In 2003 I took a trip that changed my life: as part of a 8 person team from the Cal-Pac Annual Conference, I went to Nigeria, to tour churches, meet church leaders and see what we Methodists were doing in that part of the world. It was an amazing trip for many reasons but one of those reasons was that we were able to witness the Holy Spirit at work – drawing people to each church, encouraging song and glory to God, helping feed and nurture children, caring for the people of Nigeria.
On the final day, I was asked to preach a sermon at the big Methodist Church in Zing. It was called the cathedral and it was the center of Methodist activity in the region. So I preached – of course with a translator, because my Hausa is not that good. I preached on the character of Nicodemus and the growth of his faith, and as I preached I noticed that while I would say a few words, and wait for the translation before I continued… soon, the translator – who was also a pastor – began to speak in sentences and paragraphs. I would preach a 3-4 word phrase and he was go on and on. Soon, he was getting some verbal responses to his preaching, some “Amens” and “Alleluias,” some “Yes, pastor!”’s and raised hands and clapping. The people were visibly and audibly moved by our preaching.
After we were finished, I asked him… “What were you saying?” He said he was explaining my sermon – using phrases and imagery they would understand. He was contextualizing the sermon as I preached it! He apologized and told me that he was inspired by the Holy Spirit and followed the Spirit’s leading. I was glad he did, because that day we preached a sermon together that neither of us could preach alone.
Today we celebrate the movement of the Holy Spirit in our story of Pentecost and in our own lives. How many of us have felt inspired? (Take answers)
How many times have we come up with an answer out of thin air, developed a plan on the spot, felt overcome with confidence just when we needed it, felt possessed by goodness and light so much so that we could give it to others. The Greek work for “spirit” is pneuma, which means breath – which is where we get the term pneumonia – breathing ailment.
When we feel inspired – we breath in the idea, the motivation, the confidence, the life – that propels us forward. The Spirit provides inspiration. And the story we mark today with the observance of Pentecost shows us how the Holy Spirit works.
Pentecost is the 50 day mark after the crucifixion of Jesus and on this day, The Spirit gives birth to the church. “Until this moment in history, the faith, known as “the Way,” is an assemblage of eleven refugees from Galilee. Their transformation and the transformation of the world are initiated by the great event spoken of in today’s lectionary scripture. This is a monumental, paradigm-changing event. From this event, we make the bold assertion: The Christian Church cannot and would not exist without the power and the presence of the Holy Ghost.” (1)
So, what happened that fateful day when the Holy Spirit revealed herself?
Well, this gathering was one of the three Jewish pilgrimage festivals, falling 50 days after Passover. It is also called Shavuot or the Feast of Weeks, an occasion to celebrate the gathering in of the harvest (2) and became a time to celebrate the coming of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai.
So, as was the custom, Jews throughout the world travelled to Jerusalem for Shavuot. But was it just Jewish men? In verse 1, Luke (the author of Acts) mentions that “they were all gathered in one place…” Was this only the menfolk?
To explain what happened in this strange scene, Peter quotes the prophecy of Joel, chapter 2, verse 28-29:
“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;” says the Lord, “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”
Therefore, I believe, the text clearly establishes that the recipients of the Holy Spirit that day were each and every one of those people – men and women alike – gathered together in the upper room. (3)
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.
In the story, we have some vivid imagery: fire and wind. Fire is often associated in the Old Testament with the divine presence – think of Moses’ encounter with the burning bush. (4) And Wind is described as one of the instruments through which God acts: In Genesis 2, the story of the creation, “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”
4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.
Language is used in the Story of Pentecost to create unity! We are gifted with the ability to be one people, one family. Suddenly we can listen and speak to one another. We can communicate with one another and hear in our own language.
What kind of miracle is this? Doesn’t seem like a big deal… but think about how wonderful it would be for us – in our context – to be able to speak to one another and listen to one another with understanding and compassion and the desire to be united as we discuss and agree or disagree with our brothers and sisters. That would be an amazing feat!
Here in this room, there are people from all over the world, Jews and Gentiles alike, men and women and children…. and suddenly, with the rushing wind and the appearance of holy fire, we are one family. The family of God.
Now, the church is in the business of creating family: bringing strangers together to create a new kind of family. Celebrating the joys of each member, comforting each other in times of grief. Celebrating graduations and baptisms, supporting in each in times of illness, mourning with one another in times of death.
In Matthew 12, verses 48-50, Jesus points to this new definition of family by asking “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Then looking at those gathered together in his ministry, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” We CREATE FAMILY out of strangers. More aptly, the SPIRIT creates family out of strangers!
May we too feel the breath of the spirit, may we be inspired to be light and hope to the world. May we be lit with the passion of the Holy Spirit so that God will be glorified in our words and actions. May we feel aflame with God, so that we work side by side with the Holy Spirit to join with others to create a new family. And May we, who have been blessed by the extraordinary love of God, continue to offer that love to others. And together, may we continue to seek new ways to connect with our family throughout the world, inspired and on fire with the love of God! Amen.
- Gary V. Simpson, found on http://www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org/PopupLectionaryReading.asp?LRID=88
- Exod 3:14-17; Lev 23:15-22
3. David Howell, found on http://www.goodpreacher.com/shareit/readreviews.php?cat=28
4. Ex 19:18