June 4, 2017 Pentecost Acts 2: 1-21
Prayer: Dear God, Send us your Holy Spirit as you did on Pentecost. Let us be brave enough to accept its fever and its wildness. Come, Holy Spirit, come. Amen.
Holy Honking Spirit
For several years during my newspaper career, I was the religion writer. What I loved about that beat was that I got to visit so many different houses of worship.
I think most of us – even the church hoppers – spend our lives in a particular type of church. I know I was raised at Overbrook Baptist, spent my early married life at First Baptist Taylors, then moved to First Baptist Greenville. Those churches fell quite broadly along the conservative-progressive continuum. But if you weren’t listening closely, the stained glass, the hymns, the people, the orders of worship looked and sounded remarkably the same.
But as religion writer, I visited the Hindu Vedic Center in Mauldin. I spent a lot of time at the Islamic mosque on Wade Hampton Boulevard. I spent evenings at a Buddhist monastery presided over by a floor-to-ceiling Buddha.
I attended moonlight Wiccan circles in the woods. Services at the Greek Orthodox church with its ceiling and walls of gorgeous tiled mosaics.
I sat through the high liturgical services of the Catholics and Episcopalians, and tent revivals in a field on Old Buncombe Road. My favorites were the African-American churches because of their warm welcomes: It was pretty obvious I was a visitor.
But the most vivid services were in Pentecostal churches where people were “slain in the Spirit.” It was quite terrifying at first. At one service, a woman sped around the outer aisle, screaming, then fell, convulsing, in front of the altar.
I was looking around to see if someone was going to help her. But the men in the church quite calmly covered her legs with a blanket and left her there.
Our Pentecostal friends take Pentecost more literally than the rest of us. They are quite comfortable with the concept of an untamed and unruly Holy Spirit of the kind we see at the birth of the Christian church in Acts.
If you’ll remember from last week’s reading, during Jesus’ 40 days of post-resurrection appearances, he ordered the disciples not to leave Jerusalem.
“John baptized with water,” he told them, “but in only a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1: 5)
Well, now those “few days” are over. If you’d like to read along, please turn with me to Acts 2: 1-21. This comes 50 days after the first Easter, on the Jewish holiday of Pentecost, which celebrated the grain harvest.
The holiday is about to take on a whole new meaning.
2When the day of Pentecost had come, they 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.
5 Now 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.’
14 But 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.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
What a wild story! I don’t pretend to understand “a sound like the rush of violent wind” or the “divided tongues, as of fire.” No one is completely sure what Luke was describing, other than to link this movement of the Holy Spirit with the spirit of God at creation.
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1: 1-2)
But what is clear is that the cowed and craven disciples of Easter morning were changed men after these tongues of fire descended upon them. Besides having the power to speak foreign languages, they will go on throughout this book of Acts to live and to heal and to preach with newfound authority. In the verses after those we read, Peter openly accuses his listeners of killing Jesus.
Just 53 days before, he’d been questioned if he was a follower of that Jesus fellow who was on trial. He’d denied it, and went and hid.
But now the Holy Spirit has come upon them all, and they are new creatures, fired up, fearless and fierce. The Holy Spirit will do that to you.
Some of my pastor friends are surprised when they come to Triune because we are so down-to-earth … yet we wear robes.
We have Andy and David performing the great church anthems … but we allow the likes of Larry McNair and Jerry Hill.
We print a detailed order of worship … but we couldn’t stick to it if we had a gun to our heads.
We have a pastor who is a pretty buttoned-up Baptist … but has learned to live with the mystery of the Holy Spirit.
Over my nearly 12 years here, I have become persuaded that my experience of God is not necessarily everyone else’s experience. I have become persuades that the Holy Spirit is alive in this place.
I’ve told this story before but we have lots of new people who may not have heard it. One of the people who worked alongside Jerry and me in the early days was a prayer warrior from Buncombe Street named Robbie Boman. She gathered prayers that we used during evening worship and she led a mid-week noon prayer service.
One Wednesday morning, she was making her customary sweep through our dining hall before City Prayer. And she ran into a jittery woman named Angel. The way Angel was shaking, Robbie suspected she was in drug or alcohol withdrawal.
