Pentecost Spirit of Power


A sermon on Acts 2:1-21

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here;

Photo by Maxim Tajer on Unsplash]

I want to invite you to imagine what it must have been like to come upon the scene of the Spirit of God descending upon the first believers.

The noise is what you would have noticed first. The violent, bone-shaking sound of a rushing wind unlike any you had ever experienced before. The creak of timbers and stone as the walls of the house shook with the power of God’s presence.

You might have wondered if it was an earthquake, looking nervously up at the buildings on either side in the narrow Jerusalem streets, checking for cracks. Or perhaps scanned the sky for a sudden storm to explain the deafening sound.

Surely, at the least, you would have stopped… tensed, seeking the source of this unexplained disturbance of your holy day.

And then, as you anxiously approached the place, you could not have failed to notice the fire. Open flames, in a crowded city, are dangerous. You, doubtless, would have looked for their origin. Eyes darting to identify torches, or lamps, or something to explain the eerie and apparently uncontrolled flames leaping over so many heads.

And then, there would be the voices. A wild cacophony of sound. Everyone talking at once… the disciples speaking in every known language, merging with the shouts and murmurs of the gathering crowd. And what a crowd, thousands drawn as though by a powerful magnet: not just local people – people with whom you share a heritage and culture – but people from all over the known world. Arabs, Asians, Europeans, Africans. People of different colors and different dress and, of course, that overwhelming diversity of languages.

And, in the midst of the chaos, a man standing up to proclaim that this overwhelming scene was a fulfillment of sacred prophesy. To speak a message of God’s plan to overcome divisions…between young and old, men and women, slave and free… uniting ALL FLESH in the outpouring of God’s Spirit!

Even as a person of deep faith you could never have IMAGINED, never have anticipated such a scene – and in the shock of the sudden disruption of your ordered, every-day life there would be two ways you might respond.

You could react with fear, seeing it all as a threat.

It was chaotic. It was uncontrolled. All your expectations for how people are supposed to behave, how GOD is supposed to behave being churned underfoot. How could this not be scary?

And when we get scared, we so often lash out in response, in an unconscious effort to restore our sense of security and some level of control. So, we look for someone to blame, someone to judge –

“These people are filled with new wine…”

In other words, “They can’t be trusted. There’s something suspect going on here, so we can stand at a distance and sneer. We have no obligation to be moved… to get involved.”

That’s one option. The self-protective option. The law and order, status-quo-preserving option.

The other option is to lean through the fear far enough to start believing that God might actually be present … that the Power of God is active, disrupting and changing the world… and that change can be a good thing, because there are things about the status quo that NEED to change, like the divisions highlighted by the prophet Joel and applied to this Pentecost moment by the apostle Peter.

The chaos of that first Pentecost was disrupting the insidious categories that divide us, that seek to deny that we are all one flesh, and that God’s Spirit values and seeks to pour itself into every person made in the image of God. When God’s Spirit descended on those first disciples – and did so in the form of different languages – it was an emphatic, Divine declaration that God INTENDS the radical, difference-embracing diversity of the church. God’s design for the church is that it speaks EVERY LANGUAGE. That it values EVERY CULTURE.

That’s why we at Abiding Peace chose Pentecost as the Sunday to lift up God’s call on the church to embrace racial diversity and to work against the racism that values some lives less than others.

It’s also one reason why our national church emphatically condemns white supremacy and racist rhetoric.[1] Because in the very first moment of forming the church – God embraced diversity. God called the church to be a body that values all flesh.

And sadly, this is a message that the American church needs to hear right now, as our nation is grappling with the latest in a long, painful witness of incidents that reveal how deeply and tragically our society fails to value all flesh.. especially the flesh or our black and brown siblings.

Now, I am aware that by using that phrasing I raised the level of discomfort in this sermon. That’s not usually my style. I am not an inflammatory preacher, as a rule.

But as I meditated on the chaotic scene of the Spirit’s coming this week…while witnessing the chaos in our nation in an outpouring of frustration and fury about our brother George Floyd’s unjust killing.

And as I prayed for the breath of God’s Spirit, while hearing his painful, gasping words “please, please, I can’t breathe.”

