Day of Pentecost
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
Pentecost has always been an interesting day.
It is technically the only liturgical Sunday that we decorate the church red. There are two other festivals that get red—Reformation Day and Holy Cross Day—and red is also used for days celebrating martyrs. All of these days, decorated in red, have something in common: they mark momentous shifts.
Reformation Day, not a liturgical day but a day celebrated by many churches descended from the Protestant Reformation, remembers the 16th century movement that rocked the Roman Catholic church and shattered the unity of Western Christianity, marking a monumental change in what the church was. Holy Cross Day celebrates the cross on which Jesus was crucified, an event that was a seismic upheaval of the relationship between God and all of creation. And martyrs, the last days on which the church is decorated in red, are those faithful who were killed for their faith—obviously, that marks a huge change for them.
On Pentecost, the church is decorated the same way for the same reason: it is a day that marks a dramatic change. Nothing is ever the same again after Pentecost.
Which is also what makes Pentecost different. Reformation Day, Holy Cross Day, and the deaths of the martyrs that we remember with their own days are all remembrances of past events. They are celebrations of days that, while important to us and have some influence on us today, are, ultimately, in the past. That’s not the case with Pentecost.
“But wait!” I hear, “Pentecost DID happen in the past! It’s in the Bible, and that was written at least 2000 years ago. It, too, is a remembrance of a day long ago—an important day, yes, but a day in the past.” Let me tell you why I disagree.
There is an old saying that goes, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Perhaps a similar one is, “Familiarity breeds apathy.” It’s been 2000 years since the Day of Pentecost itself, and for enough Christians, that’s enough—the Holy Spirit came to the disciples, they started the church, and that’s it. The story is relegated to the annals of history, and becomes just another pretty story depicted in pretty artwork that we admire from a distance and say, “Oh, how nice.” But that isn’t what Pentecost is. Notice, I didn’t say that isn’t what Pentecost was—I said is.
I wish I could say that I took comfort in the Pentecost story. But I don’t. I can’t. I mean, read it.
There’s the sound of a violent, rushing wind. I’ve experienced some high winds that scared the crap out of me, but I’ve never been in a hurricane, or a tornado, winds that I would call violent. Then fire appears out of nowhere, and people start speaking loudly in languages they shouldn’t understand.
There’s nothing comforting about the appearance of the Holy Spirit, and there’s certainly nothing comforting about why the Holy Spirit comes in the first place.
Before the Holy Spirit came, the disciples were perfectly happy with what had happened. Jesus had been put to death, crucified even, but! Jesus had risen again. He had appeared to them many times. What could have been their darkest hour had been turned into their greatest joy. Jesus was back! All was again right with the world. Jesus would continue to teach them, to lead them, to tell them how God wanted the world to be, and with him guiding them, they could spread God’s mission, always relying on Jesus to make sure they were on the right path.
Jesus, however, had other plans.
In a surprising turn of events, 40 after he rises from the dead, Jesus ascends into heaven, leaving the disciples behind. Not really what the disciples were hoping for. They’d followed Jesus, and even though they abandoned him, they returned to him after his resurrection—whether they wanted to or not. But with Jesus gone, what were they supposed to do now? They were still followers, still clinging to Jesus’s heels as he left them.
And then, Pentecost arrives. And that’s when everything changes. In that mighty, violent, earth-sharking wind, and in those blazing tongues of fire, the disciples are transformed from bumbling buffoons into brave, risk-taking leaders, who go to any lengths to live out justice in the world and to spread the good news of Jesus Christ EVEN AND ESPECIALLY when those lengths were unpopular.
They lived in communities where it was expected—indeed, mandatory—to sell all that they owned and to use the money to take care of the poor in their midst. They weren’t afraid to criticize the society and government around them when it failed to take care of the lowliest and the oppressed—it was no more popular then than it is now. With the Holy Spirit giving them the words, they proclaimed boldly the message and good news of Jesus Christ before arresting officers, before judges, and before executioners.
These are the things, Jesus says, the Holy Spirit has come to do. The Holy Spirit will come to testify on Jesus’s behalf, to boldly proclaim Jesus’s story. You also, Jesus says to his disciples, are to testify on my behalf—and the Holy Spirit will do that through you. Whenever you stand accused, the Holy Spirit will stand with you, and together, you will prove the world wrong. You will speak the truth.
Do you remember what happened to Jesus when he spoke the truth? Not exactly a comfortable life. But why should this story, of an event long past, with the disciples and the Holy Spirit NOT give me comfort?
Because: where do you think the Holy Spirit is now?
Today is not a remembrance of a past event, but a reminder of a present reality.
You see, unlike stories, which are safely confined in the past, the Holy Spirit, that same mighty, violent force; that same fiery presence, is just as present and active today as 2000 years ago. And the Holy Spirit’s expectations for us, disciples of Jesus today, is no different than they were 2000 years ago.
That’s not comforting at all. That’s terrifying. Do you mean that we’re expected to stand up to unjust government, and unjust society, and tell them the truth? That the second of the most important commandments, “love your neighbor as yourself”, is a serious cry to take care of each other without regard for reward? That war is not okay? That the love of money is a lie, and the acquisition of too much is a sin?
These are not popular messages. They may make our friends leave us behind. They may make us unpopular in our homes and in our towns. If it comes to it, telling the good news of Jesus Christ may cost us our lives—ask our brothers and sisters outside of North America and Europe, who live in fear for their lives every time they gather to worship on Sunday mornings.
This is not the life I would choose for myself. This is not what I wanted. There is no way in heaven or on earth that I am strong enough to act like the early disciples. I can’t do it.
But here’s the good news—neither could the disciples. Let’s face it, they were awful followers for the vast majority of their time with Jesus. Following the Resurrection, they locked themselves in a room and wouldn’t have come out if they had a choice. They would’ve lived in fear the rest of their lives because of what might happen.
And then, Pentecost arrives, and with it, the Holy Spirit, breaking through barriers of fear and doubt, reshaping the world in one monumental, dramatic event. Hurricane wind, fire, yelling—all through the Holy Spirit.
And the Holy Spirit entered the disciples. Suddenly, they bumbled no more. They took risks. They faced persecution and death. And we are here because of their witness. Now what do you think the Holy Spirit can do with you?