A colleague travelled to Chile with a group of Presbyterians to see some of the mission work our denomination supports. In places that had “despair” writ large on them, he was inspired to see the sparks of hope the church is igniting.
One day they split their group in half to witness the work of different projects. It wasn’t until they were separated and on their way that Tom realized the other group had all the people who could speak Spanish. His command of the language was comprised of gracias, adios, and taco.
They had a bit of trouble reaching their destination. They attempted to ask people on the street for directions, but the language barrier was monumental. At one point they were standing next to a busy market perplexed about what to do. All the while, there was speedy chatter going on all around them – a cacophony of incomprehensible words. But, then, they heard words that were music to their ears. A man said, “Y’all need directions?”
“Y’all?” It was the voice of an angel! Actually, it was a guy who had grown up in Santiago, but he had gone to the University of Tennessee. It was obvious that in learning English, he had learned the essentials.1
It is so frustrating when you cannot understand and you cannot be understood. But when someone breaks through the fog and there is understanding, there can be a connection and you can make some progress.
Today’s passage from the Acts of the Apostles describes something similar. You remember that all the first followers of Jesus were Jews and they continued to practice their Jewish traditions. One was a spring harvest festival called Pentecost because it was celebrated 50 days after Passover. Celebrating the spring harvest might strike us as a bit mundane, something on the order of celebrating National Agricultural Day. Just out of curiosity, how many of you celebrated National Agricultural Day this year, and if you raise your hand I’m going to ask you to tell us what day it was. Anyone? Before anyone googles it, I’ll just tell you that it was March 22nd. Sorry if you missed the big celebration.
In the first century, everyone knew the Day of Pentecost and thousands – perhaps tens of thousands – trekked to Jerusalem to celebrate it. Religious pilgrims traveled from lands we now call Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Greece, Egypt, and Libya. Then, as now, more Jews lived outside of Palestine, than inside. Every year multitudes made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for this holy celebration.
Today’s passage informs us that the followers of Jesus were gathered in a house at nine in the morning when God’s Spirit swept over them. As Luke, the author of Acts, tells it, the first Pentecost was an extremely thin place. He struggled with language to describe an event that defied language. He wrote that it was like a powerful wind; it was like a wildfire; it was as if all of the people were intoxicated.
It was a moment that defied description, other than to say it was a moment when God’s Spirit was palpable. It was a moment when those gathered felt a stirring in their soul that called them to the work God had been doing in Jesus – loving, forgiving, healing, struggling for justice and working for peace.
Everyone in that house could provide indisputable reasons for not engaging in this mission. They might get killed like Jesus did. They would have to give up their jobs and a steady income. They would have to leave their families for long stretches of time. However, the urging of God’s Spirit stiffened their resolve and empowered them to spread the message and mission of Jesus.
That’s what can happen when God’s Spirit blows into people’s lives. A force from beyond ourselves bolsters us. It pumps up our conviction and gives us the courage to reach out in compassion, to take bold stands against evil and injustice, and to do what God is calling us to do.
Pastor Jim Sommerville shares a story about his friend, Phillip, who is a Lutheran minister in Richmond, Virginia. The Lutherans were having a groundbreaking ceremony for an addition to their facilities and the minister decided to talk about it during the children’s sermon. When the children gathered on the chancel steps he unrolled the blueprints and said, “Boys and girls, this is a big day! We’re going to start building! There will be a lot of construction in the next few months. There are going to be a lot of changes!”
And with that, a six-year-old boy, said out loud, “I don’t like change!” And everybody laughed, because it didn’t sound like the kind of thing a six-year-old would say. It sounded like the kind of thing a grumpy old man would say. However, it wasn’t the young people in that church who pushed for the new addition. The minister said, “It was a bunch of eighty-year-olds.”2
When the disciples began to speak in other languages and bystanders accused them of being drunk, Peter leapt to his feet and said, “I know, it’s five o’clock somewhere, but we’ve not been drinking. This is what the prophet Joel was talking about when he said that God’s Spirit would be poured out and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and the young shall see visions and the old shall dream dreams.” When people are responsive to God’s Spirit, there are going to be some changes.
God’s Spirit motivated them to pick up the ministry Jesus had begun and carry it forward. And these previously timid followers became energetic and courageous leaders determined to spread God’s message of love, justice, and peace. They taught the importance of loving God and loving others. They told of the mandate of Jesus to liberate those who are oppressed. They shared God’s vision of a world in which swords – read assault weapons – are beaten into plowshares so that people can live together in harmony.
But spreading the message of Jesus and living as he lived was costly. The early Christians met fierce resistance and it cost some of them their lives. They refused to comply with the power structures of their day. In fact, they were accused of trying to turn their world upside down. If you go where God’s Spirit nudges you, there are going to be some changes.
Pentecost is such a critical day in the life of the church because it reminds us that just as God’s Spirit filled the first followers of Jesus with passion and purpose, God is eager to ignite willing souls today. Unfortunately, many Christians today resist God’s Spirit because it often thrusts them into areas of controversy. When you side with victims of injustice, when you speak out against racism, when you try to protect God’s creation, when you stand up for human rights, defenders of the status quo will make your life difficult.
When the church expresses its willingness to tackle thorny problems, not abstract issues but concrete evils that are destroying people’s lives, there are always voices screaming that the church is becoming too political. People will attempt to limit the influence of the church by declaring that people of faith have overstepped their bounds when we become involved in social issues. They say we are supposed to stick to spiritual issues and implicit in such thinking is the misguided notion that spiritual concerns are limited to prayer, reading the Bible, evangelism and acts of charity. However, if you really do read the Bible, you discover that God’s anger is ignited by injustice. And when Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God,” (Matthew 5:9) he was not referring to personal serenity.
God does not want us to be indifferent to suffering or spineless in the face of injustice. God seeks to inflame our hearts and to fire-up our souls creating in us a deep thirst for justice and a fervent passion for peace. One of the most stinging indictments that can be leveled against the church is not that we are too political, but rather that we are indifferent to the pain and problems of the world.
What need might you fill? On Friday evening, 11 of us from Westminster joined about 40 others for a silent march downtown. We did it as a protests against the racism and gun violence that are shredding our society. Our congregation and the Episcopal Church of Saints Andrew and Matthew will sponsor these walks the first Friday of each month. Perhaps you will feel the nudge of God to take part in the future. Or, you might encourage legislators to pass gun safety laws or mentor a child or visit someone who is lonely or give a generous contribution.
May God’s Spirit propel us to exude Christ-like love: love that heals through patient listening and acts of kindness, love that strives for peace in places of conflict, love that resists injustice and works for the common good, love that shines the light of hope in a world treading the dark valley of despair.
So, “Breathe on us, breath of God; fill us with life anew, that we may love what thou dost love and do what thou would do.”
May God fill us with the preposterous notion that we can make a difference in the world and that we can accomplish what others say is impossible.
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