Is Pentecost on Your Calendar?

Rev. Dr. Carter Lester Avatar

Don’t you just love Pentecost?  How many of you have Pentecost circled on your calendars?  Raise your hands if you like to…

Gather around the piano and sing Pentecost carols?

Bake Pentecost cookies, put up a Pentecost tree or put up a yard sign with a Pentecostal flame?

Exchange cards, or gifts, or open Pentecost baskets in the morning?

Pentecost is right up there alongside Christmas and Easter as high holy days in the life of the church, but most of us have few or no rituals at home to celebrate the day.  We often complain about the commercialism of Easter and Christmas, but here we have a significant day on the church calendar that the greeting card industry and online and mall stores have yet to discover.  Here is our chance folks!  Thanks to all who designed and put up this artwork to help us here in the sanctuary recognize the significance of this day.

“Pentecost” literally means “50th day” and it got that name because it was a festival celebrated seven weeks or fifty days after Passover.  Better known as the “Festival of Weeks,” Pentecost was one of the great feast days of ancient Israel and celebrated both the spring harvest and the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai.  As such, it was a day for which many people made pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as indicated by the long list of regions and countries from which the people of Acts 2 have come.

On this particular Pentecost day in Act 2, something dramatic, strange, and wondrous occurs.  Luke, the author of Acts, apparently can’t find the words to adequately describe it.  There was a sound like a rushing, violent wind that filled the whole house where they were sitting.  And then something like tongues of fear appeared all around them, Luke writes, as if they were resting on each of them.  Like wind but not exactly wind, like tongues of fire, but not exactly tongues of fire – throughout the Old Testament, wind and fire are symbols for God’s Spirit being at work.

But as hard to describe as those sights and sounds were, what they heard next was perhaps even more amazing.  There were many nationalities and languages present, but when someone spoke each could hear in their own language, Luke tells us.  Think of the United Nations with everyone able to understand without the translators speaking on headphones.  Or an internet conversation from many nations with no one needing to use Google translate.

If you are confused as to what was happening, join the crowd.  Most of the people on that Pentecost day did not understand what they had just heard and seen.  “They are amazed and perplexed,” we are told, with people saying to one another, “What does this mean?”  Others were not so impressed or amazed.  Proving that cynicism regarding religious matters is not just a modern phenomenon, some onlookers just conclude that the people are drunk on new wine.

But to return to the question – what does this all mean?  What does it all mean – not just back then in ancient Jerusalem, but 2000 years later here in Allentown, or anywhere else in the modern world?  Because what happens in Acts doesn’t stay in Acts.  What does it all mean?  To answer that question, we need to pay special attention to two short sentences, one in Luke’s narrative and one in Peter’s sermon.

The first sentence is the very first sentence in Acts 2: “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”  Where that place is, is uncertain, but the preceding passage suggests that it is the same room where they shared the last supper with Jesus.  That is where they have been hanging out ever since Easter it appears.

Who is there?  Again, that is uncertain too.  The original 11 disciples are there plus Judas’ replacement, Matthias.  But there are more too – perhaps 120 more and they are coming from all over the region and speak different languages.

“Where?” and “who?” may be uncertain, but this we know with certainty: it is when they are gathered together that the Holy Spirit arrives with a bang.  We modern people tend to think of religion as a personal matter, and that profound spiritual experiences come in private moments when we are “far from the madding crowds.”  We may well have meaningful spiritual epiphanies when we are alone in a place of natural beauty.   But God saves God’s biggest wonders and miracles for those times when the community of faith is gathered together.

In our heart of hearts, or at least in our sub-consciousness, we seem to know that.  That is why even inactive Christians want to be in church on Christmas Eve and Easter.  And why people flock to church after public tragedies, such as 9-11, or after more private setbacks, such as an unfavorable medical report.  At such times, we do not want to be alone.  We want to gather with other people – and we want to be reminded of God’s love and God’s power.

But it is not just on the occasion of high church holidays and in the aftermath of public and private disasters that we experience something powerful when we gather with other Christians.  The fact is we worship a God who chooses to do great things and small wonders through the body of Christ.  And, just as on that first Pentecost, we never know, or predict, or control, when and how the Holy Spirit will show up. 

Sara Miles was raised as an atheist and was comfortably established in what she called her “enthusiastically secular life” as a chef and food critic, when she entered a church on impulse in San Francisco one Sunday.  As she writes in her memoir, Take This Bread, “I was certainly not interested in becoming a Christian….Or, as I thought of it rather less politely, a religious nut.” 

But as she entered the doors of an Episcopal church in San Francisco, on a whim, she ate a piece of bread and took a sip of wine and found herself transformed.  It was her first communion – and at age 46, she found that it changed everything.  She found food that she did not even realize until then that her soul was hungering for.  And it happened in a community of faith – when the people were gathered together n one place.

