a sermon for Day of Pentecost [Year C]
John 14:8-17 [25-27] and Acts 2:1-21
When we were children, my parents did not let us chew gum very often and so it was a bit of an illicit treasure if we ever got our hands on any. One time on a particularly long road trip when I think my parents were happy to let my sister and me be entertained on our own in the back seat my sister and I got a pack of bubble gum and had fun blowing bubbles and popping them. We had to be discreet with it, of course, lest things get out of hand and the ban on gum be reinforced.
As it always does, the bubble gum eventually lost its flavor and its tenderness and I wanted to get rid of the tough wad in my mouth. Figuring that a discarded piece of bubble gum left in the car somewhere would end up somewhere it shouldn’t, I decided to roll down the window and spit it out at 65 miles per hour. So I did, with all the force I could muster. I stuck my face out as far as I felt comfortable and—p-tooey!—I launched it. It wasn’t until the next time we stopped at a rest area that my mother looked at me and saw that the gum had not gone far. It was lodged like cement in the hair on the top of my head. To get it out we first tried ice but then we ended up having to stop at a grocery store and get peanut butter to massage it out of my hair. It was messy. I was embarrassed. And it was my first personal lesson that wind is unpredictable and in certain circumstances can make us feel like a fool.
It was a lesson that has born out repeatedly throughout my life, including even last weekend when a large group of us were gathered for a wedding rehearsal dinner in a fancy dining room. A tornado touched down nearby, forcing us all into the basement of the country club. There we were: a bunch of relative strangers in dressy clothes (and some in golf clothes) huddled randomly through nervous chatter in close proximity as we waited it out.
Wind is unpredictable. That is the experience of the disciples gathered together in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. I’ve often wondered: did a violent wind actually rush through the room where they were hanging out, or is it just how they remembered it? Was whatever they experienced so suddenly wind-like that they used it to describe their experience as the Spirit of God is poured out upon them?
It was unpredictable. They hadn’t known this would occur. They were just in one place in order to celebrate the Jewish festival of Shavuot. Shavuot was the yearly festival that marked the historic moment when Moses received the Torah, or the stone tablets of God’s law, on Mount Sinai. It was used as a kind of harvest festival because typically wheat was planted around Passover and it was ready for harvest about seven weeks later.
But like wind that blows wherever it wants, God’s Spirit had other plans. That day they were going to receive a new kind of law that would be written on their hearts. And instead of celebrating a harvest of agricultural goods, they would be seen as workers in God’s harvest of all creation where people of all kinds and all nationalities and all languages would be gathered into one kingdom.
The whole event is a bit embarrassing and humbling. Not only do people who witness this event from the outside and see their behavior think that the disciples are drunk, but they themselves aren’t sure what is going on. They can understand one another even though they know they all come all over the known world.
We speak of the church as a body—the body of Christ. It’s like on Pentecost we get our body’s first results from a “23 and Me” test, those tests that take a bit of a person’s DNA and determine what their genetic background really is. The church body’s “23 and me” results show that the body of Christ has a bit of everyone in us. Of course, we have some Parthians and Medes and Elamites in us. At some point. But we also have some Germans and Danes in us. And also some Chinese and Armenian and Tanzanian and Papua New Guinean. And also some American. The community of Jesus that is born on Pentecost with the unpredictable movement of the Holy Spirit that acts like wind blowing where we never can predict includes a bit of every kind of people on earth. Therefore the Christian faith doesn’t belong to one country or one denomination or one congregation but to all of humanity. God pours his Spirit upon all kinds, making us all heirs, as Paul says, of God, members of the same household..
This kind of unpredictability can be embarrassing. It can be embarrassing for us, for example, when we think we can control the movements of God or when we think we alone have all the right answers about faith. This unpredictability is frustrating for the church, for example, when we think we should praise God with the old hymns of our youth, written in the style we are familiar with. And also when we think we should phase those golden oldies out, that there’s no way the Spirit can use them today.
