Our youngest child, Grace, just celebrated her 21st birthday. Where did those years go? I remember when she was little and when she would eat something she liked a lot, she would throw open her arms and exclaim, “mmmm…peace be with you!” That’s what happens when both your parents are priests, I guess.
As we celebrate Pentecost today, the lectionary gives us two different accounts of the coming of the Holy Spirit – because one account would not do it justice. In John’s Gospel, Jesus enters the upper room on Easter night and says, “Peace be with you. Receive the Holy Spirit.” I can imagine him saying “peace be with you” with the same enthusiasm Gracie did. What I am giving you now is something great! It is the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the power to change your life and you have that power now.
I’m going to spend the rest of this sermon on the way St. Luke describes the coming of the Holy Spirit in the Acts of the Apostles because the special effects are just too good to pass up. The violent wind from heaven. The tongues of fire. Speaking in other languages. Let’s look at each of those special effects. But before we do, let’s remember what is most important is not the special effects, but what that wind and fire and intense language immersion brought about to those that experienced it. I can’t say it any better than Episcopal preacher Barbara Brown Taylor- recently on the cover of TIME magazine- so I won’t try. Here are Taylor’s words:
“Before the day was over, the church had grown from 120 to more than 3000. Shy people had become bold, scared people became gutsy, and lost people had found a sure sense of direction. Disciples who had not believed themselves capable of tying their own sandals without Jesus discovered abilities within themselves that they never knew they had. When they 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 short order they were doing things they had never seen anyone but him do, and there was no explanation for it, except that they had dared to inhale on the day of Pentecost. They had sucked in God’s own breath and they had been transformed by it.”
Back to the special effects. First comes the “violent wind.” In other passages of scripture we hear that God speaks in strong winds. Only at Pentecost is it described as violent. But there is another passage in the Bible that contradicts this. It is in the First Book of Kings and we hear that the prophet Elijah is told to wait outside his cave for the word of God. He stands there and suddenly a “terrible wind” arrives. But God is not in the wind. Then there was an earthquake. But God was not in the earthquake. Then there was fire. But God was not in the fire. And then there was silence. All was still. And God was in the silence.
Ok, so what is it? Is God in the wind or in the silence? The answer is not either/or. Because God’s Spirit is wild and free, we know the answer is both/and. God is in the violent wind and the silence. And here is why that is important for you and me – God is going to be in everything between the violent wind and the silence, including our noisy and messy lives. So don’t be afraid.
Next special effect – fire. But it wasn’t really fire. It was “divided tongues, as of fire.” Now we have created a whole church culture around this “as of fire” and the associated color of red. Red doors, red vestments. So it must be important. Let’s get to its importance by way of a story about Phillips Brooks, like Barbara Brown Taylor, another great Episcopal preacher. Brooks was the bishop of Massachusetts in the 1890’s when the diocese was the entire Commonwealth. I don’t know if he ever made it here to Pittsfield. He was only bishop for two years before his death and many blamed it on the extensive travel he did. When the next bishop only lived two years, that is when they decided to divide the one diocese into two. I appreciate that decision.
Before becoming bishop, Brooks was a priest in Boston. One time a Harvard professor, troubled by some recent events in his life, was in the congregation. Hearing Brooks preach, he decided to go and see him and get some advice for his troubles. He made an appointment and, after a one-hour meeting with Brooks, he came out a changed man. But he later wrote that he realized in that hour he had forgotten to tell Brooks about the specifics of his “issues” and what he should do about them. The Harvard professor wrote: “I did not care. I had found out what I needed was not the solution of a specific problem, but the contagion of a triumphant spirit on fire.”
“The contagion of a triumphant spirit on fire.” St. Theresa of Avila said the same thing four hundred years earlier: “If you become what you should be, the world will be set afire.” Those who designed the red doors and the red vestments knew what they were doing – giving us reminders of what we are called to be in Christ.
Last special effect. “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages.” And yet, when they did that they were accused of being drunk at 9 am. Why would anyone call a person drunk for speaking another language? I call people who speak more than one language “smart.” Why this accusation of being filled with new wine?
The best explanation my study has revealed is this. The disciples were taking the language of the Temple and bringing it out into the streets where people could hear it in their own context. Think of it this way. We are so comfortable here in this beautiful church saying “The Lord be with you.” What would happen if you said that outside of this building, in the streets of Pittsfield. “The Lord be with you.” The response probably would not be “and also with you” but rather “are you drunk?”
And yet that is exactly what we are called to do. Bring Jesus’ mission of mercy and compassion and hope to the streets where we live and in a language people can understand.
Betsy and I went to London last year to visit the aforementioned Gracie as she studied abroad. Whenever we were in the subway (the “tube”) and the train would stop at the platform and the doors would open, a voice from the loudspeaker would remind us to “mind the gap.”
Perhaps we could use that language of London in union with the intensely religious language of our church services and give this prophetic language to our society. Mind the gap between the kingdom of peace that Jesus wants and the gun violence that is running rampant in our country. Maybe we could remind us all to mind the gap between the creation God wants us to live in and the climate changed creation our children and grandchildren will inherit if we don’t do something about it. Maybe we could mind the increasingly huge gap between the wealthy and everyone else in our society. The list goes on. But the Spirit given at Pentecost compels us to speak Jesus’ vision of a world of mercy and compassion and hope to every corner of this earth – the place where the kingdom of heaven is coming.
On Pentecost the disciples breathed in the breath of God. Let’s end this sermon with an experiment. I’m going to invite everyone in this congregation to breathe in and, if you dare, say in your mind “Come Holy Spirit.” Are you ready? On the count of three. One, two, three. Breathe in…now exhale.
Do you know the word “conspire” means to “breathe together?” That means you are now part of a conspiracy. God’s conspiracy to “fill the hearts of the faithful, enkindle in them a fire of your love, and renew the face of the earth.” It’s a big plan but we have a big God. Amen.