Ten days ago we marked Jesus Christ’s ascension, his return to the Father. Then today we hear about this tremendous tornado like wind that rushes through the house where Jesus’s followers are staying and, “Divided tongues as of fire” appear and rest on each of them. We’ve called this: Pentecost. God’s Spirit is now made present again just as we heard going “before and behind” in the exodus, that rested over the tabernacle as recorded in Numbers, and that filled the temple in Kings. This same Spirit now hovers over and fills up God’s new dwelling – not a temple, not a church building, but God’s very people. Having entered into relationship with God in Christ through their baptisms, now receiving the Holy Spirit as members of Christ’s body. Being made holy even as we remain sinners here on earth.
The Spirit rushes through like a tornado, but it doesn’t destroy. He burns upon his descent to us, but doesn’t consume. How is this possible? Because Jesus stood in our place. Destroyed and consumed by God’s holy presence at the cross so that God could be present with – take up residence in – us, his temple, his Church, his people. The Holy Spirit fills the disciples and in so doing, they’re able to speak in other languages. If we remember in John’s Gospel especially, Jesus had promised to send the Spirit to empower his church’s witness in the world. So here on this day of Pentecost, we celebrate each year, the ascended Lord keeps his word.
Where does this strange moment fit within the story of redemption? How does it tie the old and new testaments together? How should we understand it? We must begin with the audience in attendance on that day. So just imagine it: here we have pious Jews from “every nation under heaven” in Jerusalem, and they gather around to see the commotion. To their astonishment, these foreigners hear the disciples preaching about God’s mighty works in Jesus in their native tongues.
Now to catch the significance of this, we’ve got to reflect on another part of God’s story with us: Remember what happened with the tower of Babel; God had judged and restrained rebellion by confusing languages and dividing the people. Off they went in their own directions, a theme we hear repeated in Scripture. Remember at the end of the book of Judges, “and the people did what was right in their own eyes.” Think too about how I’ve recounted the last 500 years of our Church’s history of doing precisely that – going off in our own direction, according to our own wishes – we’ve done it as individuals and as a Church, and as divided parts of the Church – right to our present.
What we hear about today is God’s overcoming that self-righteous claim to be right in our own eyes – an idolatry that leads to lack of life and so to a lack of true purpose and meaning. How does this take place? Of course it begins with Jesus’s coming into the world, sent by his Father, it is brought about with his faithfulness which results in his death and his redemption in his resurrection, it is fulfilled in his ascension that we celebrated last week. And the reality of God’s overcoming our self-righteously formed divisions is poured out for us as a promise of reconciliation in his giving us his Spirit, which is what we observe today.
The story we hear today is that God pours out his Spirit not to give us yet another new way to be in the world, but instead to draw us back, that is, by being conformed to Jesus; to draw us back to being conformed to the law and gospel that is fulfilled in Jesus’s own life: to love God, to love neighbor, to love enemy. To love God so that we might come to know him. In his security, being able to let go of the things we cling to – our fears that lead to a sense of self-righteous proclamation, to excluding or harming others – so that instead, we can make room in our lives to love others as Christ loved us. And in loving others, to serve as a catalyst, working in our various gifts as Paul talks about, to share the Holy Spirit, who draws our neighbors and enemies to Christ, who transforms them, shaping them in accordance with Jesus’s own life.
Some of you might have learned that Pentecost is the reversal of Babel. It’s not. It’s actually the overcoming of the consequences of our divisions in culture and language that have lead us to things that still plague us like racism, sexism, hatred, envy, jealously, gossip, sloth, gluttony, pride, and cruelty. It’s the restoration of the kingdom. It is Jesus coming into the world and in his death and resurrection, ending these divisions. Yes, ending them. That is, bringing words and actions that rely on those divisive ways, into the light; showing that they are a failure to heed God’s commandments, therefore bringing them under condemnation.
This in turn gives shape to God’s commandments to love God and neighbor. To love God, one must seek the good of one’s neighbor, and reconciliation with one’s enemy. We are given not just the command, but God’s presence to fulfill it: the Holy Spirit comes amongst us – so we mark at Pentecost – to lead us to live according to Christ’s own life. That is, leading us, guiding us, securing us, giving us the courage to act with the fruits of the Spirit: kindness, gentleness, patience, love, and self-control. Why? Because these are the things Christ did. They are the attributes Christ had that drew others to him, that over turned the harsh, brutal, violent, unfair, disgusting ways of the world as having any validity for the way we treat one another even where there is disagreement, tension, fear, and frustration. We are called and given the Spirit to secure us in our hope in Christ so that we can create space where the Spirit works to transform someone into Christ’s own way of living.
