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 Arabs—in 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.”
I’m sure many of you are aware of the recent fires in California, and you may have seen video of the giant flames, fueled by the Santa Ana winds, leaping and burning out of control. The combination of wind and fire – not exactly a tranquil, serene scenario.
Yet these are the elements central to the spirit of Pentecost. Pentecost is traditionally celebrated by the church in May or June. But I’m lifting this scripture passage up today because we as a congregation are in the midst of sharing our dreams and imaginings for our family of faith. And I think Pentecost, often called the “birthday of the church,” is a wonderful occasion for us to reflect upon as we share our hopes for the future.
First, let’s look at the setting for Pentecost. The disciples and other followers of Jesus are regrouping. They’re trying to figure out what a life of faith together looks like after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. Upon his departure, Jesus promises that he will bestow this gathered community with the gift of the Spirit.
That gift arrives in quite a memorable style.
Jesus’ followers have gathered together in one place in Jerusalem. Suddenly a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and tongues of fire come among them. Surrounded by diverse followers from around the Mediterranean, the disciples speak of God’s deeds and power. And lo and behold, everyone hears the good news proclaimed in their own language. God’s word is spoken in a way that everyone can understand.
So what’s the people’s response? They’re bewildered. They’re amazed. They’re astonished. At Pentecost, God’s Spirit moves out into the world – a world of many people, languages, and differences. Suddenly the world is disrupted, because the Holy Spirit is moving.
So when I’m asked, like you, as a member of the Congregational Church of Littleton, to imagine and to dream about the future of our church, these are some of the words that come to my mind: bewildered, amazed, and astonished.
This is what I hope for our church: that we may be bewildered, amazed, and astonished. Because these are signs that the Holy Spirit is at work.
Disruption is something not usually welcomed, especially in church. Church is a place that values tradition, continuity, stability, and order. We love the predictability, the assurance, of our church life – it provides a foundation for us amidst the troubles and turmoil of the world. We like to keep God firmly within the box of what we know and understand.
Yet, does God really want us to keep everything nicely and neatly in the realm of what we can talk about in the course of coffee hour? Does God want us to attend worship, shake hands, share our offerings, and then go home and resume our routines? How does familiarity and predictability motivate us to go out into the world, sharing the Good News, breaking down walls and barriers, and working for peace and justice? Does God want us to stick to what’s warm and fuzzy and comfortable? What kind of a faith is that?
Pentecost was an astonishing event, full of amazement, confusion, and communal bewilderment. These are signs of the Spirit. If we want the Holy Spirit in our midst, we need to be on the look-out for some amazement, some confusion. If we want our faith to be something living, if we want our church to be alive with the Spirit, we have to expect God to shake things up and blow things around.
The last couple years our church has been in an interim period when we’ve experienced many changes and explored new ideas, and I love how accepting and adaptable we are as a church family. I hope the changes and new ideas continue. We’ve adopted a statement that expresses the welcome we extend. I especially love the closing phrase, “At this church, all are welcome, and ALL means ALL.”
My personal hope is that we can continue to extend ourselves, especially when it comes to reaching out to strangers.
As many of you know, this fall I became an empty nester, and so I’ve recently begun volunteering with an organization called the International Institute of New England, which has offices in Boston, Lowell, and Manchester, NH. In part through federal funding, the IINE provides support services for newly-arrived immigrants and refugees. As part of their resettlement program, I’m involved in an initiative that pairs adult mentors with youth, ages 15-22, who have recently arrived in the U.S.
Every Wednesday afternoon, I join about ten adult mentors who meet with young mentees to offer support and guidance as they tackle school work, job searches, and college applications. Some of the mentors themselves are immigrants, having arrived years ago from countries like Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Columbia. Our facilitator who works for IINE is originally from Ghana. The mentees come from Syria, Afghanistan, Zambia, Namibia, and in the case of the young woman I’m paired with, from Tanzania. Some of the youth are fairly fluent in English, and others know very little – like my own mentee, who’s only been here for three months. (She still knows far more English than I know Swahili.)
When we gather together in one room each week, I’m astounded by the multiple languages, accents, experiences, and perspectives that are shared. We’re all bound together by a desire to help these young people flourish in their new homeland. We sometimes struggle to understand each other, but the room is filled with joy and laughter, humility and honesty, as we seek to reach across barriers and boundaries.
This whole experience is for me an astounding example of how God works in the world. I’m reminded of the celebration of Pentecost, when God, through the Holy Spirit, chose to meet Jesus’ followers where they were: in the midst of myriad languages, diverse backgrounds, and different experiences.
At Pentecost, the Spirit translated the Gospel instantly into many languages, and the church was born.
God didn’t ask the followers of Jesus to speak unanimously, in one language. Instead, God chose to speak our many languages. At Pentecost, God spoke in Aramaic and Greek and other ancient languages. Today, God continues to speak in Swahili, Spanish, and Arabic. God joins us in the midst of the messiness and the difficulties of speaking different languages, eating different foods, and living in different cultures. At Pentecost, God doesn’t erase our differences but embraces the fact that God has made us all so wonderfully different.
As much as we seek God in serenity, peace and tranquility, the truth is that God often meets us in the disruption of our lives. God comes to us when we’re bewildered and seeking to understand. God comes to us when we’re confused and confounded. God comes to us when we’re feeling vulnerable and exposed. In the midst of all the turbulence of our lives, God is with us, moving among us, astonishing us, amazing us, and transforming us and our world.
On Pentecost, followers from “every nation under heaven,” from every corner of the earth, came together, hearing words of God’s deeds and power, all by the power of the Holy Spirit. They all heard in their own languages a new thing – a new creation that would bear the name church.
May we continue to bear that name, church, with joy, thanksgiving, and hope for the future. Amen.