ABOVE: On Pentecost Sunday, Trinity members together read aloud the Gospel as translated in many different languages to imitate the sounds described in Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit overwhelmed the crowd and enabled them to speak wildly in different tongues.
Pentecost, the Holy Spirit, and the Church’s Birthday
The Rev. Brad Mullis
If you believe the Bible, then there is no better proof that Jesus was who he said he was than the before-and-after pictures of the disciples. Before Pentecost, they were dense, timid bumblers, the proverbial ninety-eight pound weaklings who fled at the least sign of trouble. Afterwards they were fearless leaders. They healed the sick and cast out demons. They went to jail gladly, where they sang hymns until earthquakes brought down the walls. How did this transformation occur? That’s more or less the subject matter of the book of Acts.
The last thing Jesus told his disciples to do before he ascended into heaven was to go back to Jerusalem and wait there for God’s promise to come true. They would be baptized by the Holy Spirit, he told them, and they would be clothed with power from on high. Having no idea what any of that meant, they nevertheless did what they were told. They went back to Jerusalem – not to the temple, but to an ordinary room in somebody’s house – and there they waited, along with the women who had come with them, including Jesus’ mother and his brothers.
I guess that while they waited they prayed mostly, with a lot of them praying to God to tell them a little more about what it was they were waiting for. How would they know when the power had fallen on them? Would it tingle? Would it hurt? Just how did the Holy Spirit go about baptizing people, exactly? Jesus had said something about fire, which sounded dangerous. Real fire or spiritual fire? Maybe they should check the smoke alarm in case things got out of hand.
They didn’t have to wait long for the answer to their prayers. On the day of Pentecost, a Jewish festival set fifty days after Passover, they were all together in one place when what had been promised happened. First there was wind, then there was fire, then they were filled with the Holy Spirit and overflowed with strange languages: one spoke Parthian, Latin, even Egyptian and Arabic.
They may not have known what they were saying, but the crowd they drew did. Devout Jews from all over the world stood in doorways and windows, listening to a bunch of Galileans tell about the power of God in their own tongues so that no one was left out. The Holy Spirit turned out to be a phenomenal linguist.
It stumped everyone, the speakers as well as the listeners. They were in the grips of something that was beyond reason and not all of them could accept that, so they started looking for reasons. “They are filled with new wine,” someone said (drunk, in other words), but Peter said no, it was only nine o’clock in the morning. I suppose he meant that if it had been later in the day drunk might indeed have been a real possibility.
Then Peter got up and gave this incredible sermon, based on the second chapter of Joel. “In the last days,” he proclaimed, quoting God’s words to Joel, “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.” That’s what is happening now, Peter says. The Holy Spirit of God is being poured out on them and this is how it looks: wind like the wind that revived the valley of dry bones, and fire like the fire that led Israel through the desert, and tongues like the tongues that spoke at Babel, but in reverse this time. At Babel, God confused human speech so that people could not understand each other anymore; at Pentecost, God reverses the curse. What sounds like babble is intelligible speech – gospel, in this case, — and everyone understands it.
According to Acts, this was the birthday of the Christian Church. These bumbling disciples, infused with power from above set about turning the world upside down, and three thousand people were baptized that very day. What started on that Pentecost spread from Jerusalem across the sea to Athens and then to Rome and all over the world, across cultures that could not be any more different.
It all happened by the power of the Holy Spirit, which the Bible talks about in at least two ways. First, as the abiding presence of God in Christ, with all the safety and comfort that relationship promises. This is the Spirit most of us know and love – the Spirit of peace and concord – the one that calms us when we’re riled, and revives us when we’re weary, and is with us always.
But there is another way the Spirit acts. This is not another Spirit, to be clear, but another manifestation of the same Spirit, and it is not so comforting. This is the Spirit who blows and burns, like Hurricane Hugo pounding on our houses and knocking the patio furniture everywhere. Ask Job about the whirlwind, or Ezekiel about the chariot of fire. Ask anyone in that room on Pentecost what it was like to be caught up in that Spirit, and whether it is something they would like to happen every Sunday afternoon.
What would we have done? Would we have received God’s outpouring, or would we have said, “God, if you are about to pour out your Spirit and this is what it looks like, would you please skip me?” Would we ask for umbrellas when it looks like the Spirit is about to start coming down with wind and with fire? “Only a fool would pray for the Holy Spirit,” says Alan Jones, former dean of the Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco. “Only fools for Christ do,” he goes on, suggesting that the Spirit is most present at three open spaces in our lives: “In the unpredictable, in the place of risk and in those areas over which we have no control.”
And that’s right where the disciples were, and right where we are most of the time if we’re honest. It’s no crime to pray for the gentle, comforting Spirit, but Pentecost reminds us that there is another side to God’s Spirit – one that can set us on fire, transform our lives, turn the world upside down. It is not predictable. It is very risky and it is beyond our control. But one thing we can do is put our umbrellas away. If we want to be fools for Christ and be clothed with power from on high, we can fold up our umbrellas and put them away.
The Holy Spirit is not some spooky religious foolishness, not a spiritual crutch. It is the profound but simple gift of God’s power to understand each other, to accept each other, to forgive each other. It is the hurricane-like wind that, if we have the courage to conspire with it, will rearrange us into people who can be more than we are, and do more than we do – not just for ourselves, but for others. It is the blast which gives us the power to choose love over hate.
Maybe that mighty gust of wind is the only thing that will get the job done. That storm surge throws us from our upper rooms into the classrooms, dorm rooms, courtrooms, and hospital waiting rooms. It is our life’s work to enable the fierce, frightening, freeing breath of God to empower us to think what God thinks, to feel what God feels, to want what God wants, and to do what God does.