Pentecost 2018, May 20 10 am
St. Paul’s Newport
Acts 2:1-21, John 20:19-23
What a privilege to be here in Newport with you today on the third biggest day of the Christian year. Following Christmas and Easter is the Day of Pentecost, when a gale wind blew through a house on a back street in Jerusalem and equipped Jesus’ disciples with everything they needed to turn the world upside down. It was God’s own breath,/ the Holy Spirit, the most mysterious and least typecast person of the Trinity, the muse and soul of Christ’s church.
We have Christmas pageants and Easter parades, but Pentecost may be the only celebration that Hallmark has not put out a line of cards, and we haven’t yet met anyone who invites friends and family over for Pentecost dinner.
Perhaps we are spooked by the Holy Spirit. Some of us may even remember when we called it the Holy Ghost, which adds an even more macabre effect. Others have heard enough about what happens in spirit-filled churches to leave Pentecost to the Pentecostals./
Today is the day when Jesus’ disciples receive the miraculous good news that their bodies are about to take the place of Jesus’ body in the world. The same Holy Spirit that has filled him is coming into them, so that they have all the power they need to carry forward his ministry in his name.
The day of Pentecost is also celebrated as the birthday of the church, not any particular church, but the whole state of Christ’s church united by God’s breath /and empowered by God’s Spirit. All over the world today, people are wearing fiery red clothes to church, releasing balloons, reading the gospel in foreign languages, or blowing out candles on a cake in the parish hall that says, “Happy Birthday, Church!” in red frosting./
If you want to know why a church has a certain personality, find out how that church began. If a particular congregation is founded to oppose something, then you can bet that opposition will remain as part of that church’s DNA and its relationship to the world. If a church is born like St. Paul’s Newport, to embrace something,/ then you can expect to find that inclusive posture passed down to each generation.
That makes it all so interesting why we have two very different birth stories told us this morning. One is from John, and one is told by Luke. The two different stories are written for different times and places and from different theologies.
John’s story happens on Easter evening while the eleven disciples are locked inside an upper room in a house in Jerusalem. Whenever we experience traumatic events, nighttime takes on new meaning. Ordinary fears are magnified, and we go around locking windows and doors. However, Jesus gets in without a key. He does not need doors and windows. John says he simply “came” and stands among them. “Peace be with you,” he says. Then he shows them his ID, the wounds in his hands and his side.
Then Barbara Brown Taylor describes Jesus doing something creepy and mystical. He commissions them by breathing on them, opening his mouth and pouring what is inside of him into them so that their hair poofs up and their eyelashes flutter. They can smell where he comes from, not just Golgotha and Galilee, but back before the world was being born. They smell Eden on his breath: salt brine, river mud, calla lilies. Their own lungs fill up with what he breathes out. His breath brings back to life all that fear had killed inside of them. It is the second Genesis, as they are created over again by the power of the Spirit coming out of Jesus’ mouth.
“Receive the Holy Spirit, “Jesus says. With a gentle breath, he transfers his spirit into his disciples, who now become the guardians of that Spirit. According to this Gentle Breath story about the birth of the church, the church has received the Holy Spirit. The world has not. It is the church’s job to carry that Spirit out into the world.
A birth story like this creates a distinctive form of church. Some Gentle Breath congregations forget about the “send” part that Jesus says: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” They like being breathed on so much that they stay right where they are, clapping their hands and praising God for the breeze/ without ever unlocking the door.
Other congregations do hear the “send” part and take it seriously. In these congregations, each member’s job is to go out into the world and find those who don’t know about the Spirit and bring them back inside the church so they can meet God in person.
This is a very Jo/han/nine idea of church. There is nothing wrong with it, but it is not the only biblical birthing story of the church. //
Luke has a different image of the delivery room for the church’s birth in Acts. The disciples are still in a house, but Luke’s story takes place fifty days after Easter instead of on the same day. There are about 120 people crowded in a house instead of 11. The doors and windows are not locked because the people inside know they are waiting for something to come in from outside. According to Luke, the last thing Jesus says is “Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” While they don’t have a clue what It looks like, they open all of the doors and windows so whatever IT is, can get in.
On the day of Pentecost, “it” turns out to be something even Luke has difficulty describing. It starts with a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it fills the entire house where Jesus’ followers are sitting. Then it bursts into divided tongues like flames above their heads, but when they open their mouths to shout, “Watch out! Your head’s on fire,” different words comes out. It comes out instead, speaking languages that none of those Galileans ever learned. Perfect strangers, foreigners, have to tell them they are talking about God in their native language. The disciples are behaving so bizarrely under the power of God’s Spirit that the only description some bystanders come up with is drunk.
“They are filled with new wine,” but Peter says no. “Its only nine o’clock in the morning,” and then the Spirit rescues Peter by giving him something to say in his language. He opens his mouth and speaks about an old prophecy from the Hebrew prophet, Joel, who foresees days like this when God’s spirit is poured out upon all flesh,/ not just chosen people, not just eleven male people, not just church people but all people, young, old, male, female, slave, free.
Peter’s proclamation of this prophecy on Pentecost is the sign that EVERYONE upon whom the Spirit has been poured is recruited to spread the word. God’s fiery, transforming spirit is LOOSE in the world, and from this day forth the church’s job is to FAN it, wherever it is found.
In Acts we hear about the birthing of an alternative church, not a Gentle Breath congregation but a Violent Wind congregation, propelled more by God’s sneeze than God’s breath,/ where such a strong wind blows toward the open doors of the church that people must lash themselves to the pews to stay inside. They come back one day in seven to rally, to rest and reflect, but then God’s finger goes back under God’s nose and it is back out into the world again, /not just to take the Spirit out but to discover it in all of the surprising people upon whom it has already been poured.
Members of Violent Wind congregations count on the Spirit to guide them as they go out into the world in search of Holy Fire. They may find it absolutely anywhere: at a disaster relief station, in the beauty parlor of a nursing home, in a prison as is here at Newport, at line at the grocery store, around a family supper table, at a dinner for the homeless, at VBS, at Camp Mitchell.
How do they know when they find it? Wherever the Spirit is, there is heat and light. People’s lives are being changed around that fire, and they are so excited about what is happening to them that they sound positively sloshed, only it is not new wine they are drunk on but God’s own spirit, so generous that it cannot be contained by any human institution.
One of the worst things that Christians have ever done is to reduce the word “church” to mean a building, or one group of people who meet inside that building. We can imagine trying to explain this to the violent wind God by saying, “Honey, I shrunk the church.”/////
As different as John and Luke’s church birth stories are, what they share in common is that the church doesn’t have to have a sign out front, a Sunday school, a copy machine, or adequate parking, although these things certainly help. All it has to have are some people with a story about how their life together began, and what it is like to be LOCKED UP, short of breath, waiting for God knows what ./ They do know what it is like to be revived by some mysterious divine breath,/ whether it comes as gently as a sigh, or so violently that it turns the furniture upside down./
Best case scenario, most churches have an obstetrical team trained in both Pentecost deliveries./
These stories do not give us a clue where God’s wind is going, but they do tell us that God gave the church to the world; not to possess the Spirit/ but to be servant ministers for the Spirit, out in the WORLD, wherever the Spirit calls and leads us. Happy Pentecost!
Barbara Brown Taylor, “God’s Breath,” Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2003, pp 37-40.