Genesis 11:1-9 Psalms 104:25-32 Acts 2:1-11 John 7:37-39a
Gary was having a yard sale. A minister bought a lawn mower but returned it a few days later, complaining that it wouldn’t run. Gary said, “It’ll run, but you have to curse at it to get it started.” The minister was shocked. “I have not uttered a curse word in 30 years.” “I understand what you mean, but just keep pulling on the starter rope – the words will come back to you.”
Events also come back to us. Because Pentecost is when the church celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit, we are tempted to read these verses from John’s Gospel too quickly. We know the subject. We hear it year after year. We know what to expect. We can easily say that the Holy Spirit is promised to the followers of Jesus. We can say that the wind that blows through and animates the church was given on this day in history. We can also say that it is promised to all members of the church. But that claim would simplify the readings. It would not allow for the superimposing picture of the Holy Spirit painted in Acts and in John’s Gospel. Here we see, feel, experience the unique aspect of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete.
In Greek, paraclete means helper or advocate. It was a term used about Jesus who intercedes with the Father on behalf of sinners. In John’s Gospel, the word is applied to the Holy Spirit as the Helper, the Spirit of truth who will be sent to dwell in the disciples and guide them in witnessing about Jesus and his teaching. The Paraclete is the Holy Spirit in a special, personal role. The Paraclete is the presence of Jesus when Jesus is absent.
Jesus said, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Paraclete will not come to you (John 16:7). We might readily disagree, that Jesus’ absence is no advantage at all. We know full well what strengthens the community of believers and enables them to speak the truth about what they experienced of Jesus, the Son of God. The testimony of the Spirit within the disciples and the community of faith empowers them to testify in word and deed to what they have witnessed in the life of Jesus from the very beginning.
Today’s reading moves us from grief to prophetic proclamation. Jesus does not fail to acknowledge the sorrow and pain that the disciples are experiencing. However, Jesus argues that his leaving has an upside. He is saying that isn’t all bad. His departure will give room for a greater engagement with the whole world.
If you think about how the church works, that the vestry members rotate off the vestry after three years. That is to allow someone else to step up and use their gifts for the glory of God in the community of faith. If the same person does the same job forever, that takes a blessing away from someone else who could also do that job. Jesus knows about empowering the disciples… and empowering us.
Pentecost is often considered the church’s birthday. Whether the church is over a hundred years old like Grace, or just formed, Pentecost is when the gift of the Holy Spirit is given to all. What a gift, what a party. That is why we celebrate with a church picnic most years. But before we get to celebrating we must acknowledge that fire is a major theme for today. The symbols for Pentecost are the tongues of fire, the breath of God and the dove descending as the Holy Spirit, which is why we wear the red.
The Holy Spirit came to the Apostles, as the story in Acts tells us, in wind and flames. It was fifty days after Passover, fifty days after Easter. The disciples were together “in one place.” “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like a rush of violent wind, and it filled the entire house. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability….And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.”
The third member of the Trinity arrives without warning. In the Gospel reading, Jesus “breathes” on the disciple and tells them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
When Jesus let go of his last breath – willingly, for the love of us – that breath seemed to hover in the air in front of him for a moment and then it was set loose on earth. It was a breath, so full of passion, so full of life, full of Jesus, full of love, that it didn’t simply dissipate as so many other breaths do. It grew in strength, it grew in volume, until it was a mighty wind, which God sent spinning through the upper room in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. God wanted to make sure that Jesus’ friends were the inheritors of Jesus’ breath, and it worked.
The miracle of Pentecost is this radical joining of people. This miracle isn’t so much about new revelation as it is about new relationships. Those Jews gathered from every nation are hearing about deeds and power in their own language, as if strangers from Galilee spoke each person’s mother tongue. It isn’t so much the message that they don’t understand, it is the meaning of this message being conveyed with every nuance of each one’s language from those they know don’t know them. The wind and flame, the words and speech patterns took everyone by surprise, disciples and gathered crowd alike. We don’t know each other like this. How is such immediate and full knowledge of language and all it entails possible?
