Acts 2:1-21 | Psalm 104:24-34, 35b | Romans 8:22-27 | John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
We all know what it’s like to wait for someone. You make a plan to meet at a coffee shop at 9:30, you get there right on time, find a seat, and begin to wait. The clock hits 9:35, 9:40, 9:45. You begin to wonder, did they forget about the meeting? You check your calendar, did you get the day right, the time, the place? Sometimes they’re running late, sometimes they forgot. Until they show up, or it becomes obvious that they aren’t coming, you aren’t sure. You’re stuck waiting.
This is only compounded when you’ve never met the person before and you don’t know what they look like. Are they already at the shop and you don’t recognize them? What’s their personality like? Are they just a laidback person who thinks meeting times are more like guidelines? The uncertainty of waiting is only intensified when you’re not sure what to expect.
Today is Pentecost Sunday, when we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out on the disciples. Every year on the last Sunday of the Easter Season, we hear the story of Pentecost depicted in Acts 2. It signals the end of the Easter Season and the beginning of Ordinary Time, also called the Season After Pentecost, which is the longest season in the church calendar. We will be in Ordinary Time until Advent starts at the beginning of December.
While Pentecost is a day celebrating the arrival of the Holy Spirit, it’s preceded by waiting. In our reading from the Gospel of John this morning, Jesus tells the disciples about the Holy Spirit, or the “Advocate,” who will come, but hasn’t come yet. They have to wait for her.
Our Gospel reading this morning comes from the same setting as last week’s reading – Jesus eating his last supper with his disciples before his crucifixion. Last week we talked about how Jesus was preparing them, and possibly himself, for his impending departure. In the section we heard this morning, Jesus tells them that while he’s going away, they won’t be left alone. The Holy Spirit will come, and he says this will be to their advantage.
Then, after his resurrection, right before he ascended, Jesus again told the disciples to await the coming of the Holy Spirit. In Acts 1 he tells the disciples, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to all the ends of the earth.” Once again, Jesus is telling them to wait.
Can you imagine what it would be like to be the disciples? What a rollercoaster they’ve been on! After following Jesus for 3 years, they saw him crucified, then he was resurrected and appeared to them. After the resurrection he again spent time with them, ate meals with them, and began to teach them. Maybe they thought things were going to carry on as they had before the crucifixion? But then Jesus leaves them again, this time for an indefinite amount of time. Today, we’re still waiting for that return. And the disciples are left with no known presence of God. Of course, we believe God is always present, but they aren’t experiencing God the way they did when Jesus was among them. They’re left in this strange in-between place, Jesus has gone, but the Holy Spirit hasn’t yet come. They’re stuck waiting.
They must have wondered what exactly they were waiting for. Like meeting someone at a coffee shop for the first time, they’re not sure what to expect. How would this Advocate appear? What would she look like? Would they recognize her?
Well, it turns out, they will definitely recognize her, and they never could have guessed how she would make her entrance. Our reading from Acts depicts the scene.
The disciples are huddled in a home, waiting. Then all of a sudden there is a sound “like the rush of a violent wind,” and tongues of fire appear and rest on each of them, and they all start speaking in other languages.
Brie and I know something about waiting right now. Brie just had her last day of work this week. Her primary task is now to wait, to wait until that little baby (who’s getting less and less little every day!) decides to make their appearance. Like the disciples, Brie and I are awaiting an encounter, a touching of lives. Like the disciples we know it’s coming, but like the disciples, we don’t know when. Like the disciples, we don’t know exactly what to expect. We’ve heard about other people’s experiences, and the disciples had heard a little bit about what to expect from Jesus, but in both cases, neither group can be fully prepared until the event takes place. We find the disciples waiting in a home, and that’s where Brie and I are doing most of our waiting as well, in our home. And when the event takes place it will be, well, intense. It turns out, birthing new life – whether it’s a new baby, or new life in the Spirit – is a chaotic experience. There’s no way Brie will give birth without realizing it, just as there’s no way the Spirit will break into the world without the disciples knowing it.
In fact, the Spirit’s descending on the disciples at Pentecost is so loud, and makes such a commotion, that all the Jews who were in town from different countries hear it, and come to see what’s happening. They find the disciples speaking, and each of them hears what the disciples are saying in their own language. Some people think they’re drunk, but Peter gets up and begins to preach. Unfortunately, the lectionary cuts his sermon short, because if we were to keep reading, we would see that Peter begins to testify – begins to tell the story of his own encounter with Jesus of Nazareth.
If we look back at our reading from John, we’ll see that this is just what Jesus predicted. He said, “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.” Jesus said that the Spirit would come, that the Spirit would testify to the truth, and that the disciples would also testify because they had been with Jesus throughout his ministry. But what does it mean to testify?
To testify means to speak out of experience. When we offer a testimony, we speak of what we have seen and heard, what we’ve perceived. To testify is to speak of an encounter. In a religious sense, to testify is to speak of an encounter with God.
Professor and pastor Anna Carter Florence says that testimony is actually the preferred mode of communication in Scripture. While current, Western theology focuses on philosophical ideas that intellectualize God, she says that the Old Testament writings “most closely resemble testimony, or telling about what Israel has seen and heard and received from God.”[i]
But, she says, testimony isn’t just limited to the Old Testament. Most of the New Testament is also based on testimony. She says, “The Gospels stress that descriptions of Jesus of Nazareth are historical events; they actually took place. Witnesses testify to what they have seen and heard; a woman at the tomb, a disciple at Pentecost, the risen Lord, the apostle Paul.”[ii]
In other words, our Scriptures, the stories that shape our faith, are not so much philosophical or theological treatises as they are stories of encounter, testimonies of a God who shows up in the midst of life and has real interactions with human beings. They’re less about who God is and more about what God has done and is doing, and how God has been experience.
