Sermon for Pentecost 2016
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 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. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
It is quite a picture, isn’t it? These friends and followers of Jesus see, feel, hear, maybe smell the utterly Holy in this unexpected and disruptive way. They had stumbled around Galilee for three years, only half-understanding what he was trying to teach them. They’d had it all come crashing down around them when he was arrested and killed, only to discover that somehow—somehow—that death hadn’t been the end of the story, but in fact just its beginning. Over forty days they’d seen him again and again; seen him, eaten meals with him, finally heard with some clarity what he’d been saying to them all along. At the end of those forty days he was taken up from them, but they were not to be left rudderless. As Jesus says in the Gospel according to John, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever.” An advocate—translated in other English versions as helper or comforter—to be as close to you as your very breath.
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The Greek word for spirit is pneuma, which also means breath and wind, and the same is true of the Hebrew word ruach. This now is God’s way with you. Like breath the Spirit is there, steadily a part of your very life and being. And just as you can’t see wind, you can most certainly see and feel what it is doing.
Luke tells us that this new way of God being with us burst into being on the day of Pentecost. It is easy for Christians to assume that this word “Pentecost” is primarily our word, but long before there was a Pentecost Sunday—or a Pentecostal church—there was a Jewish festival called Pentecost. Pentecost is the Greek word for the Jewish festal of Shavuot, which falls fifty days after the second day of Passover. It was both a festival of the wheat harvest (Ex 34:22), but also a commemoration of the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. Luke writes of the “devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem,” and then lists off all of those languages that could be heard on the streets of Jerusalem. There would have been others there too, who had come to the city precisely to mark the festival. Being a festival, most people would have set aside their work for the day, to enjoy and celebrate and fulfill the day’s expectations and obligations. It is into this context that those followers of Jesus emerge from the house and begin to speak.
Well, if the picture of tongues of fire and a rushing wind was impressive—to say nothing of a bit wild—what Luke says happens next takes it up to a whole other level. They speak, these small town Galileans, yet each person there “heard them speaking in the native language of each.” “Parthians, Medes, Elamites,” Luke writes, on through to “Cretans and Arabs.” “All were amazed”—no kidding—“amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’” That’s the key question, both then and now. What does this mean?
As Luke tells the story, Peter provides the first answer. He grabs hold of words drawn from the prophet Joel, but he uses those words in a kind of improvisational way, bringing them forward in a new way. Joel had spoken of the day when the Spirit would be poured out on men and women, young and old, slave and free, yet as the biblical scholar Brian Peterson notes, “In the context of Joel, this passage meant the salvation of Israel and the destruction of those nations that had oppressed it.” Here Peter is finding in Joel’s message something quite new. Absolutely, he’s saying that this outpouring of languages is a gift of the Spirit not unlike what Joel had envisioned. Yet as these words roll off the tongues of those followers of Jesus—presumably off the tongues not only of the disciples, but also of the others who were a part of that company; men and women, young and old, slave and free—they do not herald the destruction of the other nations but instead their hope. “The surprise of Pentecost,” comments Peterson, “is that the eschatological ‘last days’ do not bring that destruction, but rather bring mission and redemption for the world.”
“What does this mean?” In a sermon preached in Duke University Chapel last year at this time, Dr. Luke Powery said that among other things all of those languages mean that, “In the Spirit, diversity is not a dirty word but a beautiful one in the light of God.” Remember, in the strange story that Luke tells, everyone didn’t suddenly speak the same language. Differences weren’t erased, but were instead honoured. People are addressed in their mother tongue; the distinctiveness of who they are as “Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs” is not wiped away. And so, Powery preached,
We should not erase our names, our languages, our cultures, our skin color, our hair texture, the color of our eyes, the shape of our bodies, our identities. We should not obliterate whom and what God has created in order to suit our needs and comforts and opinions. God made all of us with our own native tongue, and when we are tempted to erase that which is different, it is an affront to God and God’s collective body.
Luke Powery comes from the Black Church tradition; a tradition which has not shied away from its own distinctiveness. When I have worshipped with churches in Harlem and on the South Side of Chicago I have seen and felt the power of that distinctiveness. Quite clearly a visitor—visibly and obviously an outsider—again and again I knew myself invited in to share in the distinctiveness of those communities as a part of this thing called the Body of Christ. I could experience something of Paul’s great proclamation that, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28), and that was experienced precisely by being welcomed to share in the distinct expression of those church communities.
“The image of God at Pentecost,” proclaimed Powery, “is multilingual, multicultural and multiethnic, not for a politically correct agenda, but because the gospel demands it. The gospel is polyphonic.”
“All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’” It is all happening right before their eyes—right in their ears, in fact—but they just dismiss it. It doesn’t mean anything; they’re just drunk. Easy to snub our noses at those who blindly sneered at it all, but we—individually, as churches, and across the ages—have sometimes done the same. Who have we excluded, dismissed, judged, overlooked, or just failed to see? How often has the story of the church been marked by divisive factions, not polyphonic diversity? Think, too, of one of the great and shameful tragedies of Christian history, of how Colonial churches and missionaries insisted that Indigenous peoples or Africans or Polynesians take on European names, European dress, European norms in order to become Christians.
Pentecost calls us beyond all of that. With the enlivening and cleansing wind and fire of which Luke writes in Acts; with John’s emphasis on the Spirit as advocate, comforter, teacher, and guide; and with St Paul’s powerful sense that it is the Spirit who binds us together as the one Body of Christ precisely by giving gifts differing to each for the sake of the whole; we are called and challenged to be a different people, a new and renewed people, and a people always learning to sing our lives through this grand polyphonic gospel. A people, too, who must be open as new notes and chords and rhythms are added to the grand polyphony. To do otherwise is to miss the great gift that is Pentecost.