May 27th – Pentecost Sunday

Today, we are celebrating two important things. The first, of course, is Pentecost Sunday, which commemorates the day on which the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit, and empowered to go out and preach the Good News. And for us, at St. Andrew’s, it is the day when we welcome Xiaolei through the sacrament of Baptism. Both of these days signal a rebirth – the one for the church, and the other for an individual, but neither is less important than the other. Without both Pentecost and Baptism, the church would die. Thanks to Pentecost, the church came to be. And thanks to Baptism all came to be part of the church.
But before we look at Pentecost, at what it meant to the early church, and at what it means to us today, let’s take a look at the Psalm which we just read. The refrain which we sang bears repeating, partly because it is so connected to both the reading from the Acts of the Apostles AND to the Old Testament reading from Ezekiel. Listen to it again: Send forth your Spirit, O Lord, and renew all creation. Now, we know from the account of creation that the Spirit was present then. We are told that the Spirit moved over the waters, and when God breathed life into his creations, they were filled the spirit. In fact, the word for wind or breath was pneuma, which was used also as the word for Spirit. So here we have the psalmist crying out for God’s Spirit to renew all creation. In the Valley of Dry Bones, referenced in our reading from Ezekiel, God breathed his spirit into long dead bodies – so long dead that they were nothing more than dry bones – and they were covered with flesh and revived. This, then, is what happened – in a figurative way – on that first Pentecost.
Can you imagine what it must have felt like, there in the place where all of Jesus’ followers were gathered together? They were afraid. Their Messiah had been crucified, and just fifty days earlier, he had risen from the dead. But now he was gone, and they didn’t know what to do. We are told that there were about 120 of them, a small number compared to the rest of the world. They had been told to wait until the Holy Spirit came upon them, after which they were to be witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. So they huddled together in the upper room, praying and praising God. You see, I think that it is possible – not to mention probable – that they had no clue what was going on, or what was about to happen. They had heard Jesus promise that the Spirit would come, and they probably looked at each other and nodded wisely, but they really didn’t understand or know what to expect. We are all familiar with that. It is something which we all do when someone – our husband or wife or teacher or boss or minister tells us something which we don’t quite understand, and which we don’t bother to get clarified.
And the day of Pentecost came. They had been going about their lives, doing their own thing, and mostly keeping quiet about what had happened, for fear of drawing attention to themselves. It must have been akin to creation all over again – with a violent wind and tongues of fire resting on them. And then came the speaking in tongues. If we compare this to our Sunday worship, there is one thing we can be certain of – whoever these early followers were, they were certainly NOT Presbyterian! In fact, anything LESS Presbyterian would be hard to imagine. Be that as it may, that is what happened on that first Pentecost, and the followers were probably just as amazed by it as modern readers are in the 21st century. Today, we call speaking in tongues glossolalia, and we tend to treat it with some disbelief. You see, according to Paul, there is such a thing as a gift of tongues, or the ability to speak in other languages. But there is also the gift of interpreting divers languages, and if the second is not present, then the first is questionable. But this is very different from what happened on that first Pentecost. On that day, there were present in Jerusalem, people of many nationalities. And each one of them heard the apostles speaking in their native language. If you will remember, going back to the book of Genesis again, at one time mankind spoke one common language. They became so arrogant that they decided to build a tower which would reach into the heavens, so that they would be able to ascend and descend at will. But God sent his messengers among them, and confounded their language so that they could not understand one another, and were not able to complete the tower. Now, here came the Spirit, causing them to be understood by everyone when they spoke. This speaks to the unity which Jesus wanted for the early church. He knew, as do we, especially in this province, how language can serve to separate. And he knew, as we do, especially in this province, how language can serve to unify.
The names mentioned in the reading – which I won’t repeat, as I have managed to say them correctly once today – represented the known world at that time. And, at that moment, they were united in all hearing the same thing, in their own languages. As you noticed, they tried to blame it on drunkenness, but Peter set them straight, quoting from the prophet Joel.
Now, there is something else you must understand, because otherwise you may wonder why there were so many foreigners around, listening to the Good News in their own languages. On that day, which we have come to call Pentecost, Jerusalem was again full of visitors, because this was the day on which everyone celebrated the spring harvest, by giving back of the first fruits in the form of sacrifice at the temple. The reference to Jesus’ followers as “Galileans” doesn’t mean anything to us today, but at that time, it carried a huge meaning to the other people in Jerusalem. Galileans were known as ignorant people, kind of like country bumpkins. So to hear them suddenly become impassioned orators would have been something that would have astounded everyone who heard them. Fortunately, Peter – who seems to have come into his own since Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension – was able to explain things. In his interpretation of Joel’s words, he made a slight change. Joel was, according to the scholars, speaking about the last days, about the time when the world would end. And Peter wants people to be clear on the fact that the world as they have known it – HAS ended, that it is no longer something to be anticipated, but something which is here. And it is still here today – here in Quebec City, in the Presbyterian Church in Canada.