It may be the taste of bread and wine; it may be the music of an anthem or the opportunity to sing all together even if you are off-key.  It may be a word of a sermon; or a phrase from a prayer; or simply the welcoming smile of a neighbor in the pew.  You never know when and how the Holy Spirit is going to show up when the people of God gather.  Sometimes it may be on a mission trip or on a retreat – and sometimes it may be at a Session meeting.  Sometimes it may be in a Bible study, and sometimes it may be in the church kitchen.  Sometimes it may be in a faith formation classroom, and sometimes it may be here in worship.  But it will be when we are together, not alone, that we will have the best opportunity to experience the full power of the presence of the Holy Spirit. 

Because that is the way God has chosen to operate, beginning on that first Pentecost.  As Annie Dillard has written, “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we sense them.  The least we can do is try to be there.”

What does it all mean?  The second key sentence in Acts 2 comes from Peter’s sermon when he quotes from the Old Testament book of Joel: “the Spirit has been poured out on all flesh.”  In other words, God’s Spirit is not just being given to kings and prophets as in the Old Testament.  Not just to his only Son, Jesus Christ, the Messiah.  Not just to the 12 who were with Jesus more than any other people.

No, the Spirit has been poured out on all flesh.  Not just the men, but the women as well.  Not just on the old and long-time members of faith, but on the young and newly arrived church members as well.  Not just on the young and energetic but on the old as well.  Not just on the straight, but on the gay as well.  Not just on the clergy but on the laity as well– all flesh.  The Spirit is both egalitarian and inclusive.  It is a diverse people gathered there in Jerusalem – and it will become even more diverse when the Spirit-led church expands beyond Jews to Gentiles and beyond Judea to the rest of the world. 

Sometimes we are impressed by the pyrotechnics of Pentecost – the rushing winds, tongues of fire, and inexplicable babble of tongues.  But they are merely the outward signs of God’s Spirit at work.  And they are not even the big event of Pentecost.  The big event is the transformation of Jesus’ disciples through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Timid and stuck in that upper room, they are ready to go boldly public.  Before they were silent; now they are ready to share the good news of Jesus Christ.

“I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.”  Look at the people closest to you. Look at them.  The Spirit has been given to each person.  The Holy Spirit has been given to you.  And when it comes to the Spirit and to the church, the sum total is always greater than the parts.

To be sure, we are not perfect – and the church is not perfect.  Far from it.  Our failures, the failures of the church are many.  But those sins and failure cannot keep the flames of God’s Spirit from burning or the wind from blowing.  Indeed, in the same way that God can use Peter as the church’s first preacher – Peter, a humble fisherman and one who not only ran away when Jesus was arrested and tried, but who denied even knowing him three times – then God can use you and me, despite our weaknesses and betrayals.  In the same way that God can overcome the cross and the tomb, so can God overcome our sinfulness and frailty.

As William Willimon has written, since Pentecost, a new wind has been set loose on the earth, bringing “a fresh breath of hope and empowerment for God’s people, and through God’s people, for the world.”  The church does not exist for its own sake; the church exists for the sake of the world.

We gather in one place and then we scatter to follow Christ into the world.  Pentecost is not the end or goal of the church.  It is the beginning, the birth of the church. The same Spirit that promises to be with us here when we gather, propels us out into the world to bear witness by word and deed to the abundant life of love, joy, and hope offered in and through Jesus Christ. 

A generation ago, when Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross was doing her research on death and dying and before she published her groundbreaking book on the topic, she interviewed dying patients in a hospital. She wanted to know what they thought about and how they felt when they faced death.  In one particular hospital, as she went from room to room, she began to notice a remarkable pattern.  She went into many a dying person’s room and the person would be calm, at peace, and tranquil.  She began to notice that there was a common factor for these hospital patients: their rooms had been cleaned by the same person on the hospital’s housekeeping team.

Dr. Ross stopped the housekeeper and asked her, “What are you doing with my patients?”  The housekeeper thought at first she was being reprimanded and grew defensive.  But Dr. Ross explained that the patients were doing surprisingly well.  She simply wanted to know: what are you doing with my patients?

The housekeeper then told her this: “I just talk to them.  You know, I’ve had two babies of my own die on my lap.  But God never abandoned me.  I tell them that.  I tell them that they aren’t alone, that God is with them, and that they don’t have to be afraid.”

The Spirit has been poured out on all flesh.  Friends, we are all very ordinary and very imperfect.  But by the power and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, even ordinary and imperfect people can be witnesses of God’s divine love, mercy, and power.  It has been that way ever since the arrival of that holy wind and those holy tongues of fire on that first Pentecost.

So let us always mark Pentecost on our calendars, the day the church came into being.  Happy birthday church!  And, gathered together and warmed and energized by that Spirit, let us go forth into the world, riding the Wind wherever it may propel us.