Robbie invited Angel to City Prayer, and told her there were free Bibles. So Angel agreed to come over with her.
When she entered the sanctuary, Angel immediately calmed down and stopped shaking. She looked up at our beautiful stained glass windows in awe. She was mesmerized when Robbie flipped the light switch on the stained glass window of Jesus in Gethsemane.
“Angel was home,” Robbie said, “truly at home in church.”
Robbie took Angel into the back hallway where we kept donated Bibles. The first one she picked up was falling apart, and the print was too small to read.
Robbie put it down and picked up another one. This Bible was in a little better shape. It had belonged to someone who had used it well, but Robbie thought it would do.
So she flipped open the front cover and there in large, penciled, capital letters were these words: Welcome Home, Angel.
Angel looked at the words, and sat back, stunned, silent.
Robbie didn’t know what to say either. But then she found her voice. “Clearly, Angel, this one’s for you. It’s been autographed by God.”
Angel clutched that Bible and knelt on the floor during City Prayer. After a half hour of praying right there in the floor, she asked Robbie if she could sing Psalm 121.
“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121: 1-2)
It is a psalm of thanksgiving, a psalm of homecoming.
We never saw Angel again after that day. But Robbie is convinced that the Holy Spirit brought that personal message, that personal Bible, to tell his wounded child, “Welcome home.”
You are welcome in my church.
Robbie always swore that more than once during those City Prayers, participants heard doors opening and footsteps. They turned around, only to find no one there.
She used different language for those experiences. Angels. The Holy Spirit. But it was clear to her – and eventually, to me -- that this place was what the ancient Celts call a “thin place” where heaven and earth merge.
One Sunday morning after worship, a first-time visitor stayed long after everyone else had left. As I approached him, he whispered, “Did you know you have angels in this place? I only felt them once before in a church, many years ago, but they were here today.”
“Oh yeah,” I told him. “We know.”
Just because I don’t see something, doesn’t mean it’s not here.
In the gospels we see the Holy Spirit depicted as a dove coming down from heaven at Jesus’ baptism, a rare convergence of the holy trinity as we hear God’s voice, see the dove, see Jesus. But in some cultures, the Holy Spirit is depicted not as a quietly flapping dove … but as a loud, honking goose.
The Wild Goose Festival near Asheville each summer reflects this idea: That Christians are followers of Jesus, who was not some meek and mild milquetoast but a radical who shook his society to its core.
That Christians are followers of the Holy Spirit, who in this book of Acts, tears all over the place, upsetting the old order, setting fire under the apostles, zapping Philip from Gaza to Azotus, creating a holy, honking uproar.
Twice during my time here, we have worked our way through the book of Acts. We’ve done that because these stories of the early church are vibrant and alive and mystifying and occasionally alarming. We’ve done that because I think we in the modern church can stand to be shaken up once in awhile.
Because our faith shouldn’t be static or boring. Our faith should be dynamic, demanding, challenging. I’d prefer that we be “amazed and perplexed” like the people in this story rather than bored and jaded.
I don’t know what the movement of the Holy Spirit looks like today any more than I know what those divided tongues, as of fire, looked like at the first Pentecost.
But I do know that in my earliest days at Triune, there were times I simply didn’t know where to turn. I’d call up my friend Jerry Hill and ask if he could come over and help me deal with a situation, talk me off the ledge.
I know that a crack addict once handed over his pipe during evening communion, and Jerry recognized it for the confession it was. He went into the parking lot and ground it under his heel.
I know that he once stopped a service to attend to a man who was crying on a back row.
I know that he kept an office just inside Buncombe Street’s doors, so that it, rare among large downtown churches, left its doors unlocked.
I know that he spent 40 years working with the mentally ill and homeless of Greenville. I know that he traveled to Mexico and Haiti and Africa to give people there love and hope and help.
Sometimes, when he wasn’t looking, I’d peer closely at his shoulder to see if I could make out a tongue of fire resting there.
Because I knew the Holy Spirit was on him, honking its gospel song.
Happy fishing, my friend. You’ve earned it.