In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I come from the very windy state of Oklahoma, windy enough that our state song describes Oklahoma as the place where the wind comes sweeping down the plains. The wind is literally always there to some extent, and you come to accept it and live by its rules. So eating outside demands intricate strategies for securing napkins and every home video of your little league games sounds like dad was filming next to a window unit. When the wind changes, every Oklahoman knows it in their bones that there is more change to come. If the new wind brings with it the smell of ozone, that’s when you go inside to “turn on the weather” and watch the formidable red blob on the radar lay siege to your town as your favorite meteorologist -- and you have a favorite -- narrates the action for you. Oklahomans are instinctively responsive to the wind because the wind determines the change.
Pentecost reminds me of that. Our Epistle lesson from the Book of Acts begins like this: “When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” The wind brought with it the presence of God, the Holy Spirit, and as the wind filled the room, the Holy Spirit filled the disciples. Languages not their own were suddenly spoken, though I imagine everyone having to speak up so as to be heard over the deafening sound of the wind. Hardly confined to the house, this wind was so intense that it caught the attention of a whole crowd which then was filled with the Spirit itself. They were bewildered, “because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” The wind changed, and with it, the Spirit changed the very nature of human communication. Language was no longer a barrier, a structure of division and incomprehension; it was now an orchestra conducted in perfect harmony. The topic of conversation is itself significant. The crowd is astonished not only by the fact that people from numerous countries can understand one another, but that what they hear are testimonies to “God’s deeds of power.” This is not a coincidence. The implication here is not that a diverse group of people are suddenly able to speak to each other and then they just so happen to talk about God. There is something way more profound being revealed here: that the proclamation of God’s work is what is spoken by humanity that is at one with itself
Silencing the skeptics and the critics of this strange gathering, Peter stands up because he recognizes what he is witnessing in front of him. He’s heard about this before.
Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say…. this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
What has happened in the crowd is merely a foretaste, a demonstration of what will in fact come to pass in all places, upon all flesh. The wind of the Spirit will demand the whole world’s attention soon enough.
The standard teaching of the Church about Pentecost is that this is the day when the Church is founded. The Holy Spirit descends and gathers together this random collective of people and fills it, bestowing the gifts of the Spirit among them. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, self-control. As the common gift of the community, these gifts are enjoyed as they are shared. All things held in common. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Church then proceeds to preach the Gospel to all nations, incorporating ever more members into itself to share in the divine life of the Spirit. That’s the standard teaching, but it got me thinking about what might inhibit us specifically from fully understanding this event of Pentecost.
It is difficult for modern people to grasp the radical significance of the pouring of the Holy Spirit upon all flesh. We have a false sense of familiarity with the world as a whole, mediated to us by constant images of far off places and far off events. It gives us the illusion that everywhere is basically the same and that any place is no place in particular. And if every place is the same, neither holy nor profane, what difference would the Holy Spirit make?
If this is our framework, Christianity devolves into a self-centered exercise in maintaining our institutions. And the Gospel becomes all about establishing the Christian brand of the thing that makes us nice and decent people, which again, just so happens to be what every other religion is about anyway. And once we cease to believe that we actually have anything truly unique to offer the world, we’re left marketing our products according to whatever is deemed desirable to the public out there somewhere. Such a Church becomes one that is preoccupied with its own survival to the neglect of the life of the world. And no particular church is immune to this temptation, Emmanuel included. We stand in constant danger of being distracted away from the presence of the Spirit in our midst. Of losing sight of how radical and unexpected Pentecost really was.
Before the Incarnation of Christ, the presence of God was defined by its absolute separation. Holiness demanded distance from that which was profane. In fact, in the Old Testament, not even the whole people of God could access God directly. God’s holiness was shrouded in cloud and fire. Only the priest could enter into the Holy of Holies in the temple, the place where God dwelt, on behalf of the people. Think also of Moses ascending the holy mountain alone to converse with God as the sole appointed representative of the people. And this was not just because the Old Covenant was a primitive and exclusive ancient religion that we have fortunately evolved past from. For an all-holy God to become present among people as God is a terrifying thing. No one can see God and live. Thus the direction that the holiness of God pointed was away from all that was profane. Away from the nations, away from the common life of the people, even away from the sacred ministers set apart. But everything changed when God became human. In the Incarnation, God changes directions and instead of setting the exclusive terms under which people can approach, descends in love in order to be God with us. Because God took the initiative in entering the world among us, God radically changed the terms. No longer was the people of God defined by its separation from the Gentiles, and it certainly would no longer be defined by earthly hierarchies. This is why the prophecy from Joel is so important to Peter at Pentecost: sons and daughters, young and old, even the lowly, the slaves will receive the Spirit and speak out in prophecy.
There is now nothing in principle that excludes any person on earth from sharing the divine life of the Spirit. Nor is there anything natural that cannot be elevated to a new spiritual purpose in the Church. The holiness of God is now open. Thus the mission of the Church to preach the Gospel to all nations proceeds directly from this truth. And what is the Gospel? The Gospel is nothing less than the divine life of the Triune God manifesting itself in the world as a supreme gift. This gift, which is God becomes available and accessible to humanity in a radically new way such that humanity can now be lifted above what is proper to them as mere creatures. Filled with grace, people are cleansed from the sin which obstructs their union with God and given the power of reconciliation. Thus people can actually have a share in the divine life. This means that the Gospel is not reducible to worldly phenomena nor is it even comprehensible in their terms. The Gospel is not something that can be subjected to human evaluation as a specimen. Instead, it evaluates us, subjects us and the whole world to its standards and judgment.
The Gospel is proclaimed from out of this new social community that the Spirit founds on this day of Pentecost. In the Church, “the Spirit of God has now begun to exercise… that new immanence and transforming power which will finally be manifest in the whole universe,” as one writer put it. We have no reason to exist as a Church beyond our participation in this transforming power of the Spirit. So receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit that have been imparted here. Proclaim the deeds of power that God has worked in your life and in the life of this community. And rejoice in the holy comfort of God the Holy Spirit. Amen.