Written by Kathryn Matthews
Sunday, May 15
Gathered and Scattered
Living God, you have created all that is. Send forth your Spirit to renew and restore us, that we may proclaim your good news in ways and words that all will understand and believe. Amen.
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, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabsóin our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine."
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 'In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'"
All Readings For This Sunday
Acts 2:1-21 or Genesis 11:1-9
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Romans 8:14-17 or Acts 2:1-21
John 14:8-17 [25-27]
1. As you reflect on this story of the birth of the church, how much does it relate to the life of your church today?
2. What are the "languages" that may divide your church, or at least make unity more difficult to achieve?
3. What are the challenges the Spirit presents to us in our own day?
4. What amazing but confounding things is God doing in the life of your church, your community, this nation, and the world?
5. Do we feel like we are "new wine"?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
Our psalm reading for this Pentecost Sunday speaks of God sending forth God's Spirit in a creative burst that is both productive and renewing. In our story from the Acts of the Apostles, it must have felt like creation all over again, with wind and fire, and something new bursting forth. Then there was the amazing linguistic experience of speaking in one language yet being understood by people of many different languages and lands, the names of which represented the known world at that time and have caused no small anxiety to worship leaders in every time. No matter: in that moment, all the people were one in their hearing, if not their understanding of the deeper meaning of what they heard. Despite their differences, they could all hear what the disciples were saying, each in their own language.
Fire, wind, and humble Galileans speaking persuasively in many tongues were dramatic signs that God was doing a new thing that would transform the lives of all those present, and far beyond, in time and place. Maybe it was a little frightening, something people would want to explain away, or to contain with cynical comments that blamed it all on drunkenness.
Sound and light and fire
There have been manifestations, remarkable displays of God's Spirit in the Bible before, of course, with sound and light and amazing "special effects," as we call them today. But those events, like Moses on the mountaintop and Jesus transfigured, were reserved for only a few witnesses, the most inside of insiders. Here, at the dawn of a new era, on the birthday of a church called to spread to the ends of the earth, the display is for everyone. Not just the disciples, gathered in a room, getting themselves together after Jesus is once again departed. Not just the holiest or the most faithful or the most learned, not just the believers, not just those who were with Jesus on the road or witnesses to his Resurrection. No, in this case, at this moment, "all flesh," male and female, old and young, slave and free, are invited and included ó and not just invited but expected to prophesy and dream, too!
And just to make sure that they know they're included, the formidable obstacle of a multitude of languages is overcome by a sweeping wind, an uplifting Spirit that drives those disciples out, out into the world beyond their walls, beyond the theoretical but fragile safety those walls provide. Out into the world, and compelled to spread the Good News of what God is doing in a new day. On a Jewish feast that celebrated new life and new crops by offering a gift of first fruits in gratitude and praise, Matthew L. Skinner tells us, these Jewish, "ignorant, backwater folks" (a stereotype conveyed by the term "Galileans," but lost to us today as we read the text) become impassioned, eloquent spokespersons for the gift of new life, the beginning of a brand new era in which God is fulfilling promises and salvation is drawing near.
Interpreting these signs
This reading is particularly powerful for a church that proclaims wholeheartedly that God is still speaking, and Skinner makes a case for that claim as he focuses on Peter's alteration of the text from Joel, saying "in the last days" instead of "after these things." In fact, commentators agree in pointing out that Joel was speaking ominously of destruction and death, while Peter speaks of the promise of new life. In Peter's interpretation, Skinner says, Scripture speaks in a new day about "new realities and challenges." Peter, according to Skinner, does what we, too, need to do today. Right in the midst of these astounding and undoubtedly confusing events, he interprets them as he experiences them, relying on Scripture to help him understand what God is saying in that new day.
Mark Suriano, pastor of First Congregational UCC in Park Ridge, New Jersey, has written eloquently about this remarkable day: "Those disciples gathered in Acts 2 were faithful Jews looking for a Jewish messiah, and when the Spirit came they became ambassadors of a more universal experience of God that found its roots in some of the later prophetic traditions of the Bible. Their experience and anticipation of what it was to be a follower of Jesus were enfolded by this renewed appreciation of that tradition, perhaps over and against other more militant and exclusivist traditions. The effect of the first Pentecost, then, may not be new birth, but rebirth, not a new covenant but a renewed covenant that would change the hearts and minds of the disciples and renew the face of the earth!"
Rebirth in the Spirit
Pastor Suriano continues, "This is good news for 21st-century Christians as we approach the feast of Pentecost. The same Spirit of God that warmed the hearts of those disciples on the road to Emmaus and inspired the tongues of those gathered in Jerusalem is looking to inspire a rebirth within us. It is the same Spirit that led Isaiah to envision a holy mountain for all people, or John of Patmos to witness a city with no walls and no temple, that is breaking in to our cloudy consciousness and sending us out as ambassadors of a renewed earth."
