Sermon preached for Pentecost Sunday at First Presbyterian Church, Henderson.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 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. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard the speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs–in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me. “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
The choir director at my home church in Salem is a big, enthusiastic, effusive guy. Pull out any anthem from the shelf or hymn from the hymnbook and he’ll flash you a huge smile and say, “that’s my FAVORITE one!” It doesn’t take long to figure out that they are all his favorites.
Well, in a similar spirit, Pentecost is my favorite (all the liturgical holidays are my favorite). I think I love Pentecost because it is our yearly chance to thaw out the Frozen Chosen. Pentecost is when we break out the bright colors, the fast hymns, the streamers and balloons, and maybe, if we’re very lucky, a cake to celebrate the birthday of the Church. Beyond any other day in the church, Pentecost has some—well, some razzmatazz to it. It’s a party! It’s loud and crazy and fun. Why wouldn’t it be my favorite?
And of course, there’s the story of Pentecost itself, in all its bizarre glory. The Book of Acts dumps us right into the story. There’s a brief prologue, with a reminder that Jesus has ascended up into heaven, and a bit of a nominating committee to fill Judas’ role amongst the twelve apostles, but it’s clear that the disciples are waiting for the Holy Spirit to come. And come it does! Just as Jesus went up to heaven, now God comes down from heaven again—this time not as an infant in a lowly manger but a fierce, dangerous wind—violent is how the NRSV translates it—the kind of wind that can flatten a hut and wreak chaos on crops. This wind comes swooping in the house, and you can almost hear jars crashing to the floor and the walls rattling all around. If you’ve ever stood near a helicopter when it takes off, that’s the kind of wind I’m imagining. And then, as if gale-force winds inside the house weren’t enough, God comes as fire, twelve flames to rest on the heads of the twelve disciples. Let’s take a second to let that settle in. There are flames on their heads. I think the true miracle is that nobody tried stop, drop, and roll.
At Pentecost, God comes as wind and fire. God comes loud and dangerous and disruptive. God comes with passion. And nobody—nobody—does passion like Peter. When the gathered crowds suggest that maybe the disciples are filled with wine rather than the Spirit, Peter responds with a rousing sermon, that begins with a prophecy from Joel and goes on to speak about Christ’s death and resurrection. Peter, whose passion in the gospels is more clumsy than profound, is suddenly able to make the kind of compelling testimony that brings the crowds to belief and baptism. As the story goes on, the Spirit will accompany all the disciples as they seek to fulfill Christ’s command to bring the good news to all people, with a passion born of fire and wind, a passion that carries them through trial and danger.
Pentecost is a noisy, bright, crowded story. It is fire and wind and people talking over each other and folks shoving each other to get a better view. And so when I think about the Spirit, I often reach for vibrant adjectives—burning, insistent, powerful, mischievous, dancing. And when I look for the Spirit in my life, I look for flash and show, for loudness and largeness, for the unmistakable presence of God. I look for razzmatazz.
And sometimes, that’s exactly what I get. I have felt the Spirit moving in a conference hall in Detroit, when two thousand Presbyterians gathered to seek God’s wisdom for the church. I’ve felt the Spirit moving in the chapel of my seminary, when young and old, men and women alike have lifted their voices to affirm their call to ministry. I’ve felt the Spirit in the pounding of hammers and the buzz of table saws when repairing homes in the Appalachians. I’ve felt the Spirit in the shrieks of delight, of joy and love and pride, at weddings and graduations and birthdays. I’ve felt the Spirit in thunder and lightning as a storm moves over the lake. And I have felt the Spirit in the passion of my own heart, in the certainty of God’s love for me, in the courage I find to face each new day.
This is the work of the Spirit, these loud moments that swell around us and lift us into God’s presence. Yet the Spirit is not a one-trick pony. The Spirit loves to be loud. But the Spirit also loves to whisper.
I was surprised by our gospel reading today. It seemed so slight, compared to the pyrotechnics of the reading from Acts. Instead of the bright, noisy, miraculous story of Pentecost, here we have a quiet meeting among friends. For a moment, we are thrown back into the season of Lent. It is Passover—the night of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest. It is evening; I imagine the house is dim. Jesus has washed the disciples feet and foretold his own death. He is talking with his disciples now, saying the last things, the things that need to be said. He comforts them in their anxiety.