And as I imagined the fear I would probably have felt on the first Pentecost, while reading accounts of the fear of faithful, non-violent protesters facing tear gas and rubber bullets while their voices are being drowned by organized white supremacists seeking to harm and destroy...

It became clear to me that a little Holy Fire is needed. We need to hear God’s call on the church to stand up.

And I believe we can bear it. I believe this community can endure the refiner’s fire that purifies and cleanses away the lies that teach us to fear challenging words and to turn against each other in defense of our political sides.

I believe this because of the conversations we have had already. Over more than 3 years of our Loving Dialogue process we have practiced listening vulnerably and carefully, even when we disagree.

And in our intentional conversations about race and racism, we have embraced the shift from defensiveness to curiosity.

We have recognized the patterns of distrust and self-protection in our national conversations about race that set us up for fruitless conflict by framing the issue as one of “good non-racists” against “bad racists.”

We have seen how that framing inevitably pushes us to defend our own right to stand on the “non-racist” side, rather than having as our goal actual learning about how our fellow human beings are hurting, and actual progress against the causes of that hurt.

But when, instead of following that script, we practice holy curiosity… when we reject the good-bad binary and instead ask “what is God’s heart for a hurting world?”… that’s when the holy fire starts to burn away the dross so that we can join the Spirit’s work.

Now, I’m not saying the fire isn’t hot, or even painful at times – especially for those of us who need the insulating quality of our whiteness burned away. But, to quote ELCA pastor Tiffany Chaney if you are only an ally to the point of your discomfort, then you are not an ally.”[2]

If we want to be part of the world-changing work of God’s Spirit, we need to be willing to get uncomfortable. And I hope we DO want to be part of that world-changing work, because it is needed, and because I am CONFIDENT that God’s Spirit is in the middle of this work.

Of course, that’s where God’s Spirit is! Because God – from the very first moment - called the church to value all flesh. And that means the work of racial reconciliation is the work of the church.

In the words of Debie Thomas, a multi-lingual woman of color who knows a thing or two about facing discomfort to be part of the work of God’s Spirit:

“Has there ever been a time when we needed … brave, border-crossing acts more acutely than we do right now? As the world grows more and more tribal; as nations, cities, and even faith communities turn on each other out of suspicion and selfishness; as we’re forced by the pandemic to physically separate from those around us, can it be that God desires to pour out the Holy Spirit on us, so that we might learn new and life-giving ways of being the Church, being the Body, being Love incarnate for a frightened and imperiled world? What languages do we need to speak right now that we’ve never spoken before? Where does the fire need to fall, to burn away all that hinders us from being bearers of Good News in this … time?”[3]

The disruptive, wild scene of Pentecost, and the disruptive, broken realities of race relationships in our society can absolutely scare us… but they can also call us into life-changing, world-healing work.

Can you imagine it?

Can you imagine how might it change us – as individuals, and as a community – if, instead of giving in to a defensive-threat response when the problem of racism erupts in our country, we believed in the possibility of transformation?

Can you imagine trusting that God knew what God was doing by sending the Spirit upon all flesh in a diversity of tongues, and creating the church to be that diverse?

Can you imagine recognizing that our mission as Christ’s church is inextricably linked to God’s work of embracing all God’s children and actively rejecting the evils of racism?

We were not there 2,000 years ago when God’s Spirit rushed into the world in a new way – lighting an uncontrollable fire and calling God’s people to embrace and celebrate God’s presence in all flesh.

But we are here now. And we too have a choice about how to respond to the fire of God’s Spirit burning in our context?

We might hear that call as a threat to our familiar way of being.

But, instead, we can choose to hear the call of the Spirit of God moving in power to change the world. We can trust that God Spirit is here to catch us on fire for the good of God’s diverse, beloved world.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Social Policy Resolution CA 19.04.18; https://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Condemnation_of_White_Supremacy_and_Racist_Rhetoric.pdf?_ga=2.41621154.1471722538.1590719533-712225695.1589912191

[2] Quote from the May 15, 2020 ELCA webinar “Becoming the Body of Christ Where All Bodies are Valued.

[3] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2650

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