”  Isn’t that how the saying goes?  And it seems for most people who have birthdays, there are birthday parties.  When we are children, there are parties with themes – -maybe a superhero, or a princess, clowns or cowboys, or ponies and rainbows.  Most of the themed birthday parties I attended during elementary school occurred during the 1980’s so I remember lots of Rainbow Brite, My Little Pony, Smurf, and Gummy Bear themed events.  Each complete with those cardboard hats with the elastic bands, paper noise blowers, crepe paper streamers, printed plastic tablecloths, and the plastic goody bags with the handles that ripped before you got home full of party favors – -all coordinating with the theme of the party.  Birthday parties are a big deal!  They are a time for us to gather with friends and family and celebrate the birth of someone we care about.  Birthdays are a chance for us to celebrate the life of a person, both to look back at where they have been and look forward at what is to come.

My family loves birthdays, and we have lots of fun birthday traditions.  On your birthday, you get to pick what you have for birthday dinner – whatever you want.  Every year we tie helium balloons to the chair of the birthday person, and every year it is a surprise as to when they arrive during the day – -you just walk in the door and there they are!   The choice of birthday cake is a serious decision as well – store bought with the icing so sweet your teeth hurt is what you get if that’s your choice, or if you want something else, someone will make it for you.  If you happen to be me, and your birthday happens to fall in the middle of March, you might be able to make the celebration last the entire month between spring break and vacation and family visits.  What I love about how my family celebrates birthdays is our birthday dinner – -it is long. -we cook together and eat and simply sit around the table and talk and visit for a long time.  Since we do not live in the same town anymore, birthday dinner usually happens during a weekend visit back to my Mom’s house, so it is really a birthday weekend.  We gather as a family and share our stories and our memories.  We savor our time together.  And there is cake – -now usually baked by my sister, who has amazing talent in this area.  Cake and candles – -and by the time the candles are lit, it is dark and they glow in the dining room.  When we blow out the candles on our cakes, we remember our pasts as we look forward to the future and wonder what happens next.  As we “make a wish and blow it out” we are thinking about our futures.  What is our prayer for the next year?  We like birthdays in my family.  And always, at some point during the day there is the phone call from Aunt Maureen.  Now, Aunt Maureen is not my Aunt – -she is my mom’s best friend, who has known me since before I was born.  And your birthday does not feel complete until she calls and tells you the story of the day you were born.  It is the same every year- no matter where you are, no matter where she is.  “I remember the day you were born…” is always how it starts.

I think that’s why Pentecost is one of my favorite days of the Christian Year – after Christmas and Easter.  It is our Birthday Party as a church.  Pentecost is our day to tell our story – “I remember the day you were born…”  It is our chance to gather as a community and savor our memories.  No matter where we are worshipping, someone tells the story of the day the Holy Spirit came and set us on our way.  There may not be balloons tied to the back of a chair filled with helium, but there is the breath of God moving among us.  There may not be birthday cake or candles, but there is the memory of flames descending from heaven.  At Pentecost we tell the story of the day we were born.  We remember the origins of our life as a community of faith, the day we were claimed by the Holy Spirit, as we look forward to our future.

We do consider Pentecost to be the birthday of the church – -the birth of the body of Christ.  “On Pentecost they Gathered” or so the hymn goes.  Pentecost certainly was not the beginning of the work of the Triune God.  God breathed over the face of the waters back in the beginning.  This was not the beginning of the work of Jesus Christ – that had been happening throughout the life of Jesus Christ.  But this was the arrival of the long-promised Holy Spirit.  The fulfillment of the promises made in John.  The Gospel readings in John the last 7 weeks, through this Easter season, have all been taking about this very thing.  We have been reading and hearing about Jesus promising to send someone to be with us when he would no longer be with us, after his ascension into heaven.  He promised to send a comforter, an advocate, a counselor, a helper, someone to serve alongside us.  That was indeed the Holy Spirit.  The one who came to be with us when Jesus could not.

“The disciples had gathered in the upper room, trying to figure out what they needed to do next. It had been 50 days since the Resurrection, which is not, all things considered, a very long time. In a short week they went from having their friend and teacher with them, to having him arrested and crucified, to seeing Jesus risen from the dead. When we meet them at Pentecost, they’ve had a week to get used to the idea that the Christ they were coming to know has now ascended to heaven.”[1] It is natural that they would have gathered at this time on this place — Seven weeks after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the followers of Christ have come together for a festival.  It is the Feast of Weeks, Shavuot – the third of three great feasts – -a joyful festival when the first-fruits of the harvest were offered to God.  Shavuot was the celebration of the giving of the 10 commandments and of the Torah to the people from Sinai.  And so, we might see that Luke is drawing a parallel here for us – -just as the exodus revelation signaled the birth of the chosen people of God, for us, Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit signals the birth of the church.[2] The scattered followers of Christ have gathered from across the land and come back together – the entire community numbered about 120 – men and women, the Twelve, and all the followers of Jesus were gathered together in one place when it happened…The festival gathering turned into something else that they had not imagined it would be – it was something entirely different.  In addition to the celebration of their ancient past, it was also the birth of something new.