Those who were gathered together were faithful Jews, looking for a Jewish Messiah. They had no more intention of starting a new church than did Calvin or Knox or Luther. They saw a need for reform, which is something we, as Presbyterians, continue to recognize. It is no longer enough to say: We’ve always done it this way. The time has come for us – just as it did for the followers of Jesus – to change, to become open to rebirth. And this is what the first Pentecost was all about – not a new birth, but a rebirth, not a new covenant, but a renewed covenant, one which would change the minds and hearts of the apostles and other followers of Christ, and which would renew the face of the earth.
This is, indeed, Good News for us on this celebration of Pentecost, as the PCC prepares for its General Assembly. It is at the General Assembly that we make changes in our church. Remember, the motto of the PCC is: always reformed, always reforming, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And we took this from the first Pentecost. The followers of Jesus, who were not yet called Christians, started the first great reform. And that reform is continuing.
Think, for a minute, of those people who have become members of St. Andrew’s in the past year. Think of those who have been baptized, including Xiaolei. And multiply that by all of the Presbyterian churches in Canada. All of these people are part of this reform, this rebirth. And they come from many different places, geographically and culturally. Ask yourself what it is which draws them to the church at this time. Many of them have not been raised in the church, and yet they have chosen to become a part of it. What are the visions that these young people see, and what are the dreams that the “old” members still dream, dreams that they long to share and build on with the youth? How might their arrival bring a shaking up of the church, as so often happens with the creative and renewing energy of the Spirit? For, make no mistake, these new members have ideas and visions, and want to share them with the rest of us.
Marcus Borg, with whom I often disagree, sometimes says things which I not only accept, but want to endorse. In his book Reading The Bible Again For The First Time, talked about how the first Pentecost served to undo the damage which was done during the attempted building of the Tower of Babel, by bringing together the broken, divided community that was humankind. Ask yourself in what way our church and our community needs to be reunited and brought together. There are divisions in the Presbyterian Church, and General Assembly is one of the ways we attempt to deal with it. It is at General Assembly that we air our differences, and explore solutions. It is my hope that the Spirit of God will be at the meetings, so that we will understand and accept each other. Even though we will not be divided by language, there will still be times when we will fail to communicate effectively. This is part of being human, but we need to rise above that. We need to open our hearts and minds to the Spirit, and recognize that a new day has come.
Those of us who have been present at a birth know that it really isn’t quiet and peaceful. Nor is rebirth. Phyllis Tickle, the founding editor of the Religion Department of Publishers’ Weekly, is herself an authority on religion in North America. In her book The Great Emergence, she reflects on what she sees as the regular ‘garage sale’ that the church experiences every five hundred years or so. She looks at the church today and sees the possibility that we are in fact in the middle of one of those inspired, cosmic rummage sales: a refocusing of our hearts and minds on what the good news means in our own day, while honoring the contributions of those who have gone before us. This can be a time of great renewal for the church and the individual churches, an opportunity for re-examination of the fundamental questions and a re-commitment to a renewed living of our faith. Is it perhaps a time for our ‘sons and daughters to prophesy,’ for our ‘young to dream dreams’ and our ‘old to see visions,’ for an outpouring of Spirit that calls from tomorrow overwhelming our preconceived notions and neat perceptions in favor of the expansive and inclusive reign of God?
If we look only at our own church – at St. Andrew’s – we see great diversity, in culture, and in language. These differences could separate us, or they could help us to grow together. Differences can actually enrich and enliven what we share, if we can reach across what separates us, not only in language and culture but also in religious upbringing, economic class, educational background, and basic personality types. If we learn to communicate effectively, to hear what God is still speaking today, we will hear a call, together, that may astound us and gather us into something more effective and more amazing that we were before.
The whole idea of Pentecost is something that, although it is foreign to us, can enrich us, and by enriching us, enrich the church. There is a moment in all of our lives when belief comes alive. For the Apostles and other followers of Jesus, it happened on that first Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on them in tongues of flame, with a rush of wind. For some people, it still happens in that way, but that is not the only way in happens. For John Wesley – the founder of Methodism – it came when he was listening to Martin Luther’s Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and he felt his heart “strangely warmed”. For me, it often happens with music, as when I am listening to one of the great hymns of the church or to one of the modern praise songs. It can happen in church or out of church. It can happen in the company of others or when we are alone. For some people, it happens when they look on the face of their new-born child, while for others it can happen at the moment of death, when we see the look on the face of the person who finally sees God. Whenever and however it happens, it changes lives. Sure, we may fight it. We don’t really want to be changed, as we are quite comfortable the way we are, thank you very much. But God will not leave us alone. He will not let us rest on our laurels. He wants change, for without change comes stagnation, and that is not what we are all about, as Presbyterians.
And however it happens, we know when it happens. We can feel the Spirit moving within us, and as it moves in us, it flows through us to others. It is like the wind; it is like the gentle flapping of a dove’s wings; it is like fire; t is like a river; it is like a still small voice. And, as we prepare for the General Assembly, let us pray on this Pentecost Sunday that the Spirit will move within the commissioners, and within the congregations they serve, so that whatever is decided will be for the good of the church and for the rebirth of the church. Thanks be to God.


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