Martha M. Shiverick

May 27, 2012 – Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they 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 devote 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 Mespotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia andPamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to the 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 heavens 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.’

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Have you ever known anyone who spoke in tongues or have spoken in tongues yourself? When I was in college, my friend Joan went to a Catholic Church revival. This is in itself was quite unusual, as I went to Rollins College in Winter park Florida, which is more known for its wild fraternity parties than religious students. This otherwise quiet and very collected individual, (Joan was the Brie Vandercamp from Desperate housewives TV Show type individual) came back from the event charged. I mean she was filled with the Holy Spirit. And, well, I had never been to a revival before, so I was not very good about understanding what it was she had been through. Most amazing to me, the child of Fairmount Church, where we think clapping after a wonderful musical experience is about as responsive as we should or should not be, was that Joan, this quiet, collected individual, spoke in tongues. The experience changed her. You know the expression ‘fired up for bear’? Well, Joan came back from that revival fired up for God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Roman Catholic Church. And, after hearing about her experience for a few days and ‘how you really have not experienced the Holy Spirit unless you speak in tongues’ a few of us, her friends, were beginning to get worried. And then when she returned to the parish she was attending while in college following the revival and was distressed that she did not speak in tongues again we worried even more. We approached the Dean of the Chapel of the campus for counsel and advice. Dean Wettstein invited all of us (Joan too) for coffee and shared the Pentecost story: The story of the Holy Spirit descending on the early apostles and their speaking in other languages, their speaking in tongues. He asked us if that summed up the experience of their faith. We thought and said no, it was just an experience. And he agreed. As Joan came to reflect on the experience in the months that followed, she saw that what she had was a highly emotional experience in a tent filled with highly emotional people. It was in the frenzy of the moment that she was filled spiritually and had the ecstatic experience of speaking in tongues. It was a real experience and was also an experience that happened because the situation was ripe for it.

And my guess the situation was ripe for the first Pentecost experience as well. What does Pentecost mean? Pentecostalism is something that makes us stayed Presbyterians a bit uncomfortable. We think of it as a wild form of Christianity that involves charged emotions, people falling to the floor in ecstasy, waving their hands, speaking in tongues, and even being bit by snakes. It is not a part of our tradition even though those Christians and we ‘stayed and intellectual Christians’ get meaning from the first Pentecost experience. We call it the birthday of the church, they day the Holy Spirit came down and dwelled among us. I think of our stained glass window in the chapel as being one that tells the story of Pentecost. Much of the symbols we use to describe what happened are there. You can see the eye of God, the cross of Christ, but over and over again is the sign of the Holy Spirit, in the doves, the wind and the movement of the art piece. There is a definite movement of the divine descending to be with us which is what we celebrate this Pentecost morning. I invite you to go to the chapel and look at it as the folks in the 8:30 service go to when we turned their chairs around this morning so they faced the window and could meditate on it during the worship service.

So, after doing some research, it turns out that Pentecost was actually first a Jewish holiday. It occurs on the 50th day after Passover and it is an agricultural festival celebrating and bringing to the temple the first of the harvest, perhaps the winter wheat, and praying for a good and bountiful harvest this year. The hope and prayers was to bring in a big harvest.

The second thing that was celebrated at Jewish Pentecost was the day when the Jews received the law at Mt. Sinai. It is a day where God giving his redeemed people a good life and the law so that they knew how to live it. So, when this Pentecost day arrived in the Book of Acts, the early Christians would hear the story of the apostles being filled with the Holy Spirit and interpret it as we have that where once God’s law was written on stone, because of Pentecost, it is now written on their hearts. This 50th day after Passover would have been known to the apostles as a day to hold up God’s law and to ask for a good yield agriculturally.

