Well, friends – God must really be up to something indeed.
When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place.
It’s not that they had some sort of incredible foresight or premonition to know to all be there, in one house together, just waiting for that mighty rushing wind and those tongues of fire.
The disciples were in town for an annual Jewish festival, Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks: the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. God’s Law, written in stone, given to God’s people.
Nothing new, nothing unexpected. Something ritual, and predictable, and sacred.
And then the wind really picked up.
And the room got really hot.
Wind and fire.
An elemental and consequential interruption to their regularly scheduled program.
And some people were amazed at hearing these devout Jews speaking in languages of foreign regions they had never even visited, long before Rosetta Stone and Duolingo software existed.
“How are they doing that?
How are they speaking my language?
How am I understanding them?
What does this mean?”
What does this mean?
This is the question that must interrupt our regularly scheduled programming.
This is the question we must ask.
What does this mean? What does Pentecost mean for us today?
What does it mean that God interrupts our predictions and plans and preconceived notions with the demand that the church break down its walls and open its borders to all the ends of the earth?
What does it mean that God’s deeds of power change not just what other people expect of us, but what WE expect of and for ourselves?
What does it mean for God to transform nonsensical babble into a clear message of love and transformation?
What does it mean that the very essence of the church – our origin story – is the tearing down of barriers and misunderstandings?
That God gives birth to the church by sending its people outside the walls and stained glass windows that keep it contained,
to make it absolutely impossible for any human being
- regardless of their race or culture or social location or class or gender –
- to be excluded from the abundant life that Jesus has promised, on earth as it is in heaven?
What does it mean for us to celebrate this absolutely groundbeaking, earth-shattering, life-changing reality not just by saying a few choice prayers in other languages, but by looking at exactly how God has equipped us, today, to speak this truth to people in a language they understand?
But before you click over to your internet browser to put a rush order on some Rosetta Stone software, let me give you an example of the kind of language I’m talking about.
A couple of years ago, a colleague of mine went to her local party store to pick up red balloons to decorate the church for Pentecost. The conversation with the two teenage store clerks went like this:
Clerk 1: What sort of occasion do you need balloons for?
Clerk 1: Pentecost? Is that like a quinceañera?
Clerk 2: Dude…Pentecost is a shape…like the building in Washington.
Clerk 1: Oh, so like a Memorial Day party?
Pastor: Ummm…no, it’s a church holiday…when the Holy Spirit came in tongues of fire…
Clerk 1 and Clerk 2: [blank stares]
Pastor: It’s like a birthday party for the church.
Clerk 1: Oh, I kind of liked it better when it was a Memorial Day party.
My colleague realized she did not know how to translate this church feast into a language that these teenage store clerks would understand.
Speaking in a language that others understand is far more complex than the boundaries of grammar and vocabulary and syntax.
More often than not, it takes us to increasingly insurmountable walls that have been built between races, political parties, classes, genders, generations, and cultures. Sure, an English-speaker can learn to speak Spanish. That’s easy.
But can a Democrat or a Republican, eloquent in the language of political power, learn the language of the people they are supposedly elected to serve?
Can Jeff Bezos, the world’s first trillionaire, ever understand what his minimum-wage factory workers mean when they beg for fair and just workplace conditions?
Can a country that claims to be built on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, where all people are created equal, understand the cries of the generations of black citizens begging for the right to that same life and liberty and happiness – to walk, and shop, and jog, and sleep, and drive, and celebrate, and pray, and breathe in freedom and without fear?
How can the church speak to the injustices on earth that are so antithetical to how it is in heaven?
How can we speak in a way that helps people hear and understand God’s powerful way of love, to carry the torch of Pentecost that desires abundant life for all people, to work together for a world where there truly is liberty and justice for all, rather than responding with a blind eye and sneering, “you are filled with new wine?” You’re drunk, go home. You’re crazy. This is fake news.”
Because that is also what happens when the Holy Spirit sends us out.
Yes, there are many who are amazed at God’s deeds of power.
But others will be quick to dismiss us.
You’re drunk, go home. This is fake news.
And this is where the flames of Pentecost hold our feet to the fire.
Because, friends, that is where we have to decide just how much courage we have to live our faith boldly and out loud.
And when I see the state our country and our world is in, I fear the church has failed to be of good courage to speak of the transforming and inclusive love of God in such a time as this.
We live in a society where the flames of Pentecost – flames with the power to burn down the walls that separate us – are dangerously close to being smoldered to ash and dust.
For the first time in history, we have a civil rights movement, fighting for Black lives, born completely from the womb of secular culture, while the church, that bride of Christ, has miscarried the cross it has pledged to bear, often more concerned with internal squabbles than external mission, on doing things right rather than living righteously, on maintaining peace rather than preaching peace, on access to earthly powers rather than heavenly power, on not rocking the boat rather than venturing out into the storm, on being a gathering of individuals instead of the body of Christ.
I fear, when I see what a Minneapolis police officer and a white dog walker in Central Park can still do to Black bodies, that the church has not had the courage to give people the eyes of Jesus, the heart of Jesus, the life of Jesus, that saw and loved and stood for all those children of God that systems of power ignored and oppressed.
I fear we have failed to trust God and feared going outside the comfort of the house where we are gathered with the language of love God has given us to speak.
But I don’t believe that is the period at the end of the sentence.
I don’t believe that that is the end of the story.
I believe that it is just a semicolon; that there is still more to be said.
That the church isn’t finished yet.
That the flames of Pentecost have not burned out.
Because God sure as heck isn’t finished with us yet.
Those flames still burn.
It’s just that – my friends – we can’t forget that they burn in us.
What does this mean?