June 5, 2022

Pentecost Year C

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Weekly Prayer Recording

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Genesis 11:1-9

Acts 2:1-21


Everyone Knows It’s Windy

The Reverend Linda Mackie Griggs

Recording of the sermon:

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.

The first time my granddaughter Lucy encountered wind, she made her displeasure quite clear. In the words of her mother, “She stiffened her back, scrunched up her face and tried to get away from it.” Who could blame her? It was a distinctly unfamiliar sensation. And it was in her face. She wanted to go straight back to where it was safe and comfortable.

Trust a geeky church person like me to return to this image when pondering what to say about Pentecost.

Today we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, promised by Jesus; a gift to the disciples to help them carry on the work of spreading the Good News once Jesus had ascended. But this isn’t the first appearance of the Spirit; She has breathed and blown and prodded and shoved her way throughout Scripture, and her influence is a recurring theme in Luke’s writings. There are myriad names and descriptions for the Spirit: Advocate, Dove, Teacher, Breath, Fire, Wind, Brooder over the Waters. Wisdom. She. 

But there is only one “Comforter.”

Because comforting is low on the list of Her priorities. From the very beginning the movement of the Spirit has been dynamic and creative. That first Pentecost was a seismic shift as the Jesus Movement took its first deep breaths and began to change the world.

Today is the birthday of the Church. But how shall we celebrate in a way that goes beyond the wearing of red and moves us forward in the face of multiple internal and external challenges? Changing demographics and declining numbers, pandemic stresses; towering social and environmental crises, and crises of war and politics keep us awake at night and have the Church asking the existential question, what is our role in the healing of the world? How is the Spirit leading us, and how shall we respond? Often our reaction is like Lucy’s; we stiffen our backs, scrunch up our faces, say, “We’ve never done it this way!” and wish desperately to return post haste to more comfortable times. 

But the Spirit doesn’t call us into our comfort zone. 

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.

The when and the who are important. In the Jewish faith, Shavuot, or Pentecost as it was known by Hellenistic Jews, was a significant observance; it was the commemoration of the giving of Torah to God’s people at Mt. Sinai. In depicting the coming of the Spirit on Shavuot Luke likens the significance of the foundation of the Christian community with that of the foundation of Israel. 

Who makes up this new community? New Testament scholar Margaret Aymer points us to two distinct groups present at Pentecost. First, there were the disciples gathered in one place, now numbering about 120 men and women. In addition to this core group were a large number of people, as Luke says, living in Jerusalem. This is something I hadn’t noticed before. This is something I hadn’t noticed before.  They weren’t pilgrims in the city just for the celebration. They were residents; immigrants from surrounding areas within the Roman Empire. They were subjects of Rome, who would have routinely spoken Greek, which was second to Latin as a language of the empire, especially in the eastern Mediterranean. 

In other words, they already spoke a common language. A language of empire.

Think about that for a minute.

We often think about the Pentecost moment as an event where diverse people could all of a sudden understand each other. But there is more going on here. 

The list of people Luke offers is referred to tongue-in-cheek as the Jerusalem phone book: Parthians, Medes, Cappadocians, Mesopotamians, Elamites, etc. When the Spirit comes roaring in, they all begin to speak, not the Greek they already have in common, but the languages of home. The languages of the outside, not the center. Or as Margaret Aymer says, “…they tell of the glories of God, not in the language of the empire but in the languages of the people subject to empire.”

The Spirit came to them as outsiders, not as insiders. 

The Pentecost moment has often been referred to (including by me) as a “reverse Babel”, but Aymer points out that that’s not technically accurate. In the Genesis story of the Tower of Babel, God deliberately disrupts the people’s communication and scatters them throughout the world so that they won’t be able to work together to approach heaven and challenge the Divine. A reversal of that linguistic scattering would be to restore to the people at Pentecost one single language like they had had before. But they already had one language—Greek. So, the Pentecost moment isn’t about the uniformity of language. It’s about unity of understanding across the diversity of backgrounds and origins. 

The Holy Spirit is about decentering. She leads/nudges/shoves us to the margins.

Peter confirms this as he explains to skeptical witnesses who think that this sudden cacophony is a display of public drunkenness. He quotes from the prophet Joel, who wrote during a time of occupation, and who prophesied the defeat of the enemies of Israel: 

I will remove the northern army far from you, and drive it into a parched and desolate land…

And here Joel describes the inclusive reach of the Spirit:

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… Even upon my slaves, both men and women…

The Spirit’s gifts are not just for the privileged center. Luke’s allusion to Joel through Peter is political and eschatological: Divine victory over earthly empire is at hand in these last days. The old age is past and the promised new age is beginning.

We are still waiting for the fulfillment of the promise. We live in the already-and-not-yet of God’s Dream for Creation. And as we struggle with the mixed results of two millennia of our two-steps-forward/three-steps-back journey as the Household of God, we are invited and challenged to recognize when the Spirit is in our face, and to follow with courage and persistence wherever She leads/nudges/shoves us, resisting our initial desire to stiffen our backs, scrunch up our faces, and crawl back under the covers. 

Where to start? 

Begin from a place of trust. Even though the Spirit doesn’t call us into our comfort zone, we can trust and pray that the Comforter is with us as we journey out of it.

And then we ask the hard questions: Of whom or what are we disciples? Who or what forms us, spiritually, ethically, morally? We know what we want the answer to be, but to be honest with ourselves, what gets in the way of true discipleship of Jesus? Nostalgia for a glorious past, of full pews and packed Sunday School rooms? Conflicting priorities drawing our time, talent and treasure in multiple directions? Fear of the unknown? Fear of ridicule? Because let’s face it, it isn’t fashionable to truly follow the way Jesus. 

Jesus spoke truth to power. He sought out the sick, the suffering and the marginalized. He embraced humility, vulnerability, and self-sacrifice. He transgressed boundaries for the sake of love. He trusted God, even when it was hard. 

These things don’t come naturally to us. Left to our own devices we can get pretty comfortable with being comfortable, even when we wish things were different. Sometimes the devil we know can be more tempting than the angel we don’t know.

But that’s why Pentecost is so important. To break our hearts open to that in-your-face Spirit whose chief creative, wise, and energetic purpose is to call us into true discipleship with Jesus, who in turn calls us to love and serve beloved children of God who are not at the center of power and privilege.

The reason we often celebrate Baptism at Pentecost is a dual reminder; of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church; and of our own Baptismal Covenant that enables and challenges us to live authentically as disciples of Jesus. It is into this Covenant that the parents and godparents of Harvey, Alexis, and Ethan will enter in just a few minutes, promising to nurture them as followers of Christ. We will welcome these children, and pray for the Spirit to sustain them in their new life. We will also ask God to bestow on them four vital gifts: 

Inquiring and discerning hearts. 

The courage to will and to persevere. 

The spirit to know and to love God. 

And the gift of joy and wonder in all of God’s works. 

Think about each of these for a moment.  What an amazing toolbox for the healing of a hurting world! So, on this Pentecost, may this also be our prayer for ourselves, and for the Church. 

Come, Holy Spirit, come!