In what ways do you share Peter's experience, interpreting the present moment in your life through the lens of Scripture, rather than the other way around? As you go along, when have you turned to your past experiences and to the tradition of scripture to interpret what God is doing now? Is the way the church interprets the Bible helpful to its members as we view our lives, past, present, and future, through the lens of Scripture? How does this text illustrate the way that God is still speaking today?
What draws a crowd?
Clearly, the crowd is hungry for the word brought by the Spirit-filled disciples, even though some are immediately cynical and scoffing. Yet, we know from later verses that the church expanded from just over one hundred to three thousand in one day. A mega-church is born on a single day! What do you think is the heart of the message that brought so many new believers to the newborn church? What converted, and even transformed, them all ó in a shared experience?
What do you imagine that energy felt like for the foreign visitors in town for the religious festival? This Pentecost experience was in continuity with the prophetic tradition of the Jewish people. Since the festival of Pentecost happened at the time of spring harvest, we might experience this Pentecost event as a different kind of harvest, yielding life-giving fruits. Think of the young people who are being confirmed this day in congregations across the United Church of Christ, perhaps in your very own church. They may come from many different places, if not geographically, then in other ways. Consider for a moment what it is that draws them to the church at this time. What are the visions that these young people see, and what are the dreams that the "old" members still dream, dreams that they long to share and build on with the youth? How might their arrival bring a shaking up of the church, as so often happens with the creative and renewing energy of the Spirit?
Called and shaped as a community
The same Spirit that drew the little band of disciples out into the world also shaped them into a community. In your church, how do you balance, or integrate, both reaching out in service and prophetic witness, and nurturing within the congregation a vibrant spiritual life? How do these two impulses relate to each other? According to Marcus Borg, the Spirit on this Pentecost undoes what happened on the Tower of Babel (in Genesis 11) as it brings back together the broken and divided community of humankind (Reading the Bible Again for the First Time). In what ways might your church and your community need to be reunited, brought together, and healed?
Borg's description of this Pentecost that up-ended the Tower of Babel story reminds us that the different languages of humankind have the power to divide people one from another. In the ancient world, there was a utopian ideal of one universal language, and this story provides an intriguing take on that dream. The Spirit of God has rushed in to empower many different kinds of people to do something astounding: communicate effectively with one another. (Can we imagine such a thing?) Bridges were built and crossed in a moment, and the differences among them, instead of dividing, provided startling illustration of just how great the power of God is. Underneath the differences of nationality and language, there was a fundamental unity that was not only touched but enlivened and experienced, profoundly, by many who were there. Others scoffed and interpreted even the most amazing of events through the eyes and ears of cynicism, but those with hearts and minds that were open to the movement of the Spirit knew that a new day had come.
Birthing is rarely neat or tidy
Births are rarely neat, tidy, or quiet, whether it's a human being or "something beautiful" struggling to be born. The birth of the church is no different. The feast of Pentecost ó of harvest ó is an interesting time to think about pregnancy and birth, and the great crowd of converts is its own kind of harvest even as it leads to even greater possibilities of growth and new life. In addition, the disciples, cowering and confused, experience their own kind of rebirth or transformation by the power of this Spirit who blows into the scene on the rush of a mighty wind, with great noise and even with fire. In this case, fire and wind bring not destruction but new life. As with birth, it may not be quiet or peaceful, but it is exhilarating and, in the end, a very good thing.
Mark Suriano connects this rebirth long ago with what is happening in the contemporary church: "In her book, The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle reflects on what she draws on the work of an Anglican bishop, The Right Reverend Mark Dyer, in describing the regular 'garage sale' that the church experiences every five hundred years or so. She, and others, look at the church today and see the possibility that we are in fact in the middle of one of those inspired, cosmic rummage sales: a refocusing of our hearts and minds on what the good news means in our own day, while honoring the contributions of those who have gone before us. Tickle and others see this as a time of great renewal for the church and the churches, an opportunity for re-examination of the fundamental questions and a re-commitment to a renewed living of our faith. Is it perhaps a time for our 'sons and daughters to prophesy,' for our 'young to dream dreams' and our 'old to see visions,' for an outpouring of Spirit that calls from tomorrow overwhelming our preconceived notions and neat perceptions in favor of the expansive and inclusive reign of God?"
How do we bridge the divides?
