Spirit for All
Sunday, May 24
Spirit for All
Creator Spirit and Giver of life, make the dry, bleached bones of our lives live and breathe and grow again as you did of old. Pour out your Spirit upon the whole creation. Come in rushing wind and flashing fire to turn the sin and sorrow within us into faith, power, and delight. 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 Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Romans 8:22-27 or Acts 2:1-21
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
1. Have you ever had Peter’s experience, of interpreting the present moment in your life through the lens of Scripture, rather than the other way around?
2. What are the “languages” that may divide the folks in your church, or at least make unity more difficult to achieve?
3. What have been experiences of deep unity, across differences? How do our differences actually enrich and enliven what we share?
4. What events and experiences have made us cower, have made us confused?
5. Which of our conventions could stand a little bursting, or a lot? Do we feel like we are “new wine,” ready to burst old wineskins?
Reflection by Kate Matthews (Huey)
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 other languages 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 concern 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 contain with comments that blamed it all on drunkenness.
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 all. Not only the disciples, gathered in a room, getting themselves together after Jesus is once again departed. Not only the holiest or the most faithful or the most learned, not only the believers, not only 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.
And just to make sure that they know they’re all included, the formidable obstacle of a multitude of languages is overcome by a sweeping wind and 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, 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 draws near.
Joel spoke of a stillspeaking God
This reading is particularly powerful for a church that proclaims wholeheartedly that God is still speaking, and Matthew 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.
Clearly, the crowd is hungry for the word brought by the Spirit-filled disciples, even though some are immediately cynical and scoffing; we are told in 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?
Rooted in the tradition
Imagine what the energy that day felt like for the foreign Jewish visitors in town for the religious festival. This Pentecost experience was in continuity, of course, 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 spiritual 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. What do you think 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?
The same Spirit that drew the little band of disciples out into the world also shaped them into a community. What is the balance in your church like, between reaching out and nurturing the faith life of the community? How do these two impulses relate to each other? In his book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Marcus Borg writes, “The coming of the Spirit is the reversal of Babel, the beginning of the reunion of the human community.” In what ways might your church and your community need a “reunion”?
Up-ending the Tower of Babel
Borg’s description of this Pentecost that up-ended the Tower of Babel story reminds us that different languages 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 interesting twist 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. 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.
Births are never neat and tidy
Births are rarely neat, tidy, or quiet, even when people or something beautiful is struggling to be born. The birth of the church was no different. The feast of Pentecost–of harvest–is an interesting time to think about pregnancy and birth, and the great crowd of converts is its own kind of harvest and yet 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 good.
As you reflect on this story of the birth of the church, how much does it relate to the life of your church today? How might we reach across so many differences, not only in language and culture but also in religious upbringing, economic class, educational background, and basic personality types, to communicate effectively, to hear what God is still speaking today, bringing us a call that may astound us and gather us into something more effective and more amazing that we were before? What sort of power did–or does–it take to draw us out of our “all together in one place” 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?
The church as refuge and the church that up-ends our assumptions
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 looks almost silly today.) It takes more and more to astonish us, and yet astonishing things happen quietly in nature, in communities, in the life of our churches every day, whether we take note or not. 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. Perhaps we could “hear” our stories “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?
Breathing in, breathing out
After all, today’s story is another one of those that belongs to all of us, not just to the early Christians. This is our beginning, our “foundational story” of the new life, the New Age of which we are a part (Dennis E. Smith and Michael E. Williams). 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. 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.
We are the new wine Jesus spoke of!
The Pentecost story is one of the most familiar ones from the days of the early church. But 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: “Peter seems to have forgotten what Jesus once said about new wine that bursts old wineskins (Luke 5:37-38). These new followers of Jesus are not filled with new wine. They are the new wine! Watch them burst the seams of convention.” If this story really is our story, too, not just something stupefying that happened long ago and far away, what’s holding us back, what’s holding us in?
Erik Heen provides a fitting conclusion to our reflection on this text when he reminds us that, from this point forward, the apostles will have the guidance of the Holy Spirit in all that they do. The church will continue to grow, and while its message “remains the same, its audience becomes radically different.” Heen says that the Spirit’s guidance will provide both continuity and creativity that links it with the ministry of Jesus and yet leaves it open to adaptation to “the evolving mission field,” with both Jews and Gentiles eager to hear the Good News. Heen writes: “Though the narrative of Acts begins in Jerusalem, it ends in Rome!”
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) 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 on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
A preaching version of this reflection (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_may_24_2015.
For further reflection
N.T. Wright, 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.”
Adelaide Anne Procter, 19th century
“Dreams grow holy put in action.”
African Proverb, Ghana
“If you want to speak to God, tell it to the wind.”
Catherine the Great, 18th century
“A great wind is blowing, and that gives you either imagination or a headache.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
“This time, like all times, is a very good one if we but know what to do with it.”
Howard Thurman, 20th century
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
L.J. Suenens, 20th century
“I believe in the surprises of the Holy Spirit.”
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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.