We are given two very different Pentecost stories today. The story in Acts 2, with the crowds and the flames and the multiple languages and the accusations of drunkenness, is the familiar one. And with good reason: what a great story it makes! Noise, color, drama: all the elements that make the Bible fun. But then we turn to the Gospel and find a very different story. It isn’t 50 days after Easter, but the evening of Easter Day. It isn’t a public spectacle but a private gathering, behind locked doors, a fearful and grieving group of friends who receive, not tongues of fire but a gentle breeze as Jesus breathes on them, blowing new life into them, giving them direction, raising them from the edge of the tomb and offering the peace that passes all understanding.
The flames of the Acts story seem particularly appropriate today, after another night of protests and looting in cities across this land. But the John story resonates too, with its dynamics of fear, being in lockdown, and the intimacy of breath that can carry either life-giving Spirit or death-dealing virus. And Oh, how we need that peace that passes all understanding, in the midst of this time of rage and grief over the unjust and cruel treatment of people of color.
Today is the birthday of the Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery. We have learned over these last months that Church is not a building. Church is an intentional community of people who would act as the hands and feet of Christ in the world, joined together by their love of God and neighbor, committed to reconciliation, peace, and justice for all of God’s creation. That is what we celebrate today, and what we hope for.
What I love about both of our Pentecost stories is the surprise element. In Acts, the disciples are surprised to hear the Gospel in different languages coming out of their own mouths, while the people around them are stunned to hear good news in words they can understand. In John, the last thing the disciples are expecting on Easter night is for Jesus, whom they have just seen dead on the cross, to show up in their midst, living and breathing and commissioning them to do the work he had been doing, work of healing and forgiveness on God’s behalf.
Our God is the God of surprises. Again and again in Scripture it’s the youngest or the least likely who is called to carry the promise forward and to do great things for God. Jacob, younger twin, morally challenged, becomes the patriarch of the twelve tribes. Joseph, 11th of 12 sons, saves Israel from famine. Ruth, a childless widow from a foreign land, becomes the grandmother of David. David himself, just a boy who watches the sheep, becomes king. Mary, a teenager in a backwater of an occupied territory, is called to bear the son of God. And now a bunch of uneducated would-be revolutionaries receive the gift of tongues and are sent out to preach the Gospel in the language of the people, even to the ends of the earth. If there’s one thing we can count on, it’s that the Holy Spirit will surprise us, will stretch our imagination, will challenge our comfort levels.
And in our own time, who could have imagined a year ago that 100,000 Americans would die from a newly-hatched virus, that the global economy would shudder to a halt, that we would have to adapt our faith practices to online platforms? Who could have imagined even a week ago that protests over police brutality would erupt into violence, just as we were starting to hope that the pandemic might be past its worst. Our world is as deeply broken today as it has even been. While the virus still ravages cities and nations, the forces of division seek to stir up hatred and prejudice; black Americans continue to meet horrendous and undeserved deaths; the poor continue to get poorer, and refugees continue to suffer.
And yet the Holy Spirit abides with us. Our church experience these past three months has been just as dramatic as that of the disciples on the first Pentecost. We have found ourselves preaching the Gospel in ways we never dreamed of, reaching people far beyond the walls of the church building, bringing prayer into people’s homes, even through locked doors of fear and anxiety. And as we let go of expecting people to come to church, instead bringing church to the people, we bring Jesus with us, and we hear his voice all over again, saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus has gifted us with the Holy Spirit and commissioned us to be the church in the world, to learn new languages, to open the locked doors of fear, to make peace, and to allow God to speak through us.
The message of God’s love, once we accept it, is an irresistible source of joy. If we allow Jesus into our locked hearts, we will discover the new gifts that lie dormant within us. If we allow the Spirit to guide our steps we will have a treasure to offer that our neighbors desperately need: a community of love that communicates in every possible language that God is with us, that God is the source of all knowledge and all wisdom, that God desires for us all to be free of fear and live abundantly, to be the beloved community, to embrace all people and create a kinder, more connected, and more loving world.
May 31 2020
The Very Rev. Penelope Bridges