Pentecost was an important Jewish festival and one of the times that the faithful traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate Israel’s liberation from Egypt.
Pentecost literally means “fifty days.” The day of Pentecost comes 50 days after the Jewish Passover. In the Christian tradition, Pentecost concludes what we call the Great 50 Days of the Easter season and affirms and celebrates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus.
Pentecost is also associated with the birth of the Church.
At Christmas, we talk about the birth of the Christ Child as Emmanuel, “God with us.” Pentecost is a time to remember that God is still with us in Jesus the Christ through the experience of the Holy Spirit.
The book of Acts is a story about how the church begins after Jesus has died, been resurrected and returned to heaven. And what is left is this group of Jesus’ followers who are very different from one another and have very little in common with one another. They speak different languages, they come from different cultures, and suddenly they become the church.
The Scripture says they were visited by the power of the Holy Spirit and that’s when the possibilities began to be revealed. Suddenly the people were able to speak to each other in different languages, but understand in their own language.
Our Pentecost story comes from the second chapter in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, the first 18 verses.
When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.
There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!”
They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”
Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your young will see visions.
Your elders will dream dreams.
Even upon my servants, men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
There is a story about two men having coffee together one day. They talked about their work and their families and eventually they came around to being reminded of how blessed they were in their lives. They continued to talk about the blessings of good health and decent homes to live in and the gift of their spouses and children.
After they had finished, one of the men was feeling overwhelmed with thankfulness for his wife. She was bright, articulate, personable, kind and thoughtful. He was thinking that he probably had not expressed his love and appreciation for her as often as he should have. So, he started making plans to surprise her that evening when he got home.
He went to one of her favorite stores and purchased an outfit that she had been admiring, and even had the sales clerk help him pick out accessories to go with the outfit. He ordered tickets to a theatre production she wanted to see, he made reservations for dinner at her favorite restaurant, arranged for a babysitter for the kids and then picked up a dozen roses on the way home.
When he arrived home, he burst through the door, hugged his wife, told her how much he loved and appreciated her and about all that he had done.
Immediately, his wife began sobbing, but they didn’t seem like tears of joy. The man said, “What’s wrong; why are you crying? I thought you would be surprised and happy.”
To this his wife replied, “This has been the worst day. I had an awful day at work, some of my coworkers were obnoxious and others were unreasonable. On top of that, things have been even worse here at the house. The kids have been absolutely terrible since they got home from school, and the dog spent the day chewing on the carpet. Besides that, the washing machine broke down again and now, to top it all off, surprise of surprises…you have come home drunk!”
Like the well-intentioned husband, trying to do something wonderful for his spouse, something wonderful happened on the Day of Pentecost and some tried to dismiss it, saying, “Oh, don’t pay any attention to those followers of Jesus. They’re just drunk with new wine…ignore them!”
But those first followers of Jesus were not drunk and they would not be ignored. They were filled, not with new wine, but with new power, new courage, new enthusiasm, new hope, and new confidence, because they were filled with the Holy Spirit of God!
Let’s remember the story of Pentecost. We get the sense that there is a chaotic crowd…people from all over; all kinds of people; high-spirited people who had come to celebrate the great Jewish festival 50 days after Passover. While all this was happening, the disciples of Jesus were gathered together in one place.
Over the last 50 days the disciples had experienced the agony and grief of the crucifixion of Jesus. They had experienced the hope and elation of the resurrection, then the risen Christ had appeared to them a number of times and finally they had watched as Jesus ascended into heaven.
Now, the disciples were gathered and waiting in prayer. Suddenly, a sound came that was like the rush of a mighty wind. The Spirit of God touched them, and suddenly they began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability.
A crowd gathered to see what was going on and an amazing thing happened.…Each one in the crowd heard these followers of Jesus describing their experiences of God; and each person, regardless of their land of origin, heard the message in their own language and could understand it.
Perhaps this is one of the real gifts of Pentecost…the gift of understanding. It is clear in our story today that this extremely diverse group of people were overcome by something powerful and wonderful and in the midst of that power and wonder was the gift of understanding…And with understanding comes possibilities.