This habit of the Holy Spirit is extremely frustrating to those who think only true Christians are Republican or only true Christians vote Democratic, or that the main purpose of Christian faith at all is to hitch our faith to politics. The Spirit gathers us all and teaches us the words of Jesus and the ways of the Father, since the two of them are one. Do we realize, in a time of increasing political polarization, how critical this work of the Holy Spirit is? From what I understand—and I could be wrong—people are often more likely to change their church membership based on what their political beliefs dictate rather that change their political party based on what their faith teaches. The Holy Spirit helps tear down all the silos and echo chambers we create.
Lastly, the unpredictable nature of the Spirit is humbling to anyone who tries to keep people outside of the faith or deny them full inclusion based on their gender or their race or their sexuality. From the beginning God’s Spirit is all about reaching and lifting up those who are marginalized by the world. Immigrants, women, those of differing sexual identity like the Ethiopian eunuch that Philip baptizes in Acts chapter 8—these are all some of the first people in the church’s family, the people who built the faith and handed it on to us. The Holy Spirit reminds us that if we think we can keep our Christian faith discreet or control where it goes or restrict it to certain people then it will come flying back at us and make a mess like bubble gum in the hair.
Another important and interesting thing about wind is that we can’t see it but we can be aware of its presence because of the things it does. We can’t see the air that blows through a windmill but we can see the blades move around in a circle. We can’t see the wind that fills the sail, but we can tell its there because the boat takes us further out to see. This is the same with God’s Spirit. Even though Jesus had ascended to the Father the disciples would eventually be able to tell that Jesus was still with them, and they would figure out they were encountering Jesus in the world because they would be able to do the things he does. And they would see other people doing things that Jesus would do.
This is how the Holy Spirit works—it comes among us and yet we can’t see it like the disciples could physically see Jesus, but lo and behold we see people affected by him. We feel compelled to feed the hungry through our own service and we collect food for them and distribute it, setting up permanent food pantries, if need be. We feel compelled to pray for the people who are suffering from war and displacement and so we gather supplies together and send them off. We don’t know these people. They aren’t members of our families or our personal close networks. We may never even really meet them, but we feel Jesus move us toward them with compassion and mercy. This is the work of the Holy Spirit among us, giving us not a spirit of fear, but that spirit of adoption to see all people as beloved by God, even ourselves.
I can imagine that Jesus’ disciples would have been shocked to hear that they would do greater works than Jesus did. I’m shocked to hear that. Jesus fed 5000 people with two fish and five loaves of bread. He cured a man of blindness and raised Lazarus from the dead. What could we do that is greater than that?
Just in the years following Pentecost, the church expanded and fed far more than 5000. We hear that deacons were set aside right away to see to it that orphans and widows, especially.
In the next few centuries the church would invent hospitals and build them in different cities, and right this very minute in health clinics and hospitals across the world help people regain their health and walk out of the tombs of illness.
Previous to the gospel, death was greeted with shame, and those who were dying often cast aside (unless they were in the upper 0.01%). But moved by their faith in Jesus’ own suffering and his bodily triumph over the grave, early Christians would sit by the dying, offering prayers and comfort. And, when their patients died, they would offer a burial of dignity and respect, even when they didn’t personally know them.
These were all new traditions to the human community, new gestures of dignity and compassion that often went against the prevailing customs and beliefs of the time. They came about through the work of God’s Spirit dwelling in his people and leading them to be Christ’s body. Greater things that Jesus did while he was with his disciples.
We can’t see God, but we know of God’s presence with us and in the world because we see things happening that Jesus would have done. And, in fact, he is doing them. Through the power of his Spirit given right now, Jesus is still accomplishing them through you and to me. He promised he would give us what we need when we undertake things that line up with his mission.
So let’s stick our faces out of the window, especially as we work rebuild our ministries after this pandemic. Stick our faces out of the window, and feel the rush of air on our face and be prepared. Be prepared to let it take us where it does and be a part of God’s unpredictable force of love and forgiveness in the world.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.