Pentecost: Wind and Fire
Happy Birthday! In the Christian Church we celebrate this day, Pentecost Day, as the birthday of the church universal. Pentecost is the biggest birthday celebration I can think of, next to that birthday we celebrate on December 25th. Today is the birthday of the Church. Today, we read about the disciples receiving the Holy Spirit. Today we read about that strange experience where the sound of a mighty rushing wind broke into the house where the followers of Jesus were celebrating Pentecost. Today, we read about the beginnings of Church as we know it – where Peter steps up and finally does what Jesus had been preparing him and the others to do all along: he shares the gospel – tells the Good News about God’s grace to anyone and everyone he can get to listen. Today is meant to be a day of celebration, this day of Pentecost.
Our text from Acts opens with the disciples already gathered together. They are gathered together for the celebration of Pentecost, a Jewish festival set out in the Torah, the law books for the Jews, which make the first five books of our Bible today. Pentecost was a celebration taking place fifty days after Passover, and was called also “the feast of weeks” or Shavuot. The festival celebrated the “first fruits” of the early harvest in spring. So the disciples were gathered together for this traditional celebration. But suddenly, we read, a sound like the rush of a violent wind came, and filled the gathering place, and the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit, which seemed to them like divided tongues of fire. And they began to speak the gospel message to all who were gathered in such a way that everyone in the city could understand them. Many people from many places were gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks, and it seemed that everyone could understand the disciples. Some were amazed at this, but others were a bit cynical, and accused the disciples of being drunk. Peter stands and raises his voice to the crowds: We’re not drunk – we are speaking as the prophets spoke – and he goes on to speak to them of visions and power that will come to all – young and old, men and women, slaves and free – using words from the prophet Joel.
Today, then, when we celebrate Pentecost, our focus is on not on the feast originally celebrated, but on the out-of-control wind that swept through and stirred up the celebration – the giving of the Holy Spirit. This is the gift that Jesus has promised the disciples they would receive, the thing that would be their Advocate, their Comforter, helping them to make the transition from followers of Jesus to those who would be leading and guiding and sharing with others. Personally, though, I have always found this Spirit thing a bit hard to explain and understand. It all sounds so ambiguous, doesn’t it? How do we connect to an event that had a violent rushing wind, tongues of fire, and people speaking in other languages? Maybe we get that something special happened on that day, but how can we relate to it? What does the gift of the Holy Spirit mean to us?
When our scene opens for today, the apostles don’t know that today is the day. They don’t yet know that Pentecost is the day they will receive the Spirit Jesus promised. They’re just waiting in Jerusalem, as Jesus instructed. We’ve talked about the loneliness, fear, and abandonment the disciples must have felt in the days between the crucifixion and resurrection, and that was three days of believing that Jesus was dead and they were lost. Last Sunday, we talked about the ascension of Jesus, when he returns to be with God, when God’s messengers have to tell the apostles to stop staring up in to the sky. Jesus had been telling them that this Holy Spirit thing was coming, and they were supposed to wait. Wait for it, and then they would receive the help of this spirit, this advocate. Yes, now they knew Jesus was resurrected, but they also knew Jesus had left them again, at least physically. And this time, Jesus does not reappear physically after three days. He told them to wait, and they’re waiting. That’s where we find them today. But it is ten days between Jesus’ ascension and the feast of Pentecost. Ten days that they’ve been waiting, finding out just how much they trusted what Jesus said. I wonder how many times in those ten days they figured they’d misunderstood, or missed this spirit-helper thing, how many times they considered leaving, wondering if they’d been crazy.
So they’ve been waiting, waiting, and finally, this wind/Spirit thing arrives, and I have more questions than before. I find a couple of points in this Pentecost story really fascinating. First, I think it would have been so easy for the apostles, waiting in Jerusalem, to not recognize this Spirit thing, as dramatic as this windy fire sounds, when it came. When Jesus talked about the Holy Spirit coming to them, I just have to wonder what the apostles were expecting. Jesus, talking about the Spirit, said things like, with it they will be “clothed with power from on high.” They’ll be “baptized with the Holy Spirit” and will “receive power” and “will be [Jesus’] witnesses.” He talks about the Holy Spirit being an “advocate” and “helper.” He said it would remind the disciples of everything Jesus had taught them. And then, what it turns out to be is this sound like a mighty rushing wind, that appears like flames of fire. I wouldn’t be surprised if the disciples reacted like: “This is what you meant by a helper? This thing that has caused everyone to ask if we’re drunk at 9 in the morning – that’s the great help you sent us?”
