Expansive and Empowering
It’s Pentecost! And it’s chaotic. Violent winds, tongues of fire, shouting voices, bewildered crowds, a cacophony of languages, accusations of drunkenness. Then a voice pierces through the noise: “What does this mean?”
It’s a great question! It’s Pentecost, one of the three major feasts of the Christian year, the feast of the Holy Spirit. What does it mean?
We know about the other two feasts. We know all about Christmas and Easter, we know what they mean. Christmas is the great feast of the Incarnation, the birth of Jesus, the promise that God is with us.
Easter is the resurrection of Jesus, the triumph of life over death, hope over fear, love over hate. Easter means that life wins. That love wins and that we are good with God.
So what’s Pentecost all about? We know that it’s about the gift of the Spirit, we’ve heard the promises, we’ve read today’s story from Acts. But what does the Spirit do?
A few weeks ago in our gospel reading, on that last night with his disciples, Jesus tried to convince them that it was actually better that he was leaving. Why? Because if he did, they would be able to do greater things than what Jesus had done, because God would give them the Holy Spirit.
I don’t think they believed him. In fact I don’t think any of us believed it either. But then I saw the numbers. Numbers never tell you the whole story, but they do tell you something.
In three years of public ministry, Jesus built a community of 120 people, the same 120 people that he told to stay together and wait for the Holy Spirit. Three years, 120 people.
On the day of Pentecost, the Spirit adds 3000 people to this community. One day, 3000 people.
What does the Holy Spirit do? The Holy Spirit builds community.
And not just any community. Because if I had to choose two words to describe the community of Pentecost based on what we’ve just heard from Acts, the two that jump out at me are these:
Expansive and empowered.
What does it mean to be an expansive community?
Well, community means connection. But you and I know that usually we connect most easily with people like ourselves, people that speak our language. So I think it’s significant that the first act of the Spirit is to break down the language barrier, enabling the disciples who had been gathered together to speak in many languages, enabling them to communicate and connect with people from the ends of the earth who had gathered in Jerusalem. Going beyond the barriers that can limit us is expansive.
Then, when Peter speaks, the next movement of the Spirit is to inspire him to preach a text from the prophet Joel, a prophecy that foresees another expansive movement of the Spirit. Listen to it again:
“In these last days, God declares,
I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh”
You got that? All flesh! Not just a group of insiders, not a particular tribe, not just one religious group, not just the leadership, no, God will pour out God’s Spirit on everyone. And when that happens,
“your sons and daughters shall prophesy,
and your young ones shall see visions and your old ones shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit.”
This is an expansive vision of community. Everyone is included: all genders, men and women, young and old, every social class, every orientation, every language, every ethnicity, every geographic origin. They will all receive God’s Spirit; they will all see visions and dream dreams.
What does the Spirit do? The Spirit builds community. What sort of community? Community that is expansive: diverse, inclusive, open, barrier-crossing and welcoming.
That day about 3000 people were baptized and added to the community. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, and to eating and praying together, moving from house to house.
The Spirit builds community that is expansive.
And, the Spirit builds community that is empowered.
Have you ever been swept up by a sudden force of great power? A force so overwhelming it was like a roaring fire or the rush of a mighty wind? Back when I was at university, I used to work in the summer as a camp counsellor. One of the things I used to do at camp was teach canoeing. Because I was one of the older counsellors, I used to get the youngest campers in my canoe. Well, one day I had three small children in my canoe for canoeing lessons, a four year old, a six year old and a seven year old. There we were in the canoe, on the lake, and the children were trying to paddle. As you can imagine, we weren’t going very fast, in fact I don’t think that we were really moving in any particular direction at all. It was kind of relaxing, just floating there on the lake.
But all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a huge gust of wind came up behind us, and it took our canoe and hurled us forward across the water until we were going so fast it seemed like we were flying! The kids started screaming, my heart started pumping, and it was all I could do to brace the canoe with my paddle to keep us from tipping over.
Now it seemed like that gust of wind lasted a long time, although probably it was only a few seconds. Our boat travelled farther in those few seconds than it had by the power of our own paddling during the previous ten minutes! And during those few exhilarating seconds, I had a taste of what it’s like to be swept up by a sudden force of great power.
The disciples gathered in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost were swept up by a sudden force of great power, and they were transformed, exploding from the room, praising God in every language imaginable. Empowered.
Then Peter, doing something he’s never done before, steps forward and addresses the crowd of thousands, no notes, no preparation. Empowered.
Then thousands come forward and are baptized, on the spot, that day, no baptism course, no godparents, no need to book an appointment. Empowered.
And this new community of over three thousand starts worshiping, praying and eating together, and all who had possessions and goods would sell them and distribute the proceeds to those who were in need. Empowered.
Sometimes I wonder whether those first disciples ever thought about when their lives would return to normal.
There are times in my life that I wish that the Spirit of God would come upon me as a gentle breeze, comforting me, helping me to return to normal, solving my problems.
Maybe that happens sometimes. But the story of Pentecost tells me that the Spirit of God is more likely to come upon us as the rush of a violent wind, propelling us forward at breakneck speed, calling and sending us into a new and perhaps unsettling reality. The Holy Spirit doesn’t always come to solve problems in our lives. She creates problems and empowers us to deal with them. She sends us out into a new reality. And when that happens the return to normal just isn’t an option.
Because the Spirit doesn’t just empower us for the fun of it. The Spirit empowers the community for mission. To be sent. To be expansive. To break down and overcome the barriers that divide us. The community of Pentecost doesn’t just exist for itself. It is a missional community, empowered for God’s mission, empowered to be Jesus’ witnesses to the ends of the earth.
Empowered by the Spirit, the community becomes a movement. A movement that brings connection. A movement that brings grace. A movement that brings healing. A movement that brings hope. A movement that is inclusive. A movement that is life-giving and that witnesses to the truth that God is with us and that God loves us. And nothing can stop a movement that is empowered by the Spirit.
May the church be that movement. May we be that movement.
Homily: Yr A Pentecost, May 31 2020, St. Albans
Readings: Acts 2.1-21; Ps 104; 1 Cor 12.3b-13; Jn 20.19-23
Image by brian, Creative Commons