And the author of Acts knew this too as he tried to interpret what it was that happened on that Pentecost day. A wind came down from heaven. Ruach, Hebrew for wind or the Spirit, filled the space and people began speaking in their native tongues. The message of Luke and Acts is one of moving outwards. The message of Christ, the work of the church, is to move outwards, first from the small group that experienced Jesus the Man, to others who experienced the Risen Christ, to now all who can experience the Holy Spirit in their lives. Where divisions of nationality, background, and race had not allowed people to communicate well since they all spoke in different languages, with the gift of the Holy Spirit, what had divided them from understanding each other was now gone. If we can’t talk to each other, we cannot understand each other. They could speak and all could understand. What divided them was now gone. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the church was able to grow and God’s good news that we were told through Jesus Christ could be told to all people of all nations. Implicit in the understanding of Pentecost is that God’s good news is for everyone. Implicit in the message is that no one is to be barred from being a beloved child of God.

Think about this as you think also what divides us today. We are a people who feel division in a way that is very severe. Sure race, class, nationality still divide us, but we are all very polar in our views on politics and the political hot buttons of human sexuality, sexual orientation, and political persuasion. It used to be that you did not talk politics in company for fear of offending. Now some people find the other political party offensive that just the mention of politicians from another party than their own, creates anger and creates great separation.

Because of that I have this theory that if the Pentecost experience was to happen today, it would be a little different. Language is not the barrier it once was with computers which translate almost immediately what others are saying and the fact that you can go to the ends of the earth, and usually find someone who knows a little English and with whom you can communicate. The modern day Pentecost would have to be different. Sure the Holy Spirit would fill the place, but instead of hearing different languages, I think we would not experience those things that divide us today. People’s races would all be mixed together. Class distinctions would not exist. All would be well educated at good schools. Issues of gender and sexual orientation would not exist. We would all just see each other as beloved children of God. We would be able to communicate, to be at one with each other as all would be one. What divides us now would no longer exist. That I believe would be our Pentecost.

And with that in mind, let me share what I think is a Pentecost story that happened at our Presbytery meeting this past week in North Kingsville. The meeting was one of the 6 regularly scheduled meetings of the year. On the docket was the vote to reinstate a pastor into membership of our church who had left over a decade ago. The Rev Stephen Adams is a life-long Presbyterian. His parents were both active in his home church in western Pennsylvania and both ordained as Elders. He attended a Presbyterian Seminary and was ordained by our Presbytery in the late 1980’s. Although he has worked in several churches including Old Stone on Public Square, he has spent the majority of his ministry as the Spiritual director of Hospice of the Western Reserve. Stephen left our church because he was openly gay and has been in a relationship with his partner for quite a while. Because our church would not allow him to live in a relationship with his partner, he chose to leave the Presbyterian Church and join the UCC’s. In this capacity he served our neighboring church Plymouth Congregational Church at one point. But a decade later, our church changed its laws and last year passed amendment 10-A which has opened the doors (pardon my pun) to ordaining gay people as elders, deacons and ministers. So Stephen asked the Presbytery if he could rejoin the Presbyterian Church and that we would vote him into membership in our Presbytery. It was an incredible thing to witness as the overwhelming majority welcomed him back into membership. It was more of an incredible thing to witness when one pastor stood up and thanked Stephen for forgiving us and wanting to be a part of us again. The Holy Spirit was at work. The Holy Spirit was moving us outward, expanding us in our visions to embrace and be a more loving and open community. It wasn’t all without pain. Several ministers were concerned about welcoming Stephen back and the vote was not unanimous. But, I firmly believe that we are better Christians for having moved in this opening and loving manner. That is the direction the Holy Spirit has asked us to travel since that Luke’s account in the book of Acts, and still does today. First Jesus’ message was only for his disciples and the Jewish people. Then to be a disciple meant you had to have walked with Jesus or later to have seen the risen Lord. After Pentecost, Christ’s message was for the whole world to hear. God invites all to hear the good news, to enter into covenant through baptism, to share the feast which God has prepared. Our job, as it was for those early Christians, is to find a way to speak to those different than ourselves and to share God’s love and Spirit. Amen.