a sermon for the Day of Pentecost [Year A]
As it happens, there was a discussion I came across this week about the number of working payphones that are left in Virginia—and I promise this relates to Pentecost, so please bear with me. It all started when someone came across a pay-phone right here about a half-mile from our church. It’s near Mekong on Broad Street. That person shared it on an Internet chat group, which prompted a call to the State Corporation Commission, which keeps tabs on the payphone industry. According to the SCC, Virginia has 40 working payphones left. I went and found that payphone this week because I was curious and nostalgic, (and I could not get it to work, so I’m starting to be suspicious of that figure 40.)
What’s even more funny about this story is that the SCC doesn’t keep track of where those remaining 40 or so are located. You just have to happen upon them. In any case, the year the U.S. had its highest number of payphones was 1999. At that time nationwide there were 2.1 million working payphones. The arrival of cellular technology and Smartphones made pay phones obsolete, and only those of us who lived through that change can appreciate how amazing and revolutionizing it was. Not too long ago, you youngins, in order to make a call when you were not in your home, you had to find a payphone by actually looking around for one. With your actual eyes. And then you typically had to have some coins on you—another thing we don’t use anymore. And while you were having your phone conversation you had to stay in one place. With cellphones and Smartphones and Wi-Fi, everyone has access all the time. Telephone technology, you might say, has been poured out on all people, and it is so easy to take it for granted!
That is what the Day of Pentecost is like for the first believers, as Peter tells us this morning. Suddenly God’s Spirit is poured out everywhere, and I think those of us who’ve always lived with the presence of the Holy Spirit—that is, those of us who’ve been nurtured in and through the witness of the church over the past 2000 years—can’t even imagine how amazing and revolutionizing that moment was. I can’t.
Prior to the day of Pentecost, access to God’s Holy Spirit was very sporadic and specific, like the location of payphones. Certain leaders in the Hebrews’ history had access to the Spirit—people like Moses and the prophets. God would give them brief outpourings of his own Spirit to use for the sake of God’s people to further them along in their journey of faith. God’s Spirit would help Moses and his elders make decisions about moving through the wilderness. For whatever reason it wasn’t something God let just everyone experience. The same Holy Spirit would come and give people like Isaiah and Jeremiah words of warning and wisdom about the Hebrews’ life together. But these are all very isolated occurrences and channeled to very particular times and places.
Once Pentecost happens, however, the Spirit becomes available to all people. Like a universal, Wi-Fi password that has been posted everywhere in bold letters, there is now no secret to being a part of what God is doing anymore. There is no special elite society or group, no robe-wearing clergy or “diploma-ed” scholarly team that you need to be a part of to do God’s work. God’s Spirit comes to you. God’s Spirit comes to me in our baptism, for sure, but then also throughout our lives. The very love that Jesus feels for his Father—the love that moves him to offer his own life on the cross—and the love that the Father has for the Son—the love that moves him to raise Jesus from the dead—that love is now a force that can permeate all of our relationships. That’s amazing because if true, then it’s no longer just something we observe and talk about happening between God and Jesus when we’re in church. In fact, if we only talk about this love and share it in church then it isn’t the love between God and Jesus. This love is now something we experience in our own live and it compels us to share it with others in the world.
That’s why images of wind and fire are the only descriptions we have of these event as it is recorded to us. This story sounds a bit fantastic to us with our scientific worldviews, but all it is really communicating is what that miracle felt like that day. When suddenly everyone can sense and be a part of God’s unconditional love in Jesus it feels like fire and wind. Wind and fire have the ability to give energy to things around them. They permeate and change things that seem to be lifeless. A flame leaps up from a dead log on a fire at a church camping trip and punctures the night sky. Wind comes out of nowhere and powers a windmill to create energy or makes a tree’s leaves dance and shimmer.
And that’s what we’re used to, right? Faith that is led by the Spirit leaps up from you and from me, even when the circumstances feel hopeless and joyless to give life the world around us. The Spirit moves us to visit people in prisons and hospitals and homeless shelters where life seems bleak. The Spirit comes from out of nowhere, making us step out of our comfort zones to do ministry with those struggling with poverty and hunger. To the apostles this movement of God’s Spirit was so thrilling and so all-consuming it was a rush of violent wind and fire that touched everyone.
As God’s church, we should be prepared to be like fire and wind in the world, not a building that expects people to come to it. We are a force of good, burning down systems of oppression and discrimination that marginalize people. We are a force of unity, gathering up like a gale-force wind that pulls all kinds of people into one movement.
And that’s why that first Pentecost is a miracle of language more than anything else. All of those thousands Jewish festival-goers who are in Jerusalem for this harvest festival hear and see these apostles moved by God’s Spirit suddenly speaking in different languages. The apostles were Galileans, which was an area not known to be very cosmopolitan. As God’s Spirit took over, these relatively backwoods people were suddenly comprehensible to all of the people who had gathered from all over the world. And they are hearing and understanding these Galileans talk about things that God had done.
This development, this event—that ordinary, everyday people like the apostles from Galilee can be vessels for God’s own Spirit—is so unexpected and so surprising that the only conclusion the onlookers can reach when they observe it is…these people must be drunk. The Spirit’s presence causes the apostles to appear out of step with society, lacking propriety, even. There is no way, they must think, that God would be that generous and that reckless and that risky to entrust his very Spirit with the likes of these people.
And yet God has. It makes me think of the Christmas Eve candlelight service, when there are literally flames glowing on almost every person’s face. It is a risky thing we do with those candles, and many times we hand those candles to young children and have them light it up as well. They sit there and hold it, mystified by the flame but mystified more by the responsibility they have been given with something so powerful! This is the risk God has taken with us—to actually walk out in the world claiming to speak for him and draw all people to him through the things we do.
And the things we do as followers of Christ who are inhabited by the Spirit should probably always look a little out of step with society. The Holy Spirit makes these things feel a little bit natural to us nowadays, but really much of our common life is directed by a wind that blows directly against the habits of culture. Just our act of gathering together on a Sunday morning, whether in person or through livestream, is countercultural. It makes us come off as a little different, behavior that’s not expected nowadays.
In fact, gathering together at all and sharing life in meaningful ways, religious or not, is becoming more and more extraordinary, probably to our detriment (and our country’s detriment). Data show conclusively that for the past fifty years Americans have become less social in just about every way. We gather with friends less than we used to, we gather with family less than we used to, we even go and hang out at bars less than we used to. Perhaps most harmful to us all, Americans now spend 50% less time with their neighbors now than they did in 1970. We are literally not interacting personally with each other in society at the same levels as we were in previous generations.
Against this tide the Holy Spirit continues to gather us together, to pull us out of our isolation, our of our camps of Democrat and Republican, and into spaces where we can share our gifts and offer ourselves in ways that build one another up. Singing together. Pooling our hard-earned money in order to tend to the needs of those around us in our communities. Teaching our children to, under certain circumstances, not just to trust strangers but to love them. When you step back and consider our common life, the Spirit causes us to do things that probably make us look we are filled with new wine.
Each week a preacher typically scours her memory trying to come up with a good real-life example of the Scripture lesson for her sermon. What happened in the last week or so that exemplifies whatever that morning’s lessons are about? Trying to come up with a real-life example of the Holy Spirit for a sermon of the Day of Pentecost is kind of pointless. It’s like trying to think of an example of air. Or of breathing. Everything the church does is the Holy Spirit at work. There isn’t AN example. We are the example now. We are God’s powered people. And like having phones in our pockets or purses that can connect anytime and anywhere…that is a mission and a name we should never take for granted!
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.