Fifty days have passed since Easter.
It is Pentecost— the day we think about how the gift of the Holy Spirit converted, transformed, renewed, and empowered the followers of Jesus into what we have come to know as the Church…the living, breathing, and fired up community of faith.
Each year on this day, we read that strange and wonder-filled story of what happened.
It is an outlandish tale that includes some history, some vision, and unsettling promise that breathes both hope and threat. It is a story we want to tell each year so we may mark the birthday of the Church.
Many whom we would label “non-liturgical” might ignore this day of celebration,
especially those traditions that mark only Christmas and Easter on their calendars. There are others who let Pentecost pass without note because they live and breathe and shout and sing and dance in the Spirit, every week, noisily, joyously, alive with charismatic gifts and speaking in tongues! Every occasion of worship is a Pentecostal experience for them.
Here we are in the middle, as usual; we are the liturgical folk who keep everything “decent and in order.” We mark the day, re-tell the story, wear red to match the fire’s flames, but also keep the narrative at a safe distance, lest it light a fire under us, enliven too much our normally quiet Presbyterian hearts, or blow us in a direction that seems to us indecent and disorderly! Who wants people to think of us as drunk in the Spirit, or bizarre in our fired up behavior?
The second chapter of Acts has provided the essentials of the event, centering more on mood than a full documentary. Power, confusion, perplexity, amazement—those are conveyed by these few verses. Let us open our hymnals and sing the commentary now, from hymn that re-tells the story, and then prays that somehow God will make the story ours!
(The congregation sings “On Pentecost They Gathered.”)
Fifty days after the Resurrection of Jesus, disciples are gathered together in an upstairs room. Jesus has ascended into heaven, his followers have been meeting for prayer, waiting for some sign, I suppose, that life should go on, and not just life as they had known it before Jesus called them, but life guided by the Spirit whom Jesus had promised would keep them company. I’m sure they mourned, fretted, suffered some days, sick with worry, and yet lived with some unidentified hope, believing promises, leaning on faith. They had even had a little election, casting lots to name a successor to Judas. Matthias was elected, and though we don’t hear much of anything about him,
there are still churches named for him today.
I’ve called this first point in the story “dearth.” I had to have something that went with “wind and fire” and dearth seemed a good wordplay. But it also describes that ragged community of in-betweeners, those who lived between Jesus’ presence and the promised coming of the Holy Comforter, Advocate, Paraclete.
Dearth is defined as absence, scarcity or lack. That’s the word for that community that came together for the Pentecost observance. They are still dealing with a deep sense of loss, the absence of their Good Shepherd and teacher, a lack of clarity about their future, an emptiness of purpose, Peter had tried to bolster their weak spirits,
but they knew Peter ran hot and cold. What they lacked most, I guess, was a sense of mission. Here they are together; for what? If the hymns we sing today are any hint, if the feelings we have today in our own lives, that gnawing sense of spiritual hunger or of an empty place we know God could fill,…if we have ever faced a dearth of faith, a lack of direction, meaning, or purpose— then we must sing with the disciples and psalmists, poets, and hymn writers, Come, Holy Spirit!
Look at all the Pentecost hymns that pray, beckon, call, beg, plead to God,
Fill me with life anew.
Come, Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove.
Come, O Spirit, Dwell Among Us.
Come Down, O Love Divine (seek out this soul of mine).
The first and third verses of our next hymn address the spiritual dearth we encounter in valleys of discouragement, anxiety, hopelessness. Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart. “Stoop to my weakness,” we will sing. And if we don’t have the heart to sing that for ourselves, let us sing it for the fire and storm victims, all people enduring loss, and all who need to feel, really feel, God’s Holy Presence and healing power.
We will pray in this hymn that the Spirit of God will come and help us face, even overcome, “the struggles of the soul,” “rising doubt,” and “rebel sigh.” And that poignant plea that prays, “Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.”
Crash, roar, whoosh!
Do you remember what those word formations are called?
Words that imitate aurally what they stand for.
Even words like breeze and gust fit the images they portray. Breeeezzzze. Gust! In Hebrew there is a word that means wind, that sounds like the wind. With only slight exaggeration, we pronounce that Hebrew word ruach (rooo-aaaccchhhh). At the very beginning of beginnings, in the ancient storyteller’s account of creation, written down in the very first sentence of the Bible, the Hebrew words are translated, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind, ruach, from God swept over the face of the waters.
The opposite of destructive winds that tear loose and endanger and destroy is the power of creative force... the wind of creation that Genesis records, and that the Book of Acts echoes in the story of Pentecost where God sends a rushing wind into the midst of confused and wavering disciples (who, even though they have witnessed signs of the resurrection of Jesus, haven’t yet formed or created anything new or helpful or important). So they wait for some promised epiphany, some sure signal that there is future beyond the perplexing void. Luke writes in his history of the early church, “Suddenly, from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind and it filled the entire house.”
Whether it is the Old Testament or the New, wind means power. And the Hebrew word ruach also means Spirit. Spirit, wind, power. The wind that blew new life into the community of faith — “can it be the same wind which, on the very first morning of all mornings, swept across dark waters, the wind of creation? The wind is again bringing something to life.” [Willimon]
There is Creation. And now, at Pentecost, there is the New Creation, Wind is power, unleashed, and frightening. All were amazed and perplexed. What does this mean?
It means that Jesus’ followers are empowered to be witnesses, to proclaim boldly, to act courageously, to live faithfully, and to die willingly in order that the good news of Jesus Christ fill the earth with God’s grace and justice. God has breathed Spirit into them!
As our worship service began this morning, we sang Thomas Troeger’s hymn Wind Who Makes All Winds That Blow. Did you notice the pronoun: Wind Who… not wind that… Make no mistake: it is not stormy weather that strikes those Christians—it is the coming of God!
As wind can be quiet as a summer breeze, so fire can be gentle as a single flame: a welcoming candle in the window, a calming light against the darkness of night.
As wind can terrorize in a violent storm, raining destruction and threatening life, so fire can be a perilous and uncontrollable force, raging through forests, blazing through homes. Just ask the people of Alberta!
Then as if the rushing, gusting, roaring wind were fanning flames, they saw tongues of fire, flaming zeal and burning truth, souls alight, now refined and purified as something precious, an explosion of power unlike anything the disciples had ever experienced!
They knew of fire as a symbol of the holy:
the primitives saw God as a consuming fire;
God’s covenant with Abram had been sealed with a flaming torch...
God had spoken to Moses from a blazing bush...
through a pillar of fire, God had guided the Israelites out of Egypt...
and the Lord had descended upon Mount Sinai in fire and summoned Moses
to receive the Commandments.
Divine power made manifest by fire in ancient past.
But now that fire, that power, flashed in their eyes and burned in their souls!
The prophet Jeremiah had said the word of the Lord was like fire. And in their own memory, John the Baptizer had foretold that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. And here it was! This was not fire as a symbol of destructive wrath, but a holy flame that purges, purifies, and refines.
Fiery flames baptize and purify a community of the ordinary into the nucleus of an extraordinary community of courageous faith. Thus the power of that Pentecost still breathes and burns in faithful disciples today.
If there was a dearth of direction, lack of a clear mission, scarcity of light and power among those who gathered that day, now they were on fire!
The second two verses of the hymn Come, O Spirit pray that all the sons and daughters of the Church will catch the flame and see the light! Let us make that our prayer for us and for our church!