You may know the Old Testament story of Babel in the Book of Genesis. At Babel, the people out of their own ambition, arrogance and pride were trying to build a tower into the sky to seek life independent from God. In response, the story tells us that God steps in and confuses their languages so that no one could understand each other.
The gift of understanding at Pentecost overcame the curse of Babel.
At Pentecost the Holy Spirit came with power and wonder; and for a moment provided the gift of understanding that overcame human differences. That diverse crowd heard the good news of God’s love for them as they were and where they were, and they were never the same again.
Then Peter empowered by the Holy Spirit, found the courage and voice he needed to address the crowd and say that the followers of Jesus were not drunk, but were people filled with the Spirit of God and that they were speaking the truth about their experience of God.
You remember Peter? Peter the fisherman. Peter, who tried to walk on water. Peter the disciple who publicly denied Christ.
On the Day of Pentecost, Peter the denier became Peter the preacher, transformed by the Spirit.
It is the same Spirit that can transform our lives as well. The Holy Spirit specializes in imperfect people like you and me and Peter. The Holy Spirit speaks our language.
Pentecost means that God’s gracious presence through the Holy Spirit has an amazing and unexpected impact on all who open themselves to God and allow the possibilities of the Spirit to break through.
The endless possibilities that come when we allow the Holy Spirit to blow into our lives and our interactions with one another is my prayer for the work of our UM General Conference that is currently meeting in Portland, OR.
I have been watching some of the proceedings streamed live over the internet the last few days and some of it has left me disappointed and being drawn deeper into prayer for our denomination.
One of the gifts and blessings of The United Methodist Church is that we are a multi-national, world-wide body. One of the challenges of The UMC is that we are a multi-national, world-wide body.
Just like the people gathered from every nation with their multiple languages in our Pentecost scripture today; our General Conference is gathered from multiple nations around the world. Much of the proceedings in the first few days of the conference has been bogged down by language differences, confusion with understand and interpretation; and a high level of distrust among God’s people.
Much of the lack of understanding and inability to speak with one another in meaningful and compassionate ways has centered around complicated and contentious legislation when it comes to issues of sexuality and how we will include or not include all God’s people in the full life of The United Methodist Church.
Still, Pentecost means that God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is with us in the midst of all things, including our lowest moments of frustration, fear, anger, and uncertainty.
Pentecost means that God’s love really is for all people.
Pentecost means that suddenly the differences between us, whether they be in language, or ethnicity, or lifestyle, or identity, or economic status, or physical ability, or mental health, are not something to fear but something to appreciate about God. And this appreciation can lead to endless possibilities.
When we recognize the movement of the Holy Spirit in our midst we are experiencing the possibilities of Pentecost.
I’m convinced that we have these Holy Spirit or Pentecost moments all the time; we may just have other names for them; like coincidence or good luck, or being in the right place at the right time. We can call it anything we want, but once we really get in tune with the Holy Spirit, the movement or nudging of the Spirit becomes more and more clear to us.
There is a movie from back in 1961 titled “Whistle Down the Wind,” starring at the time the child star, Hayley Mills. The movie has a story line and plot with a powerful message.
Two young girls discover a man sleeping in the hay loft of a country barn. They have no idea that the man is actually an escaped convict who is in prison for murder. One of the little girls asks the sleeping man, “Who are you?” The man jerks awake and seeing the children, mutters the name “Jesus Christ!”
What he meant as an expletive, the children take as the literal truth. They are convinced that the man is Jesus and for the rest of the movie they treat the man with respect and love.
They bring him food and blankets; they sit and talk with him, and tell him about their lives. At one point the man asks the little girls, “Why are you helping me?” to which they reply, “Because we love you.”
In time the tenderness of the little girls transforms the man, who has never before known such mercy.
What a wonderful story to go with the great story of Pentecost that tells us that the Holy Spirit of God is filled with possibilities that can transform our lives.
The Spirit of God came into the world on that first Pentecost and continues to come into a world where many people are gripped by fear, overwhelmed by chaos, burdened by their own lives, paralyzed by the wideness of God’s love, or stigmatized for who they are.
The story of Pentecost encourages us to see the possibilities of what can happen among God’s people when we are filled with the presence of God through the power of the Holy Spirit.
May it be so for each of us on this Day of Pentecost and in this Pentecost season.
Thanks be to God.