Wednesday, June 7, 2017

All Together -- Pentecost Sunday

Acts 2:1-21
June 4, 2017

            “Hola.” “Mi casa es su casa.” “Mi perro es un dupa.” “Uno, dos, tres, quarto, cinco, seys.” “Cinco de Mayo.” “Corona, por favor,” “Gracias.” 
            These words and phrases are about the extent of my knowledge of Spanish. I took French in eighth grade and college. I took German in high school. I took Hebrew and Greek in seminary, but I never took Spanish. I was told that Spanish was easier to learn than other languages, but I was also told that to speak Spanish you had to be able to roll your “r’s.” I can’t do that. But thanks to Sesame Street and other friends, I can now say a few words and a couple of relatively useless phrases.
            Sadly a few words and phrases don’t help me much when I meet people whose first language is Spanish. I learned this quite vividly when we were living in New York. Our church was asked to host some Christian visitors from Costa Rica who were traveling in the United States for church related reasons. We were assured that they all spoke excellent English, so finding host families who spoke Spanish would not be necessary.
            One of the host families invited church folks over for a potluck in honor of our Costa Rican guests. We were all excited to meet them, and learn more about them and Costa Rica. Just one problem; they did not actually speak English. A few of them spoke about as many words in English as I speak in Spanish. But a woman who attended the local Methodist church was a native Spanish speaker, and she was happy to come to the potluck to help with translation.   
            That was helpful in general terms, but it didn’t make individual conversations any easier. That’s what happens at potlucks and events like it; you sit and get to know each other in smaller groups. At first it seemed that it was going to become a segregated party – English speakers with English speakers and Spanish speaker with Spanish speakers. But many of us were trying. I sat next to a young couple. The wife and I did a lot of smiling at each other. We would take a bite of food, mime yummy, appreciative gestures, and then smile some more. She knew a few words in English, and you’ve heard my Spanish. At first I didn’t think there was any chance that we’d be able to communicate. 
            It’s funny, though. The more comfortable we became with each other, the more we started to understand each other. We used some words, but we also spoke in gestures and pantomime. Eventually we were having a conversation about trying to keep up with our houses and working. We were laughing, and it became as comfortable and as familiar a conversation as any I’ve had with my oldest and dearest friends. We found that we had a common language that went beyond words. Our ability to understand one another’s language may have been limited, but we understood each other in a deeper way, in a truly human way. We were together in that moment in a way I could never have expected. It was a profound experience.
            But even this incredibly powerful moment in my life cannot compare with the moment we hear about in this most famous passage from Acts, chapter 2.The people gathered in that place hear the good news in their own languages. They hear the good news being spoken to them, translated for them, by the disciples, men they knew to be Galileans who should not have been able to speak the native tongues of Parthians and Medes and Elamites. What happened when they were there, all together, should have been impossible, yet it happened.
            What I love about this passage from Acts is that the Spirit enters that place with a bang. That is a profound understatement. The Spirit swooshes down upon them like a violent wind. That sound, that wind, filled the entire house where the disciples were staying. The sound of a violent wind has taken on a new meaning since I moved to Oklahoma, and my first response would have been to seek shelter, to hide from what was coming. If the disciples thought something like that we don’t know; before they even had time to register this awful, wonderful sound of wind and spirit filling their home, filling them, they were descended upon, literally, by tongues of fire. Those tongues of flame, forgive the pun, lit them up. Not only were they able to speak new languages, they were transformed, completely and utterly.   
            This wild happening drew the crowds gathered in Jerusalem to them. Jews from every part of the Diaspora were there, and hearing their own languages confused and puzzled them.  Along with their confusion, there were skeptics in the crowd. While some immediately believed that something wonderful and incredible and completely unexpected was happening, others dismissed the whole thing as being a drunken coincidence. The disciples weren’t filled with anything but new wine.
            Peter began his great sermon by dismissing this notion. This isn’t a drunken hoopla. This is the outpouring of the Spirit. What is happening is a fulfilling of the prophet Joel. The Spirit has been poured out on them. They are all together, and they are now able to speak in new languages and do new things. And this has all occurred because of Jesus the Christ. This has all happened because of the good news he brought, the good news he lived.
