Sometimes, the Spirit points us to work done by other members of the body to weave into a sermon that is way more powerful than anything we preachers can do on our own. That might look like collaboration and conversation or borrowing and crediting. Where I have borrowed text (direct quotes or adaptation), I have linked back to the source.
3 years. Well, close to it, anyway.
They had spent 3 years with Jesus. They had walked most of the region, spent countless hours at his feet – in the synagogue, on hillsides, in boats, in people’s houses… you name it.
They ate together – ordinary meals and miraculous ones. Passover seders. And that last passover meal. The one that was the beginning of the end, when they knew things were about to well and truly change.
They next three days they spent together as well.
Unable to fully understand what they had seen. Unsure about what should come next.
And then there he was.
Among them, at least part of the time.
Another 40 days to get their heads around the power Jesus had shown. The power God had shown through his resurrection.
Another 40 days to get their feet under them and begin to follow him again. Not just going where he was, but going where he wanted them to go. Doing and saying the things that reflected all that they’d been taught.
And then he was gone again.
One last lesson, one last command… and off he went
You will be my witnesses, he said.
Wait in Jerusalem.
And when the time is right, you will receive power. And then you will bear witness to who I am, what I’ve done and what God has in store for all people.
You will be my witnesses, not just here in Jerusalem, but throughout Judea and to the very ends of the earth.
So they waited in Jerusalem.
Peter, John and James, Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alpheus, Simon the Zealot and Judas son of James were there. Several women were there, as well, just as they had been from the beginning. Jesus’ mother Mary was with them, along with his brothers.
They waited and prayed. And they took time to discern who should replace Judas as overseer, choosing Matthias from among the many men who had also been following Jesus from the very beginning, just not among the twelve closest.
In all, there were about 120 Jesus followers in Jerusalem.
Maybe the days began to run together a bit as they fell into comfortable rhythms and rituals of life. Praying to start the day, making sure there was food enough for everyone, going to market, watching out for the little ones, keeping the rooms clean. Praying at the close of the day. Preparing for sabbath. Starting a new week again.
It had been 50 days since passover. The time for Shavuot had come, and people were gathered for the Feast of Weeks. The Pentecost feast would mark the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. It was something a little different to prepare for. Something to look forward to as they waited.
Here is how Luke describes the arrival of this particular Pentecost in Acts 2:
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.
If Easter was God’s Ta-Dah!!! Moment, this would have to be the Holy Cats! Moment.
Or, well, God’s Holy Spirit! Moment…
And maybe a bit of Oh Yeah… I did that…
The looks on their faces must have been priceless.
Wind – the element that shares its name with the Spirit…
rushing and filling the house…
Fire- that barely controllable element with the power to destroy…
burning but not consuming…
And by the way, It’s one thing to work hard and learn enough of a language to speak clearly and freely with a native speaker. To just open your mouth and speak?
Ho.Ly. Cats! I mean… Holy Spirit!
Don’t you just wonder now if Jesus knew – had a picture of this day in his mind of what was coming – when he said those seemingly innocuous words
You will receive power.
He wasn’t talking about Power Bars that would provide the nutritional energy they would need to keep moving outward from Jerusalem.
He wasn’t talking about political power that would make it easier to get along with the Romans. Or the sort of power needed to navigate Temple politics.
Whether or not they knew it at the time, Jesus promised his followers access to the very same power that overpowered the temptations offered in the wilderness, changed water to wine, healed the lame, gave sight to the blind, taught the leaders of the temple, calmed the storm, and yes – raised Jesus from the dead.
Now that I think about that list of people who were waiting, one of them probably knew. In fact, that might be why Mary stayed, and kept her other sons with her.
Because she knew.
She had experienced the Spirit’s power as a young girl, and she had recognized it over and over again. I suspect she was ready to have a second helping, trusting her son to draw her closer than ever to his heavenly father.
On that festival day, it arrived. The power had come and the witnessing had begun.
Men and women from many lands and cultures heard them speaking in all those languages… enough that each onlooker could hear and understand them, as they told the stories of God’s power.
There’s a song at Passover sung during the Seder. It is called Dayenu, and it tells the story of the Exodus, one detail at a time, and after every detail, the people sing: Dayenu! It would have been enough!
If God had brought us out from Egypt,
and had not carried out judgments against them
Dayenu! It would have been enough.
If God had given us the Torah,
and had not brought us into the land of Israel
Dayenu! It would have been enough!
It would have been enough.
It would have been enough if Jesus had died on a cross.
Dayenu! It would have been enough if he was raised from the dead!
Dayenu! It would have been enough for him to be lifted into the sky!
Dayenu! It would have been enough if the Holy Spirit had come!
Dayenu! It would have been enough to form a church.
But it didn’t stop there.
The Holy Spirit came, but she didn’t stop with the rush of wind.
She didn’t stop with tongues of fire.
She didn’t stop with the people understanding the story in their own language.
Dayenu! It would have been enough. (thanks Lia Scholl)
But instead, the Holy Spirit gives us each gifts, as Paul described for the believers in Corinth (1 Cor 12:1-13)
Dayenu! It would have been enough to empower each of us…
But there is so much more going on here.
So much more power to be shared here.
Paul describes nine gifts, nine services, nine manifestations of God’s Spirit in the Body. Nine ways that the One source, the Holy Spirit, is on miraculous beautiful display in the community.
But this diversity is not the point. Nor is the manifestation of God’s power in and of itself the priority in Paul’s estimation. Paul’s focus is what he believes to be God’s purpose – unity.