Perhaps there are different "languages" in your congregation (literally or figuratively) that may divide the folks in your church, or at least make unity more difficult to achieve. What have been experiences of deep unity, across differences? Differences can actually enrich and enliven what we share, if we can reach across what separates us, not only in language and culture but also in religious upbringing, economic class, educational background, and basic personality types. If we learn to communicate effectively, to hear what God is still speaking today, we will hear a call, together, that may astound us and gather us into something more effective and more amazing that we were before. What events and experiences have made us cower, have made us confused? What sort of power did ó or does ó it take to draw us out of our "all-together-in-one-place" experience and send us out with courage and energy to proclaim the good news of the Risen Christ? What loud noises and rushing wind do we require?
We are a people no longer easily impressed: in an age of technological wonders, we've come to expect regular improvements in the "stuff" of our lives. (Consider, for example, the improvement in special effects in film. What amazed us twenty years ago now looks almost silly.) What would it take then to astonish us? What astonishing things happen quietly in the life of your church, and in the lives of the members of your church? It's tempting to prefer a church that's a safe refuge over a place and community where we are astonished and our safe assumptions up-ended.
Re-telling the stories
What stories need to be up-ended and heard in a whole new light, even if we are all speaking the same language? What is the basic unity that we share, that the people in your congregation and its neighborhood share? What deep spiritual bond brings us together across every kind of barrier and difference? How do we appreciate our differences and yet find that common ground?
Today's story is another one of those that belongs to all of us, not just to the early Christians. This is our beginning, what Michael E. Williams calls our "foundational story" of the new life, the New Age of which we are a part. You can almost feel the wind pulling the folks together from all corners of the known world, and then propelling them back out to share the good news, like the Spirit breathing life into the young church. The harvest festival of Pentecost, which came to remember the giving of the Law at Sinai, now marked the giving of new life and the gift of the church, a new way of living for those who would follow Jesus in every land and in every age. Not just some kinds of people, but all different kinds of people, in all different places, different languages and customs, different cultures and backgrounds and experiences, different abilities and gender and races and orientations, all different kinds of people, beloved of God and filled with God's Spirit, a new creation just as it could and ought to be.
Bursting with "new wine"
The Pentecost story is one of the most familiar ones from the days of the early church, so it's easy to pass over the remark about "drunk with new wine" with perhaps only a chuckle, and miss a subtle but important point. Rebecca J. Kruger Gaudino makes a wonderful observation when she connects this scene to Jesus' own words about new wine and new wineskins in Luke 5:37-38, for these new Christians themselves are that new wine, "[bursting] the seams of convention." If this story really is our story, too, not just something stupefying that happened long ago and far away, what are we afraid of? What conventions could stand a little bursting, or a lot?
Erik Heen expresses the Stillspeaking witness of the United Church of Christ when he observes that the apostles, from this day forward, will have the guidance of the Holy Spirit in all that they do, preaching the gospel to a very different audience that includes both Jews and Gentiles. In that way, the gospel is true to Jesus' own life and witness, and yet able to reach the hearts and minds in a mission field that changes in every age. What a marvelous diversity we face as well, in our "audience" for the gospel, with many cultures, languages, and backgrounds in a richly multicultural, multiracial world that is more linked together because of changes in technology and travel. We depend today on that same Spirit for guidance, and wisdom, that we too remain faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ in ever more creative and dynamic mission efforts.
Mark Suriano closes our reflections with a blessing and a charge: "On Pentecost, may you find your heart singing with the spirit of God, your ears humming with the voice of the Spirit speaking in a language that reaches deep into your soul and wisdom dawning on your mind so that the shackles that have hardened around your mind may be broken, and God's voice and language set free. May your communities and churches experience the coming of God's Spirit, anticipate it with joy and hope, give in to it with love, so that when the day is done all the world may know the love of God because of you!"
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection
Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
"Thought is the blossom; language the bud; action the fruit behind it."
Virginia Woolf, 20th century
"Language is wine upon the lips."
Friedrich Nietzsche, 19th century
"A sedentary life is the real sin against the Holy Spirit. Only those thoughts that come by walking have any value."
L.J. Suenens, 20th century
"I believe in the surprises of the Holy Spirit."
Sandy Olson, Alternatives for Simple Living, 21st century
"I read a wonderful quote from the twelfth century mystic, Hildegard of Bingen that gave me pause. She described the Holy Spirit as 'the Greening Power of God.' Of course she did not intend that in the context that we might mean by 'Greening' something; that is, making it more environmentally friendly. She meant, I believe, that as plants are greened by water, sunlight, and soil, the human soul is 'greened' by the Holy Spirit's presence in one's life. Because of the Holy Spirit the human soul can 'flower and bear good fruit.'"
N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, 21st century
"Those in whom the Spirit comes to live are God's new Temple. They are, individually and corporately, places where heaven and earth meet."
Albert Camus, 20th century
"Great ideas, it has been said, come into the world as quietly as doves. Perhaps, then, if we listen attentively, we shall hear amid the uproar of empires and nations a faint flutter of wings, a gentle stirring of life and hope."
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