A sermon from Acts 2:1-21
We didn't invent Pentecost; Pentecost invented us.
Fifty days after Passover, the Jewish faithful would gather to remember how God had given them the law on Mt. Sinai. Today, that feast is known in the Jewish faith by it's Hebrew name: Shavuot, but in the first century it was just as common to call the festival by it's Greek name - Pentecost. And the fact that today we are talking about a Christian moment that happened during a Jewish festival that was called by a Greek name tells you a little something about how overcrowded and chaotic the city of Jerusalem was on that day. Pentecost was one of three "pilgrimage feasts" in the Jewish faith, and of the three it was the most popular with tourists. It had been over 600 years since the Jewish people had first been taken into exile by the Assyrians to be scattered across the Mediterranean world. 600 years is quite a bit of time to make yourself at home, and so by the first century, there were thriving Jewish communities all over the place, from modern-day Iran, to Rome, to Northern Africa. In fact, in the first century, the Egyptian city of Alexandria and the Turkish city of Antioch probably both had larger daily Jewish populations than the city of Jerusalem. But on Pentecost, all the far-flung expressions of Judaism converged on Jerusalem. And, as you can imagine, bringing all these different kinds of Judaism didn't make for simple, blissful harmony. There was the language barrier, of course - the fact that each of these gathered folk were accustomed to worshipping God in Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Persian and any number of dialects of the various languages. There were cultural barriers, too. In Alexandria, the teachers in the synagogues could talk about Plato, and Socrates, and Aristotle just as easily as they could Esther and Moses and King David, while the shepherds in Bethlehem might have stopped their biblical education in childhood. The differences between the various cultures were so profound that even in Jerusalem, the home of the one Temple of the one true God, we know that some worshippers were just as likely to attend a separate synagogue - there were synagogues for the Greek speakers, and synagogues for the native Judeans. Strange, isn't it, to think of all these people worshipping one God but finding themselves unable to worship together... Can you imagine what that must have been like?
I suspect you can. I suspect that you suspect it has always been thus. And you might even suspect that God bears some responsibility for this mess we continually find ourselves in, this mess of misunderstanding that seems to crop up even when we come together with the best of intentions. Certainly, our own scriptures suggest God has something to do with it - in fact, God planted the seeds of this right at the beginning in book of Genesis. The Hebrew people told a story, all the people spoke one language and lived together in one city.
All people on the earth had one language and the same words. When they traveled east, they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them hard.” They used bricks for stones and asphalt for mortar. They said, “Come, let’s build for ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and let’s make a name for ourselves so that we won’t be dispersed over all the earth.”
Then the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the humans built. And the Lord said, “There is now one people and they all have one language. This is what they have begun to do, and now all that they plan to do will be possible for them. Come, let’s go down and mix up their language there so they won’t understand each other’s language.” - Genesis 11:1-7
It's a startling story, in part because of what it seems to say about God, and what God thinks of us: 'All that they plan to do will be possible for them.' It seems to me that God is pretty optimistic about our power, but pretty pessimistic about our plans - in other words, God seems pretty confident that we can get what we want, but doubts that we will want the right things. It seems we need saving, in part, from our own power. And so what began at the city and tower called Babel becomes a pattern of God's interaction with humanity. There was once an Israelite general named Gideon, when he called the people to arms he mustered an army of 32,000 - but God made Gideon whittle that group down to 300. When the people of Israel demanded a king, God tried to warned them that no person should ever wield that much power among the people - when they insisted anyway, God gave in to what they wanted. Then, there is the story of how the greatest king - King David - decided one day to take an inventory of his army. His own military advisers warned him against this, in 2 Samuel 24:3 they said "Why don't you just trust that God will send you enough, why do you need to know how many men you have." Then, there were all manner of practices and habits meant to make sure that the Jewish people did not abuse their power. One of the most distinctive practices of the ancient Hebrews was their sabbath keeping. One day out of every seven, they were expected to rest from building and cooking, and any kind of work. And one year out of every seven, they were supposed to rest for the entire year - they were supposed to let their fields lie fallow for the entire year. And after 7 sets of 7 years, they were supposed to have an extra special kind of rest - in the fiftieth year all kinds of rest broke loose. In a jubilee year anyone who had gained power over their neighbor was supposed to let go of that power. If your neighbor had fallen on hard times and been forced to sell you the family farm, in the jubilee year, you were supposed to give it back. If the neighbor had fallen on even harder times and had sold himself or his family into indentured servitude or slavery, in the jubilee year you had to let them go free. The basic rhythms of Hebrew time were about creating periods of rest, times when the people had to trust in the power of God rather than themselves. This wasn't simply for the purpose of giving us a break, it was a way to make sure that we in our power could limit that power and our tendency to abuse the land, and each other. It kept the powerful from consolidating too much power at the expense of the powerless. And few things can diversify but also limit human power as much as our languages. Just ask the Indian immigrant who holds a ph.D from his homeland, but drives a cab in America because of the language barrier. Ask the soldier in Afghanistan about the value of a translator you can trust. Ask Pastor Krys, pastor of our sister church in Poland, whose most effective evangelism was accomplished by offering English classes to all manner of people who wanted to gain just a little bit more leverage in the world. Language creates great variety and beauty in humanity, but it also places real limits on human power. From the tower of Babel until Jesus, it seems that all these limits, all these pauses, all these divisions are there precisely to save us from our selves. God gladly gives a taste of power faithful, but God tends that power very carefully, making sure that no one gets overserved.
