Have you ever been to an event or seen a movie or read a book that made you beautifully speechless? This happens to me with live music. I will sit and watch or stand and dance to a performer and be totally moved to joy or delight, sometimes even elation- but when I try to explain it to someone, words seem to evade me. So I’ll say to them, “Oh you’ve just got to experience it for yourself.” Sometimes, some things can’t be explained, they can only be experienced. I often feel this way about faith and theology- especially at Pentecost.
We often read the Bible in hindsight. I spent all of Lent reading psalms from a Christological perspective- meaning that I read Christ between and into the lines. But the truth is that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah everyone had expected. Christ’s crucifixion was, and in many ways still is, counter-intuitive. You see, it’s hard for me to explain but as Karl Kuhn says, “The Messiah was supposed to defeat the Romans and banish their oppressive ways not fall victim to them.” This is something we still struggle to understand but it was particularly difficult for the disciples to wrap their heads around. I mean, I have trouble explaining it to people and I have two millenia of theologians backing me up, imagine what it would have been like for the disciples. But today, today, we find a resolve within the disciples that has not been seen before and it is all thanks to the empowerment and experience of the Holy Spirit. Which by the way, if you think salvation theology is a hard one to explain, try explaining the Holy Spirit. I do, however, think it is really important for us to remember that the disciples were overwhelmed by confusion and hope following the resurrection and they had no clue how to explain it to others. Cue the Holy Spirit.
Luke sets up the time and location. It’s Pentecost, which at the time, was likely not called Pentecost but Shavout or festival of the weeks, although the term does appear in some translations of the Old Testament. Basically, it’s a harvest festival that takes place 50 days after Passover. It was a festival in which the people gave their first fruits to God. So the time of year is important for a few reasons. One, there would have been a lot of international travellers coming to the Temple to worship God. Two, it was a festival of thanksgiving for all that God had provided. Three, people brought their first fruits, not what was leftover, to God. Think of that in the context of how we celebrate Pentecost now, a season that we traditionally call the birthday of the church. We come together to give thanks for God’s provisions and we respond. Hopefully with our very best selves not with what is leftover? I think I love Pentecost so much as a season or festival day, in part because it is one of only a few religious holidays that has not been overtaken or desecrated by hallmark cards or a secular holiday. Likely, in part because, it’s a hard one to explain.
The disciples have gathered together- maybe in that same room they were locked in when Jesus first appeared to them and blessed them with peace- maybe not, but another impressive, less than peaceful power takes place. Suddenly there’s the sound of violent wind and divided tongues of fire appear and they are filled with the Holy Spirit and are able to speak in different languages. It’s only been four verses but a lot has happened. Actually, this is something I find really interesting about Luke. Luke spends a lot of time listing ALL the different people who where around and who heard the disciples speaking in their own language. But the details around the wind and tongues of fire is very brief. This reminds me of Luke’s version of Jesus’ baptism. Luke gives A LOT of details about Jesus’ birth and ministry but Jesus’ baptism, in which the Holy Spirit appears as a dove, is two verses long. I wonder if Luke had trouble explaining the Holy Spirit too or if for Luke the Spirit was something that was better experienced then explained.
The problem with experience is that, we all experience things differently. There are many times when I will tell someone, oh you’ve got to listen to this podcast or read that book, and when they do, their experience of it is completely different from mine. Luke tells us that despite the fact that everyone experienced the disciples speaking in their own languages- all were amazed and perplexed. Two very different experiences and others claimed that it was nothing but silly drunkenness.
But it is the experience of Peter, clumsy, denying, fisherman Peter, that changes the hearts of many. Peter, in his very first sermon, thanks to the empowerment of the Spirit, is able to explain what is really going on. Peter claims that prophecy is fulfilled in Pentecost. Peter, who was once incapable of even admitting he knew Jesus is made bold by the Spirit. What an experience!
Peter explains that God’s promise has been brought to fulfillment. Ok- now is when it gets really hard to explain. A future time has been made present. I’ve turned to Marion Soards again to help me with this, “In the current moment, described in the lesson as “the Last Days,” we live under the claim of God. This declaration of Peter means that the future time for which humanity has hoped, has in fact, already broken into history so that things are no longer the same. Thus in a certain sense the past (prophetic promises), present (out-pouring of the Holy Spirit) and future (the last days) interact as a single time in the event of Pentecost.” Make sense right?! At a very basic level I like to interpret it as God’s time does not function like our linear time. You have to experience it to understand it- and some days I get it and some days I don’t.
But that is the beauty of the power of the Spirit as displayed at Pentecost. You see, what we don’t hear in our reading is that as people heard Peter’s sermon, whether they understood it all or not, they were “cut to the heart” and asked what they should do. The disciples said repent- meaning turn your life around from one experience to something completely new- and be baptized so that this gift of understanding via the spirit can be yours too. They also said, this isn’t just about you but about your children and all who are far away, everyone whom our Lord God calls.” And you know how many people were moved to follow the disciples and the good news of the Gospel that day? Three thousand. I can’t explain it- but that is what was experienced!
Forty years ago, when the church was already in decline, church researchers provided the following statistic about why most people started attending church, 2% by Advertisement, 6% by Pastoral Invitation, 6% by organized campaign and 86% by invitation of a friend or relative. Certainly updated research is require, especially in an age where now about 1/3 of congregations are worshipping online, however, I think the rough estimate remains true the vast majority of attendees show up because someone has invited them. Because, let’s be honest, church is sometimes a hard thing to explain but often a great thing to experience.
Speaking of church, and it’s birthday, one of the most striking moments in the Pentecost story is that moment when the disciples begin to speak in various languages about God’s deeds of power. I’m not going to debate the logistics or theology or what speaking in tongues really means, what is so important to me about this moment is that the Spirit was ensuring that no one was left out. The Spirit was indiscriminate with who heard these words. Men, women, young, old, Egyptians, Jews, Mesopotamians, slave or free. According to the Lord’s message to Joel as experienced at Pentecost any division that normally separates us is overturned by the Spirit. There are no barriers to the experience of God’s power. Historically, even today, the church, in our division has created barriers- sometimes using sound theology, sometimes so that we can control the message. But the spirit, can not be contained, and we have no control over who gets to experience it.
Today is an opportunity to take stock over how we as a Church function- but today is also the first day of the 2022 General Assembly. They are meeting for the second time, virtually. There will be challenges but it is important for us to remember that the Spirit stirs within us, and within others. Be bold- it might be a hard one to explain but a great thing to experience. Amen