It’s Pentecost! We tried something new this weekend at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Greene, moving to a single combined worship service for Sunday mornings rather than our usual two split services. This week was our first “blended service” and throughout the summer, we’ll be moving between our two worship spaces and traditional, praise, and blended worship styles.
Since all our services this weekend were in the fellowship hall, I got to use the screen during the sermon to show some pictures and project the italicized questions below! Oh, and we even put up some red streamers and balloons to get in the Pentecost spirit (pun intended). Pentecost is a great time for trying something new!
This weekend’s Pentecost Year A readings are Acts 2:1-21 & 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13. I learned about Holy Spirit holes from this sermon from Pastor Michael Allwein at St. James Lutheran Church in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Pentecost is one of my favorite days in the church year for a couple reasons. First, I only get to wear my red clerical shirt two times in the church year.
The second reason is also kind of silly, but I love the words in today’s reading from Acts. Any day you can talk about Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia has to be a good day. I remember as a kid one of the first times I was a lector having to read this passage in church and practicing over and over to try to get it right. I have no idea how it actually came out. I love this kind of ridiculous moment in the church where we expect people to pronounce names of ancient cultures we’ve never heard of anywhere else.
But more importantly, I love Pentecost because it’s the turning point in the story. Pentecost is the birthday of the church, so I like having some decorations up, like balloons and streamers, and emphasizing the color red for the fire of the Holy Spirit.
In the story, Jesus’ followers the disciples had been hiding in locked rooms after he died, then he was raised and they celebrated and ate with him. Then as we heard last week, he ascended into heaven again, telling them to go be witnesses to God all over the world.
Today’s story, the Pentecost story, shows how they begin to actually fulfill their commission.
These timid, incompetent, ordinary people transform into apostles, messengers carrying the good news to everyone. Something extraordinary happens to them, and in this story, we find out it’s the Holy Spirit. God is at work here.
The same Spirit that was blowing over the waters at creation, the same Spirit that breathed into Adam at creation, the same Spirit Jesus promised to send to the disciples as their helper and advocate, is at work. The Holy Spirit shows up on the believers sitting in their house, and something happens, something so dramatic a crowd gathers to watch. They start speaking different languages, and tongues of fire appear.
We’re used to this story, so we lose how odd all of this is. But look at the reactions of the people in the crowd as they try to figure it out. Verses 12 and 13: “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’”
The people watching get that something’s happening here, but they have trouble believing God is involved. They certainly don’t expect God is starting the church with these kind of people, in this way.
It’s the same kind of questions people ask over and over in the Bible, because God keeps working in unexpected ways and through unexpected people. The Pentecost story challenges what we think about how God works.
Can the Holy Spirit really work through people like this?
When the Holy Spirit comes on Pentecost, lots of people get involved. First, it’s the disciples, Jesus’ followers gathered in that house. They’ve spent up to three years with Jesus, but they’ve shown again and again that they don’t quite understand what’s happening.
These are not educated elites, these are people from a backwater part of a small nation dominated by a conquered empire. No one rational should choose them to spread a message around the world. On a purely practical level, they don’t speak other languages. But the Spirit fixes that problem.
They’re timid followers, filled with doubts, feeling abandoned by their leader…Until the Holy Spirit comes and fills them with courage and the words to say. Then they start preaching and proclaiming, and by the end of the chapter, this brand-new church has grown by over 3,000 people.
And those are just some of the gifts the Holy Spirit brings. As Paul explained later to the Corinthians, the Spirit has gifts for everyone. Some get to do miracles, some get to heal. Some get to speak in tongues, some get to interpret, and all of God’s gifts are for the common good. The church is stronger when all these different gifts are present, when lots of different people work together.
I know it’s wrong, but I have a general picture in my head of what church people look like, what kind of people belong to a church, who’s in, even what gifts Christians have. But at Pentecost, everyone has a role. Everyone gets to be involved, even foreigners and the people who look and act different.
When he explains what’s happening, Peter quotes from the prophet Joel. When God’s Spirit comes, your sons and daughters prophesy, young men see visions, old men shall dream dreams. Even the slaves — the lowest of society, both men and women — get the Holy Spirit. God can work through anyone!
And it’s not just people two thousand years ago. The Holy Spirit is still at work today! These gifts are for us too. Each of you has gifts from God, and when the Spirit shows up, everyone gets to be involved.
Can the Holy Spirit really work like this?
Even if the Holy Spirit chooses to work through people like this, I can see the people watching wondering, “Can the Holy Spirit really work like this?” Is this really what God’s work looks like? Pentecost is a day for trying something new, for challenging “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
There’s a tradition in some ancient cathedrals and churches of having “Holy Spirit Holes.” A Holy Spirit hole is a hole in the ceiling of the cathedral that gets opened once a year, at Pentecost. The tradition is to release doves into the sanctuary, to fly around the room, representing the coming of the Holy Spirit. Later in the service, people on the roof would dump buckets of rose petals to float down onto the congregation, like tongues of fire.
I love the chaos and the unpredictability of that image. I’m sure having birds flying around the sanctuary during worship causes problems. Rose petals wouldn’t fall exactly where you want them, and the janitor who has to clean them all up might not love the idea.
But the Holy Spirit is not predictable. God isn’t tame, so I love that image… at least in theory. But in reality, sometimes I think we’re closer, at least I am, to the good, religious people who had come from out of town to celebrate the Jewish festival of Pentecost, the festival of booths.
They didn’t know what to make of these radically excited disciples. They were different; they behaved oddly. They weren’t normal. Shouldn’t God be working in some more established way, through the official channels? I like to have a bit of control and to know what to expect.
I didn’t think cutting a hole in the roof for today’s service would go over well, but the next time we try some new idea, remember that sometimes when the Holy Spirit shows up, bystanders think the church people are drunk. Remember this when we hear about God doing things we’re not quite sure of.
Even the disciples are surprised at what God is up to. At Pentecost, they start to realize this whole Jesus thing is way bigger than they thought. At the beginning of the story, they all fit into one house. By the end of the day, there are over 3,000 of them. The Spirit messes with the way things have always been done, or the way we expect the future to look. The Holy Spirit is disruptive, even today. What is the Spirit doing here, among us?
Can the Holy Spirit really work here?
Pentecost is about God showing up in unexpected ways. Jesus didn’t wait until the disciples were ready before ascending back to heaven. The Holy Spirit didn’t wait until they understood before showing up. In fact, it’s not until the Holy Spirit comes that they understand.
Most of us struggle to understand and explain the Holy Spirit. That’s ok. As Pastor Barbara Brown Taylor describes it, “the Holy Spirit is something we trust, not something we understand.” The Spirit is working through the disciples and through us.
I expect God to be working in church. I have a harder time noticing God at work in the rest of life. But that’s exactly what’s at the heart of Pentecost.
Pentecost tells us God is no longer confined to Jerusalem, or to the people who had walked and talked with Jesus. God is not confined to the people who grew up in the church attending Sunday School. Those Holy Spirit holes in the cathedrals aren’t really to let the Spirit into the church, they should be to release the Spirit into the world.
Fire is such a good image for Pentecost, because the Holy Spirit blows where it pleases. It’s dangerous. We can’t control what God is doing.
All we can do is trust and give thanks for this gift. All we can do is notice God at work and get involved, because God is on the move in our world, in our community, and in our lives.
The good news of Pentecost is that today, the Holy Spirit is moving in and through you. Come Holy Spirit!