The other point that fascinates me is that the Holy Spirit had already shown up in the scriptures. Jesus talks about the help he’s sending like it is a new thing. But the Holy Spirit has already been mentioned – in the Psalms and Prophets. In Mary, mother of Jesus, and in her cousin Elizabeth – the Holy Spirit is mentioned at work in both of those women and in Simeon, who sees baby Jesus at his dedication in the temple. Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit having been with King David. He himself is described as being full of the Holy Spirit. He teaches that God gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask for it, and that the Holy Spirit will equip apostles with words to say in difficult situations. All of these examples of the Holy Spirit! The disciples, you might think, must have wondered what was so special about what Jesus was sending to them, how it was any different from the Spirit they already had seen at work.
What amazes me most about Pentecost is that the apostles, waiting and confused for a week and half for something, ambiguously described by Jesus, finally receive the Spirit, only to find out it is this weird wind thing, that’s actually been with them all along – and, as it turns out, this seems to do the trick! Suddenly, the apostles, who’ve had very little to say since the crucifixion actually, and certainly not a lot to say since the resurrection, suddenly, they spring into action, preaching in front of crowds, finally start telling people about Jesus and what God has in store for the world. This fiery, windy spirit seems to be like a switch suddenly flipped, and the apostles start taking action. This is, after all, the acts of the apostles, and they finally get down to business.
So, the questions we have to ask are: What do we do while we’re waiting for the Holy Spirit? And then, what do we do when the Holy Spirit comes? At Easter time, Pastor Aaron and I talked a lot about how resurrection still happens today – it isn’t just some past event that we celebrate, but a present and future reality that we live into. We’re resurrection people. The same holds true for Pentecost. The coming of the Holy Spirit, the transformation of the disciples into these bold messengers for God, the explosion of new faith communities – this isn’t just a record of an event long past that we study out of historical curiosity. I believe it is God’s hope for the church today, that Pentecost still happens.
While we’re waiting to feel that Spirit move among us, I think we, like the disciples, have some of the hardest tasks. We have to keep doing what Jesus has told and taught us to do, and we have to believe that God’s promises will be fulfilled. Not knowing when God might act in our lives, when God might move in a new way is no excuse to do anything but follow God’s commands while we’re waiting. The disciples didn’t leave Jerusalem because God was taking too long. They didn’t know how Jesus’ promise would unfold, but they knew that it would. When we, as individuals or a congregation, are experiencing in-between times, our best plan is to keep doing the things Jesus taught us to do while we wait.
I think we also have to recognize the ways that Jesus has already given us the gift that was promised. We are already people who have received the Holy Spirit, just like the scripture record the Spirit at work throughout the stories we read, long before Pentecost found the Spirit arriving in a new package. How has the Spirit moved in you? How has it been in work at Liverpool First? For me, I experience little Spirit-moments whenever someone tells me that I preached a great sermon, because it really inspired them when I said (blank), only I never said what they heard! I figure God must be using my sermon to deliver a message. I’ve seen the Spirit at work through our choirs making music, through children giving answers in worship that are profound to adult ears, through unexpected gifts, through celebrating sacraments, through serving beyond what we saw possible. The spirit is already here – let’s recognize and celebrate it.
Finally, I think we experience Pentecost whenever we find that something, that spirit, that energy, that causes us to stop talking and thinking and mulling and planning and start doing. Sometimes you can talk about a dream you have, a plan you’ve made, a bucket-list item that you’ve had on your mind forever. You dream about it and dream about it and dream about it. And then, one day, finally, after 1000 false starts, you just do it. You start. You begin. You get going, get moving. What gives you that final push? What starts the engine? The Holy Spirit, like the wind, is something you can never pin down. But when I think about what makes us finally go, that’s the best way I can understand it. The apostles, with the wind finally stirring up in them the Spirit that was already there, finally get up and go, and start sharing the best news about the kingdom of God. I’m praying for the winds of the Spirit to move us here, too. We’ve got some dreams. Hopes. Things we’ve been talking about, dreaming about. Is something urging us to finally get up and get going?
Happy birthday, church. How will we celebrate God at work in us? Amen.