May 15, 2016 – The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
On the Day of Pentecost, the disciples were all gathered together in one place. Suddenly from heaven there came the sound like the rush of a violent wind. Divided tongues of fire appeared and rested on each of the disciples. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other languages—languages that none of them had ever spoken before. When those in the area heard the noise, a crowd gathered and stared in amazement as these Galilean tradesmen began to proclaim God’s deeds of power in their native languages. What an incredible sight and sound to behold!
My question for you this morning, as the crackle of those flames and the cacophony of that speech echoes forward two thousand years, is to ask when you will claim the power of Pentecost for yourself.
Now, before you answer that question, take a minute to think about the real power of Pentecost. What was it that the Holy Spirit did on that day? If you’re like me, when you hear this story, your mind recalls an image like the one depicted in our Pentecost window. It’s a crowded space where all of the disciples are huddled together, each in a prayerful, meditative posture, while a gentle flicker of red fire hovers above each head. In our case, the image in the Pentecost window is so compressed that you can only tell that all twelve disciples are there by counting the flames. The image is static—fixed, as motionless as a carefully orchestrated (but poorly executed) group photo. But, when we read the story from Acts 2, we find out pretty quickly that there was nothing tame or dignified or static about this moment. In fact, the power of the Holy Spirit came down with such a disturbing and chaotic force that the crowd took one look at the disciples and thought that they were drunk. Now, nobody in that window over there looks drunk, so, before you sign on to be filled with the awesome power of God, you’d better be sure that you know what you’re getting into.
The real power of Pentecost cannot be conveyed through a picturesque representation of the Holy Spirit alighting onto the disciples. Nor can it be completely captured in that remarkable moment when the twelve disciples begin to speak in all the languages of the known world. It is even bigger than that. It is even more powerful than that. To get a sense of what the Holy Spirit was really doing back then and also see what it promises to do today, we must go back further in time and watch what happened on the plains of Shinar when construction on the Tower of Babel was halted in its tracks.
Brick by brick, the tower rose higher and higher toward the heavens. The people of the earth were building for themselves a city and, within it, a tower that could be seen for miles. This monumental achievement would stand out as an unparalleled accomplishment. So impressive would that tower be that all the people on earth would feel connected to it—united by it. This was their chance to “make a name for [them]selves,” one which all of them could share and thus overcome that competitive streak within them that otherwise might drive them to scatter across the face of the earth. But the Lord looked down and saw what they were doing and said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech.” And, so by divine fiat, their speech was garbled until they simply babbled nonsensically at one another, abandoned their efforts, and drifted apart.
But is that how it happened? If you had been there to witness that moment, is that what you would have seen? Don’t forget that passages in the bible were never intended to be eye-witness accounts. Holy Scripture was, as Thomas Cranmer’s collect (originally) for the Second Sunday of Advent puts it, “written for our learning.” By the time ancient pen was put to ancient paper, this story had been told and retold, shaped through the generations like a stone that tumbles down a riverbed. The story of the Tower of Babel—like all passages in the bible—tells us as much about the people who wrote it and what they thought about God as it tells us about what happened and how God was at work in the situation.
If you asked the ancient people of God why there were so many different languages on the earth, they wouldn’t know how to appeal to anthropology or archeology to explain it, but they would understand how that diversity puts a strain on their lives. They would know that the conflict between tribes and cultures stems from the differences among them. Consider, then, how the real teaching of this passage might be found not in the cause of Babel but in its effect. “They are all one people, and they all have the same language,” said the Lord. “This is only the beginning of what they will do. Indeed, nothing…will now be impossible for them.” Nothing would be impossible. If we were all one people, nothing would stand in our way. But, of course, we aren’t one people. And the nations of the world are separated by far more than language. And that’s why the real power of Pentecost isn’t found in a supernatural gift of speech but in the unlocking of humanity’s potential which can only happen when we are all finally made one.
For thousands of years—ever since the Lord spoke to Abraham and promised to be his God and the God of his descendants—Israel’s God had belonged to Israel. His way of salvation had been articulated by his prophets to his people. And Jesus of Nazareth was another chapter in that salvation history—a thoroughly Jewish savior for a thoroughly Jewish people. But Pentecost shows us something different. Pentecost shows us that God’s story of salvation is being translated into every language and is being given to every people. Yes, it will take a few more chapters in Acts before that salvation reaches the Gentiles, but Pentecost shows us that nothing can stand in God’s way. The real power of Pentecost is the revelation that, through Jesus Christ, God has opened the way of salvation to all people—that, in Christ, we all become the people of God—one people with one story and one hope.
Stop and let yourself dream. What would the world be like if we really were all one people? What would happen if we weren’t divided by language or race or culture or nation or religion? If there were no borders, no barriers, no boundaries, what would stand in our way? If we were all truly united in our efforts, would anything be impossible for us? Could that ever happen?
Pentecost invites us to dream of a world in which all of us are united as one. No, Pentecost doesn’t remove all of our differences; it transcends them. Pentecost shows us what happens when the Holy Spirit works within us to overcome those differences that drive us apart. It shows us that God’s work isn’t to separate us but to bring us together. It shows us what happens when the Holy Spirit takes over the people of God and uses them to spread God’s dream of a world in which we live as the united people of God. Will you claim that power for yourself? Will you refuse to give in to the differences that seek to drive us apart? Will you actively resist those forces inside of you that seek to push those who are different from you further away? Will you deny that instinct to surround yourself only with your own kind? Will you recognize that the kingdom that God has prepared for us doesn’t have neat, compartmentalized spaces for all the different sorts and conditions of humanity? It isn’t easy. In fact, the result is a pretty chaotic mess. But it’s God’s mess. It’s God’s dream. It’s God’s will for the world. What will you do to be a part of it?