(a sermon for May 19, 2013, Pentecost Sunday, based on Acts 2:1-21 and Romans 8:14-17)
What exactly is the Day of Pentecost? Well, biblically and historically speaking it is the “Feast of Weeks,” or Shavuot, a Jewish festival of the summer harvest that was traditionally held 50 days after Passover. On the Christian calendar, however, it is a commemoration of one such festival long ago, when on the streets of Jerusalem the world experienced the presence of God’s Holy Spirit in a new and powerful, strikingly vivid way; so for Christianity, the Day of Pentecost became a pivotal point of human history!
You might say, in fact, that for us, Pentecost represents the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end! Think about this with me: years of waiting for the Messiah had finally come to an end, for Jesus had come; and more than this, Jesus, who had been crucified at the hands of a sinful humanity, had risen from the dead, the “first fruits of those who have died,” (1 Cor. 15:20) the opening up of the gates of eternity! But now, with Jesus’ ascension into heaven and his disciples left to carry on, a new time of waiting was just beginning: waiting for the Messiah to return in glory, ushering in the kingdom of heaven. In the meantime, however, there’s much work to be done!
So Pentecost, in truth of fact, is really where the whole thing begins again! And with the rush of a mighty wind, God gave the gift of God’s own Spirit – in Hebrew, ruach, meaning the “breath of God” – to get it all moving. This was a gift that gave the church its very mission; and moreover, its empowerment in the work of God’s kingdom until that kingdom comes in its fullness. So in a very real sense, it is true that it’s the birthday of the church we celebrate here today, because here is where the church as we know it begins; but it’s also about our on-going vocation as ministers in Christ’s name, and the continuing movement of God’s Spirit in the midst of this and every generation.
It’s big and it’s glorious and, I’ll admit, almost indescribable for the utter scope of it; but, if I might coin a phrase from Thomas Edison, the one about genius being “one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration,” it seems to me that at the very heart of it this “Day of Pentecost” ends up being all about our movement as believers from inspiration… to perspiration!
We actually see this very clearly in the disciples; who as we pick up our reading from Acts this morning, are huddled together in a secluded room, not at all sure what to do next, given they’ve been given this “great commission” which they’re supposed to fulfill now without the presence of their leader and teacher. There’s most definitely a sense of their being at a loss, yet you know what happens; the Spirit’s wind fills up their room and suddenly these same disciples are out on the crowded streets of Jerusalem, boldly telling their story and inviting others into the household of their faith.
It’s an amazing transition, friends; and you know this didn’t happen in a staid, well-considered, and dare I say, “church-like” fashion! No; this was immediate and life-changing; and though Acts doesn’t exactly spell this out for us, what happened was far beyond anything those disciples could ever have imagined! Remember that there’s a festival going on, with streets filled with people from all over, speaking a multitude of different languages! There’s no way that this tiny group of believers could possibly make an impact on this massive crowd, and yet, here’s Peter and the others running through the streets fairly well shouting this good news, and everybody’s hearing it and, even more amazingly, understanding it in their own language! It was the kind of thing that just doesn’t happen every day – or at all! That’s why there were those in the crowd very quick to dismiss the whole thing as drunken behavior; how else would you explain that kind of all-encompassing, totally enveloping and utterly overwhelming revelry?
They didn’t understand; but now the disciples did. Because at the very moment that Spirit came and, as The Messsage translates it, “like a wildfire… spread through their ranks,” they were inspired! Enthused! Jazzed, stoked and fired up (!); moved in a way unlike anything they’d ever experienced or felt or believed before! They could not do anything else at that moment but jump up and run out there amongst the people; and tell this amazing good news of last days, of sons and daughters giving prophecies, of young men with visions and old men with dreams; of the Spirit poured out on many, and the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Yes: this Day of Pentecost reminds us of the difference between what the disciples were – hesitant, confused, uncertain, and even fearful – and what they would become; bold witnesses of the risen Christ, ready to say and do all for the sake of the kingdom of God. And it was the Spirit that did it, moving them from fear to courage, from reluctance to commitment, from philosophy, as it were, to practice.
What we celebrate today is God’s own “inspiring” Spirit, how it was manifest in the first disciples, how it spread first in and through all the crowds of people on the streets of Jerusalem, and then across cities and nations and generations; and how it still, to this very day, continues to inspire people – people like you and me – to lives attuned to the unpredictable movement of the Spirit and to the all-encompassing and occasionally daunting, yet ever-fulfilling work of God’s Kingdom; truly moving us each and every day from inspiration to… perspiration!
