St. John's, Centreville
June 4, 2017
Acts 2:1-21, John 20:19-23
Come, Holy Spirit, come. Come as the wind and cleanse; come as the fire and burn; convert and consecrate our lives to our great good and your great glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
"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."
Pentecost. Often called the birthday of the church. Fifty days after Easter. The day of celebration when God sends the Holy Spirit to enable and empower those who struggled to carry on the gospel of Jesus Christ after his crucifixion. When Jesus left this earth, he promised the disciples that he would not leave them comfortless. He would send them the Holy Spirit to be with them and sustain them. And he does that in a very powerful and dramatic way. At the glorious culmination of the Easter season, the Feast of Pentecost is the fulfillment of Jesus' promise to send the Holy Spirit.
In the Book of Acts, the sending of the Holy Spirit happens after Jesus' ascension into heaven. About 120 people from many different cultural and racial groups are gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks, the Shavuot, the feast where the community gives thanks for the first fruits of the harvest and people from all over come together for the celebration. They hear the rush of the violent wind, they see flames of fire, and they hear each other speak in different languages. This is not unintelligible babble. The languages spoken are recognized by people from these different nations. They are filled with the Holy Spirit, not for their own personal gain, but for the uplifting and leading of the community, for the strength and courage to spread the gospel.
In John's gospel, the story of Pentecost is a bit different. Jesus appears just to the disciples on the evening of his resurrection. The disciples are hiding behind locked doors because they fear that the religious authorities will kill them, as they killed Jesus.
In John's gospel, there is no fire, no rush of a violent wind. After giving them his peace, Jesus breathes on them, as God breathed into Adam, giving him life. Jesus gives them the Holy Spirit to continue the work that Jesus had begun.
The disciples are changed forever and they begin to change the world. The Book of Acts reports that 3000 people were baptized that day. The disciples go back two by two to other places where Jesus had been, and they travel to new places to spread the gospel. As they continue to preach the gospel, more and more are baptized and are filled with the Holy Spirit.
We can imagine the excitement, the fear, the mystery, the fulfillment of that first Pentecost - a violent wind rushing through the house, tongues of fire on each head, not consuming them, but empowering them, filling them with courage, and with the light of Christ, everyone speaking a different language, and 3000 people coming forward to be baptized.
Have we lost this power to preach and baptize? No, we haven't. The Holy Spirit is in each of us. But we have to claim it and use it. And we need to start right where we are, not waiting until we think we are ready. Guided by the Holy Spirit, we can minister and preach the gospel in many ways, large and small.
We might say it was easier for the disciples who had lived and learned from Jesus himself. But think of the people in our own time who inspire us - Archbishop Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa. Ordinary people can do extraordinary things when we put our trust in God. When we look inside ourselves, we can remember times when we did step out in faith, maybe with wobbly, uncertain steps, but we did it, relying on the power of the Holy Spirit to lead us and strengthen us. We can be sure that those who inspire us now did not set out to do that. They stepped out in faith, putting one foot ahead of the other, not knowing exactly what would happen, not knowing if it would cost them their life.
The Holy Spirit gives different gifts to different people, not all to the same person, and that makes us rely on one another. That makes us a community - each one bringing his or her gifts and offering them for God to use. We can't hoard the gifts God has given us. We must first recognize them and then see how to use them to God's glory and mission.
In our community of faith, each one of us has a chance to be a "tongue of fire" - to encourage, support, and inspire each other. Pentecost is a reminder to us that we, too, have been blessed by the power of the Holy Spirit, filled with God's grace, and anointed to share God's blessings with others by word and deed.
The story of Pentecost, with its infectious energy, should fill us with a renewed sense of the Holy Spirit working in us and through us. It should remind us of who we are as a community of faith, what we proclaim and why it is important. It should fill us as individuals as we live out the gospel in our lives. Each time we pray, "Come Holy Spirit come", we are filled with God's life changing presence.
As Barbara Brown Taylor says, "Asking for an experience of the Holy Spirit is only half of the equation. The other half is recognizing it when it comes." Many who have encountered God don't know what to call the experience. Some use terms such as coincidence or ESP; others don't name it at all.
One experience of the Holy Spirit may be in restoring broken relationships. You are estranged from someone you care about. One of you did or said something to hurt the other and a wall has been between you ever since. Then a "chance" encounter happens, words of forgiveness are exchanged, the walls come down and relationships are restored. That is the Holy Spirit.
Or a group gets together to make a major decision. Lines have been drawn, the battles are set. Everyone has their own agenda. Then someone says a prayer. People begin to talk TO each other, not AT each other. They become creative, coming up with more ideas none of them had thought of before. The discussion becomes more about what is best for the group, rather than "will I win or lose"? That is the Holy Spirit.
As we open our eyes more, we can see the working of the Holy Spirit a bit more clearly. Actions that we wouldn't normally give a second thought to, we now see as the work of the Holy Spirit. We begin to pray more for the Holy Spirit to work in us and through us. And we see that work more and more.
Pentecost is about sharing the gospel with renewed energy, living the gospel as one who has been filled with the Holy Spirit, and reaffirming our participation as disciples of the Body of Christ in this community and beyond.
May God's Holy Spirit lift us up, renew and strengthen our faith and commitment, and lead us to further God's kingdom in this world. Amen.
(three paragraphs on page 3 are paraphrased from Barbara Brown Taylor's book "Home by Another Way")