A number of years ago I was attending the Vestry Retreat for my church in Tucson, Arizona. We were at a nice resort in a town called Rio Rico, just north of Nogales and the Mexican Border.
We had been discussing some contentious issue, the nature of which I must admit I cannot recall. The conversation had gone on for some time when suddenly, almost unexpectedly agreement was reached.
At that moment one of the two doors into the room from the outside blew open and a gust of wind filled the room. A stunned silence overtook the group. The similarity to the familiar story from Acts, was not lost on the group and there was much discussion later that the Holy Spirit had come amongst us that afternoon.
I chose not to have Acts read this morning. Here is that passage:
When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs-- in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine."
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. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
`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.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.' "
I chose to skip this passage for two reasons. First, my experience is that this is the reading that we hear every year on Pentecost and I thought a change would be a welcome relief. And, second, to spare the lay reader from pronouncing all those words describing locations in the ancient world.
Meanwhile, it is the standard description used for the Pentecost experience. While not the only one in the Book of Acts, it is the only one that takes place on the day of Pentecost.
We hear the opening line, “When the day of Pentecost had come.” And we don’t stop to think what this means. We think, “Well of course it’s Pentecost, our Christian observance that happens fifty days after Easter. That’s why we are all wearing red today.”
But for the writer of Acts to be saying this, the observance must go back further. In fact, Pentecost is a Greek word that describes a Jewish Festival. The origin can be found in Exodus XXIII:
Three times in the year you shall hold a festival for me. You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread; as I commanded you, you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt.
No one shall appear before me empty-handed.
You shall observe the festival of harvest, of the first fruits of your labour, of what you sow in the field. You shall observe the festival of ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labour.
And if your curious about the source of the wafers we receive at the table during the Eucharist, besides its role as manna in the wilderness, you only need read on a couple of verses.
“You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with anything leavened…”
And of course, this is the voice of God as translated by Moses.
In the Passover Festival Barley is offered to God since it harvests earlier. The second Festival celebrated the harvest of the wheat.
Besides being the second of the three festivals, Pentecost was chosen by some Rabbis as the date of the birth of the law; specifically, The Pentateuch, the first five books of Hebrew Scripture.
In our tradition, many people identify Pentecost as the Birthday of the Church.
Meanwhile, this second Festival of the year is one that celebrates the first fruits. It’s imbued with an understanding of gratitude for what God had given the People of Judea. It has been known also as both the Feast of the Harvest and the Feast of the Weeks.
Meanwhile, in our story it represents Christianity’s connection to Judaism and it celebrates similar things in the lives of people.
The other story that signifies this connection is the story we heard from Genesis, many people speaking different languages, but having common understanding.
This would truly be evidence of the Holy Spirit. We can only pray that it might happen in our world.
There was another opportunity to hear Acts, is that it was a choice for the Epistle. But I must tell you that I find the Romans passage very powerful, so it won the contest there.
I don’t think that decision should surprise you if you have been listening to my sermons.
Paul’s Letter to the Romans, one of the authentic letters of Paul, speaks so eloquently about our relationship with God and Christ. His words make it clear that we are children of God, just as Jesus is a child of God. And this is significant of the nature of the Holy Spirit.
I won’t describe all of the relationship today, because we have Trinity Sunday to look forward to next week. And whereas many preachers throw up their hands and claim confusion about how to explain the Trinity, I will be attempting to do so either out of my blissful ignorance, or out of a sense of certainty that the Trinity has much to tell us about our God.
Today’s Gospel was not one of the decisions that I was not required to make, but I think you can see in this interchange between Jesus and Philip some of what I have been trying to tell you. If people cannot see God in what we do, how we live our lives, the choices we make; then we are Godless people.
But the reading from John offers so much more because it tells us that, “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” Our faith in Jesus empowers us to heal more people and bring peace to our world. What is lacking is our faith and acting in our belief of the truth of God through the ones who are anointed in God’s name.
One commentator I read said that a preacher should not try to cover all three of the ways our readings reveal the Holy Spirit in one sermon. But I think that each one brings us a glimpse of the complex divinity that we find in this aspect of our God.
They also give us an understanding that we are both the receptors and purveyors of the Holy Spirit. We must listen with our whole hearts to understand those around us and to find the face of God in each other. We must examine our actions to see that they reflect God’s love of all people and the creation. To do this in all humility we must understand that all are children of God.
Our readings give us many ways to see and understand how the Holy Spirit works in our lives. I have experienced many over the years, but the most recent experience that I can point to as a sign of the Holy Spirit working in our world is the love and caring that all of you showed me and my family over the medical condition of my grandson Parker.
Which brings us back to a festival of thanksgiving for what God gives us.