            I know that I have used this quote before, but it bears repeating. Author and theologian Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote, “That if you believe the Bible, than there is no better proof that Jesus was who he said he was than the before and after pictures of the disciples. Before Pentecost, they were dense, tired bumblers who fled at the least sign of trouble. Afterwards they were fearless leaders. They healed the sick and cast our demons. They went to jail gladly, where they sang hymns until the walls fell down. How did this transformation occur? You can read all about it in the book of Acts.”
            Jesus promised the disciples the coming of the Spirit. The last thing he told them before he ascended into heaven was to go back to Jerusalem and wait there for God’s promise to come true. They would be baptized by the Holy Spirit there, he told them. They did as they were told.  They went back to Jerusalem.  They prayed and they did not have to wait long for an answer.  On the day of Pentecost, the Jewish festival of weeks or the harvest which is set 50 days after Passover, they were all together in one place when they got a crash course in power. 
            That’s really what happened, isn’t it? They got a crash course in power. When the Holy Spirit came upon them, it came in with wind and flames and power. One commentator wrote that we should consider the noise it must have made. Think about the sounds and the sights that the disciples experienced. The coming of the Spirit on that day of Pentecost was like a special effects show. But this was a display that even Industrial Light and Sound, the company that has done special effects work for everything from Star Wars to Star Trek, could not have conceived. 
            More importantly than what this immense descending of power sounded like and looked like, is what it did. As Ms. Taylor wrote, the disciples went from being scared, anxious, unsure, and insecure men, constantly misunderstanding the good news that Jesus shared with them to men who were transformed. They preached with authority and taught with passion and expertise.  The disciples stood before huge, often hostile crowds and preached the gospel. They spoke in whatever language was necessary for them to be heard and understood. They baptized without hesitation. Evangelism flowed from them like water. They suffered whatever persecution and backlash came their way. When the power of the Holy Spirit came upon them, they were transformed. 
            When the power of the Holy Spirit came upon them, they were transformed.
            It seems that I pray all the time for transformation, for the power of the Holy Spirit to move among us, to gift us with whatever is necessary so that we can make a difference, so that we can spread the good news as individuals and as the church. But as I read this familiar passage this week, I was feeling discouraged and frustrated. Sure the Holy Spirit made a huge scene some two thousand years ago, but where is it now? I could do with hearing the sound of rushing wind that filled the disciples’ room? I could stand to see tongues of flame resting on us today? Why can’t miraculous, unbelievable things happen through us, just like it did for the disciples when they were able to speak in different languages? As much as I pray for the Holy Spirit, I’m just not always sure that the Spirit is there, that it’s moving, that it’s breathing new life into our midst. 
            But I read something in my studies that helped me reconsider the power of the Holy Spirit. Someone wrote that power can be understood in two ways. Sometimes power can be so intense that it erupts on you all at once. Think about the explosion that would happen if a match were lit to even ten gallons of gasoline. But then think about those same ten gallons of gasoline being channeled through the slow burn of a car engine. I can drive for a couple of hundred miles on those ten gallons. Power can explode among us. Or it can be channeled through us, all together.
            On that Pentecost day, the power of the Holy Spirit exploded on the disciples. It exploded in a way that brought new life, to the people who felt its power and to the church created in its wake. Today, we may not always experience that same explosive energy. But the power of the Spirit is alive and well right here, right now. It is being continually channeled through us, whether we recognize it or not. It still moves among us. It is breathing new life in our midst. We cannot control its power. The Spirit blows where it will. But I know, with renewed faith I know, that it is right here, where we are gathered all together. So come Spirit, come. Give us new life, new hope, and send us out, empowered, enlivened and enthusiastic to do God’s work in the world. 
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

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