Pentecost is revolutionary.
An inbreaking of the Holy Spirit means a great equalizing has happened. The world as we have known it gets turned upside down and inside out. Men and women, young and old, slave and free — the Spirit pours over all. The distinct languages and cultures of the whole world’s peoples become the Word of the Lord. Direct communication of the divine deeds of power happens, no translation needed. Everyone is on a level playing field when it comes to the power and outpouring of the Holy Spirit. No wonder onlookers are amazed, perplexed, judgmental.
Then, as now, human beings categorize and compartmentalize. Residents of Judea don’t hang out with the Egyptians. They don’t talk to each other because they can’t talk to each other. They literally and figuratively don’t speak the same language. Just like the cafeteria in any middle school, everyone knows who sits at what table: like sit with like and no one dares cross the metaphorical lines, invisible but as evident as the yellow ones on the highway. Wind and flames are noteworthy, but their disruption pales in comparison to the multitude of languages spoken by the disciples and the Holy Spirit given to everyone. The old human categories no longer apply to the new community formed through Jesus Christ and ushered in by the Holy Spirit. No wonder onlookers are amazed, perplexed, judgmental.
Pentecost is revolutionary because the wind blows down barriers and the flames burn down walls between peoples separated by geography, culture, language, nation, class, race and every other human-created category.
Just like the prophet proclaimed: Now everyone will prophesy in languages that others understand, in ways never before heard, to people long pushed to the margins. God’s deeds of power and Jesus’ saving work are for everyone, and nothing will stand in the way of the Spirit’s revolutionary witness.
Pentecost is revolutionary, turning upside down and inside out every human-constructed category, divide and barrier to God’s constituting one family. Distinct languages remain, but now we can speak to one another and understand. Nothing will separate us from the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord, and through the gift of the Holy Spirit, nothing will separate us from one another, either.
And yet, here we are in 2018, divided. The income gap grows, schools have re-segregated, most neighborhoods are homogeneous and churches, well, look around your sanctuary this Sunday. What happened to the revolution of Pentecost?
Like so many revolutions, the initial fervor and excitement gives way to a yearning for the familiar, even if the status quo was oppressive, limiting and less than life-giving. Better the constraining categories we know than doing the work of learning a whole new way of life.
The church traded the revolution of Pentecost for the comfort and complacency of silos of sameness. Pentecost becomes the day on the liturgical calendar to celebrate the birthday of the church instead of a day to remember that our entire world should be turned upside down and inside out when we commit to following Jesus Christ. Pentecost means that our circles of concern are expanded and multiplied. We are to be bi-lingual, tri-lingual, multi-lingual — always striving to speak more fluently and listen more closely until we come to a place where we know each other’s languages so well we dream one another’s dreams.
What happen to the revolution of Pentecost? Where did the wind and flame of the Spirit go? When is the last time something in the church or in the community caused you to be utterly perplexed because you could never have imagined anything like it?
The Spirit continues to move, but too often we have heard the wind and barricaded ourselves in a windowless room until we are certain the gusts have moved past us. The Spirit blows where it wills and if we run away when we hear the sound of it, it will blow elsewhere.
After revolution comes the hard, time-consuming, slow work of building a new order: a new way of life together. That’s true for Pentecost, too. A Spirit-constituted community, if it is to last and grow, requires work. Speaking another’s language is challenging. Hearing someone speak a language they have not yet mastered calls for patience. The rubble of once formidable walls must be addressed, hauled away, recycled, reused. Creating a new common vocabulary comes only with time and shared experience. The pull of the old, familiar categories, patterns and our own native language is strong. No wonder we’d rather sing “happy birthday,” blow out the candles and go back to the same pew we’ve sat in for years. Spirit-community asks not just a lot of us, but everything we’ve got.
I had the profound gift of hearing Willie James Jennings of Yale lecture at Union Presbyterian Seminary recently. (His commentary on Acts unpacks the revolution of the intimate that is Pentecost.) In his last lecture he said this provocative statement: “Too many pastors have become the high priests of segregation.” He went on to explain that they have “settled for love of their own people rather than using love to create a new people.” Celebrating the birthday of the church on Pentecost is settling for love of our own people. Recognizing the barrier-breaking, new-community-constituting revolution and attempting to learn another’s language — now that’s stepping into the wind and flame of the Spirit and attempting to create a new people.
During the question-and-answer period, a person in the sanctuary asked how we pastors might move away from being high priests of segregation. Jennings replied, “I tell pastors: Think very carefully about your loves … make sure your life gives witness to a wider love.” That’s the power of Pentecost. The Spirit gives us the ability to imagine a wider love, beyond our own people, expanded into all of God’s creation.
Every year when Pentecost rolls around on the liturgical calendar and we dust off the red stole, we are challenged to learn a language that is not our own, a language the Spirit will give us the ability to speak, a language that we will need to practice long after the visible, perplexing flames have left the room. Once God ushers in the revolution of the intimate, we are tasked with building a whole new life together and that takes patience, intention, work, forgiveness, grace.
Pentecost is far more than the church’s birthday; it turns the whole world inside out and upside down. If we aren’t perplexed, amazed, confused at what’s happening in our communities of faith, it may be time to blow out the candles and turn off the lights. It may be time to get out from behind our walls, meet the Cretans and Arabs, learn their languages and expand our loves.
- Have you ever tried to learn another language? What did it feel like with you tried to speak in it? Were you understood?
- There are many other “languages” we need to speak if we are to share the Good News of Jesus Christ in our contexts. Which one or ones are most pressing in yours? What do you need to learn about your community in order to understand and be understood?
- What do you find perplexing, confusing, amazing? Could it be that is a place or circumstance where the Holy Spirit is blowing?
- What are your loves? How do you need to widen them?
- Read Acts 2:1-21 out loud. What strikes you when you read it? Meditate on that part of the passage and note what you notice as you pray.
- When have you had a revolutionary experience of the Holy Spirit?
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