By empowering each of us, and then uniting us to bear witness to the power at work in us, God’s power and plan to reconcile all of Creation is demonstrated and made known.
Let me come at that a different way.
The diversity of our gifts used for a common purpose is what draws the world together.
The many languages being spoken by the disciples as the Holy Spirit came upon them might have been written off as yet another group of people gathered and sharing a house in a busy city on a festival weekend. Kind of like listening in on breakfast at a boarding house for international travelers.
But in this case, all of them were speaking about and pointing to the same thing: the power of God to enter the world, to heal and teach, to overcome death, to turn fishermen and sinners, gentiles and women into bold and powerful witnesses! That got people’s attention.
They were publicly proclaiming the gospel.
It was disruptive.
It was weird, if we’re honest.
But it moved people outside the community – outside of the 120 or so who had stayed there, waiting, and had indeed received power – people who were not part of that group were moved to pay attention.
This cacophony of multilingual storytelling drew their unsuspecting gazes, piqued their curiosity, and astonished them. They were locked in. One or two may even have let loose with the Hebrew equivalent of “Holy Cats!”
Yes, Some of those onlookers accused them of being drunk, but others welcomed the message and joined in the community’s shared life of communion, fellowship, worship, belief, and action.
That Pentecost Sunday is often called the birthday of the church.
If this was not its birth, the Spirit certainly breathed new life into a body that had been in a sort of hibernation. This band of frightened, if well-intentioned, followers could no longer sit still. The power they received drove them out of the room and into the streets where they would grab and keep the attention of everyone around them.
That day transformed each of them – Peter probably never imagined in his wildest dreams that he would stand and preach. He was a fisherman, not a rabbi!
The healings and miracles that they each experienced, the incredible growth of the community, the way that resources were shared so that all had enough -none of these were attributed to one person’s faith or cleverness… but to the power of the Spirit at work among all of them.
I just want to stop for a moment to think about the power the disciples experienced, this power we invoke in our prayers. I think we can all agree to these two statements as a starting point…
- People don’t like change.
- People don’t change.
This is true right here and right now.
This was true in Jerusalem all those centuries ago.
But people were changed. Transformed.
Not one or two people. Hundreds, even thousands at a clip.
Ho. Ly. Spirit!
And yes – the Spirit is still holy.
And still more powerful than we can imagine.
And people are still being changed.
We sing songs around this day, inviting the Spirit to come, dwell among us, to come fill us. I wonder sometimes if we really mean it? If we really know what we asking… Much like we have sanitized and beautified the ugliness and terror of the cross, we’ve tried to tame the Holy Spirit, using a calendar that allows for certain days and feasts when we break out our reds and symbolic doves and flames.
Maybe we more honestly would invite the Spirit over for a short visit- long enough to be polite and sip a little iced tea on the porch, but not long enough to disrupt our routines.
Even that might open the doors to our hearts and lives more than we imagine…
Open the doors to this sanctuary wider than we’re comfortable considering…
Annie Dillard once wrote… On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
Invoking the power of the Holy Spirit is a lot like playing with fire…
You see, the manifestations of the Spirit transform people and communities into spaces that ignite conviction and change people’s life directions.
The Spirit’s purpose is to embolden a community – Like this community – to look beyond our own preservation or prestige, as a body or as individual members.
The significance and relevance of the life of the Body – of this faith community, right here and right now – is utterly and completely wrapped up in how deeply we are changed. And in how we respond to the twin challenges of uniting in our differences and of leaving this place empowered by God to do great things together in the world.
We aren’t just blessed to be a blessing. We are compelled to bear witness to that blessing, to reveal God’s power to others around us in a way that invites them to experience transformation.
The power that transforms, empowers, gifts and unites us, lives within us. It has invaded us and is making us more and more like the Christ we follow. More and more like the Creator who shaped us to begin with.
The truth is that we humans are meant to be in relationship. All of us. That is what draws us into friendships and partnerships. Into clubs and cliques. Into families and church families.
The indwelling of the Spirit of the triune God simply amps that up to 11. Maybe 12.
If we let the Spirit in, the danger is that you and I – all of us together – might become an incredible source: of good, of justice, of truth and beauty, of everything that the Lord wants of his creation.
For our benediction today, I’d like to share these words from the poet Jan Richardson
Here’s one thing
you must understand
about this blessing:
it is not
for you alone.
It is stubborn
do not even try
to lay hold of it
if you are by yourself,
thinking you can carry it
on your own.
To bear this blessing,
you must first take yourself
to a place where everyone
does not look like you
or think like you,
a place where they do not
believe precisely as you believe,
where their thoughts
and ideas and gestures
are not exact echoes
of your own.
Bring your sorrow. Bring your grief.
Bring your fear. Bring your weariness,
your pain, your disgust at how broken
the world is, how fractured,
by its fighting, its wars,
its hungers, its penchant for power,
its ceaseless repetition
of the history it refuses
to rise above.
I will not tell you
this blessing will fix all that.
But in the place
where you have gathered,
Lay aside your inability
to be surprised,
your resistance to what you
do not understand.
See then whether this blessing
turns to flame on your tongue,
sets you to speaking
what you cannot fathom
or opens your ear
to a language
beyond your imagining
that comes as a knowing
in your bones
in your heart
that tells you
this is the reason
we were made,
for this ache
that finally opens us,
for this struggle, this grace
that scorches us
toward one another
the blazing day.