1When the day of Pentecost had come, [the apostles] 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. 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. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
19And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ ”
One of my most prized possessions of the last few years is a book of hymns I received in Namibia. The group I was with received them after attending church in Windhoek, the capitol of Namibia. It’s really fascinating to read and look at because it incorporates as many as 7 different languages for each hymn, featuring only the words and no music. But I don’t love it because it’s fascinating. Its value comes from my emotional and mental state when I received it. We had been in the country for a few days, my jetlag was beginning to finally wear off, and the realization that everyone I knew was 8 time zones away. I didn’t know my traveling companions very well at that point and the loneliness was driven home even further when we went to church – a very nice but crowded building in which we were the only group of people in the congregation that were pale skinned. I felt very, very alone. Until we started singing and, when we started singing, something changed. When we started singing, we were united in voice, but not in language. We were united in song, but the way we sounded was different. The chorus of voices and the chorus of languages moved me to the point of tears. In a place of vulnerability and loneliness, songs that were written in this book became to me the most intense feeling of the Holy Spirit’s movement I have ever felt.
And I know that I’m not alone in this experience. Because the Holy Spirit is often experienced most profoundly in a spirit of vulnerability. We enter our first reading, the traditional Pentecost reading, in Acts 2 to find the apostles or disciples gathered together. Jesus had ascended into heaven 10 days prior and as far as we can tell from the Bible, very little had happened since then. They were gathered, yes, but frightened and isolated. If there’s ever a thing that can make someone feel vulnerable, it’s the feeling of being frightened and isolated, surrounded by people who you don’t feel you can trust. Even in a crowded room, you can feel isolated.
When suddenly the spirit came like a rushing wind into the house. The Greek word for wind is pneuma, which is also the word used for spirit and breath. Because of this, I like to think of the Holy Spirit as the breath of God and on this day in Acts, God breathed mightily into those isolated, vulnerable people. It gave them new words to explain the truth and gospel of God. It gave them boldness to meet people and to proclaim the good news of Christ. It gave them a new understanding of what the body of God, what would become the Church, would look like.
What started as a small group of Jewish disciples of a crucified and risen man very quickly, very dramatically cracked open and invited the world into its movement. Suddenly, the kingdom of God was not exclusive, but inclusive. It gave up its common language, heritage, and culture, but retained its common tune and now breathed into the common human experience. Just like the songs in my Namibian hymnal can be sung in different languages, the tune and the human experience remains the same.
And the same is true of Christ’s gospel and life. It can be explained different ways, in different languages and methods, but the tune is the same. Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. Just like the Holy Spirit’s work, it sometimes makes no sense. It sometimes, maybe most of the time, leaves us confused and uncertain because we cannot control it or mimic it. We cannot guess what it will do or where it will be next. The ancient Celtic Christians used the image of a wild goose to talk about the Holy Spirit. While this may not be the most regal or powerful expression of this member of the Trinity, it’s fitting, I think. Try controlling a goose and see what happens. They love to chase me when I run near them, so please, if you know how to control a wild goose, please tell me.
And I love the response of some of the people; they think they are drunk. (And don’t you love Peter’s response, “They can’t be drunk; it’s only 9 in the morning!”) And maybe that is what a Spirit filled group of people looks like – giddy with anticipation of what will happen, joyful in their living, and generous with their time, energy, and resources. I think when people see a Spirit filled person or community, it’s confusing, because it often goes against conventional wisdom. If you wanted to start a new community of faith, a new religion, uneducated tax collectors, fisherman, and shepherds from a small backwater town wouldn’t be the first choice. If you wanted to spread the word quickly and to a lot of people, a disorganized gathering of people speaking different languages all at the same time probably wouldn’t be the first choice. If you wanted if you wanted a figurehead for a way of life and peace, a man on a cross would not be the first choice.
But this is the Spirit’s way and the gospel’s way. It takes people who often don’t agree, and makes them sisters and brothers, united by God’s love and faithfulness. It takes ordinary, flawed people and, by no work of their own, names them as beautiful and loved. It takes a symbol of death and despair and makes it a sign of new life. To those who would be otherwise uninvited because of lifestyle or crime or disease or culture, it opens the door to a new community and family. In a very real and counterintuitive way, this opened door is what makes the community whole. Hearing a hymn, sung together in different languages, made this very real for me; the Spirit’s work of uniting and inspiring is, if anything, more perfect and more powerful when it’s experienced in a diverse community of language, faith, and culture. The family of God became more real and personal for me when I began to experience it’s variety and, through that variety, I began to understand its unity.
This Spirit, this breath and wind of God, breathes new life into a world gasping for breath. It brings unity to places plagued by fracture. It pulls and pushes us into places and situations that we’d never choose. And it does more than that; more than we can understand. And what we do in that Spirit, in this new way of being, is the kingdom’s work – proclaiming God’s love and practicing the recreative power of God in a world that is so often hurting. We’ve each been given a language and place in which to practice Christ’s presence in the world. We’ve each been given skills and passions to participate in God’s creative acts. We’ve each been given the breath and spirit of God. And, mixed all together, we call that vocation. It’s how you become part of God’s work of redemption and creation in the world. It’s how you practice the love and grace you’ve received.
The Spirit of God is moving through us and in us. It comes to vulnerable people and sets them free. It comes to hurting people and gives them strength. It uses you, me, and all humanity to bring forth a new kingdom and a new way of being in the world. It can’t be controlled and it can’t be harnessed for our own desires. It is a free-moving agent of God’s love and grace, God’s creative and redemptive power.
The hymnal I received from the Inner City Lutheran Congregation in Windhoek, Namibia is a reminder of a time I felt the Spirit move in a very real way. And it’s a reminder of how I am to approach the world that the Spirit is breathing into – with humility, because I can’t understand it; with patience, because it is not mine to order and direct; with expectation, because I know that I have seen it work; with an open hand, because over and over, in the Bible and in my life, I’ve felt it at work most when I am willing to let myself be vulnerable.
The preface to this hymnal says this: “For a long time members of the Lutheran Churches worked on a hymn-book, which could be used for combined services as well as for meetings of Lutherans in Namibia… May God bless this hymn-book and bring Christians closer together by singing to the Glory of God.” It was dedicated on the day of Pentecost, 1996. And on this day of Pentecost, 21 years later, my prayer is that we could continue to take our place in that work, that all humanity could be brought together by the Spirit’s work, and that we could recognize the tongue of fire that you, yourself, have been given by the Breath of God. Amen.