All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.
People occasionally ask me where I get my ideas for sermons. I like to think that the reason they don’t ask that more often is because it’s so obvious that I get my inspiration from the scripture of the day J. Sometimes, scripture gets a little help. Like I often get my inspiration from church signs. For the past week or two, the sign at the church on 39th between Division and Hawthorne has said: “Faith can’t be taught, it must be caught.” Don’t you love it? Welcome to the season of Pentecost. Our readings over the coming months are going to be all about what happens when people catch faith.
People who are new to the church will often ask me: What is Pentecost? I never heard of Pentecost. Why is it such a big deal? Why do we wear red? Pentecost is an important feast day because of what it means to the church. And it is a rich feast because of the amazing images conjured up by our readings.
It’s a wonderful occasion for churches to add special touches to the service, like today’s wonderful music, the gospel reading in many languages, the sounds of bones and rushing wind….I recently heard about the gospel proclaimed from a flaming bible. A bible, double-A batteries, some lighter fluid…that’s all I know. Here we have to content ourselves with the tongues of fire we heard about in the reading from Acts. Those tongues of fire that are the visible expression of the Holy Spirit, and the reason we wear red—flame colors—on Pentecost.
Pentecost means “fiftieth day,” and comes from the Greek word pente, or five. It was a Jewish Festival, also called the Feast of Weeks. The fiftieth day came after the completion of seven weeks after Passover. On that day, the first fruits of the spring harvest were offered to God, celebrating the tradition that the Ten Commandments were handed to Moses on Mt. Sinai 50 days after the first Passover. The commandments taught the Jewish people what it meant to be a people, a particular people called to follow a particular God.
The first Pentecost after the Resurrection also involves God’s revelation of what it means to be a particular people, called to follow a particular God.
There are two seemingly distinct aspects of Pentecost. The first is “the birthday of the church.” (I have been to church services where they sing “Happy Birthday, dear church” at Pentecost.) The second is “the descent of the Holy Spirit,” with its gifts that infuse us and give us power we didn’t know we had. The Holy Spirit is the glue that holds relationships—including whole communities—together. This glue is invisible, intangible, mysterious, and transformative.
The Holy Spirit is all around us this morning. In Ezekiel, the Spirit infuses dry bones with life. These bones are the whole house of Israel, God says to the prophet. The whole people of God. O my people, I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.
God’s people from throughout the middle east would have gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks, speaking all languages but united by their common faith in the God of Abraham, the God of the Exodus, the God of the wilderness and the God of the Jerusalem temple. It is into that gathering that the Spirit comes in a rush of wind and in tongues of fire. These tongues are not the tongues of strange speech that are the basis for the Christian tradition of speaking in tongues, or glossalalia. These tongues are not for strange speech but for speech that even foreigners can understand.
In Pentecost, God is once again turning the world upside down, confounding expectations and uniting unlikely companions through the miracle of the outpouring of Spirit into a common language.
Through all of scripture, the Spirit is associated with power. Take a look at the Book of Acts sometime, and see how often “power” occurs in the same context as “the Spirit.” This is not “power” in general, but quite specifically the power of new life in Christ. Look at the disciples before and after Pentecost. Before Pentecost, they were a pretty motley crew, bumbling around asking dumb questions like “when do we get to eat?” and “which one of us gets to be the greatest?” Sure, Peter gets some new eloquence after the Resurrection, but it is only after Pentecost that he and the other apostles go around preaching and healing, proclaiming God’s Kingdom.
Pentecost is how we live on the other side of the Resurrection, filled with the power of the Spirit. So what does this all mean? What does it mean about how we live, you and I, and all of us together?
It means that we are not just Easter People but Pentecost people when, like the first Christians we find common language to tell of God’s mighty works in our lives. What’s your story? How do you see the power of God in your life or in the world around you? I see it in the generosity with which so many of you have responded to the Covenant of Hope. I see it in the spirit of creativity and collaboration going on this week during the Village Building Convergence. I hear the power of God in our music and also in the music of children (and adults) just learning a new instrument.
Pentecost is always a baptismal feast—that’s why we sing “Wade in the Water” even when we’re not actually baptizing anyone. (Of course, if you want to be baptized, come talk to me after the service J) Our baptismal promises commit us to Pentecostal living: living lives infused with the spirit of God that connects us to all creation, to one another, to our enemies, and to people we’ve never met.
Take a look at the photo on the back cover of your bulletins. This remarkable work of art by Piotr Uklanski is titled “Pentecost.” I don’t know if you can tell from the photo, but it is an installation of plates. Plates that you and I would eat off, along with a few cups and saucers. I love it, because it represents a transformation of simple, every day plates—maybe some of them chipped or cracked—together making something beautiful, something much bigger than one plate. This is how I like to think of our common life, as an offering to God of the work of our spirits.
Faith cannot be taught, it must be caught. I pray that your faith may catch fire with the Power of the Spirit, and that it may be so contagious that others will catch it, too, and that together we will proclaim the reign of God in our midst.