But then, boom! Pentecost! "In the last days, "I will pour out my Spirit on all people" God throws the taps wide open and all the disciples take in more than their share. The power of God goes down like a fire and loosens up their tongues. The disciples are so soaked in the power of God that you might even say they were pickled in it. And what comes of all this grace, what happens with all this this power poured out for the people of God in the midst of their prayer? Suddenly Parthians, and Medes, Elamites, Greeks, and Turks and Arabs and Romans are brought together. The same God who deconstructed our collective power is now drawing the world into a new collective, a new allegiance that supercedes the claims and divisions of age, and nation, and ethnicity. At Pentecost, God sent the Holy Spirit to that a bunch of folk could become a people. And that people is called Church.
And it is in the church that God has promised to offer power without limit, through the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the presence of God, giving us power. In Genesis two, we are told that the human body was just so much dust and material until God came and blew God's own Spirit down our throats. Likewise, Paul would later describe the church as a body, in which each of us is a different cell or limb, or organ - and the Spirit that holds us together and gives us life.
From the very beginning, we have insisted that the Holy Spirit is a gift given to the whole body of the church, and the Spirit is given through the church. We are not meant to live this faith alone, but we discover God’s power through our life together. I think of one of our youth volunteers who came to me after giving the lesson at our Wednesday Summit; she told me how rough a day it had been and how she had come to church without much left in the tank: “But God showed up,” she said, “and I felt God’s presence carrying me through the whole message.”
I think of myself, last week, praying before I went to bed. As I was examining my day, I realized a pattern of frustration and powerlessness in one area my life that I’d been recognizing for some time. At the end of my prayers I prayed, “Ok, God you’ve shown me this, what do you want me to do about it?” And i felt this overwhelming conviction - pray about it Dave. Dave is one of my good friends in ministry, and we used to meet on Skype every week to pray together. But it’d probably been two months since I talked to Dave when I had that thought on a Tuesday evening. On Wednesday morning, out of the blue, Dave called me up to ask - “When could we pray together?”
The Holy Spirit didn’t just come to change each person, he came to make a people, to rescue us from going it alone, and when we fail that call from God we fail the true power of the Spirit. When the church is the people it was made to be, it can change the people all around it. This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, the greatest single work of theology America has ever produced, in part because it is the single greatest explanation of what the church should be, and of the power it has too often refused. King wrote of his experience.
I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.
There was a time when the church was very powerful... Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven..." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated."
Our world is as cacophonous and chaotic as Jerusalem on that first Pentecost, but I fear that the church has become astronomically intimidated by the variety of our pluralistic age. When I hear church folk talk, its seems lots of us are talking as if God has stopped pouring out the Holy Spirit, as if we are a people without power. Or maybe, we've just forgotten what God's power does. Maybe we think that God should have reversed the curse of Babel by making us all speak the same language, maybe we wish the church was a place where everyone spoke the same way. But that was not the miracle of Pentecost. The power God gave was not that it united all the languages, the power of Pentecost was that it made every language a means to praise God. What was it the people said? "We hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!" We hear them. And we hear the praise of God in them.
About two and half years ago, Jennifer and I were in Israel on a tour of the various sites of Jesus' ministry. One day, the schedule called for us to visit the shore of the sea of Galilee at the site where traditions says Jesus appeared to his disciples after the resurrection. Jennifer and I brought the little song books we had been given for our group's devotions at each site, and as we walked to the spot we flipped through in hopes that we might get to sing one of our favorite hymns - "Lord, you have come to the lakeshore." The hymn was originally written in Spanish, but the English translation is so very singable and the words were perfect for the occasion. It turns out the song wasn't in the book, but we were so caught up in trying to find it, and trying not to lose our group, that we didn't pay much attention to the other groups around us, except to be ever so slightly miffed at a group of Russian Orthodox pilgrims who beat us to the chapel that was built there by the lake. A little plaque outside said that this chapel was Pope John Paul II's favorite place to worship in Israel. We however, stood outside, walking the gravel beach, trying to imagine how far out the disciples boat might have been when they saw Jesus, how far Peter must have swum when he saw his Lord. As we walked between the chapel and the sea, we began to hear the low hum of the Orthodox group singing, their voices filling the chapel and passing through the stone. And soon we found ourselves singing along with the tune we'd been waiting to hear
You need my hands, full of caring, through my labors to give others rest, and constant love that keeps on loving.
O Lord, with your eyes you have searched me, kindly smiling, have spoken my name. Now my boat's left on the shoreline behind me; by your side I will seek other seas.
It set us Alabama Methodists to grinning like fools, smiling like someone slipped had a little something extra in our breakfast that morning. A Spanish hymn, sung in russian, by an Orthodox congregation in a Catholic chapel, and everything about it declaring that Jesus is Lord. I tell you, it's a giddy, a powerful thing that happens when God takes folk and makes them into church.