Have you ever watched the coverage of hurricanes on TV?  You might be familiar with the stories where the news anchor stands on a beach somewhere in the driving wind, tethered to a news van in the expensive rain jacket, holding onto their microphone for dear life as the waves crash behind them.  Have you seen when the palm trees blow almost sideways as rooftops that used to be attached to gas stations and convenience stores blow by in the background and they tell you not to try this yourselves?  I imagine that is what the wind of Pentecost may have been like – -without the rain and the news anchor who really should know better.  A violent rush with the power to turn things upside down and knock people off their feet.  Loud, like jet engines.  Rushing, strong – maybe more like a tornado than a hurricane.  And as that wind rushed through the room where they were, those who were gathered all began to speak in many different languages – the languages of the world.  They began to speak and understand the Gospel in every language imaginable – -not just their own, but everyone else’s too.  This was not speaking in tongues as we may know it today.  This was all of a sudden they could speak and understand Spanish and Dutch and Aramaic and Russian and Arabic and Afrakaans and Chinese.  They had been given the power to take the good news of the Gospel to the corners of the world and share it with all they met – to go and bear witness to the power of the risen Christ.  On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit had empowered the church to leave the safety of the known and minister to strangers wherever we may find them.

And then, just like that, the rush of wind died down, the people were quiet, and they all look at each other.  It’s probably a confused silence for just a moment.  A “what on earth…?” sort of pause.  A few folks who may have been knocked down by the force of the wind got back to their feet and then they all begin to ask themselves what happened.  And, the bigger question… what does this mean?  What does it mean that our festival of offering the firstfruits of our labor to God was interrupted by a violent wind and the giving of multiple language skills?  What do we do now?  It can be easy to look back from our perspective and say, “well, of course – -the church was born and this is what you are supposed to do from here on out…” but the 120 people in that room were probably not so sure.  Peter’s response is to do what Peter seems to do best, he turns to scripture and he preaches to them.  He tries to help them find meaning in the events of the day.

“What does this mean?”  That question from verse 12 is a question we may find ourselves asking a lot in our lives.  It is a question we might ask about Pentecost as well – -what does this event that happened so long ago have to do with us today?  Why should we care about the birth of the church?  We’re still here, aren’t we?  Does it matter how that happened?  Tongues of fire and the Holy Spirit, we don’t do that – we’re Presbyterian….  What does this day have to do with us?  With who we are today?  With were we are going?  What does it mean?  The same question Peter answered for them back then is the one we answer today.  Pentecost was a powerful encounter for the early church with God.  The whole experience was the giving of the Holy Spirit, it was the unifying of the Body of Christ – -the beginning of this thing we call Christianity.  They were all in one place – all the Christians in the whole world.  They all received the Holy Spirit, and then they all were a part of what happened – -when they struggled to find meaning in it, they saw Peter turn to scripture.

Peter turns to scripture – -the first act of the Church is to open their Bibles when they need to make sense of the world.  When they ask the question, “what does this mean?” Peter guides them to scripture.  To the words of the prophets, to the words of the past to help make sense of the present as they look to the future.  The end of the Pentecost reading is Peter’s reshaping of the oracle from the book of Joel – 2:28-32:  ‘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. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Peter’s sermon, and his reading of Joel tells the early church that they are in new times – his use of the words “In the last days” is a sign to them.  God has sent the Holy Spirit to God’s people and a new time in human history has begun.  The times, they are changing.  Peter does a second thing when he uses Joel, he begins to interpret the community created by the Spirit. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. Peter describes the community created by the Holy Spirit.  Marked by the Holy Spirit that day, claimed by God as God’s to use for God’s purposes the church was given their mission when they were given their languages – -to go and proclaim God at work in the world to all they encounter – to prophesy – -they shall tell the truth about where we see God at work in the world.  And then Peter interprets the work of the community – -we were given languages and claimed by God in order to be prophets and answer the call of the Holy Spirit.

The language of scripture that Peter quotes still captures our imaginations – he uses languages of dreamers and visionaries – -in the time after the Holy Spirit comes, we will be inspired to do the work of God.  We will dream dreams of God’s kingdom, and have visions of how we are to do the work of the church.  We will be called to go outside where we are comfortable and do things we never imagined possible as we see God at work in the world.  The Holy Spirit will inspire us to move to places we never thought were possible, to serve people we never knew existed, and to see God in ways we never dared to imagine.

So why does Pentecost matter?  Why do we celebrate this birthday?  Because just as the phone call I get every year from Aunt Maureen reminds me from where I came, the child I was, of my origins, Pentcost reminds us of where we began.  It is our chance to look back at our birth, to tell the story of our origins as a community.  We, the Church, began as a band of 120 who gathered for a festival and got knocked over by the power of the Holy Spirit.  There were no helium balloons, but there was an amazing rush of wind.  There were no birthday candles, but the flames of fire that we were given in the gifts of speaking and understanding every language, and with that gift we were given the purpose of telling all who would hear about the power of God at work in the world.  Pentecost matters for us today as a way to remember a community turning to scripture when they needed to figure out how to make meaning of a strange time in their lives.  It is at Pentecost that we speak of the Spirit mobilizing us and calling us into all sorts of directions, beyond boarders and boundaries, empowering us to dream and envision, to imagine where we may go next.  So Happy Birthday to us!  May we remember the power of the Holy Spirit this Pentecost day and always.  Amen.

[1] Rev. Martha Hoverson.  “This I Believe: A Sermon for the Confirmation Class using Acts 2:1-21”.  Used with permission.

[2] Aymer, Margaret F. Acts 2:1-21: Exegetical Perspective in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C, Volume 3.  Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY 2010 (17).