Today, we're celebrating 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 finally see Peter and the twelve move beyond their fear, move beyond their role as students, move beyond the ways they have closed themselves up and closed themselves off since Jesus' crucifixion, and finally, receiving the Spirit, the promise of God, they begin to take action. Last week we talked about how Jesus was entrusting to them all the work that he had been doing – they would be his hands and feet in the world, the body of Christ in the world now. And this week, we see the beginnings of that body, those hands and feet in action, as Peter delivers a powerful message.
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 shall see visions, and your old shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.” This Spirit thing is for everyone.
Today, when we celebrate Pentecost, our focus is on not on the feast originally celebrated, the planned part, but on the 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? When I was in junior high, I accidentally pinned my leg under our minivan. It’s a long story, and doesn’t make me look very brilliant, but suffice it to say, I was laying on the ground outside a small market in Rome in the parking lot, pinned underneath our Dodge Caravan. My mother was in the store, and when my friend, who was with me, conveyed to her what happened, and my mother came out and saw me under the van, she didn’t look for help. What she did was push the van off me. Now, maybe she could have done this on a normal day, but I suspect that the level of adrenaline coursing through her body in an emergency situation made it suddenly easy for her to get me, her child, out of such a dangerous situation.
I think the Holy Spirit is a little like that – like adrenaline that suddenly shows up when you need it. Did you ever sing the Sunday School song, Give Me Oil for My Lamp? Give Me Oil for My Lamp, keep it burning, burning, burning, Give me oil for my lamp, I pray! Give me oil for my lamp, keep it burning, burning, burning, keep it burning til the break of day! The song continues in more verse, but some of my favorites were: Give me wax for my board, keep me surfing for the Lord, and Give me gas for my Ford, keep me truckin’ for the Lord. I mention this song because the verses all suggest that there is something we need, something God can give us, that can inspire us, move us, help us to act with faith and boldness. Give me oil for my lamp is not so different from saying: Come, Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit’s coming in Acts is described as a violent rushing wind. Wind is powerful. It can set a boat to sailing across the water, or it can destroy and damage, or it can be harnessed for electricity. Sometimes we know when to expect a windy day, but often, the wind catches us by surprise. We can’t see the wind, but we can see what it does. Wind is a great image for how Spirit moves through us. But if the Spirit is so unpredictable, can we do more than say, Come, Holy Spirit, and wait for the Spirit to show up, if it will? When the apostles received the Spirit, they were in Jerusalem, waiting for the Spirit, and they were there because that is where Jesus told them to be. They made sure they followed the instructions they had, so that they could be ready for the unknown.
Last week at our Bible Study, we got talking about how we hear God's voice today, how God speaks to us today, and how we might hear God today in ways that are different than folks did in the scriptures. Maybe God will speak to you in a burning bush, as to Moses, or in the sounds of rushing wind and tongues of fire, or in dreams, waking or sleeping, like we've talked about a lot here at Apple Valley, or maybe God will speak to you through the latest news story you read, or through the mouth of your grandchild's curious questioning, or through the characters of your favorite TV show. We certainly can't predict the way God will speak to us, the way God's Spirit will move in us.
But we can do what the disciples did: we can follow the directions from God for our live that are clear to us, so that we're prepared for whatever God blows our way, breathes into our lives. We can study God's word. We can pray faithfully. We can share God's love, and extend compassion. We can tell God again and again: “Here I am, ready to follow you!”
That's what we celebrate today in confirmation. These 8 young people – who knows what God has in store for them, and how they will hear God's voice, and how they will put the gifts they've been given to use? But what they're doing today is saying: We've tried hard over these last months to be prepared, to explore our faith, to learn about the church, to grow as disciples. Today, they offer themselves to God and to this community of faith, saying, “Here I am!” And as they offer themselves and their hearts to God, let us join them in renewing our commitment. Let us say with them, “Here we are God. We're ready. Come, Holy Spirit, Come.” Amen.