Pentecost Sunday is a big day for the church.
For one, it’s the last Big Day for the rest of the year until Advent happens, and that’s the beginning of the New Christian Year. So really, this is the last milestone of this Christian year. From here on out, we get to celebrate…Ordinary time. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just not nearly as special as Pentecost. However, I think we need ordinary time just as much as the special days, because that’s how most of us live. That’s when life happens, in the ordinary time. Perhaps I’ll talk more about that later.
Today though, is a big day. Pentecost. The Fiftieth Day after the Resurrection, and the Birthday of the Church. Happy Birthday, church! A professor of mine once said perhaps we could replace the traditional Bread and Wine for Cake and Punch on Pentecost, just for celebration’s sake. After all, without Pentecost, we wouldn’t be here.
Why do I say that we wouldn’t be here, though? What makes Pentecost so special? It’s a celebration of the Holy Spirit, yes, but what’s so great about that? After all, Jesus is the one we Christians focus on most, right? Jesus we can get our minds around. He’s a person. He’s THE person. The Man who is God, human and divine, who died and defeated death, so that we might have eternal life.
What’s so great about the Spirit? I mean, the Spirit is a co-equal, co-eternal member of the Trinity too, but there’s infinitely less available in scripture to inform us about the Spirit. The Role of the Spirit itself is to point not to the Spirit, but back to Jesus. To teach. To challenge. To empower. To enrich. The Spirit is not focused on anything but action, and so today, in celebrating the Spirit, let’s celebrate what the Spirit does–give. The Spirit gives us many things in this life, but three of the big ones are highlighted right here, today, on Pentecost.
The first of the gifts that the Spirit gives us today is Mutual Understanding. Now, that’s a bit of a big thing to unpack, because she gives it to us in a very peculiar way. Not necessarily with the pyrotechnic display–although that is rather exhilarating! That is peculiar, but not what I’m talking about.
What I’m talking about is this: “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.”
Let’s talk about languages and speaking in them, as led by the Spirit. These days, a great deal of controversy and talk is done about “speaking in tongues”, which is a specific kind of thing. Many churches, especially of the Pentecostal variety, place a lot of emphasis on this gift. Paul especially addresses this kind of gift in his letter to the Corinthians. It’s even given a specific fancy latin name: Glossolalia. Now then, I am not one to deny the gift or the phenomenon of Glossolalia. I personally don’t have it, and it’s biblically not a necessary or required gift, but I won’t deny it.
HOWEVER, that is not what is going on at Pentecost. What is going on here is an event far different. This kind of gift of language is very specific, and given for a specific purpose: to be able to share the gospel to anyone, in any language. This is not an event or a gift designed to obscure or mystify, but rather to help give mutual understanding to others.
Let’s put it this way. Imagine you are in a city. Not just any city though; a city that’s the central travel hub for a lot of people from a lot of different places. Someplace like New York, or London, or Zurich, or Berlin. Imagine then that you only know one language, and it was your job to give people information. Now, you’d be able to talk to many people, true, but not everyone. Only people with that certain language. To talk to more people, you need to be able to speak in more languages. Well, that’s exactly what the Holy Spirit did here. Jerusalem was, in this time, a travel hub, a crossroads, for many people in many places. If the mission of the Holy Spirit is to point to Christ, the best way to do that is to give people tools to do just that for others.
It’s one of the things that Christianity is unique for. It is a faith based on its translatability. It doesn’t insist on being given in Hebrew, like the Jewish faith, or on Arabic, like Islam. It is a faith that is designed to be all things to all people. And that is a significant gift of the church that we ought to take pride in. We can be a gift to the world because of that. And for that reason, the second gift of Pentecost is given– Boundless Joy.
Joy is not simply happiness. You can be happy for a moment or for a day. Joy is something different.
Happiness is a feeling. Joy is an attitude. It was once described to me this way: if happiness is a glass of water, Joy is a water fountain. Joy is the source of happiness. It’s a deep, abiding reservoir of happiness that can be sustained even if one doesn’t feel happy. Not only that, it’s infectious, and can be easily spread from one person to another.
That, my friends, is a gift, one that comes from the Spirit of God, and comes to us on Pentecost as well. It was a side-effect of the language thing, something that bewildered and confused the bystanders. Which is understandable; joy seems like madness from the outside–in this case, drunkenness.
Peter had to address the people in this way and explain that no, these people aren’t drunk–it’s too early for that! Rather, they are simply filled with the Spirit, and this thing they are experiencing is what Joy looks like.
This should give us a bit of pause though, because I want to ask you this: Are we a place where joy lives? Is the church someplace we need feel and experience joy? Sometimes I wonder. Life in the church can be described in many ways, and we have many seasons. But Joy should be at the center of it all. So that, I think is a question to you: Are we a place of joy? And if not, how can we make this a place that joy can be found?
I think that, at its root, is the basis for the third gift of Pentecost, a Common Vision.
A Common Vision
Peter explains the joy by quoting scripture, and quoting a part of the prophets that isn’t necessarily read about much. Let’s face it: Joel is rarely someone’s go-to prophet from the old testament, like Isaiah or Jeremiah. Joel is shorter, and rarely quoted, but today, all of a sudden, Peter brings up Joel, and is exactly the right person to talk about.
He says this:
In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your young will see visions.
Your elders will dream dreams.
Even upon my servants, men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
Now, perhaps a bit of background on prophsying: it’s a verb, and it usually involves being in something called an “ecstatic” state. Prophesying usually involves song and dancing, and a feeling of euphoria–joy. What’s remarkably in this though is that prophesy is usually only reserved for a few; now, Peter proclaims that it will be available to everyone.
Along with that joy will be a common vision, a dream, realized into our world. The dream? It’s the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God made manifest. That is the final gift. We have been given a new and common vision of who and what we are to be. We are everything to all people. We are joy incarnate. And we strive for the day when heaven and earth will be made new.
That is what I want to leave you with today. We have a vision. We have a future. And it’s a future of joy, and celebration. Pentecost is when we celebrate the gifts of the Spirit, and those gifts point us to the joy of Heaven. Thanks be to God. Amen.