A Pentecost Sunday sermon from Acts 2:1-21
Back in the middle ages, the church became expert at celebrating Pentecost Sunday.
It helped that, first, they built breath-takingly huge cathedrals with dramatically high, vaulted ceilings symbolizing the distance between earth and heaven.
Second, our church fathers and mothers painted sacred scenes on the ceilings of many of those cathedrals.
The most famous is the artwork Michelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. It features scores if not hundreds of biblical scenes, such as God reaching out from heaven to create Adam.
If you go to one those old cathedrals today and glance up at the ceiling, you are likely to see biblical history unfolding overhead in living color.
But what in those cathedrals most causally related to Pentecost was a third innovation very few people are aware of.
Sometime around the end of the first millennium, congregants began cutting holes in the ceilings of these cathedrals. They actually drilled small openings in the ceilings all the way through the roof.
During the Pentecost worship service, some of the church members would ascend to the roof. At the appropriate time during the Pentecost service, they released live doves through those holes.
The doves dove and swooped out the holes and into the cathedrals, symbolizing the Holy Spirit descending on the people below.
And when the doves appeared, cathedral choirs joined in with the whooshing and drumming sound of a holy storm— wind blowing, cymbals clashing, drums pounding. Thunder, lightning and wind filled the sanctuary.
Finally, as the doves flew and the winds blew, those on the roof poured bushels upon bushels of rose petals through the holes to drift down upon the congregation. Those red petals floating upon on the worshippers symbolized the tongues of flame which came upon the disciples that first Pentecost morning.
You must admit that it sounds like quite a production!
But for my money, at least, it was nothing to compare with the very first Pentecost.
You might remember that before that day came, Jesus had told the disciples several times that the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, would be given to them. He also told them to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the Spirit.
I doubt it was any surprise to the disciples when the Holy Spirit did show up, but the specifics must have shocked and awed them.
Certainly, the Spirit made an immediate impact.
The disciples were all together in one place, probably in the same upper room where so much had already happened.
The book of Acts tells us that suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the house.
Then, each of the disciples saw what seemed to be tongues of fire coming to rest on them.
Acts tells us that all were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them the ability.
Now, you might want to pay attention here.
When people hear this part of the story about disciples speaking in other languages, they often confuse it with what is known as “speaking in tongues.”
That is not what happened.
The Apostle Paul tells us that “speaking in tongues” is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but also that “speaking in tongues” is unintelligible to almost everybody other than the speaker.
Having heard people speak tongues and had a few pray over me, I can verify that. They were all very sincere, but I had no idea what they said.
That is not what happened Pentecost morning.
In fact, it was quite the opposite. What did happen is, I think, the miracle of Pentecost and a miracle we need repeated in our lives today.
What happened is a miracle of communication, understanding and connection.
First, these illiterate disciples of Jesus started talking in foreign languages, languages from a number of countries and regions around the Mediterranean Sea.
Let me tell you why that was important.
While the Holy Spirit was transforming Jesus’ disciples inside the upper room, outside of the upper room, Jews from all over the world had gathered in Jerusalem that week for a big festival.
Many of those foreigners heard the commotion going on inside the upper room, and heard these disciples speaking in their own language. More importantly, they understood them. And they came to be drawn into the Christian community by the power of the Holy Spirit.
If we think about it, that is a wow moment.
Things that divided them were bridged by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.
It is like human community and harmony and peace are God’s will.
Unfortunately, we have become so used to our divisions in the United States—and their bitter results— that it is even hard for us to hope and pray for unity.
How hard it is to bridge our differences and communicate well with, and understand, each other! And it is even harder to connect despite those differences.
But that morning, even better, as this communication, understanding and connection was happening, Peter stepped it up a notch.
He stood up, cleared his throat and preached a sermon so powerful that three thousand people came to Jesus that day.
All in all, it was quite unforgettable.
The Holy Spirit blew in with power, with gale force winds and something like tongues of fire and filled the disciples with divine power and purpose.
The Holy Spirit then empowered them to speak in languages unknown to them;
empowered others to hear and understand what was being said;
empowered Peter to stand and offer words of hope, mercy, forgiveness, life, love; and,
empowered thousands there to see, hear, understand and respond to the message.
The story of the early church after Jesus ascended is the story of the Holy Spirit working in and through those first disciples to help build God’s kingdom.
Surely, in those early days, the first disciples needed a pick-me-up, a bit oomph, and a lot of purpose and direction.
They had experienced quite a couple of months since the night Jesus was arrested.
First, they scattered like a covey of quail when he was arrested.
Then they went into hiding when he was crucified, died, and buried. After all, any hope they had for the future had melted and evaporated like an ice cube put on a sidewalk during a Texas summer day.
But then God intervened, and brought life out of death, light out of dark, hope out of despair— and raised Jesus from the dead.
