A Sermon on Pentecost: A Birthday Celebration of Sorts?

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birthday cake

“When the day of Pentecost had come…. suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind….and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Acts 2:1-3

Ps. 104:25–35, 37; Acts 2:1–21; I Cor. 12:3b–13; John 20:19–23

Several decades it has now been since I first heard a priest proclaim from the pulpit, ‘Pentecost is the birthday of the Church!’  At the time, knowing the priest, I had expected, almost, to hear him to ask us to stand and sing “Happy Birthday.”  However, even if what he had proposed were true, because of the circumstance under which we move and live and have our being, we would not be able this year, Pentecost 2020, to join in such a sing-along.  Yet, there is something [that] we may do.  Because we find ourselves not set upon by the usual demands on our time and nonessential travel, we can reflect on the magnanimous gift [that] God has given us in and through the Holy Spirit.  A celebration is in order but I propose a look at the Biblical [evidence] that might take us beyond a “sound bite” or a lighthearted celebration, indeed, beyond parochial or national boundaries.

I.  The Holy Spirit: The Supportive Power behind Pentecost

Call, if we will and so choose, the Day of Pentecost ‘the Birthday of the Church.’  Christ’s mission was to bring the Kingdom of God to those on earth.  From the time Jesus first called his disciples, he had taken great care to prepare them for the mission of carrying his gospel of reconciliation into the world and for a time [when] he would be no longer among them.  The Great Commission of Pentecost summarizes what had been implanted long before in their hearts and minds.  Likewise, we would do well to proceed with much caution in our rush to celebrate Pentecost as if that occasion were the first appearance of God’s Spirit, for even here Biblical record informs us to the contrary.

The Old Testament is replete with illustrations of the presence and actions of the Spirit of God.  The Book of Genesis (1:1) begins by saying that while the earth was a formless void, a wind from God, or, as some translations state, the Spirit of God, swept over the face of the waters.  In the Book of Numbers (11:7), as Moses gathers 70 elders to help him with his work, God says to Moses, “I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them.”  God’s Spirit that empowereSamson_Killing_the_Lion_Albrecht_Dürerd Moses, was now to be shared, just as the work to be done was to be shared.

In the books of Judges and Samuel, there are many examples of the Spirit of God coming to strengthen known and not-so-well-known individuals for the task ahead.  The Spirit came upon Gideon (Judges 6:34) who led the people in a victorious battle.  The Spirit of the Lord “rushed” upon Samson, who then tore apart a lion bare-handed (Judges 14:6) and it “possessed” Samuel who fell into a prophetic frenzy (I Samuel 10:10).  In the prophets, the Spirit came upon Ezekiel with the words to speak (Ezek. 11:5).  God’s Spirit has been ever-present to guide those who offer their service to others.  The Spirit of God had been at work before the Day of the Pentecost.

II. The Recipients: There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy

Upon whom did God’s Spirit descend on the Day of Pentecost?  To answer this question is to come to the uniqueness of the Pentecost.  This is an essential question, because the Biblical record is cause for you and me to rejoice daily.  Were it not for those assembled, we might find ourselves marginalized.  Instead, we find ourselves included in this reassurance of the Spirit of God in our lives.  And that has to do with the tongue twisters of names that we hear in the Acts of the Apostles.

These names are instructive.  Surely you noticed from the Biblical record that there were Jews from every nations under the heaven—Rome, Egypt, Crete, and Asia—that is to say, Jews of that era, like other peoples, did not all reside in one place.  In addition, non-Jews [were there when] the disciples received the Spirit of God.  Biblical record noted that Cyrene claimed sovereignty over parts of Libya, i.e. nations were occupying territory even then that belonged to other nations.  Surely you noticed mention of Jews and non-Jews from Mesopotamia.

It is the name Mesopotamia [that] deserves closer attention [because] it is not an everyday place name.  Yet, the region to which it refers is frequently in our newscasts.  The name Mesopotamia is Roman in origin and means “the land between the rivers,” and those rivers are the Euphrates and the Tigris, both Biblical names in western Asia or, as known to us, the Middle East.  Mesopotamia designates the land bound on the north by Turkey, on the south by the Persian Gulf, to the East by Iran, and to the west by Syria.  Mesopotamia has also been called Babylon, especially the southern section.  Mesopotamia has two well-known cities, namely Baghdad and Basra.  Mesopotamia is the Kingdom of Iraq, in which our country recently waged war.

