Reverend Dr. E. Bevan Stanley
Rector, St. Michael's Parish, Litchfield
The Day of Pentecost
June 4, 2017
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Happy birthday to us! This feast of Pentecost is often regarded as the birthday of the Church, for it is on this day the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples and they proclaimed the Good news of Jesus Christ. Of course it is not that simple.
First, though, let’s go back to the first reading from Numbers. We hear the story of Eldad and Medad. It’s not one of the best known stories. Moses was overwhelmed with managing the whole group of thousands of Israelites. So God told him to select seventy honored men and bring them to the Tent of Meeting. There God took some of the Holy Spirit that had been given to Moses and spread it around the other men. Then these men began to prophesy; they started to speak the words of God. Eldad and Medad were two who had been selected but did not go to the Tent of Meeting. We are not told why. But they got their share of the Spirit anyway. When they started prophesying as well, they were reported. Moses’ assistant, Joshua, thought this prophesying when they hadn’t bothered to come to the meeting was out of line and wanted to suppress the two who had not followed protocol. But Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD's people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!” Moses is not interested in defending his turf; he’s interested in empowering people for ministry. And Eldad and Medad go down as the first recorded people who had a genuine spiritual experience but didn’t go to church.
The Gospel of John says that at least some of the 12 apostles, received the Holy Spirit on the evening of the day of the Resurrection. We don’t know how many. We know that Thomas was missing and Judas Iscariot was dead, but the text does not say if there were ten or fewer then. But on whomever was present, Jesus breathed and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Then fifty days later on the Jewish feast of the first fruits, called Pentecost, Luke tells us that all the disciples were in one place. It is not clear whether he means the Eleven or whether he means a larger group.
What is the word of God to us today? First, the primary purpose of being given the Holy Spirit is to proclaim the message of God. And that message is that God loves us and expects us to love each other. And by loving each other and God, God’s kingdom or commonwealth can be established on earth. The trouble is that this message is so radical in its implications that it threatens the established forms and institutions of power. It is seen as a threat and those in power react with violence. They kill Jesus, and later they kill Jesus’ followers beginning with Stephen and continuing to this day. So if we are going to be serious about proclaiming the transforming love of God, we need some courage. If we are to proclaim the divine message, we need divine power. And we have it. We are given the Holy Spirit when we are baptized, and we are recharged with the Holy Spirit when we are confirmed. Many of us have experienced other moments of divine refueling.
And how is this Holy Spirit described? In John’s Gospel, The Spirit is the breath of Jesus.
This makes it clear that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus, the same Spirit with which the Messiah was anointed. The Spirit is the manner in which the Father will be present in us just as he was in Jesus. Then we are sent just as Jesus was sent. One important grammatical point is that when Jesus speaks to his disciples it is always in the second person plural; that is, the “Yous” are plural. When he says, “Receive the Spirit”, he means all of us together. So also the seventy elders that Moses selected were asked to come together to receive the Spirit. And on the Day of Pentecost, we are told that the Holy Spirit came when the disciples were all together.
Our task is the same as Jesus task: to reconcile the world to God, to bring unity, to forgive sins. We receive the breath of Jesus. It is terribly intimate and gentle. “Peace be with you,” he says twice. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. My spirit will be in you. This breath that makes me alive will make you alive. This warm moist air from my own chest will give life to your flesh as well.
The description by Luke in the Book of Acts is quite different. “Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” Wind. Not just a gentle, refreshing breeze. Wind, like a gale or hurricane. Wind strong enough to tear down trees, wind that causes disruption, wind that cannot be contained or governed. Wind the blows where it wills. Wind that is beyond our comprehension. This is the image of power, divine power. This is the wind that blew over the face of the deep and extracted form and limits and order out of chaos. This is the Spirit that made the great Leviathan for the sport of it. The Holy Spirit is not manageable, if one has control issues, one will find the Holy Spirit just as uncomfortable as Jacob discovered God to be when he wrestled with the angel all night and came away limping ever after. Not only are we given the deepest, gentlest, tenderest whispers of Jesus’ love and compassion. We are also given the power that blows across the galaxies and forms those storms of nuclear energy we call suns. We are to wield that power and live in that power. This wind of the Spirit comes when the disciples are together in one place.
The third image of the Holy Spirit is by far the most peculiar. “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” Tongues. The text is very odd. It does not say tongues of flame. That would make sense. Flames are often described as being like tongues, licking at the log of wood. This is the reverse: tongues as if of fire. The Spirit comes and gives us tongues, tongues that appear as if made of fire. Clearly, in the passage from Acts, the image conveys the supernatural ability to communicate in such a way that the hearers can understand. On Pentecost God reverses the judgment of the Tower of Babel. This Spirit we are given makes us communicators. We re sent to tell others about our experience of God in Jesus Christ.
But notice that the miracle was not that all the foreign visitors to Jerusalem suddenly understood the Aramaic that that disciples were speaking. They did not invite these people into their room and then say, “OK, you now all have to learn Galilean Aramaic, and then we will tell you the Gospel.” No. The disciples are the ones who had to change their language. When we have the Spirit, we are expected to be able to speak our truth in new words, in new images, in new ways to people who cannot understand the words we have used among ourselves up to this point. Today the Church must learn to speak to a new, postmodern world in new ways.
More than that, these tongues are like fire. Our words should be like fire, the message inflammatory. It reminds us of John’s remark about Jesus, “I baptize with water, but the one who is coming after me will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Lk 3:16; Mt 3:11) Jesus himself says later on, “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!” (Lk 12:49) Well here it is. Fire in our message, fire in our Gospel, fire in our tongues.
We are sent into the world by Jesus just as Jesus was sent by the Father. We are sent with same mission: to reconcile the world to God, to break down barriers and to build relationships. We do it with same resources, the grace of God and the Holy Spirit. When we build relationships with this Spirit then we build them with the intimacy and gentleness of human breathing. We build them with all the power that called the Creation into being and brought order and beauty out of chaos. We build these relationships by speaking so we can be understood, meeting people where they are. We save the world by igniting people’s hearts with the fire of divine love. We often think of love as a warm feeling. Not God’s love. God’s love is a flaming passion. That is the love we need to save the world from its cold.
We are God’s incendiary devices. We are sent to bring fire to the earth. We are sent to enflame people with love for God and each other. Let’s go start some fires. Amen
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