Now he was gone again.
But he had promised the disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit.
And sure enough, the Spirit roared into their lives, giving them the real meal deal of God’s power and purpose moving and directing them in life.
We would like some of that, wouldn’t we?
As a matter of fact, we need that Holy Spirit power.
Our nation needs that Holy Spirit power.
The world needs that Holy Spirit power.
Remember, God can move through believer and atheist and anyone in between those poles, including those of other religions.
We do need to need something or someone to get us through.
There is no lack of major problems that need fixing and transforming.
Those ill with coronavirus across the world approaches 6 million.
In the United States, we are approaching 2 million cases.
About 105,000 of our fellow citizens have died.
That is about one-third of the world-wide total.
Caseloads and deaths are increasing and not decreasing in a number of states and nations.
Meanwhile, about 40 million of our fellow citizens are out of work.
There are long lines at food banks across the nation.
And of course, continuing racial injustice in America seen in the sudden, horrific murder of a black man has led to peaceful demonstrations, which have grown into relatively widespread conflict, violence and even death.
And this all comes at a time when we are deeply divided politically, many are seriously alienated from their fellow citizens and have no desire to bridge the gap, and the political leaders of our nation seem to be at a standstill about what to do.
We need some Pentecostal power, particularly some Pentecostal power of communication and understanding and connection.
We need bridge-building.
We need our common humanity to come to the fore.
That is what happened that day in Jerusalem.
People of different nations, languages, cultures, subcultures, as well as different family, economic and educational backgrounds were drawn together by the power of God.
Understand well that they were drawn together by God who appreciated and honored this diversity of nations, languages, cultures, subcultures, family, economic and educational backgrounds.
God had made them different and loved all the differences.
And I note that God used some hicks from the sticks, some people from the notoriously backward area of Galilee, mainly illiterate fishermen, to be His vehicles of reconciliation and growth.
It is an astonishing story that only God could produce and direct.
I know we in the Hill Country often feel far away and almost insulated from what is happening in other parts of the nation and world.
But we are not. We are part of this nation and world. God calls us to do his work in them.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, we need to call upon God to help us be his agents of reconciliation and connection. In II Corinthians, Paul tells us to be those kinds of agents.
We can build bridges right where we are today.
It starts in our hearts and minds, our thoughts and prayers, our words and action.
I am a boy of the Old South. Born in Austin and raised in Houston.
My daddy was born in 1916.
He grew up as a tenant former in an area just east of Waco.
Those cotton fields around the little towns of Marlin, Chilton and Lott looked a lot like the cotton fields in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.
He was a good man in many ways but also burdened with the racial biases of the Old South.
Early on in life, he began passing them to me.
I remember, though, something that happened when I was about 10.
Our next-door neighbors had a fishing cabin on a river northeast of Houston.
They asked me to their cabin for a weekend of fishing.
To there, we had to pass through a number of African American neighborhoods in Houston.
As we drove through one, I said what I had once heard my daddy say, “Well, doesn’t it stink around here.”
It was one of the more shameful moments of my life.
Mrs. Bowers turned around from the front passenger seat and barked at me to never say that again.
She said blacks were no different than anybody else, that she had black friends, and that they apparently had more love in their hearts than I did.
If I had known than then what I know now, I would have thanked her for the lesson.
But she shut me up, open my eyes, change my heart and put me on a different path—not a perfect path but a different one, that was at least less racist than before and more open to black lives mattering.
Friends, we are all affected by these divisions, which include not only racial and ethnic divisions, but also conservative-liberal and Republican-Democrat divides, as well as rich-poor, urban-rural and other divisions as well.
It has been said by many that a nation divided against itself cannot stand. If we continue on the present path, we will end tearing ourselves apart.
Even worse, if we harbor ill will for other people or groups, we are sinning and failing God, who creates us all, calls us all to be his children, and seeks us to join together in doing his work in world.
God’s main work on earth may be just to keep creation going, but among human beings, God’s main work is love. That includes reconciling differences and bridging divisions.
As we get ready to leave and do our work in our Lord’s world, let us all remember:
God calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves.
God calls us to pray for enemies.
God calls us to do good even to those who persecute us.
God calls us quite simply to love.
And in this marvelous story of the coming of Holy Spirit,
God calls us to reach out and understand
that whomever we are
and whomever they are,
we are all His children,
called to follow His will and his ways.
Bless God’s holy name. Amen.
Let us join in prayer.
Good and gracious God, pour your Holy Spirit upon us today because we need a Pentecostal miracle. Our country and world are divided; strife, violence and injustice abound; lives are lost, property is destroyed, and fear has spread. You call us to be your agents of reconciliation in the midst of this division, to be builders of your kingdom and spreaders of your divine love. Send your Spirit to lead and direct us on these paths and teach us to cherish our differences as precious gifts from you. Amen.