We moderns would like to believe that we were the first to give birth [to] the concept of globalization.  Pentecost teaches us differently.  The men and women from “all the nations under the heaven” were not assembled in anticipation of starting a church.  They were folks, not unlike you and me, who were engaged in commerce, in the everyday business of doing business, of trading, of occupying territory [that] they had gotten through war, of seeking a different and better life for themselves, of marrying across ethnic, racial and national lines, of trying to satisfy their curiosity of the unknown, even of living up to their religious codes and conviction.Pentecost_Duccio_di_Buoninsegna_-_WGA06739

Biblical record, if read closely, instructs us that God meets people where they are, not on some theoretical plain.  On the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit was given to all who were present.  Peter, not known for his eloquence, interprets this in his sermon by quoting the prophet Joel who prophesied that the Spirit would be poured out upon sons and daughters, young men and old men, and male and female slaves.  There was no social equality in the ancient world among men, women, and slaves.  God’s Messiah had come to correct this imbalance.  Nevertheless, the Spirit was poured out upon them equally.  After the crucifixion and resurrection and ascension, the leaderless disciples had been praying and waiting.  What stood before them, though, was a challenge, a challenge as old as humankind—to carry the truth of the wideness of God’s mercy.  They needed support if they were to go make disciples of all nations and to bring to fruition that kingdom of God [that] would establish equity among all people.

III. Language: The Tool of the Fall from God’s Grace and the Engine of Salvation
Much has been written regarding the many languages spoken on [ ] Pentecost.  And these languages awaken a direct connection to an event recorded in the Book of Genesis (11:1f.).  There, Biblical record informs us that in the same region [that] we now call Iraq, formerly Mesopotamia or Babylon, God’s Spirit had a different reaction to people who were there assembled.

According to Biblical record, at that time:tower-of-babel-Brueghel

everyone on earth had one language…. and as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there…. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’…. And the Lord said…’Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’… Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.” (Gen. 11.1 – 9)

It is not that the people of the earth had one language that was anathema to God.  Rather it was the rebelliousness, the haughtiness, the egocentric behavior of the proto-Babylonians that was the source of God’s displeasure.  The tower could have been a good thing, the model of cooperation and partnership, of people working together in harmony. Hubris, however, reared its head.  In building a tower that would reach into the heavens, they believed that they would be as God.  Psalm 59 explains why God inflicted the people with different languages:  “For the sin of their mouths, the words of their lips.” However, it was their sharp tongue, used to cut others down, to disregard the dignity of their fellow beings, to believe that they could speak as if they were God; it was their hubris.  Because of their sinfulness, their speech was reduced to “babble.”

I am reminded of a well-known Hassidic tale regarding language, told me by a close Rabbi friend:

A man went through the community slandering his neighbor.  Feeling suddenly remorseful, he sought out his Rabbi and begged the Rabbi to bring him forgiveness.  “What can I do to make amends,” he asked.  The Rabbi told him to take a feather pillow, cut it open, scatter the feathers to the wind, and then return to see him the next day.  The man did as he was told.  He came back to see the Rabbi and said, “Rabbi, am I now forgiven?” “No,” said the Rabbi.  “Now you must go and gather all the feathers.”  “That’s impossible,” exclaimed the man.  “Of course it is,” replied the Rabbi.  “And though you may regret what you have done, it is as impossible to repair the damage caused by your words as it is to recover the scattered feathers.”

Speech can be used to destroy.  Speech can be used to build.  The Spirit of God on Pentecost corrects all that.  At Pentecost we come full circle.  Although the [assembled men] spoke various languages, the sound was far from babble.  Unlike the Tower of Babel experience, the experience on the Day of Pentecost was a unifying one [that] transcended all barriers of ethnicity, gender, class, nationality, and language. People gave witness to the wonders of God, all in their native tongue, not only in Jerusalem but upon returning to their homelands.

Pentecost assures us that a common language and a common culture are not a prerequisite to recognize that The Other is not an alien, something to be discarded or disregarded because of language or national origin or ethnic background; rather The Other is a creature made in the image of God.  That first Pentecost teaches us that the phrase “we have nothing in common with them!” has no merit when we stand before a fellow human being and if we claim to be doers of God’s works.  The people of that first Pentecost understood each other, and they understood each other because they were assembled for a common good.  The people understood each other for they were focused on making God’s love of the Creation, through Christ, known to all the nations under the heavens.

The Day of Pentecost, the fiftieth day after Easter, should be celebrated and, indeed, with great fanfare.  If taken seriously, the message [that] God imparts to us on the Day of Pentecost [makes every day] a day of celebration.  On this Pentecost, like the biblical David and all Israel (albeit limited by physical distancing) let us make merry “before God with all [our] might, with song and lyres and harps and tambourines and cymbals and trumpets.” (I Chronicles 13:8).  Let us have always on our tongues the words uttered by the psalmist in Psalm 150, words of praise and thanksgiving, for on the Day of Pentecost, the Covenant pronounced by God at Creation has been reaffirmed through the Holy Spirit who was present at Creation.  And, [of greatest importance], we celebrate because God enlists us, wherever and in whatever condition we find ourselves, to make that Covenant known.  On the Day of Pentecost, God, remembering his mercies, reminds us of His love for us.  No better reason for a celebration can be found.  And so we sing:

Let us, with a gladsome mind,
praise the Lord, for he is kind:
for his mercies ay endure,
ever faithful, ever sure.

Samson killing Lion


Tower of Babel