The Day of Pentecost
May 19, 2013
William G. Carter
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “What does this mean?”
Despite all the pious things we think the Bible should say, the New Testament says the church’s first Pentecost was a noisy mess. Hurricane-force winds inside the church’s little hiding place. Tongues of fire descending on everybody’s heads. Everybody talking, shouting, at once. What an absolutely chaotic mess!
Hundreds of people were in town for the Jewish harvest festival, and they certainly thought so. They heard all the racket and thought the church had gotten drunk. “No, not yet,” shouted Simon Peter over the din. “It’s only the 9:00 service.”
By Luke’s suggestive description, at least sixteen languages were being spoken at once. It was not quiet, prayerful, or serene. Oh no! A bunch of church people were so full of God that they were mouthing off in every known language about Jesus, the man that God had raised from the dead. It was enough to gather a crowd and fill them with curiosity. They wanted to know: what does this mean?
I think we have to deal with the obvious. When people get filled up with God, it could be a noisy, chaotic racket. Anybody who thinks that faith is meant to be a quiet, well-ordered Sunday morning should hold on for dear life if God actually shows up. Because the Bible warns us there is nothing very settled about the work of the Holy Spirit.
There was a Sunday years ago, about this time of year. A bird was hiding in the sanctuary. Maud Thomas hit a chord on the organ, and the bird decided to fly around for a while. Just over our heads, on the constant move, nobody could catch it. Nobody could ignore it. It was a lot more interesting than my sermon, flying full speed from one end of the room to another. A couple of people stood and sang as if it nothing else was going on, but then the little bird swooped down toward them like a Kamikaze bombardier. The wife shrieked, the husband broke into laughter. I don’t know if the bird ever got out of here. You’d better watch out for it. As somebody said, “Was that the Holy Spirit?”
For all I know, it might have been. The mystery of God, the messiness of joy. Pentecost is this unmanageable moment. The fullness of God’s power comes. It reminds us how little control we actually have over anything. I’ve noticed the people who say frequently that “God is in control of everything” often say that because they don’t want anything to be out of control. This is Pentecost. We should know better.
I talked with a volunteer trumpeter on Friday night. Her name is Natalie and she is an attorney. She plays in a community band near Syracuse. I asked what that was like, and she said, “They play too many marches. The music is too predictable.”
She looked at me and said, “Are still keeping up with your jazz?” I replied, “It comes and goes.” Her mother leaned over to interrupt and ask, “When you play jazz, how do you know what it is happening next?” I said, “You don’t. You can’t control it, you can only stay open to whatever might happen.”
Natalie the attorney said rather wistfully, “Improvising looks like so much fun.” I said, “That’s why the songs go on so long.”
Then her mother said, “I can understand why people like having everything written down.”
Most of us can. We like to prepare for life’s events. My sister, the Lockheed executive, had her two pregnancies planned out. She wanted to get pregnant right on schedule, and she did. She calculated each pregnancy’s effect on her body, and that’s precisely what happened. Then she figured the precise time when each infant would appear – and her first-born daughter came right on time. Laura has been on time for everything ever since.
My nephew Matthew, however, was born five weeks early. We almost lost him. He was baptized in the neo-natal intensive care unit. My very organized sister was shaken by this, as we all were. During some of those long, terrible nights, if you had told her that Matthew would one day become a tall, strapping dude who works for Mansfield University and will be getting married this summer, she wouldn’t have been too sure. None of us would.
What happened? Life happened. Life in all its unpredictable power. Life as it comes through an invisible God whom we know as Spirit, as Holy Spirit.
Here’s a spiritual exercise you can try on your own. Survey some of the big moments of your life, especially those moments that seemed so disruptive. Ask a few questions: did you cause those moments to happen? Or did they just come? Could it be that God comes from time to time to stir things up? God is the Creator, after all. God has infinite imagination and infinite power. There’s no telling what God can do. God can come into a settled life and create a disruptive mess. Or God can come into the messiness of our lives and make something new. This is the truth of Pentecost.
It’s true of all of us. You may have a job interruption, an unexpected crisis, an unscheduled child – it is hard to parse out perfectly where the Spirit of God is and what the Spirit is doing. But if you have a bit of holy experience, you may perceive God is somehow right in the thick of it all. And what we thought was a messy disruption may actually be God’s way of giving us new life.
The early church, fifty days after the glad news of Resurrection, was still hiding out behind locked doors. The Risen Jesus had appeared to them, told them to stay in Jerusalem and pray – but pray for what? Then all of a sudden, the windows blew open. The great Wind came. None of those fishermen could manage it, prohibit it, or lock it out. The power of God loosened their tongues, gave them Easter talk to share -- and here’s the most important part: the Spirit pushed them outside to talk among the pilgrims who had come to the city for a Jewish harvest festival. None of those people that they themselves were the new crop God was planting.
It is Pentecost. The real God of the Bible does not stay hidden in a book. The Book says God stays busy in the world, birthing people into faith, giving them the power to love their neighbors, filling them with the words that declare Jesus Christ is at the center of it all. When God comes like that, as Spirit, as holy Wind, people are brought alive in Christ – and the music goes on a lot longer than anybody would have thought.
Now, I know we are Presbyterians. We don’t want anything to happen unless it is written down in a worship bulletin. But the God who brings Jesus alive – the God who blows through the window as Breath and Wind – this is the God who refuses to let any of us play dead.
I’m a pastor. I had to learn this the hard way. Once upon a time, for instance, I had a checklist of what I expected to happen in a wedding procession. Line up the bridesmaids, the ushers come down the side aisle. Everything is choreographed precisely. Mothers of the brides had always told me that was what they wanted. So we would rehearse a long while the night before, tune it up, get everything just right. I would ask, “Would you like to practice the processional one more time?”
But then, the next day, the time of the wedding would come and the bride wouldn’t be here yet. An usher would get a flat tire. The lights would flicker and a thunder clap announced a big storm arrived at show time. Just when the music would start, the bridesmaids would forget everything we had rehearsed and the ring bearer would stick a finger up his nose.
Over the years, I have learned to go with the flow and trust the Holy Spirit. I’m having a much better time.
Some years back, Will Willimon, a cranky Methodist, gave a graduation speech at Princeton Theological Seminary. He warned the future ministers about the messiness of ministry. Not only do churches welcome people whose lives are unfinished and in perpetual transition, we have a God who shows no hesitation in disrupting our lives. This is how we know that Easter continues. This is how we know that, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit has come down among us. It is not in the maintenance of settled and hushed religion, but in the lively activity of God among God’s people.
Willimon said, “So you and I can give thanks that the locus of Christian thinking appears to be shifting from North America and Northern Europe where people write rules and obey them, to places like Africa and Latin America, where people still know how to dance.”
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.