Jesus makes a promise, a promise that even though he won’t be physically present anymore, they will never go it alone. He promises them an Advocate, a Spirit of truth, one who will be with them and for them and in them. “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you,” Jesus says, in one of the most beautiful lines of scripture. God comes again, not as a man but as a spirit, as the voice in the back of their head reminding them of everything that Jesus told them. God comes as the quiet whisper, reminding them—reminding us—that we are loved, that we are made to love others, that we have a purpose in life, that we are not alone.
When I was a child and had nightmares, my parents would let me climb in the bed with them. There was something so reassuring, so comforting, about the sound of their breathing on either side of me, soft and gentle. This Spirit Jesus promises is like the sound of breathing, no louder than that, reminding us that God surrounds us on every side.
As Jesus closes out his speech, he blesses the disciples: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
The Spirit as John knows her is a spirit of gentleness, of comfort, of peace. I have known that Spirit too, as the calm in the midst of the storm. I have known that Spirit when I turn to God in prayer and feel my worries slip away. I have known that Spirit in a quiet conversation with a friend. I have known that Spirit when I stand alone by the shoreline, watching the gulls fly over the waves. I have known that Spirit when I have felt God’s peace, deeply, strongly, and surprisingly—when I have felt at peace in the midst of conflict, or sorrow, or danger. This Spirit of peace comes like twilight after a long day. It is the peace of knowing that we have done all we can do, and that God will watch over the rest. It is the peace that passes all understanding.
In Acts, the disciples are able to speak many languages, and I think that’s because the Spirit can speak to us in so many different ways. Sometimes the Spirit comes with fire and passion, with loud music and shock waves, and sometimes the Spirit comes softly, so softly, as a whisper of a feeling or the voice of a friend.
Friends, you and I both are in a time of change. In just a few weeks I’ll be graduating from seminary and this summer I’ll be leaving my beloved home state of Virginia to take a call at a church several hours away. You all are navigating pulpit supply while seeking an interim and eventually a called pastor. I know this can be a tricky time at best. I know it means an extra burden on you all, especially those of you serving as session and on staff. And I know, even as there is excitement about the future, there can be anxiety too, not knowing what the church might look like in a year or two or five.
You all are up to the challenge. You are a faithful, loving, committed, warm, patient, congregation—and perhaps most important for right now, you are a workday congregation. You roll up your sleeves and get things done, whether it’s cooking for the Wednesday meal or maintaining the building or just showing up for worship. You are the most committed and capable congregation I have ever known, and that will take you far in the months and years ahead.
Yet beyond your own abilities is a greater strength that abides with you, and that is the strength of the Spirit, the Advocate who stays with us always. This same Spirit who comforted the disciples on the night of Jesus’ arrest and spoke through the disciples on the day of Pentecost is still living and active, here at First Presbyterian and throughout the world, calling you to face the future with a fierce passion and a sense of peace.
When I think about all the ways my life is about to change, with graduation and moving and starting a new job in a new city, it would be easy to be daunted. Yet I’m not. People keep asking me, only half-joking, if I’m scared yet. I’m not.
Because, like I said, Pentecost is my favorite.
Because I know the Spirit.
Because I trust that God is with me and for me and in me.
Because I am following the lead of the Spirit’s passion, and I am strengthened by the Spirit’s peace.
I pray the same will be true for each of you.
I pray that the Spirit will sing with the choir. I pray the Spirit will play with the children and work alongside the youth. I pray the Spirit will take her place at the Session meeting. I pray the Spirit will bring fried chicken to the potluck. I pray the Spirit will guide the Pastor Nominating Committee. I pray the Spirit will dwell in the boiler (I pray about the boiler a lot). And I pray that the Spirit will follow you home, out of these doors, until the whole world knows what it means to feel the Spirit of the Lord.
And most of all, I pray that when you are daunted or disheartened, the Spirit of peace will steady and hold you, and I pray that when the Spirit’s gale-force winds lift you off your feet, you will be brave enough to fly.