Scholars concluded long ago that the author of Acts was also the author of the Gospel of Luke. Together, these two books comprise almost a quarter of the New Testament.
When 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.
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, 10Phryjia 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.’
Sermon: “The Spirit’s Power”
I have mentioned before that my mother grew up during the Depression in a small town in the interior of Florida—the kind of place that hardly registers as you drive through. When her father died in 1938, my mother was less than five, the oldest of three children. My grandmother provided for the family by teaching school, but she was prone to horrific migraines, in a day when the only remedy, if it came to that, was morphine.
The particular day I want to describe for you was in the early 1940s,
the middle of summer, beastly hot. In the days before air conditioning, every house would have had its doors and windows open, with the hope of catching a breeze. So it must have been a welcome sight to see the sky turn dark as a storm approached. But tropical storms can be fierce, and this one must have been amazing. Even after it passed, as my grandmother groped her way down the road to the doctor’s office, seeking relief from a crushing headache, her three children stayed huddled together in the same overstuffed chair in the front room of the house.
From where they sat, they could see out both ends of the narrow house, through the screened door at the front and through the screened door at the back, so they may have had some warning when a second line of storms approached. This time the lightning was blinding, and the crack of thunder simultaneous as two neighbors’ farm houses were hit. And then the three children, the oldest 8 or 9, witnessed a phenomenon that has been attested since the Middle Ages, but never fully explained.
Through the front door passed a glowing ball—sometimes called ball lightning—which my mother remembers as larger than a basketball, hovering a few feet off the ground. It passed through the front door, went by the children’s chair, and, just as quickly, out the back.
One of the boys then noticed that the light fixture in the next room was on fire. It was just a cord dangling from the ceiling. My mother remembers that it was equipped to hold two bulbs, but one socket was empty—that empty one was now on fire. Her much taller brother grabbed a chair. While the others held it, he stood on his toes and blew out the flames. Or so the story goes. The only witnesses were children.
I don’t know about you, but it’s easier for me to entertain the story of the lightning ball because it changed something; because there was evidence of its fleeting presence. It left a fire in its wake, and a blackened circle on each of those screen doors.
I bring a similar set of reactions to our reading from the Book of Acts. The events described have no parallel in my experience. I have never heard a sound like a violent wind, when a storm was not brewing. I have never witnessed the miracle of inspired and meaningful speech in an unknown language. Like some of the witnesses in Luke’s account, I am quick to look for other explanations: drunkenness, ecstasy, invention.
In spite of my questions, what persuades me of the importance of this story is the change, the transformation, that is left in its wake. Think, first, about how the disciples are described by Luke back in his gospel account. In that first book the disciples are focused on their own survival. They are concerned about who has power, and they are fearful in the face of threat. Remember the questions they ask Jesus:
- Can we be the ones who sit at your right hand when you’re seated in power?
- Which among us is the greatest?
- Is this the time when you’ll restore the kingdom to Israel?
–You might also recall the stories of their fear:
- when they go through their own storm on the lake they wake Jesus in a panic, saying “Master, master, we are perishing.”
- And then when Jesus is arrested at the end of Luke, the disciples scatter in terror. Peter denies that he’s ever even known Jesus, lest he put his own life in peril.
And now, think about that same group of followers after Pentecost, as we come to know them later in the book of Acts. Their agenda has been transformed. Suddenly, securing power and avoiding injury—are no longer the items at the top of their list. Suddenly this band of followers looks so much more like their leader: speaking truth to power, welcoming outcasts, healing wounds, no longer incapacitated by their fear of suffering. The change could not be more dramatic. Easter has not only happened for them now, it has happened to them.
Friends, I don’t know a more urgent passage of scripture for us to consider this morning. The church needs not only to read this text. We need to let this text read the church. We need to measure our lives by its yardstick.
When the Holy Spirit blows through that band of Jesus’ followers gathered together in a house, it blows them out into the world. It equips them to speak the languages of immigrants in their land. It equips them for relationship with strangers. It makes them bold in their determination to be part of the healing of the world, no matter the cost.
How urgently we need the force of Pentecost in this land.
How quickly we wall ourselves off from others who challenge our assumptions—who don’t speak our language. We surround ourselves with likeminded friends. We read publications that re-enforce the perspectives we already hold. We take very few risks for the sake of strangers.
What happens to the community of Jesus’ followers on the Day of Pentecost is that it becomes unsettled—disrupted by the Spirit of the Living God—infused with a power that makes a way for relationship, where none existed before. The presence of the risen Christ now inhabits the community of his followers, equipping them to speak and act in ways that previously they could not have imagined.
You will notice that this disruption is quite confusing to the neighborhood. Listen, again, to the verbs Luke uses to describe the crowd that gathers: bewildered, amazed, astonished, perplexed. I can’t help wondering what it would look like for us to amaze and astonish our neighbors.
In the end it is Peter who is able to bridge that confusion—Peter, who now proclaims openly the word he could not speak even to a servant by firelight a few weeks before. Peter turns to a prophecy from the Book of Joel to help make sense of what is happening. The prophecy speaks of a day to come when God’s Spirit, rather than inhabiting individual prophets, instead will come to rest on the whole of God’s people—young and old, male and female, slave and free. The Spirit of which Peter speaks, has little regard for the ways human beings classify and divide. The Spirit is in the business of forging communion in the midst of difference.
I had a taste of that communion this week. Wednesday night, Kate and I found ourselves at the same dinner party, hosted by a mutual friend. Our host, Hannah, grew up in Germany, the daughter of pastors, but went to college and medical school here in the States. I knew her mother well, many years ago. Hannah is living in Chapel Hill, but serving as an internist and pediatrician at a community health center in Siler City, working mostly with indigent patients.
Her hours are long; her commute is long, but Hannah does not give in easily to exhaustion. She recently resumed a tradition of hosting twice-monthly meals at the house she rents. She calls them “Family Dinners.” Her biological family is scattered far and wide, so she makes family where she is. In keeping with her nature, the invitation said: “Anyone is welcome… children, partners, friends, colleagues, hungry [passersby] discovered en route.”
As the evening was winding down, as various children grew weary and the sink piled high with dishes, I found myself alone in the kitchen with Hannah. I asked about her work. She said “Margaret, I have patients who walk an hour to see me; I have many patients who are afraid to leave their homes for fear of deportation; My patients take my hand and say, ‘please stay; please don’t be like the other doctors who leave us.’” At the age of 36, she does not know how much longer she will be able to keep doing it. On the other hand, she said, “None of my days ever feels wasted.”
When I asked about her commute, she said she listens over and over to an instructional tape, trying to learn rudimentary Arabic. She said it doesn’t come easily, but she worries about prescribing medications for patients who can’t make sense of our numerals.
I sat at Hannah’s table and tasted Pentecost: in the community she creates from strangers; in the joy that animates her life; in the way that she pours herself out to relieve the suffering of others; in her commitment to offering the good news she has to share, in the native language of immigrants.
God’s Spirit is loose in the world, and moving through this community. I heard it in Hannah’s kitchen, and I hear it in the stories you share with me: stories from your classrooms, and your offices, and your encounters on the street. Our work is to keep opening, and opening, and opening our hearts to that Spirit, wherever she might lead us. I suspect that we will persuade our neighbors, or not, by the change that is left in our wake.