They are about the touching of lives, the times and places where God’s life touched the lives of particular people.
If we really think about it, this is a scary thought. It’s much safer to talk about God as an idea. It’s safer to speak of Jesus as a role model. It’s easier to make the Gospel a transactional set of beliefs we assent to: you’re a sinner, Jesus died for your sins, now you’re forgiven and you can go to heaven. If you believe all this, sign on the dotted line.
But to base our faith on a God we encounter? That seems a little too woo-woo, a little too mystical. It seems much easier to avoid that line of thinking. It seems much safer to base our faith on a set of beliefs.
And that’s true, it’s safer to base our faith on beliefs. The arrival of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 is anything but safe. It’s chaotic and disconcerting. The Spirit comes with the sound of a violent wind and the appearance of fire, separating and landing on the heads of all the disciples (chapter one tells us there are 120, not just 12). Then they all start talking at once, and all the people who hear them hear them speaking in their own language.
This encounter with God is loud and chaotic and maybe even awkward, but not only is it shocking and overwhelming in the moment, the implications of what just happened are also shocking and overwhelming. The Holy Spirit spills over the boundaries thought to be insurmountable. The Spirit crosses over boundaries of place and culture and even language.
It is, once again, about the touching of lives. The lives of those who never were supposed to intersect with one another are brought into close contact – they touch one another.
This week, as I pondered this story of Pentecost, God brought a number of people who were different from me across my path. Some of these experiences I really appreciated because it was easy to see the beauty in our difference, others were weird, and others were troubling. I realized that it’s easy to romanticize difference, but the truth is, sometimes being around people who are different than you is beautiful and sometimes it’s very uncomfortable.
From the beginning – and this story from Acts is the beginning of the Church – the Spirit is in the business of bringing all people in, regardless of background, regardless of differences.
It’s about the touching of lives, the life of the Spirit reaching out to us, encountering us, and bringing us into encounters with one another.
And the Spirit has no intention of making us all the all the same. The kingdom of heaven isn’t a kingdom where everyone looks and thinks and talks the same, but one where people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…” (Rev. 7:9) are united in Christ, brought together by the Spirit who fell like fire on these early disciples.
The Spirit values difference. The church should be marked by difference. That’s the beauty of it. People who walk by on a Sunday morning should say, “What do all those people have in common? Why are young and old; black, brown, and white; men and women; gay and straight; cisgendered and transgendered; rich and poor and in-between doing together?”
This is, of course, an important word for us today, in a world being torn apart by differences, a world that sees difference as a reason for violence. 60 Palestinian protesters, including 6 children were killed by Israeli forces this week. I also saw a video that went viral this week of a man in a New York restaurant verbally attacking a waiter and two women customers for speaking in Spanish. This week our country’s leadership one again demeaned immigrants by referred to some (or all, depending on how you understood the context) immigrants as animals. And on Friday another atrocious school shooting took place, leaving 10 teenagers dead. So many people have forgotten to see the humanity of others. So many people are scared of difference.
How many people saw the Yanny vs. Laurel thing? Who heard what? While this was a funny game to play, it was extremely fitting that it came out this week – a week when we all heard the same things, the same news reports, and yet people came to completely different conclusions.
This is all contrary to the work of the Spirit in Acts. While we hear the same thing and come away with different conclusions, the Spirit takes people who are saying different things – speaking in different languages – and brings them to the same conclusion: the knowledge of Jesus Christ. The Spirit unites them through their testimonies. They find that, despite their differences, their lives are not so different. Their lives touch in so many places, in so many ways.
Our differences are something to be celebrated, not hated or feared. The Spirit brings us together to learn from one another. Peter and the other disciples didn’t speak the same language as many of the Jews who were visiting Jerusalem, but their unique stories about Jesus were able to change the lives of those who heard them. The testimonies of those who aren’t like us, who speak different languages, eat different food, and worship in different ways, in concert with the Holy Spirit, have the ability to speak a life-changing word to us as well.
And our stories have the ability to speak life into others, into all those we come in contact with. We carry, in our own testimonies, the hope that Paul speaks of in Romans, a hope that the world desperately needs in dark times such as these. We carry a message of unity in the midst of divisions. We carry an affirmation that all people are made in the image of God in the midst of systems based on the dehumanization of the other. We carry love when so many have opted for hate. We embody peace in the face of violence.
Paul speaks for us all when he says the whole of creation continues to groan in labor pains, and that we also groan inwardly while we wait. As we see the evil breaking forth in our world, we are, once again, waiting.
Ordinary Time, the Season After Pentecost, is the longest season in the church calendar. This makes sense, because it’s the season most like our reality, it’s ordinary. It’s the time, for the most part, in between encounters, in between Easter and Advent. It’s long, and sometimes monotonous. And yet, it’s shaped by Pentecost. It is the season after Pentecost. It is the season marked by the presence of the Holy Spirit. It’s the season shaped by God’s constant presence with us and in us, so that we are always ever in contact with the Divine, our lives touching.
We live between the stories we have and the stories to come. We live between what has been and the hope for what will be. We wait, and the Spirit waits with us. We groan and the Spirit groans with us.
[i] Anna Carter Florence, Preaching as Testimony, 70
[ii] Anna Carter Florence, Preaching as Testimony, 63.