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.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’Acts 2:1-21
My sermon from Pentecost (June 5, 2022) on Acts 2:1-21
Pete Holmes is a comedian who I’ve followed ever since he talked about what it’s like to carry google in your pocket. For the first time in human history, we have access to an incredible amount of information and yet we’re not a lick smarter for it. He encourages us to dwell in wonder: that space when we don’t have an answer for all the stuff we’ve lived through. Not knowing isn’t always a comfortable place to be in but there’s power in staying open to what we don’t know. A couple months ago, he was interviewed on the Late Show by Stephen Colbert and he started a comedy bit about having to re-learn how to act in public since we’ve chosen to move into a different stage of the pandemic. He described how people move in two modes: a group mode and a solo mode. Group mode is when we’re actively engaged with others by talking, chatting, or simply existing around each other. But solo mode is when you’re in the world but not trying to be a part of it. It’s when you bury yourself in an oversized hoodie, pop on some headphones, and sort of isolate yourself even when you’re surrounded by others. There are times when we need to be in group mode or solo mode and we often switch between them several times a day. Pete tried to set up a joke by saying how he saw someone in real time go from group mode to solo mode. Yet that was when Stephen Colbert, who is a trained comedian and should have recognized the kind of joke setup Pete was trying to do, interrupted with a question. He asked: “how do you see someone going from group mode to solo mode if you’re there?” How, when you’re in a group with someone else, can you see them enter their solo mode? That was a really good question that Pete didn’t expect. And when he tried to continue the joke, he couldn’t and he called out Colbert for not doing what he was supposed to do. In a really humorous way, Pete pointed out how he was Colbert’s guest and it was Colbert’s job to support him. The host was to help their guests sparkle and shine. Stephen Colbert didn’t do what he was supposed to do. And while it’s a silly moment, I couldn’t help thinking about it while reflecting on our reading from the book of Acts because helping others shine is what the Holy Spirit empowers us to do.
Now this reading occured on a very specific day. The day of Pentecost was – and still is – a Jewish religious festival and it’s known as Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks. In Jesus’ day, it was a harvest festival remembering and celebrating the generosity of God. People would go to the Temple and bring the first ripe grains of wheat that had grown in their fields. They were, in that moment, thanking God for those grains and trusting more would follow. The festival took place fifty days after Passover and in ancient Greek, the word for the “fiftieth day,” is Pentecost. This festival brought together people from all over the Mediterranean Sea into the city of Jerusalem. Today’s text, in fact, lists 15 different ethnicities, which most likely represented only a tiny fraction of those celebrating in God’s holy city. Together, they had a shared identity of being Jewish. Yet they also, as individuals, had their own stories, histories, and ethnicities reflecting how big their identities were. The people in the city were there to celebrate God and that diverse community included a small group of folks who followed Jesus. They were there to celebrate Pentecost but they were also wondering what it meant to follow Jesus. He was no longer with them like he once was and they didn’t know what their lives should now look like. They were wondering what would happen next. And that’s when, while gathered in a small house, something like the wind from a tornado filled the room. While wondering what this wind was all about, suddenly flames appeared over their heads that looked like tongues made of fire. The noise and commotion soon attracted the attention of those in the surrounding neighborhood who wondered what was going on. And that’s when the Holy Spirit, an empowering force from God, drew these two groups together. While they wondered, the Spirit moved through the followers of Jesus so that the crowd could shine.
Now I’m not quite sure what the crowd expected to happen when they saw the small group of folks at the center of all the noise. But I’m pretty sure they didn’t think they would hear Jesus’ story in the language their parents spoke to them when they were born. The wind and the fire were soon forgotten because the experience of hearing those words drew all their attention. Some tried to come up with an answer to explain away what they heard. But Peter knew God was simply doing what God always does. God’s commitment to all of creation is always shown, and made real, in love. And that love does not replace the identities that make us who we are but rather celebrates who, in Jesus, we get to become. No one story or one kind of person or one experience defines what it means to be with God. God comes to us as we are because when Jesus died on the Cross, his arms were open to all. When the Spirit moved on the day of Pentecost, it didn’t empower everyone to speak or understand the same language. Instead, it enabled the followers of Jesus to share the good news: how God lived a complete human life and promised to transform us into something more. And because the crowd heard those words in a very personal way, they witnessed how the whole of who were was welcomed into the fullness of the body of Christ. This, I think, gives us a vision of what being a Christian and living a Christian life is all about. We, because of baptism and faith, get to help others shine. We, through the gifts God gives us, help the people around us become who God wants them to be. We, through our acts of care and service, simply help them thrive. Now to do that well, we need to act as if they’re already part of the group. That doesn’t mean we behave in a way that belittles their distinctiveness or acts as if their identity is something other than what it is. Instead, it’s a call for those of who follow Jesus to always see the other person as someone we’re already connected to. We might not know each other but because of Christ, we love them and through our love, empower them to love others too. Living our lives in this way is a bit hard and we’re not always going to do it right. But God, as we’ll hear in the promises we’ll affirm alongside with Anderson when he is confirmed later today, doesn’t ask us to live out that love on our own. God, instead, gives us the Spirit, this force empowering us to know who we are and to love others like God loves us. We’ll often wonder what this kind of life and what this kind of love looks like. But I’m pretty sure we see it and we live it when we choose to welcome, include, support, and help others shine. And that’s a love that all people, regardless of language, background, ethnicity, or identity, can feel, experience, and see.