And as odd as that might sound to a skeptical world, I know that there are many who know just what that means; many of us right here, in fact, who really do understand that though it’s indeed often in “mysterious ways,” God is working, and that there have been moments when we’ve been calmed, strengthened and empowered in ways both unexpected and unimagined. From the personal crises we’ve somehow endured, through the moral and ethical dilemmas that ultimately ended up defining the depths of our character, to those wonderfully nagging little “nudges” that hit us out of nowhere but lead us to take some kind of action we couldn’t possibly have considered before: reach out your hand; tell that person you love them; follow that dream, answer that call, go to seminary… or…whatever!
The point is that there are moments when God, for the sake of his vision for us and his Kingdom, wants to stir things up for us, and that, friends, is what the Holy Spirit is for! Sometimes that Spirit comes as it did for those disciples, with “a sound like a strong wind, gale force,” (The Message, again), coming at us and enveloping us all at once. And yes, often it’ll come gently; and as naturally as a wisp of cool air on a hot summer day, as life-giving as a deep breath taken into the lungs. Either way, however, it comes to inspire us; that we might grow, become, and serve the Lord in a multitude of ways with a variety of gifts.
It comes to move us: from philosophical thinking to passionate living, from quiet belief to inspired witness; empowering us as Christ’s disciples in active anticipation of his return in glory. From the inspiration of the soul to the perspiration of lives wholly devoted to the service of love – that’s what this Day of Pentecost is all about. And that’s also our challenge, friends, both as persons and as God’s people!
Because “Spirited” or no, the amazing things that can happen only happen when you and I are willing to let our guard down for a bit and follow the Spirit where it leads.
I’m remembering a moment when I was at Bangor Seminary – my first few days on the campus, in fact – a group of us living in the dorm were gathered in the social room for one of those wonderful “Getting to Know Each Other” sessions. And I’m not sure I remember how or why this happened, but suddenly one of our group suggests we all get in a circle and do “Father Abraham.” Now, you probably know this; it’s a camp song, and kind of a “ring-around-the-rosy” thing, and there’s this song that goes with it: “Father Abraham had many sons, and many sons had father Abraham, I am one of them and so are you, so let’s just praise the Lord!” And you sing it over and over again, adding a different body motion with each verse: right arm, left arm, right foot and so on.
Now, I know you will find this hard to believe, given my stellar performance of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” last Sunday, but I really didn’t want to do this “Father Abraham” thing! Truthfully, I was a lot more reserved in those days, and more than a little bit shy about my new surroundings and somewhat intimidated by all these new people I didn’t know; moreover, I already knew I was a lousy dancer with two left feet, so I wasn’t about to make a fool of myself doing this; and besides, this was seminary (!), and shouldn’t seminarians carry themselves with just at least a modicum of dignity and godliness?
But, peer pressure being what it is (!), I did it anyway… and do you know what? I enjoyed it! It didn’t matter that I lacked the proper coordination; come to find out, so did they! It was just fun; but more than this, it turned out to be a watershed moment for our little group. Our different ages – which ranged from 22 to70 – our geographical, ethnic and social backgrounds, to say nothing of our denominational and theological particularities were melting away; we were becoming a community, this odd little family of faith, gathered by the hand and with the joy of a loving God, each of us in our own way seeking to follow the inspiration of the Spirit to do God’s work in the world – and in all honesty, it was this unexpected, foolish little game that got me to see that. It was, in its own unique way, a high and holy moment, one that not only obviously served to unleash my “inner fool for Christ,” but also one I’ve been blessed to witness and share in congregations over the years and amongst a good many faithful people of my acquaintance.
So, how about you? The Spirit is indeed moving, and God is doing amazing things; but the question is – the question always is – are you willing to accept and celebrate the high and holy moments that that Spirit is even now bringing into your lives? It’s a question of letting the divine inspiration of God become the perspiration of our lives; it’s being open to letting God’s purposes for our lives and living start to shape what it is we say, and what we do today, tomorrow, and for the whole of life.
And it makes a difference. After all, as Paul said to the Romans in our Epistle today, “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that that very Spirit bearing witness with your spirit that we are children of God.” When we “are led by the Spirit of God;” that is, when we trust God’s movement in our lives and let it move us, like the disciples of old we are telling a story of good news by our very lives, and acknowledging with every word and deed that we are, truly, God’s children.
And so, in the words of an ancient prayer be ours this day:
“Come, O Holy Spirit, come!
Come as holy fire and burn in us,
come as holy wind and cleanse us,
come as holy light and lead us,
come as holy truth and teach us,
come as holy forgiveness and free us,
come as holy love and enfold us,
come as holy power and enable us,
come as holy life and dwell in us.
“Convict us, covert us, consecrate us,
until we are wholly thine for thy using,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
– prayer adapted by Charles Francis Whiston
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry