A Sermon for Pentecost
Year B – 24 May 2015
John Edward Miller, Rector
When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples 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 them 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.’ ” – Acts 2:1-21
Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Pentecost is the story of a promise fulfilled. Jesus was the one who made the promise when he told his disciples, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”
He said this to them on the night that he was betrayed, and arrested, and led away by armed men to face humiliation and trial. The end was near, and time was precious. Jesus knew that better than anyone. Within hours he would be crucified, and his followers would fear for their own life. But they would also feel bereft, like orphaned children. They were about to face an unimaginable loss: they would not have his physical presence – his hands and his voice, his smiles and his wise expressions, his reassuring and encouraging eyes, his frowns when they misunderstood, and his courageous demeanor as he taught them to take a stand against injustice, especially when the poor and the helpless were affected. Jesus was a big presence, and losing him would create a gaping void where he had been.
Jesus didn’t want to leave them that way; the bond he shared with them was paternal, but never patronizing. He often referred to his disciples as “little children,” not because he looked down on the disciples, but because he knew that they depended on his fatherly guidance and nurture. Jesus and his disciples were embarked on a mission like no other; every turn they took led them into unfamiliar and dangerous territory. For them Jesus was not only their father, but their compass as well. They were literally his followers; his sense of direction was indispensable.
So, following supper on that famous Thursday night, Jesus spoke to the disciples about the time to come, when he would return to his Father. These were his “farewell discourses,” lessons for living in his absence. He gave them a new commandment, that they love one another as he had loved them. He spoke of going to prepare a place for them, and that he would come again for them, so that where he was there they would be also. He told them that he was “the way, the truth, and the life,” and to come with him to the Father’s presence. Then, before he interceded for them in prayer, and led them out to the place where he would be arrested, Jesus promised that he would never leave them as orphans in a hostile world. He said, “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.”
With words such as these Jesus bid them adieu. The peace he gave them rested on that powerful promise that he would always be with them in the Spirit, and that his presence would connect them not only to the truth, but in truth to one another. And what came true is as much a promise fulfilled to us as it was to them. The gift of the Holy Spirit kept the disciples from disintegrating, and drew
We Christians celebrate the gift of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. In doing so, we follow the lead of Luke, the author of Acts, who tells the story of the outpouring of God’s Spirit on the disciples – a holy presence that empowered them to proceed, to carry on, because through the Spirit Jesus continued to be with them. But Luke also emphasized that Pentecost unleashed a dynamic draw toward the apostolic group. The bystanders in Jerusalem that day were awed by the power of the Spirit. As the disciples spoke the truth in the language of the Spirit, the people nearby heard the truth in their own native tongue.
The witnesses to the Pentecost event were devout Jews who had come to Jerusalem from places all over the ancient near eastern world. The places named form a compass rose – a full circle of locales. They had gathered for Pentecost, the Jewish harvest festival held fifty days (or seven weeks) after Passover. They were from a dispersion of Jewish communities, and the thing they had in common was belief in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who had brought their ancestors out of the land of Egypt, made covenant with them, and led them to the promised land of Canaan. But this was ancient history. Many traumatic events had separated and scattered them in all directions. Most had lost their facility with Hebrew the sacred tongue, and had to rely on translations to maintain their contact with the holy tradition.
Their faith’s dispersion into the world resembled the story of Babel, a chapter in primeval history when mankind had sought to build a tower to touch the heavens. Their self-absorbed arrogance flew in the face of God’s proper order; deep fractures turned the tower to rubble, and the once-proud inhabitants of Babel were scattered to the winds of earth. The people’s unity was shattered, and their former common language became a cacophony of different tongues.
This was the biblical explanation for the polyglot nature of language, as well as a cautionary tale about the consequences of sin. The Jews of the many lands had assembled with their different native tongues. They had come because they understood the value of their religious tradition, even though they could not understand one another. In short, faith had brought them back to Jerusalem; and their spiritual longings were for something to reunite them, to re-connect the brokenness and heal the rifts that separated them. And that yearning put them in that holy place where it happened.
The Spirit galvanized the disciples, and led them to speak, proclaiming the mighty acts that God had made possible in Christ Jesus. And the Pentecost harvest that day was a bumper crop of new disciples who heard and saw what the power of God’s spirit can do.
This, according to tradition, was the “birthday of the Church.” The promised presence of the risen Christ bound together disparate people into a spiritual unity. A new and eternal covenant was formed, and the power of the Spirit propelled persons of differing gifts to do the work Christ has given us to do, loving God and loving our neighbor as ourself. So equipped, the followers of Jesus have gathered and dispersed week by week, Sunday by Sunday, season by season, century by century, offering hope to a world dying to be loved. We pray for the Spirit’s guidance in all of the Church’s ministries, often putting music to our longing for a sense of God’s presence:
Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,and lighten with celestial fire.
Thou the anointing Spirit art,who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart.
Thy blessed unction from above is comfort, life, and fire of love.
Enable with perpetual light the dullness of our blinded sight.
Pentecost happens. The Spirit makes present our Risen Lord, and draws us together with him. None of us would be here this morning if that were not true. In fact, the Church would never have developed if it were based solely on human effort. We gather as a community for worship, we participate in missions of outreach, we teach our children the faith, and we live and move and have our being amid the joys and sorrows of our existence with a great deal of help. That help is not self-generated; it comes from beyond our means. And it touches us, and inspires us, and motivates us to do things that no mortal being is capable of doing on his own. Sometimes the Spirit’s power to make Christ present is palpable. You and I know that there are times when we come together in liturgy, or as we listen to sacred music, or celebrate the sacrament of new birth, or receive the community’s comfort for our grief, that we experience the power of connection – to Christ’s love and to one another. Those are moments to savor; we would do well to view, and to understand, all our days through them.
And we should not be surprised that the Spirit’s work is not confined to the Church, but is active in the world at large. Wherever people transcend their differences and collaborate for the common good, we glimpse the Spirit’s power. Whenever people put their self-interest on hold and come together to advance the cause of peace, human dignity and justice, and the healing of this broken and sinful world, it is the Spirit who makes impossibilities possible. And if hope arises and takes shape and changes a situation where hopelessness and fear seemed invincible, then we see evidence of the Spirit’s power to re-create and restore, and to bridge chasms separating us from the wholeness that God intends.
I recently experienced that same power in an event that bears no Christian label, but acts in ways that look and feel very much like a movement of the Spirit. The Susan G. Komen 5K walk/run occurs in Richmond every May. The gathering draws thousands of participants connected by a common purpose: to celebrate the lives of those who have been affected by breast cancer, and to raise funds for research to find a cure for the disease. As the Komen walkers and runners moved through the streets of Richmond and across two bridges spanning the James River they appeared to coalesce into a living organism. Together we took on the color pink; it became a mark of our identity expressed by t-shirts, glasses, banners, headscarves, and face paint. We were one in a spirit of remembrance and hope. As we advanced toward the goal, we passed signs along the way placed in memory and in honor of the victims of breast cancer. Tears flowed freely, and people sang, and chanted, and cheered – all for the sake of love.
This was my twelfth walk, but I was as affected by the experience as I was the first time, when I walked the distance as a solo participant in the late ‘90s. This time I was part of a team. I was there to march alongside my step-daughter and her husband and two boys, and I was joined by a large turnout of other family members and friends who call themselves “Blair’s Believers.” Our team was one of hundreds of groups surrounding and uplifting courageous loved-ones with the power of love.
But it was not just our love – the love generated by individuals and groups – that was present. There was a obvious spirit that pervaded us, linking and uniting disparate groups from all over central Virginia in the corporate struggle to fund the cutting edge of medical science, to support new protocols and approaches to treatment, and ultimately to find a cure for a disease that affects one in eight women, and one in one thousand men.
From my perspective that connecting presence was an outpouring of God’s Spirit. I do not make that claim casually. My experience has been the same each time I’ve done the Susan Komen 5K. All sorts and conditions of people, widely diverse in age, race, physical stamina and strength, and ethnicity, come together as one. They do so as an act of the will, and not simply out of emotion, to respect the dignity and courage of fellow humans who endure the harsh rigors of treatment in order to enjoy the precious gift of life and to be with the people they love. As a mass the Komen walkers and runners move forward to a final finish line as they promote cancer research and stand together as a witness to health and wholeness. Faith, hope, and love abound in the process. I see that as evidence of the holy – a Spirit that points to those godly values, and beckons us to embrace, and be embraced by them.
Pentecost is Christ’s promise come true. We gather to celebrate the gift today, and to learn how to recognize God’s Spirit when we see unusual connections happen, and love bridging gaps, and hopes becoming realities. This gift is eternal, and it is now. Let share it, and rejoice. Amen.
 John 14:18.
 The Gospel according to John, chapters 14-17.
 John 14:25-27a.
 These are the opening verses of Veni Creator Spiritus.