Acts 2:1-21/Romans 8:22-27
Ahh, the story of Pentecost, the in-breaking of the Holy Spirit, the birthing of a whole new way of looking at the world, looking at ourselves, looking at one another. This story is revisited every year, seven weeks, or 50 days, after the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus. Pente means fifty. For those first disciples, fifty days have passed since the resurrection. Ten days have passed since Jesus was taken up into heaven. Now the gift Jesus promised them is poured out in a way that they never would have expected. I wonder what they did expect, when Jesus told them to wait in Jerusalem for the baptism of the Holy Spirit which John the Baptist had spoken of. Would they have thought about water, which was used in all the baptisms they had ever seen? Would they have thought about some other form of God’s presence in their midst—a miraculous power to perform healings, or the power to preach, or the courage to speak the story of Jesus? Whatever they were imagining, we can assume that they were not expecting the sound of a mighty wind together with flames of fire that did not burn and sudden linguistic abilities. I am not sure that the twelve knew it at the time, but they were Jews on the cusp of forming a fellowship of Christians. I am not sure that they knew it at the time, but they were disciples (people who are learners or followers) being transformed into apostles (people who are sent out with a message) as the Spirit empowered them in new and amazing ways.
Pentecost is Craig Sparks’ favorite day in the Christian year. If you have been with us on Pentecost Sunday for the last several years, you have joined me in being awed at the beautiful liturgical art which Craig has used to share his enthusiasm for this day of rushing wind, flames of fire and bursting forth of languages. If you are at home today you have been seeing photographs of our recent Pentecost celebrations, including the red silks cascading from the chandeliers! Perhaps you see them as the Spirit pouring into the disciples. Perhaps you see them as a symbol of the tongues of fire present above the disciples. Red is the color of Pentecost because it represents that fire of the Holy Spirit. We also use the red tongues of fire on either side of the cross in our denominational logo.
Then there was the year we splashed our sanctuary with large, colorful pieces of graffiti art with words like God and Spirit and love in multiple languages. Church members of all ages helped to create the graffiti art. I still have one of the smaller pieces in my office.
Last year we were not in the sanctuary together, so we shared images in our zoom worship of the bright red “tongues of fire” cascading down the face of a rock in a park and floating in the air and flowing down the hill in front of our church. We owe thanks to Craig for the creative visual representations of the living, moving, energizing Spirit of God.
This year we did not decorate the sanctuary with unique symbols to remind us of the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit. Instead, Craig challenged me to explore the way we have seen and heard the Spirit working through technology to enable us to connect and communicate. Truly we have been united in the Spirit through Zoom worship, telephone calls, special Advent and Lenten packages, letters, and cards. The Spirit of God needs no building. The Spirit of God is like the wind—nothing can really escape its power—you can not see it, but you can see the effects of it, whether a gently swaying tree on a warm sunny day or the empty garbage cans in your alley being tossed down two or three houses in the midst of a storm. This morning we had a chance to hear how the Spirit of God has blown through us to Donna in California and Bill in Illinois and Rene and his family in Pennsylvania. The Spirit of God blows where we find connection with one another, listen to and learn from one another, worship God together from wherever we are.
Students of the Bible, whether people in the pews or scholars in the seminaries, enjoy teasing out this powerful Pentecost miracle, debating whether it is primarily a miracle of speaking or a miracle of hearing. Clearly it is both. Perhaps that is because we need both hearing and speaking for clear communication. I am sure you know how hard it is to have a conversation with someone who does not hear well. It can get frustrating for both people involved. At our house, we have learned that the clearest communication happens when we are both in the same room and facing each other without competing noise. When we don’t have those conditions, we inevitably trade some “what?”s “I can’t hear you!”s or “wait a minute”s.
On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit made communication possible. It wasn’t the disciples. It wasn’t the Jewish visitors to Jerusalem for the Pentecost festivities. Without the Holy Spirit, this kind of communication does not happen. Speaking and hearing were at play for people from different language groups and different cultures. It is a miracle of communication! The barriers that exist when we can’t fully understand another keep us from truly communicating and block us from understanding one another. The Holy Spirit is at work here because God has a message to get out. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection can be celebrated in the Aramaic speaking community, but the good news would stay right there if the language barrier had not been broken. Suddenly speakers of other languages could hear God’s story in their own tongue. It makes a huge difference even if they did know Aramaic as a second or third or fourth language. I am quite sure that many of you have experienced this— whether you were traveling in another country, or shopping in an ethnic market down the street, or just living in the United States. Whenever you are in a place where you mostly hear a language other than your own, when someone speaks to you in your native language, you feel suddenly connected, immediately on the road to better understanding one another.
The Holy Spirit pushed the message out in a unique and surprising way on that first Pentecost. You could say that the Holy Spirit has been pushing the message out in unique and surprising ways over the last 14 months. I don’t know about you, but I never would have dreamed that our small congregation would become a live-streaming video congregation able to touch lives basically anywhere there is internet and an electronic device of some sort. I don’t know about you, but I never would have believed I could communicate so clearly with our brothers and sisters in Cuba using a platform that we share for chatting, videos, music, devotionals and prayers.
Our pastoral care team has never been so connected to our church family as they have become during the pandemic, staying in touch with families and individuals near and far, checking in, connecting across the miles. Our youth have risen to the challenge of learning new skills as our worship tech team has developed, learning as we go, creating a positive and uplifting live and livestreamed worship experience. Our children have gotten into a rhythm of meeting 2 Saturdays each month for quality Christian education experiences (outdoors and on zoom) together with our brothers and sisters from the Baltimore Falam Baptist Church. I have loved watching the teaching skills blossom on the part of our enthusiastic and gifted teachers. Last week the children learned a song from Cameroon, singing it first in English and then in pidgin English! They heard that the word for Spirit sounds different in Falam (Thiang thiarau) than in Spanish (espiritu santo) or Greek (pneuma).
The Holy Spirit never stops pushing out God’s message, the message of salvation through Jesus Christ, the message of love and grace, the message of freedom. Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, describing the Spirit as the power of restored communication between creatures and creator. He uses the image of a woman groaning in labor, going through pain and trauma because she knows something wonderful is coming. These are the human and non-human groans (audible and silent) which go with the yearning to be freed from the shackles of sin and death, the yearning for re-connection with God. Our sin and our human propensity for turning away from God effectively cut off communication between us and God. Paul sees the Holy Spirit as opening the door for us to communicate once again freely and openly. He says we are groaning inwardly, anxious to be adopted by God, anxious for salvation. The Spirit has come as the door to newness of life. He sees the Spirit as one who helps us in our weakness. One who intercedes for us when we just have run out of words to speak to God in prayer. This communication becomes for us a sign of what is to come, the final resting place in heaven with Jesus Christ.
As you reflect on this amazing Pentecost miracle of communication, both in the first century and in the 21st century, remember that it is the Spirit who makes this essential, life-giving communication between humans and God possible. Depending on how well you are hearing or how much your mouth is moving, there might be one of these ways of describing the Holy Spirit that resonates more deeply at this time. Listen: the Holy Spirit is our…Counselor…Advocate…Breath of God…Wind of heaven…Flame of love…Giver of all gifts…Lord of life…Renewer…Guide…Comforter Divine. Come, Holy Spirit, come.