The Inconvenient Holy Spirit (Pentecost C)
“The Inconvenient Holy Spirit”
The Day of Pentecost C
2 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 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. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All 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. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But 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. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, 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.’
Imagine living in a mid-size city. It’s a historic place with all kinds of old architecture and stories and art and music. Imagine that it has institutions of higher learning that people travel great distances to attend. They come from far and wide to sit at the feet of the teachers in these schools. And imagine that there are certain events throughout the year that draw loads of visitors to that city. During these big events, the population swells. They attract hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world for this unique celebration. And imagine being a resident of such a city and having to adjust your daily life and routine each year when these celebrations happen to “avoid the traffic” or “steer clear of the crowds.”
This doesn’t sound at all familiar to our situation, does it? Except that it does. Savannah is filled with attractive world-class universities like Savannah State, Georgia Southern, and SCAD. We have food festivals celebrating people of many different heritages. And we have at least one major parade on St. Patrick’s Day that literally brings hundreds of thousands of tourists to our city each year. People are flocking to Savannah for all kinds of reasons.
This is not that different from the scenario we find in Jerusalem in Acts 2.
We have spent the last eight Sundays reading through the book of Acts, and you’ve heard sermons about Acts for all of May and June so far. But now we return to the beginning of Acts. We made it to chapter 16, but now we turn around and return to chapter 2. It has been fifty great days since Easter morning, and today is the Day of Pentecost. Easter season gives us a chance to hear stories of the Apostles, but Pentecost is a time to remember where their ministry after Jesus began. Jesus may be ascended into heaven and gone, but he did not leave without promising to send an Advocate and Comforter for us.
As we begin Acts 2, the twelve apostles and many other followers of Jesus are gathered together in one place in Jerusalem. They have followed Jesus’ final instructions to “wait there for the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4). And we’ve arrived on the Feast of Pentecost. This was a festival outlined in the Old Testament (Leviticus 23:15-22), and one of a few pilgrimage feasts. Pentecost, Passover, and a few others were designated as so important that Jews were supposed to come to Jerusalem to celebrate them annually (if possible).
The apostles have been in Jerusalem since Passover when they entered the city with Jesus in the days before his death. Jesus got crucified while on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the great festival. And Jesus told them to stay there until… something happened. If they were paying attention they would know it had something to do with the Holy Spirit, but they weren’t totally sure. And so they end up waiting a full 50 days until the next great fesitival, Pentecost, when the city is again flooded with visitors. These visitors flock around the disciples when they hear the rush of wind and see the tongues of fire fall on them in this place.
It is in this context that we are introduced to the true main character of Acts. It’s not Jesus; he is only present in the first chapter. It’s not Peter; we only focus on him for the first few chapters. It’s not Paul, because he really only gets the second half of the book. No, the main character and the central focus of the whole book of Acts is none other than God the Holy Spirit.
We might call it the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, or just the Spirit with a capital S, but we’re talking about the same force. The Holy Spirit is God’s presence among us here and now. The Holy Spirit is with us in church, but more importantly, the Spirit lives in each and every baptized Christian. The Holy Spirit lives in you. That’s why St. Paul can say: “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you” (1 Cor 6:19).
And I know we say that the Holy Spirit lives within us. I know Christians believe that. But have we ever really considered how wild and crazy that is? Can you wrap your head around the Creator of the Universe choosing to join together intimately with you, and you, and you? And can you imagine why God dwells with us? What difference does it make to have God living within you?
To get a sense of that, we need to pay attention to the Holy Spirit as the main character of Acts and a main character throughout the Bible. We need to get to know who God is so we can recognize God’s voice speaking to us as a people.
We learn from stories like Acts 2 that the Holy Spirit pushes people to do things that seem crazy. The Holy Spirit pushes Christians to love the unlovable, to serve the unworthy, to desire the undesireable. The Spirit shows up at times that are busy and inconvenient. The Spirit isn’t concerned with our plans and expectations, but with making us holy and whole. Throughout the Bible, and especially in Acts, the Holy Spirit never seems to call people into lives of luxury and comfort. The Holy Spirit is always pushing us into spaces of discomfort for the sake of love.
In Acts 2, the Spirit pushes the twelve apostles, who were all from Judea and Galilee, to get to know and love people from all over the known world. “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs.” The Holy Spirit pushed all these different people onto the Twelve without even having them leave Jerusalem. Those folks all came to them!
Again, these visitors came to Jerusalem on a religious pilgrimage. They were there to celebrate the feast of Pentecost in the Temple. This was a major citywide event. And the Holy Spirit did not allow the apostles to sit in their silos and just stay with the people they already knew. The Spirit pushed them beyond their comfort zones.
The Spirit gave them the supernatural ability to speak the languages of all these travelers and drew them all together in one place. The Spirit pushed them to get familiar and intimate with one another quickly. The Spirit pushed them into fellowship before they even really had a desire to know one another. The Spirit showed them that God’s desire is for all people, not just the ones we know and like.
The Holy Spirit didn’t lead them to a new place but to a new people. The Holy Spirit revealed the heart of God for people who they never considered worth their time or effort. The Holy Spirit challenged them to love!
It’s like calling a church made up of people from Savannah to seek out the visitors or temporary residents of Savannah. Our church sits near the ever-expanding SCAD campus, along the MLK Parade route and close to the St. Patrick’s Day festivities. Maybe the Holy Spirit is calling us to step beyond our comfort zone and into the uncharted territories of these visitors. Maybe we have something to share with and something to learn from all the people who pass through our city.
Maybe the Spirit wants us to practice listening and learning from others. Our faith can be sharpened by the image of God reflected in these our neighbors. Evangelism -- sharing the Good News of Jesus with others -- is not a monologue, but a dialogue. It requires listening and honoring the dignity of the other. It requires adapting how we speak and even think about God for the sake of the other. It requires being humble enough to hear the Holy Spirit speaking through the person we’re talking with.
And maybe there is something else God is drawing us to that doesn’t fit so neatly with this story. But what we can tell from the witness of the Bible is that the love of God “cannot be tamed, controlled, or planned” (Jennings, 32). The Church always needs to keep its ears open to the Holy Spirit. We need to listen for what God has in store for us next.
And, difficult as it may be, we should expect for God’s call to challenge us. God doesn’t want us to stay the way we are, but wants us to be transformed into New Creations through Christ. So where is the Holy Spirit taking us? Into whose lives is the Holy Spirit taking us? (Jennings, 32). Because whatever the Spirit has in store, it will always involve embracing new people with God’s love. Amen.
Jennings, Willie James. Acts. A Volume in Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, edited by Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.