Thompson’s Sermon from May 27, 2012

May 30, 2012

Acts 2:1-21

1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 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. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs–in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” 14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17 ‘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. 18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

You may not have had any interest in the latest space news, but a private company has recently launched a spacecraft that has successfully docked with the International Space Station. I don’t pay a lot of attention to space exploration news, but I find this to be a pretty compelling story. It’s some interesting technology, and I think it’s opened a door to a new world of sorts. I’m guessing it will be possible to buy a ticket for a ride in to the heavens above before long. They’re going to have to get their capsule back to earth with a relatively soft landing before they will be able to sell many tickets, but I sense that this is on it’s way. It will be interesting to see how much one of those tickets will cost, but I’m guessing there’s a market out there for such a ride.

I mention this because I’m sort of struck by both the parallels and the contrasts between the launch of this spacecraft and the Day of Pentecost as reported in the Book of Acts. Both events were accompanied by lots of wind noise and fire, and each represent a form of interaction between heaven and earth, but there are some significant differences as well. The exclusiveness involved in space-travel is in pure contrast to the profoundly unifying and equalizing action of the Holy Spirit, and while there is a game-changing aspect of this new space endeavor, it doesn’t touch the extent of change that came with this other noisy firey thing we call the Day of Pentecost. It’s not our ability to penetrate the heavens that that gives me hope – it’s the Spirit that came from Heaven to penetrate our world that gives me hope.

I’m impressed by the ingenuity of human beings to navigate a capsule in outer space, but I take comfort in the wisdom of God, who continues to find ways to help us learn to live together here on earth.

There’s some history behind this event we call Pentecost that’s interesting to me. The word, Pentecost, has nothing to do with wind, or fire, or spirit. It comes from a Latin word that means fifty, and it refers to a Jewish festival that took place 50 days after Passover. But this Jewish festival of Pentecost was probably some kind of harvest festival that predated the formation of the Jewish community in Israel. In other words, what was once a pagan harvest festival became known as the Festival of Pentecost in the Jewish community, and while it still had some harvest festival connotations it was also given a religious identity and it became one of the three major Jewish religious festivals. This was one of the events that all good Jews were expected to show up for at the Temple in Jerusalem.

As I said, the Festival of Pentecost takes place 50 days after Passover, which is 7 weeks after Passover, and the date of Passover always coincided with the beginning of the barley harvest. The Festival of Pentecost is sometimes called the Festival of Weeks because it took seven weeks to harvest their different grains, so it still functioned as a harvest celebration, but it also took on religious significance. The Feast of Pentecost commemorated the giving of the law to Moses at Sinai.

You won’t be tested on all of this at the end of today’s service, but I think it is sort of interesting to think of the ways in which an ancient harvest festival evolved into a Jewish religious festival that marks the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai. And while all of these devout Jews were in Jerusalem for the Festival of Pentecost this remarkable thing happens that gives birth to the church and a whole new connotation to this word Pentecost.

So this event that began as a harvest festival took on a name that made reference to fifty and now that name is given to a day that we think of as being full of rushing wind and firey tongues. We United Methodists along with many other denominations associate the Day of Pentecost with the arrival of the Holy Spirit, and it happens 50 days after Easter, so there is still some connection with fifty, but it’s sort of an amazing progression. It would have been hard to predict that this word that means fifty and was originally connected to the seven weeks of harvest would end up playing such a large role in the church. It’s sort of amazing that this word that means 50 in Latin is on giant houses of worship where people speak in unusual tongues, but that’s where we are today.

And while I have no idea why this Latin word meaning fifty has come to represent everything from the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses to a hair style and a way of worshiping it’s easy for me to trust that God continually works with who we are, where we are, and what we are doing to move us toward holy communion with each other and with God.

I believe that God was behind the arrival of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments weren’t heavy-handed rules that came from a power-hungry God who wanted to tell people what to do. The Ten Commandments came to the Israelites as a gift from God to help them live together in harmony. These Ten Commandments were what enabled the Israelites to hold themselves together. The Israelites were liberated at Passover, but they would have dispersed if they hadn’t had good instruction on how to live together.

Over time, the rules took on a life of their own, and the Jewish community came to be oppressed by these regulations. The Jewish leaders had come to replace obedience to God with adherence to religious details, and one of the most significant things Jesus did was to identify this distortion of the faith. And this was the most dangerous thing Jesus did. The religious leaders of Israel had tremendous power. They had the power to say who was in proper observance of the laws and consequently who was in or out of God’s favor. They determined people’s access to God, and that’s not what God intended. This good gift of basic guidelines on how to live in relationship with God and with one another had turned in to a barrier to God and community, and Jesus found it necessary to break this deathly pattern.

Of course this resulted in his own death, but it was a death that brought new life. Jesus didn’t die in vain, Jesus revealed that access to God is not rooted in following religious protocols but through the exercise of profound trust in God and love for other people. The truth of this way of living was profoundly revealed on Easter morning, but just as the Israelites needed some instruction after they were delivered from slavery in Egypt, the followers of Jesus needed some instruction after they were delivered from the tyranny of religious legalism.

And that’s what happened on the Day of Pentecost. God didn’t leave it up to Peter and the other disciples to try to map out this new community on their own. They experienced the arrival of a powerful spirit in their midst. It was a spirit that helped people from many different cultures become unified behind the essential message of Christ.

It’s a beautiful vision. People of different languages and customs coming together around the unifying message of God’s love for all people. It was a game changing moment for the followers of Jesus – they found themselves caught up in something that was so much larger than themselves.

I’ve never been in a tornado, but my impression is that when a tornado comes in to your neighborhood you no longer wonder what’s in charge. The power of a tornado is unmistakable, and so was the power of this Spirit that invaded the lives of the early disciples. They were swept up in something that was out of their control and under the control of God. It was a profound shift, and one that we can all hope to have happen to us.

I think it’s fine that there are people who are trying to figure out how to launch large things and people out in to the universe, but my hope rests in trying to get launched by God into a new way of relating to other people here on earth. A way of living that’s based on profound trust in God and love for all others.

It may well have been on the fiftieth day after Easter that the Holy Spirit made a grand entrance into the lives of the disciples, but my hope is that it will show up again today and tomorrow and the next day – whenever we find ourselves facing situations we don’t want to be in or people treating us in ways we don’t want to be treated. And I hope that Pentecostal spirit will get me out of my self-serving-self-righteous antagonistic attitude and launch me into the kingdom of heaven where I will see and understand my neighbor in a new and loving way. That’s the kind of Pentecostal person I want to be, and that’s the kind of tongue I think God wants me to have.

That’s the kind of miracle I want to see in me and in you, and by the grace of God it can happen.

Thanks be to God.


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