There are lots of sensational things in the story of the first Pentecost, aren’t there? The rush of a mighty wind, tongues of flame, a general feeling of happiness…
Perhaps the most sensational part of the scene is this thing about everyone hearing whatever was said in his or her own language. That’s just nutty, isn’t it…for you to be speaking in Swahili and me to hear it in Southern American English?
Have you ever tried to communicate with someone who speaks a language you don’t know? I tried it once on a layover in the Frankfurt,Germanyairport. Having just received my seminary degree—with an emphasis in biblical Hebrew—I was a little full of myself and thought it would be a cinch to communicate with someone who spoke German.
So, I initiated a conversation with the young woman sitting next to me. I asked where she was from. She said, “Essen,” which I thought meant to eat. So, I told her what I liked to eat. She looked puzzled. So, I asked again where she lived. She asked again what I liked to eat. We both were smiling, trying really hard to communicate with each other, but I could tell this was going no where fast. A third time, I asked where she was from. Again, she saidEssen. Then it hit me—Essenis a city inGermany!
Oh, the joy we shared when we “got” that bit of communication! It was a beautiful thing! Flush in that profound moment of connection, I asked my new friend another question: What do you like to eat? She looked at me, first, with eagerness, then with weariness, then she shrugged, turned the other way, and went to sleep. Our moment had passed.
But you know the kind of moment I’m talking about, don’t you? The kind where you really feel with someone…a moment where you feel in perfect synch with everyone else…a moment where you know with certainty that everyone present is part of something bigger. You hear talk these days about thin places…what I’m talking about are thin moments, moments when the holy breaks in and we know that we have experienced something special.
I wonder if that’s the reality the writer of this Pentecost scene is trying to describe when he talks about people hearing each other in their own languages. Maybe it’s not so much a linguistic fact as a metaphor for this feeling-close-to-everyone-and-being-part-of-something-larger-than-oneself thing I’m describing. Maybe the communication was so deep, so profound that it was as if people were hearing the things said in their own languages.
Don’t you wish we had more Pentecost experiences? Don’t you wish you could experience something that feels like rushing wind, tongues of flame, and that wonderful oneness with everyone around you our ancestors in faith experienced 2,000 years ago? Wow. It sure would be nice for something like that to happen again, wouldn’t it?
I’ve been thinking about that first Pentecost and what might have contributed to its occurrence. This might seem simplistic….but I wonder if part of what paved the way for the first Pentecost was people’s openness to it. The people had lived through something very difficult, something traumatic—the death of their leader. As people who have lost a leader often do, they gathered together trying to figure out their next step. Maybe they started telling stories about Jesus, maybe they started telling their own stories of grief and stress and disappointment, maybe they shared some of what they had hoped would come from the movement Jesus had started….
…and maybe in their sharing, they began to open up to each other, maybe they began to hear each other, maybe they began to realize that together they were so much more than they were alone…and maybe in the midst of all this sharing and hearing and remembering and dreaming someone got a chill, another heard a sound, someone else felt a flame ignite and grow, and suddenly, they all knew, they just knew—God’s spirit was there! With them! In that moment! And now, nothing would ever be the same.
I had a Pentecost moment yesterday on I-75—well, technically, it was a Pentecost 4 hours (the length of time it took me to progress 4 miles). Flames from a truck fire just north of exit 212 ignited the grass alongside the interstate—see? Flames! And if the actual flames weren’t enough, it was hot as blazes….especially with thousands of cars idling on the asphalt. It wasn’t the case in my car, but there might have been some car radios tuned to Mr. Limbaugh. And all the cars with functioning ACs had them blowing…See? Fire and Rush and a mighty wind! All the elements of Pentecost were there!
Of course, I might not have noticed them if I hadn’t been thinking about today’s sermon. The sermon was mostly done…but an experience like sitting on I-75 for 4 hours… that would make a great story, right? So, I started thinking about how to use the experience in a sermon, maybe even today’s sermon. Fire, rush of mighty wind, lots of people gathered in a similar experience… very Pentecostal, don’t you think?
Except for God’s spirit… Where was God’s spirit in this mass of humanity stalled on I-75? I started searching. Was God’s spirit in the kindness of people letting each other cut in line? Was it in prayers that might have been offered for those injured in the fire or for those going to help put it out? Or was God’s spirit present in the connections people were making with loved ones on all the cellphone calls going out?
Then, I saw it! I saw God’s spirit moving. I didn’t recognize it at first. In the midst of my deep and very wise homiletical musings, I saw a young man and woman walking down the right shoulder of the road. He was carrying a gas container; she had a canvas bag slung over her arm and was carrying a cardboard sign. “Here it is!” I thought cynically. “The gouging opportunists are going to try to make a buck.”
When the pair got close enough, I read the sign. It turned my cynicism on its head: “Free gas and H2O to those in need.” Wow. I had been looking for God’s spirit from the relative safety of my air conditioned car (doing who knows how much damage to the earth) while those two young people had embodied it. I had been trying to figure out how to use this experience in a sermon when—Boom! A sermon walked by carrying a sign. I had been looking for God’s spirit from a distance when those two young people were actually sharing it with others. They weren’t waiting for God’s spirit to come to them in their air conditioned car; they were bringing God’s spirit to others in need in 90 degree weather.
So, here’s the great homiletical insight from my Pentecostal moment on I-75 yesterday. Maybe the important question for today isn’t so much, Why doesn’t God’s spirit move like it did at Pentecost? But, What are we doing to invite God’s spirit into every moment of our lives…even the ones spent sitting on the hot asphalt of I-75?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2012
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’<!– 14 –>
Peter Addresses the Crowd
14 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.15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 “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.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”