The Next Step: Pentecost
Since Easter Sunday morning, we’ve been talking about Resurrection Stories – stories of new life, celebrations of resurrection that take place because of God’s amazing power drawing life out of death, as we saw demonstrated in Jesus’ own death and resurrection. We’ve seen how this story – life instead of death – is woven all throughout the scriptures. Life, where death was expected. Today, we’re shifting gears. Today we begin a sermon focus called, “The Next Step.” When Pastor Aaron and I picked this sermon focus, we didn’t know exactly the nature of the transition we’d be going through as a congregation, but we knew we’d probably be experiencing some changes, and that the changes we’d be going through would fit right in with the experience we encounter in the disciples on the day of Pentecost.
Today, we celebrate the day of Pentecost. It is the day we call the birthday of the Christian Church. Today, we read about the disciples receiving the gift of 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 when we hear the story of the next step. After years of following Jesus, after his death and their confusion about what was happening and after Jesus’ resurrection – and the disciples confusion about what was happening – today, we look at their next steps – their first steps, in many ways, as leaders of the Jesus movement, as followers in the way, as leaders in what will become the church.
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 – this is what was planned. Jesus had told them to wait in Jerusalem after he returned to be with God in order to receive this strange gift he was to send them – the Spirit, the Advocate, the Comforter. So the disciples were gathered with everyone else there for the Pentecost festival. And suddenly, 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. He quotes the prophet Joel, saying, “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.”
Today, when we celebrate Pentecost, our focus is on not on the feast originally celebrated, the planned part, 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. The Holy Spirit is the gift that helps them with all their other gifts, in a way. It’s the foundation for their work, the source of their confidence in their abilities. After all, being filled with the Holy Spirit is being filled up with God’s own self, right inside of you. God dwelling in you certainly should inspire you with confidence! On Pentecost, we celebrate that the Holy Spirit is the gift that is available to each one of us.
Still, I think it is hard to understand the Holy Spirit sometimes. In my little childhood church where I grew up, in Westernville, we’d usually talk about the “Holy Ghost” rather than the Holy Spirit. This made it even more confusing. (It was hard not to picture this: image on screen.) So how can we think about the Holy Spirit? One of the first Resurrection Stories we talked about was Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones, remember? And he had a vision of God breathing new life into dry, lifeless bones. Well, the words for Spirit and Breath are the same in Hebrew and Greek. So Holy Spirit is Holy Breath. It is God’s breath that brings us life – that’s the Holy Spirit. When you are filled with the Spirit, your breath is God’s breath – you breathe God in, and you breathe God out. If you could visualize how your life would be different if every breath you took, you were aware of breathing in God, and every breath you exhaled, you were aware that you were breathing God out into the world – that’s the Holy Spirit, Holy Breath.
Like Ezekiel’s vision of what happens when we are filled with God’s breath, and like the prophet Joel’s words, shared by Peter on the day of Pentecost, where young and old and men and women are filled with dreams and visions, God’s Holy Breath is meant to inspire us, to see the possibilities for life and hope and abundance that God sees. When I was in my first church, serving in Oneida, there was a gentleman named Al Spawn, who chaired the Evangelism Team. Al was elderly, and made more frail by persistent heart trouble. But he was incredibly faithful, and deeply passionate about his faith walk. In October of my first year there, he came to an Evangelism Meeting and led in a time of devotional study, focusing on Proverbs 29:18, which he read from the King James Versions: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Al was passionate about his hopes and dreams for our church, emphasizing how imperative it was to have a vision for being active, vibrant disciples of Jesus Christ. That night, Al went home and went to bed, and died in his sleep. Sometimes I can’t believe I knew him for only a few months, because his impact was so significant. I think of him and his devotional often: Where there is no vision, the people perish. This verse, in modern translations, has a bit different emphasis, but we get the gist. Without vision and direction, without an intention of where we are going, we cannot survive. To live, to thrive, we must have hope, a dream, a direction. Even in times of transition. Especially in times of transition. We seek, now, especially, for God to plant a vision in our hearts, to fill us with Holy Breath, to inspire us.
Today, we celebrate confirmation, when several of our young people confirm vows once made on their behalf in the sacrament of baptism. Our confirmands all made stoles with personal and spiritual symbols that are meaningful to them that are part of the confirmation service today. I was so impressed by the thoughtfulness and depth of some of their choices and descriptions, and I hope you’ll read about them all. But one in particular I felt connected with today especially, on this day of Pentecost, this day we seek vision, and God’s holy breath.
Lindsay Richards included a butterfly on her stole, writing of it: The Baby Butterfly – My mom has always called me her butterfly. Whether I’m her “social butterfly” or just her “beautiful butterfly.” My mom’s song that reminds her of me is “She’s a butterfly” by Martina McBride. The butterfly isn’t necessarily a ‘baby,’ but it is new to being her adultish self. Going through confirmation, I will have been done being a caterpillar, have prepared all my knowledge in my cocoon, and I will sprout into a beautiful butterfly. I’m destined to be.
The process by which a caterpillar becomes a butterfly is a process most insects go through, called metamorphosis. This is a process of transformation that involves a kind of recycling of cells, in which old cells are turned into completely new kinds of cells. This abrupt kind of change is much different than the kind of changes humans go through. But, there are about 200 million insects on earth for every single human being – that’s a scary fact, right? – so in a way, you can say that our slow way of changing and developing into adults is actually the unusual way. Metamorphosis is more common in the rest of the natural world. Even now, we’re still learning about metamorphosis. You can’t see inside a chrysalis and watch metamorphosis happening without damaging the butterfly. I read that we’re just starting to use a mini-CT scan process to see metamorphosis step by step, and we’re still discovering things we didn’t know. I find that amazing. For all we know and all we can do, we’re still just scratching the surface of the amazingness of the world God has created.
What’s all this have to do with Pentecost? Here’s what I think. God loves us so much that God will continue to try to work with us even if we insist on changing, growing, developing, maturing in our faith at the glacial speed of typical human development. That’s one option, and God won’t ditch us, but be faithful to journey with us as we grow, millimeter by millimeter. But with the Holy Spirit at work in our lives, if we let the Spirit in, if we breathe God in and breath God out, God’s usual way of working change, God’s usual way of changing lives is through metamorphosis. God is about changing caterpillars into butterflies. Dry bones into living flesh. Tongue-tied introverts into leaders of nations. Year-season women into bearers of infants. Shepherd boys into kings. Maiden girls into mothers of saviors. Fishermen into rabble-rousing preachers. Persecutors of Christians into martyred apostles. Struggling congregations into vibrant places where disciples are called, equipped, and sent out. That’s the way God seems to like to work – turning it all upside down, inside out, transforming us in ways we can’t even describe.
Changes are coming our way, and quickly. I think God is calling us – me, and you, and this congregation, to go through a metamorphosis. I wonder if a caterpillar is astonished when they come out on the other side in the form of a butterfly? We might be astonished at what God plans to do with us. But then again, our God has a reputation for astonishing us, so much so that we can depend on it. We can depend on God’s breath, filling us. We can dream with God’s vision, inspiring us. ““I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young shall see visions, and your old shall dream dreams.” May it be so. Amen.