The miracle of Pentecost is about intimate relationships. There is a knowing that occurs that opens the door of relationship – a Spirit-driven, Spirit-defined relationship that transcends the barriers of culture and nation and language, but does not erase their distinctiveness or importance. The Spirit celebrates the myriad of languages by speaking through them all – not forcing everyone to speak the native language of the apostles, but instead putting the language of others into their mouths and bodies.
There they were, about a hundred and twenty of them, all moping around and wondering what they were going to do without Jesus. Then they heard a holy hurricane headed their way. Before any of them could defend themselves, prepare or react, that mighty wind had blown through the entire house, striking sparks that burst into flames above their heads, and they were filled with it – every one of them was filled with God’s own breath. Then something clamped down on them and the air came out of them in languages they did not even know they knew.
That’s a miracle we need repeated in our time and place. When we pray, “Come Holy Spirit” or “Spirit of the living God fall afresh on me,” is that what we are asking? The coming of the Spirit will put other people’s words in our mouths and other people’s culture, too. Remember, before too long, Peter will be eating foods he swore he never would. This Spirit-driven, Spirit-defined joining will not stop with other Jews; Gentiles will be included, too. Are we open to speaking to whatever people the Spirit sends and to whom we will be sent?
It may be that the Spirit will place in us a culture, language or people we find most troubling, confusing or off-putting. The Spirit may well put their words and their culture and their customs in us so that we can speak of God’s deeds of power and Jesus Christ’s saving work in ways that will not be lost in translation. This means so much more than words, it means joining, joining until we don’t speak the words but love the language and even dream in it with the old and new alike.
Before the day was over, the church had grown from one hundred twenty to more than three thousand. When the disciples opened their mouths to speak, they sounded like Jesus. When they laid their hands on the sick, it was as if Jesus himself had touched them. In no time, they were doing things they had never seen anyone but Jesus do. There was no explanation for it, except that they had dared to inhale the breath of God on the day of Pentecost. They had taken in God’s own breath and they had been transformed by it. The Holy Spirit had entered into them the same way it had entered into Mary, the mother of Jesus, and for the same reason. It was time for God to be born again – not in one body this time but in a body of believers who would receive the breath of life from their Lord and pass it on, using their own bodies to distribute the gift.
The book of Acts is the story of their adventures, which is why it could be called the gospel of the Holy Spirit. In the first four books of the New Testament, we learn the good news of what God did through Jesus Christ. In the book of Acts, we learn the good news of what God did through the Holy Spirit, by performing artificial resuscitation on a room full of well-intentioned misfits and transforming them into a force that changed the history of the world.
Sometimes, I feel like I am stumbling through God’s fluent language of faith. I truly want to connect, but often I feel foolish, especially with those who speak a different language. I don’t think I speak people fluently. But there are moments, Spirit-driven, Spirit-infused moments, when I feel
The warmth and fluency of being human and being siblings with Jesus Christ. There are moments of understanding and connection that both defy and transcend words. That’s a Pentecost miracle too. When we pray, “Spirit of the living God fall afresh on me,” we are praying to have the courage to practice speaking a language that sometimes makes us look and feel foolish. But when that language is overwhelmed by the fire and wind of the Holy Spirit, it somehow gets translated into relationships. Then we know exactly what it means.
In our breath, we strive to breathe into God’s rhythm. It is God’s moment-by-moment gift to us. We can call it air or we can call it Holy Spirit. It counts on us to warm it up, to lend it our lives. In return, it promises to fill us with new wind, to set our heads on fire, giving us tongues to speak things we can’t begin to understand.
My first Sunday, here at Grace was on Pentecost in 2011. Do we still believe in a God who acts like this in our community of faith? Yes, a God who moves mountains and touches hearts and shapes lives. God, the great three-in-one, continues to pull us and push us into growing and knowing others’ languages. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, wants us to continue to work on racial equality and reconciliation. We think we have made progress, then we here of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, and know there is so much left to do. But, in hearing today’s lessons, we know we are not alone in this journey. The Holy Spirit is here to guide us, teach us, and lead us into all truth. Let us join the Gospel of the Holy Spirit and see what God has in store for us. “Spirit of the living God fall afresh on us,” Amen.