All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” In the name of +Jesus.
Today is a major festival day for the church. The altar guild goes all out, ensuring we have red geraniums and paraments to mark the occasion. Our 9th grade confirmands study hard for three years so that they can don the baptismal gown of confirmation. Our musicians rehearse beautiful music. We sing the great Pentecost songs. Our clergy prepare hearts to hear a Word from God in sermon and liturgy.
But are we changed? Can I look you in the eye, and can you look me back in the eye and tell me that we are changed forever? That we will never be the same again, because of Pentecost?
Peter’s community was definitely changed. At the time of today’s first lesson, Peter and the disciples and the entire community of Christians were all in one place: Jerusalem. 120 people gathered in fear as a congregation following Jesus. They wanted to tell others of the Good News of Jesus, but their fear of stepping out and being killed for their witness held their tongues.
12 disciples. Lots of men and women, we don’t know all their names. We do know they were willing to give their very lives to follow. Gentiles and immigrants. People just like us. Who want better futures for their children. Who don’t have all the answers.
What happened that day, during the Jewish festival of Shavuot, made some speechless. The language of the Roman marketplace was Greek, so the people likely had a common language for trade and militia purposes. But they would also be multi-lingual, speaking the language of their ancestral homelands in many tongues. And when they heard each one speaking in the native language of each, they were bewildered. Perplexed. Amazed. Saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
Words matter. Language matters. To the 120 people who first experience the rush of violent wind, and the ability to see the radical social equality that was blowing over them. Old and young, men and women, Jew and Gentile. Not only does God come in Spirit to all people, but God comes to each person in the language he or she knows. A personalized experience with the Holy Spirit, fulfilling promises spoken by Joel and lighting social norms of the day on fire.
The Word of God comes and breaks down any barrier that can keep us from understanding, including language. Words are important. Ancient listeners would hear something in today’s lesson that we modern listeners may not. An old, traditional, ancient ceremony during Shavuot was being held side by side with something new. In the place of Jerusalem, not just a geographical place but a spiritual place. The place where God made a home with the Jews. God was doing something new, for the whole world. Jews AND Gentiles. And they knew it. During this particular Shavuot, the Holy Spirit is poured out upon the people, a sign of the birth of the church. The first Pentecost.
Today, we hear about a violent rushing of wind blowing and surrounding the group of 120 people. Tongues as of fire, startling them out of their current moment, so that they didn’t miss the Spirit of God poured out among ALL the people. Jew and Gentile. And the people used their words with their outside voices to praise God. To give thanks and to prophesy in their native tongues. Now all the lands would know of the Holy Spirit’s presence in the world, because they used ALL of their words. God speaks to us using our own words. Words are important.
When Peter quotes Joel, he is announcing the shift from the old to the new. It is the words of the prophets, proclaiming that God’s promise is now realized with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The present age ends, the new age of the reign of God begins. The people spoke in many tongues – in many languages – a sign of God’s reign for ALL people, not just a select few. Power is restored through language, and then a call to prophesy.
On that Pentecost day, all of Jesus’ followers – the disciples, women and men, Gentiles, immigrants – all of them were given the power of the Spirit of God to go out, to be the church, to witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ in every language.
And now I ask again. Have you been changed forever because of Pentecost?
Words allow prophets from the past to continue to speak to us today. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. changed the world with his words. Words that revealed a devisive flaw in our human nature. Words that blew into our hearts and minds to bring equality, not division. Words inspired by peace and nonviolence.
Every time I think about this year’s confirmation students, the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. echo in my head. Throughout his years of leadership, he encouraged all people to address the pressing social ills of the day through citizen service. Words – and actions – are important. In his famous sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct”, King calls us into a holy understanding of serving the neighbor.
“Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.
You don’t have to have a college degree to serve.
You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve.
You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve.
You don’t have to know Einstein’s “Theory of Relativity” to serve…you only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”
These words embody each one of our confirmands:
Alex, Anna, Dylan, Jack, Katie, Max, Mo, Nathan, Rosa and Savanna. God gave each one of these incredible people important words to say, a necessary voice in this, the 21st century. The winds of Pentecost blow each time I watch their hearts on fire to help someone in need, each time I see God’s love in their concern for others.
10 beautiful young people. And I am haunted by that number, because only a few days ago did we hear the news: 10 killed in Santa Fe, and 10 wounded. Pentecost winds are blowing fiercely in our country today, through voices of young people challenging us to use our words to protect them, to honor them. To take a risk and say something. Using our voices to speak truth moves us beyond our anxiety, beyond perplexing moments of “what does this mean?”
Pentecost is not meant to be a pretty, dormant festival. It’s not meant to be a day to wear red and plant pretty flowers and take family photos with the confirmed. It’s a day when the Holy Spirit lights a fire in us that can never go out. A day when Jesus promises to be with us through that Spirit, so we never walk a day or say a word without knowing he is right there with us. Pentecost is the day when we know in our hearts that what we say and do matters very much to God. When all the promises of visions and dreams become for us a reality.
Pentecost matters because the world needs your voice. Your words…to prophesy and cry out to a world desparate to know a goodness like our God. You have already been changed by Pentecost. Each confirmand and every body in this place. God is still doing something new, still blowing a Spirit of holiness into our lives. Don’t domesticate that Spirit by assuming it will always be gentle. The Spirit moves and blows in times of transition, not to steady our feet, but to move them into new places.
For it is God who does the calling. God, who blows us together in this great big world. God, who gives our breath a sound and our words a voice. God, who gives us the language of faith at baptism, and then continues to breathe life into us.
Words matter. Worship matters. Pentecost matters. Our confirmands matter. Everything we say and do matters to God.
God will give us the language we need, and then move us from discomfort and fear to a place where God’s language can transform the world. Where every tongue is heard and understood, because every word is translated and spoken in the language that matters most of all: love.
Love is what everything means. Love matters.