Day of Pentecost
May 20, 2018
Though we hear the story of Pentecost every year, the story of the Spirit of God coming down as wind and fire and birthing the church, our understanding of what’s going on here could really benefit from a bit of context. So first, what happened right before this story, is that Jesus ascended into heaven. After he rose from the dead back on Easter, he hung around Jerusalem with the disciples for 40 days. At the end of this 40 days, Jesus tells them that they must not under any circumstances leave Jerusalem yet, because they were, very soon, going to be baptized with the Holy Spirit.
Excited, the disciples ask, “Oh, so now you are finally going to restore the kingdom of Israel?” If you know your Jewish history, you remember that several hundred years before Jesus came, the kingdom of Israel had split into Northern and Southern kingdoms, and had eventually fallen to the enemy, and Jews had been sent into exile all over the known world. Some had returned to Israel, but it remained that the former kingdom of Israel was severely fractured, both by location and belief. They had hoped and believed that the restoration of the kingdom of Israel was the whole purpose of the Messiah, and so here they are, still waiting for that.
But Jesus says, “That’s not for you to know. But what you will get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Spirit comes, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, and all over the world.” And with that last promise/charge, Jesus floats in a cloud up to heaven.
Since then, 10 days have passed, and it is the day of Pentecost. This is a Jewish holy day that falls 50 days after the Passover. It’s more often called the Feast of Weeks (7 weeks and one day), and it’s a day when they celebrate the spring harvest. It was also a day, and this is significant, when Jews around the world made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, to sacrifice their “first fruits” of the harvest at the Temple. Consequently, Jerusalem at this point is full of people from all over the place – and although they all identify as Jewish, they come from different sects of Judaism, and speak different languages.
So that’s the setting. About 120 Christians, including the 12 apostles (they had replaced Judas by now), are gathered in one place, wondering what the heck is going to happen next and when, and… well, let’s listen and see. Please rise to welcome the Spirit!
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
How must the disciples have felt at the beginning of this story?
Ten days prior they watched Jesus float up into the sky on a cloud. They lost him once, he came back, and now he’s gone again. What an emotional yo-yo! Plus, all this time, they had been thinking Jesus would restore the kingdom of Israel, and they had yet to see it happen – in fact, things seemed worse now! Their deepest desire, to go back to this time when everything was hunky dory and everyone got along, seemed to float off into the sky right along with Jesus! Jesus said that really soon they would be baptized by the Holy Spirit – whatever that meant! – but already it had been 10 days, and nothing!
Not to mention their questions and fears about what would come next. Jesus had appeared to some 500 people after his resurrection, but now here they sat only 120 strong. With only 120 people, would this movement even last? Would they be able to grow their numbers? Would people believe this amazing story about a man who rose from the dead? They’d given up so much for this man and his message, but now – how would they even survive?
They are full of fears and questions. And honestly, theirs are all questions and concerns that we have today, as individuals, yes, but also as the church. We, too, long for the past, for a time when the world seemed better and safer, when our Sunday School was full and families weren’t so busy and we had a baseball team and went on camping trips with our church friends. It was a time that, if we’re being honest, may or may not have ever actually existed as we remember it, but which has nevertheless formed itself in our memories as something pretty great.
In the present, we are confused, wondering what we are supposed to do now, in our new normal, desperate for some guidance, or for someone to step up and take the torch from our tired leaders, so that we can continue to function as we always have.
And, we fear for the future – what will tomorrow bring? Will our church grow, or dwindle away? What do we do about the drop in giving – how will we pay the bills? Who are we if we aren’t what we have always been?
And into the Early Christians’ longing, distress, and fears, comes whooshing a violent wind and tongues of fire. Not, I suspect, the comforting presence they were hoping for! The text doesn’t say, “And like a cool breeze on a summer day, the Spirit nestled in among them.” No, the Spirit comes like a violent, rushing wind! Like fire! It makes me picture that wind storm we had last year that left trees and electric cables down all over town – violent wind is no comfort!
Now I think sometimes, the Spirit is very much a comfort. But this initial appearance after Jesus’ ascension is not one of those times. And, turns out, the Spirit is often not much of a comfort. It does not always provide the answer we were hoping for or expecting – more often, the Spirit pushes us in directions with which we are not comfortable, into new situations where we are not comfortable and don’t know how things will turn out. The Holy Spirit is much more likely to move us toward a reality we would never have imagined on our own.
Just look at when the disciples ask if Jesus will restore the kingdom of Israel. He doesn’t say, “Yes, we’ll put everything back just as it was before.” In truth, “how it was before” wasn’t really even as good as they think; their memory of this great, united Israel – it never existed! Israel was always at war with someone. They had a string of bad kings, and even David, the greatest of all the kings, was a murderer and an adulterer. Plus, it was never Jesus’ mission to put things back the way they were – Jesus was always about newness of life, about reaching out in love to the outcast, the stranger, the poor and vulnerable, not about restoring the political power Israel once enjoyed.
And so he doesn’t promise them the nationalist glory of old that they crave. Instead, he promises them something much more powerful and effective for accomplishing his true mission: the Holy Spirit, he says, will empower them to become witnesses, to bring the good news of the Gospel to all people, to tell this story – about how life always wins over death – to tell it in a way, in a language, that people can truly understand.
In short, the gift of the Holy Spirit brings with it the power to participate in bringing about God’s hope for the world: a hope of peace, love, justice, reconciliation, redemption, mercy, grace, and above all, newness of life. That is the mission and message of Jesus Christ – not that we would return to some past, but that these things, this life, is possible, right now, and in the future… even though it might look different from anything we’ve ever seen before. Bringing about God’s hope for the world is the mission the Holy Spirit empowers us to live out – in our families, in our congregations, and in the world.
And that is the mission into which we will, in a moment, bring Audrey and Luci. It’s no small thing, being baptized. When we baptize a child, even one so small as these, we are calling upon the Holy Spirit to enter this child, and to encourage and empower her also to live out this mission we all share. There is some comfort in a baptism – the washing away of sins, the promise of forgiveness, the welcome into the community of faith – but a life of faith is not always one of comfort. It is also one of surprising inspiration. It is one in which we listen and respond to the urging of that whooshing, violent wind, still active in our hearts, blowing us toward sometimes Big, Scary Things that will change our lives or the lives of others, for the better. A baptized life of faith is one in which every day we look to fulfill Christ’s mission to love and serve, to reach out to the outcast with compassion, to forgive and reconcile, to feed the poor and hungry in body, mind and spirit, and to be gracious and merciful, just as God is to us.
And thanks be to God, a baptized life of faith is also one where that same Spirit accompanies us all along the way, offering all of those things also to us when we are in need, guiding us in right paths, and lifting us up when we are discouraged.
What a gift to be here today, not only to witness as these children of God is/are brought into the promises, hopes, and expectations of baptism, but also to remember that the Spirit moves also in us, blowing us toward new and sometimes scary ways of witnessing to and living out the mission we all share in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Let us pray… Spirit of God, descend upon our hearts. Move in us, breathe in us, and help us to listen as you urge us toward ways of being your church that may scare or surprise us. Make us always ready to trust your guidance. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.