May 20, 2018 – The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday, Year B
© 2018 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
I don’t often walk into a situation where I feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. Boardrooms, classrooms, barber shops, dress shops, dinner parties, debutante balls—I may not enjoy a particular meeting or social function, but I hardly ever walk through a door wondering whether I will be accepted, whether I will have a place at the table. Mostly, that’s the privilege of being a white, middle-class, well-educated man. Being a clergyperson is its own special privilege, one that grants me access to hospital rooms and bedrooms and other private places where few guests would be welcome. Most of you, too, enjoy the privilege of unfettered access to most of life’s circumstances. When was the last time you wondered whether you were being followed in a store not because the staff expected you to spend a lot of money but because they took one look at you and suspected that you might slip something into your purse or pocket?
Some of us, however, know what it means to feel moments of unacceptance and exclusion. We know what it means to enter a classroom with a learning disability and to expect that we will not fit in even before we get started. We know how it feels to wonder whether our lifelong friend isn’t returning our phone call because she has heard that our house is in foreclosure. We know what it means to suspect that our child didn’t make the all-star team because we didn’t grow up in this town. We know how it feels to come to church and sense that people are keeping their distance because of the messy divorce that we are in the middle of. We all experience moments of distance and dis-ease. Some of them are profound, and some are passing. But what would it be like if that were the defining characteristic of your life? What would it feel like to wake up every day knowing that you don’t belong, that you are unwelcome in your own life?
That’s the story of Pentecost—a moment when God invites a group of people who don’t fully belong to confront the very thing that keeps them apart. On the “fiftieth day” after Passover, Jewish people from all over had gathered in Jerusalem for Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, which commemorated both the annual wheat harvest and the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. It was a time of international celebration, when everyone who was able to make the pilgrimage would travel to the holy city for the festivities. There were Jews there from all over the known world, “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs.” They were all there to embrace the one thing that they had in common: a Jewish ancestry which they claimed either by birth or by adoption. And doing so required that they put aside the national, cultural, and linguistic differences that normally separated them so that they could stand before God as a united people.
But God had something else in mind. Suddenly, there came from heaven a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the house where the disciples had gathered together. Divided tongues as of fire appeared and rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as God’s Spirit gave them ability. So confusing and chaotic was the sound that a crowd of residents and visitors ran together to see what was happening. In the jumbled cacophony, individuals began to discern words spoken in their own native tongues, and they were amazed. “How is it that these Galileans are speaking to us in languages that don’t belong here in Jerusalem, languages that come from far away, languages that we left behind when we made the pilgrimage to the holy city? How is it, in a moment when God’s people are supposed to be brought together through the denial of their differences, that God shows up and reaches out to each one of us in our own distinct way?”
These spiritual immigrants had made the journey to the land of promise in order to participate in God’s great and ancient plan of salvation. That they needed to make a journey at all underscores their belief that only when they left behind the things that separated them could they find their place in God’s family. For millennia, God’s great and powerful movement in the world had been to unite God’s people into one nation with one language so that together they could worship the one God. But, at Pentecost, God began the great reversal of that saving work. Through the Holy Spirit, God gave his people the power to speak and hear the good news of salvation in every language known to humanity. But this was much more than a linguistic conversion. This was a reversal of how God’s salvation would be propagated throughout the world. No longer would people need to leave their differences behind in order to be brought together as the people of God. Now, God would unite them in their differences, refusing to allow distinctions of language, ethnicity, culture, or class stand in the way.
But that kind of reversal is threatening. To the powers that be, to the people who controlled access to God and God’s salvation, to the people of privilege who didn’t need to leave anything behind in order to belong, that great reversal was deeply threatening. “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’” I have never met someone who surprised me by speaking fluently in multiple languages and thought to myself, “This person must be drunk,” but I’ve encountered plenty of people with ideas so crazy that it was easier for me to assume their inebriation than their genius. Of course some of the people sneered. Who would dare to contaminate this celebration of national unity by reveling in cultural difference? Who would dare to think that in the sacred streets of the City of David the good news of God’s salvation should be preached in the profane tongues of infidels? Who would? God would.
“Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem,” Peter said, addressing the religious powers of his day, “these men are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. Instead, this is the fulfillment of what God promised through the prophet Joel.” The prophet had envisioned a day when God’s word would be revealed to everyone—old and young, male and female, slave and free. All of them would see visions and dream dreams. Even the sun and the moon would declare the power of God’s intervention in ways that no prophet need explain. In his speech, Peter showed the crowd that at Pentecost God wasn’t doing something new but was doing something ancient in a new way. The salvation of God’s people was a work as old as time, but the fulfillment, the completion, of that work required a new and expectation-shattering approach. No longer would God’s story of salvation be limited to the Hebrew prophets and those who understood them, but everyone who called on the name of the Lord in whatever language he or she spoke would be saved. And Peter wanted God’s people to see that the day when that great vision of salvation began to unfold was today.
In the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, we see the story of God’s saving love and the power of that love to reconcile us to God and to one another. But, in the sending of God’s Spirit, we see the good news of that love being spoken into the minds and hearts and lives of all people no matter who they are or where they come from or what language they speak. At Pentecost, we see God declare that no barrier, no hurdle, no difference can separate someone from God’s saving love. You don’t have to come from where we come from and look the way we look and talk the way we talk in order to be a child of God just like us. God’s Spirit has the power to unite all of us—not despite our differences but right in the heart of them.
But that’s threatening. It’s threatening to people like you and me, who have the privilege of belonging, to hear that other people who aren’t like us have the same access and are granted an equal share in God’s love. Sometimes it’s the crossing of racial or cultural barriers that we find threatening. Other times it’s the blurring of traditional gender or socio-economic roles at which we bristle. More often, however, our discomfort at those differences becomes manifest in judgments of deservedness as we pronounce that a certain group of people is not entitled to the same access that we enjoy because of something that they have done, some rule they have not followed, or some disappointing habit that “those people” never seem to shake. But, whether it’s with our words or with our actions, whenever we say to another person that he or she does not belong until that person starts acting or speaking or living like us, we are denying the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s work is to bring God’s unconditional love to all people whoever and wherever they are and, thus, to unite all of us as one great and diverse people of God.
That great vision of salvation began to unfold at Pentecost, but, when we look around, we can plainly see that it isn’t finished yet. As disciples of Jesus, we are living in the age of Pentecost, the time of the Spirit-empowered fulfillment of God’s great promise to bring the light of salvation to all nations. Now it is our turn to participate in the fulfillment of that promise. Today, we remember that you don’t have to be like us to belong with us. Pray that the Spirit of God will fill us not to take away our differences but to take away our unwillingness to believe that God’s love is bigger than those differences. Pray that God’s Spirit will break down the walls in our hearts, in our lives, and in our world until the unconditional love of God is truly free from every bond and chain and shackle of distinction that we would place upon it. Then we will rejoice and say that the day of the Lord has truly come.