That Pentecost day, with the Spirit in the air, the disciples were suddenly
clear about their stories and their intention to share their stories with the world.
Maybe it was the rushing wind that had jolted them out of complacency.
Maybe it was the dancing tongues of fire that landed on each one that ignited them to action.
Maybe it was the hope that comes with having the Companion, the Advocate, nearby.
Whichever it was, the disciples found their authentic voices and soon after discovered they had a story to share with the world.
We have been in the Season of Easter over these past weeks, a time in which we are meant to live in and with the joy of Easter. And today, we celebrate the Pentecost, 50 days after Easter, when the disciples moved from struggling with their own grief and loss to finding their own voices, discovering within themselves the strength and hope to go out and share those stories with others. We all have stories to tell about how God has touched our lives; stories which we may be reluctant to share with others. We may remember times when we have felt too afraid, too anxious to tell others the truth about our own lives, and yet, when our voices break through, what a gift that can be. Let us pray, O Holy and Divine Spirit, breathe new life into us this day, wake us up, inspire us, and give us the courage to share the stories of our lives, the stories of our faith with new conviction and hope.
Since today is considered the birthday of the Christian church, I invite you to reflect upon what it has meant for you to be part of a community of faith in your life? What memories do you carry, what joys and scars from being connected to a church in your life? So many have given up on church and likely for many good reasons and yet, there is something about a community that draws us back, a place where we can actually tell the truth about our lives, talk about hard and inspiring things and be authentically who we are in front of God and one another. There is something about a community of faith that lifts us up when we have doubts or provides a place to ritualize the precious, sacred moments of our lives and to witness to those moments in others’ lives. It should be a place where we can feel safe to find our voices and to grow in healthy ways. And so we give thanks to those early followers of Jesus, who on that day of Pentecost so long ago, received the Spirit and began to spread the stories of Jesus near and far, inviting more and more people to follow his Ways.
Most of you perhaps know that the word Pentecost, which comes from the Greek word for “fiftieth”, is the fiftieth and last day of the Easter season. Pentecost has its roots in the ancient Jewish pilgrimage festival, the Festival of Weeks, or Shavuot (pronounced “sha-voo-OAT”), celebrated 50 days after Passover. For the ancient Israelites, this festival was an inclusive harvest celebration which brought together people from all over (see Deut 16:11; Lev 23:16), and over time, it also came to mark the time of the reception of the Torah at Mount Sinai. For Christians, Pentecost celebrates the reception of the Holy Spirit and the birth of what we would come to know as the church, the community of believers who would embrace the teachings of Jesus and support one another in trying to live these out in their lives.
For the Jewish people, the celebration of God’s giving the Law to Moses was very important, for they believed that God had chosen them and that their God yearned to be close to them. In the Law, they would hear God speaking to them; they would understand God’s intentions for them and would have the law to guide them. When they had the Law written out on placques, they would keep those stone placques in the tabernacle and carry them into battle with them. Later when the Temple was built, the Torah would be kept in the sanctuary. They believe that this is where the Holy of Holies, the Presence of God, could be found. When Moses received the Law, there was lighting and thunder and wind, the sign of the presence of the mighty God speaking to him. And today, in our passage from Acts, when the Spirit comes, there is once again lightning and a mighty wind. The people were waiting for the coming of the Spirit after the loss of their beloved; Jesus had promised that the Spirit would come not long after his departure and so they were waiting to experience again the deep peace and joy of Christ.
One of the ways in which they feel the power of the Spirit that day is in the gift they discover when many are empowered “to speak in other languages,” and at the same time, each person hears the testimony in his or her native language. We might think of a meeting at the United Nations, in which each person hears the proceedings (through a headset) translated into his or her native language. What begins to unfold on this special holiday is that a sense of togetherness and unity emerges; diverse as they are, everyone understands and can communicate. Accordingly, they’re dazzled and taken aback, asking, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:12).
As one commentator writes, As if to answer this question, Peter stands and speaks. “He cites the prophet Joel, adapting those ancient words to illuminate the present: the final and decisive chapter of history has arrived, the dawn of God’s joyous Jubilee that Jesus declared early in his ministry (see Luke 4:18-19; You may recall that Luke-Acts is one continuous story, written by the same author). Jesus both heralded and inaugurated this new era, and the Spirit will empower a community through whom the movement’s message of healing, liberation, and joy will go out to the ends of the earth. The church is born.” (SALT Project)
What does the Spirit mean in your own life? Can it be a sign that God’s Presence is with us when we too experience the deepest sense of peace and joy? In such a fragmented time, we might consider the common language that we share with all of our brothers and sisters. I think about times when communities come together to mourn the loss of someone held dear, when we gather to support a family in need, or gather for a Memorial. The common language of grief, of seeking consolation from that sorrow; the need for peace in a sorrowful time; we experience that together, don’t we? We mourn with our friends or family; we stand beside them despite any differences that may exist. We show up.
So too, when the birth of a new child arrives, the joy we share collectively is heartfelt. On our street, we have seen the arrival of twin girls some months ago and a baby boy a few weeks ago. Everyone wants to take a peek into the stroller and welcome this little one to the world. We all want to offer our warmest wishes to the parents and share, even a little bit, in their joy and hope. It matters little what our politics, religious or philosophical beliefs may be, we share a common joy in celebrating this new arrival into the world. We share in the joy of the parents.
We discover our common humanity through the language of love and the language of grief, through the language of suffering and the language of celebration. There are important moments when there truly are no words, but when we join together, when we show up for one another, the Presence of the Holy is there; the Spirit is there offering peace and joy.
The Spirit brings us together, serving as a bridge so we may understand one another and connect in important ways. The birthday of the church is a time when we might reflect on what “the church” is and has been in our lives and in the world. This week’s Scripture presents the church as a dynamic community of people following Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit to share the burden and the responsibility of carrying out God’s mission of healing, liberation, and joy for the sake of the world. This community that unfolds is diverse, inclusive, and egalitarian. The Jews Peter addresses are immigrants from all over the known world (“known” to Luke, that is!) who now live in Jerusalem, and, through the apostle Paul, the Jesus movement will soon include many Gentiles as well (Acts 10).
If the past year has taught us anything, it has certainly reminded us that the church most certainly is not a building, as much as we miss our beautiful Sanctuary. We as the community of believers are the church, part of something so much bigger than ourselves. We hope that at its heart, the church is a mission, God’s mission, loving and protecting our neighbors as we would love and protect ourselves – and the call to carry this message forward is ours, today, to pass along into the future. And as a community, we are invited to open our arms wide to speak the common language of humanity…of love, of peace, of joy, and of hope.
I certainly hope that each of us has been church to one another over this long and difficult year and that our connection to the Union Church community has challenged us, inspired us, and helped enrich our lives in so many ways. I hope too that if you carry scars from earlier experiences with religion or a church community, that you may find healing. We are the church, and like those early believers, we have both the burden and the responsibility to embody the teachings of Jesus through our love for all of our neighbors and most especially those who have too often found themselves unloved or forgotten. May the joy of the Spirit continue to work in and through our lives. Amen.