So what do the events of Pentecost mean? Peter’s preaching in Acts seems to imply that this coming of the Holy Spirit, following Christ’s ascension, is a wake up call. It is a call out with respect to how we treat one another – friend, enemy, people of different cultures, of different colored skin, of different language, of different upbringing or class. Why: because as Galatians puts it, “all are equal in Christ Jesus. Distinct? Yes. But equal in being and value and worth.” The Holy Spirit though a comforter, like a good parent, also cuts people to the heart. If what Peter declares in our reading from Acts is true, what must God’s followers, US, do? We must repent—agreeing with God about the sinfulness of their sin and looking in faith to Jesus—and enter the church through the covenant sign and seal of baptism. Having been marked as Christ’s own in baptism, receiving God’s fullness of love – himself – and the forgiveness and life of his indwelling Spirit, we are to love those whom we encounter.
I’ve been talking to you over the years I’ve been here about sharing your gifts; gifts given to you by God, not for your own good, but to bring other people to God; to be a catalyst who allows the Holy Spirit to work through you, to proclaim the universal language of the Gospel, Jesus Christ for all those who are willing to hear, to seek, to follow. How can you, how can we do this in a world where God’s love is so evidently not being fulfilled? To put it in theological terms, how do we witness to the hope of God come in Christ in between Christ’s having come, our living in the Spirit being constantly pointed back to his words and his ways, and this time of waiting for his return where, as we’ve seen particularly in the last few years and months, racism, sexism, and hatred run rampant from the top levels of authority, to the most local?
I think this is a question on everyone’s mind. The world really is a mess. Yet another black man lost his life when a police officer, unprovoked, kneeled down on his neck cutting off the air and blood flow to his brain. In just a few moments – three other police officers standing around watching – a man made in the image of God had his life suffocated out of him. The officer, charged with homicide, is at the center of a firestorm of sadness, anger, and protest that has caused damage to various properties in the Minneapolis area where this occurred. This isn’t an isolated incident. American news of late has been filled with people in positions of authority at the city and State levels, misusing their authority in acts of violence leading to harassment, assault and murder of black individuals, with no justifiable cause. This is far too often the result of what psychologists call, “implicit bias,” by which they mean presupposed assumptions about someone’s guilt based not on evidence, but on false conclusions associated simply with the color of a person’s skin. It is racial profiling and it is sin because the presumptions begin with a failure to recognize others first and foremost as God’s own. As people God made and loves. To act out of presumptions based in fear rather than based in real evidence violates God’s commandment to love neighbor. Why? Because the presumptions made lead to decisions and actions that lack the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
This event has inspired intensive rage for many as you might expect. But God also calls us to refrain from responding out of anger toward our neighbor and to refrain from losing faith and hope in him. God come to us in Christ, and granting us the Holy Spirit calls us to something quite different: he calls us to speak the truth in love.
The truth, in this case, is that while we must take the time to proclaim condemnation of this act in the name of God who gave his life for the sake of all, we must not turn away in fear, in hurt, in anger, or in a sense of helplessness. We must seek to make the places we live just and equal places of safety and opportunity for everyone whom God has made. To do that, we have to work out of hope and faith, not out of fear and cowardice or selfishness. For the one who gave us life and his Spirit to follow him did so out of the courage and conviction of faith; of laying down his life and his capacity to control us. What would it mean for you to live out of hope and faith; to lay down your life for your neighbor who is not of your skin color? Of your culture? Of your class? Is it simply developing a friendship; not an acquaintance, but a real deep friendship with commitments and sacrifices? Is it learning about why ‘implicit bias’ occurs and learning how we can participate in reducing its effect on us and on those we elect into power? Is it sharing in the resources you have? Is it writing to those in government? Is it talking to your neighbors about this? Is it raising awareness that this is occurring with friends and family members? Is it talking to you children and grandchildren? Is it being an ear for someone who is targeted? Is it letting go of biases you have and asking yourself why you hold them? I can’t give you the answer. This is yours to come up with as you pray to God. But I will say this: God did not give us his Spirit for our self-satisfaction and mere comfort. God gave us his Spirit so that confident in God’s love holding us securely, we can risk testifying to the truth in love in order that the world might come to seek and know him. How can we share in this hope in the midst of seeming darkness, to help others navigate a time that can seem so very dark? AMEN.