The Day of Pentecost
Numbers 11:24-30; Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23
4 June 2017
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
The City of New York
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s a good thing today’s Gospel empowers us to forgive one another. I confess to you that I chose to use the alternative reading – the fascinating story of Eldad and Medad from Numbers 11 – for the First Lesson and the account of the Day of Pentecost from Acts 2 for the Second Reading – and did not tell Donald or Bonnie. Oh, well. It was so good to hear Joe reading that story about the Spirit being let loose on the children of Israel and to hear Lois reading the story of people from every nation under heaven and eloquently managing those names. So I confess that mess-up.
And while I’m confessing, it’s safe to tell you this now, some forty-plus years after ordination, many of them serving on a synod staff and even as a bishop in one place or another…it’s safe to tell you, I think:
Early on I had a rather anti-authoritarian take on church governance. I was not at all sure,
when the ELCA was constituting, that we should have bishops at all. (It was a long time ago. Now I see some value in it. Lois and I have been at very nice events because of the office I hold.) I had this tendency toward being like Eldad and Medad in the First Reading, thinking that you don’t have to go through anything like a process to be ordained. But, the book of Numbers says, “the spirit rested on them” – and that, apparently, was enough. Joshua tried to intervene and follow constitutional processes for candidacy, but Moses said he wanted all of God’s people to be prophets with the spirit resting on them. Well, that would be something.
It’s a great story, but not one to be thrown in a bishop’s face if you are coming for an initial interview. We have rules, after all. Constitutional provisions, after all. And the pastor of this congregation, Wilbert Miller, is even on the Candidacy Committee appointed to help apply those rules to renegade Eldads and Medads….and Bobs, I suspect, if I were to go through the process.
Such rules are good. They have protected innocent people from renegade leaders. They have spared the church all kinds of embarrassment, not to mention lawsuits. But, sometimes, the Holy Spirit just does renegade things still.
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. (Acts 2:1-2)
There they were, about a hundred and twenty of them, worrying about what they were going to do without Jesus, when they heard a holy hurricane headed their way. Before any of them could defend themselves, that mighty wind had blown through the entire house,
putting flames above their heads, and they were filled up with it – every one of them was filled with the mighty breath of God. Then something clamped down on them and the air came out of them in languages they did not even know they knew. Like they were theologians with Ph. Ds. in linguistics. They set up such a racket that they drew a crowd.
It was bigger than the G-7 Summit and the United Nations put together! People from all over the world who were in Jerusalem for the Jewish festival of Pentecost came leaning in the windows and pushing through the doors, surprised to hear someone speaking their own language so far from home. Parthians stuck their heads through the door expecting to see other Parthians, and Libyans looked around for other Libyans, but what they saw instead were a bunch of Galileans from northern Israel dressed in overalls and Converse sneakers – fishing folk and farmers – all going on and on about God’s mighty acts. Prophesying like first-century Eldads and Medads.
Before the day was over, the church had grown from one hundred twenty to more than three thousand people. Shy people had become bold, scared people had become gutsy, and lost people had found a sure sense of direction. Disciples who had not believed themselves capable of anything without Jesus discovered abilities within themselves they never knew they had. When they opened their mouths to speak, they sounded like Jesus. When they laid their hands upon the sick, it was as if Jesus himself had touched them.
Soon they were doing things they had never seen anyone but Jesus do, and there was no explanation for it, except that they had dared to breathe on the day of Pentecost. They had sucked in God’s own breath and they had been transformed by it. The Holy Spirit had entered into them the same way it had entered into Mary, the Mother of our Lord, and for the same reason: it was time for God to be born again – not in one body this time but in a body of believers who would receive the breath of life from their Lord and pass it on, using their own bodies to distribute the gift.
The Book of Acts is the story of their adventures, which is why I like to think of it as the gospel of the Holy Spirit. We’ve heard a lot from Acts during the Sundays of Easter, and now we go back to the start of it today. In the first four books of the New Testament, the Gospels,
we learn the good news of what God did through Jesus Christ. In the Book of Acts, we learn the good news of what God did through the Holy Spirit, by performing resuscitation on a room full of well-intentioned people like us, who became a force that changed the history of the world.
The question for me today, and therefore for you, the question worth working at a bit,
is whether we still believe in a God who acts like that. Do we still believe in a God who blows through closed doors and sets our heads on fire? Do we still believe in a God with power to transform us, both as individuals and as a people? Or have we come to an unspoken agreement that our God is old and tired by now, riding around in a celestial golf-cart, someone to whom we may address our prayer requests but not anyone we really expect to change our lives?
The Holy Spirit is hard to define. Most of us can at least begin to talk about God the Father,
creator of heaven and earth, who makes the sun shine and the rain fall and is concerned about global warming. We do all right, for the most part, with the Son of God, Jesus, who, asleep on the hay, was human like us: our savior, teacher, helper, friend.
But how do you describe God the Holy Spirit? I’ll give you a minute to think about it.
There is some very fine teaching available, written by very smart people. But I hope you do not believe it. Do not be satisfied with it. I hope none of you rests until you have felt the Holy Spirit blow through your own life, rearranging things, opening things up and maybe even setting you on fire.
There is nothing you can do to make it happen, as far as I know, except to pray “Come, Holy Spirit” every chance you get. If you don’t want anything to change in your life, then for heaven’s sake don’t pray that prayer, but if you are the type of person who likes to feel the power of God, then you are probably a good candidate for that Holy Spirit prayer. But just a warning: You might become an Eldad or a Medad.
But asking for the Holy Spirit is only half the equation. The other half is recognizing it when it comes. I find there are a lot of people who say they have never encountered God as Father, Son, or Holy Spirit, but when they start talking about their lives, when they start giving testimony like many did at our synod assembly, it seems pretty clear to me they have. A lot of these folks I’ve met just didn’t have a name for it, did not know what to call the experience of God living in them. So they wrote it off.
But you may have had such experiences of God; let me name a couple of ways the Holy Spirit moves today.
One famous way is to give people a sense of new beginning. You take a deep breath for the first time in months and your chest opens up and you get a second wind. You can call that anything you want. I call it the Holy Spirit acting.
Another way the Spirit works is to give people a way back into relationship. Maybe this kind of thing has happened to you here, as you found this community of faith a welcoming place for you. Maybe because this community is inclusive, musical, liturgical, welcoming, a place of beauty with people of beauty. It’s why I’m here as often as I can be. Your heart has opened and a reunion with the church has started. You can call that anything you want, but it’s God the Holy Spirit.
Once you get the hang of it, the evidence is easier and easier to spot. Whenever two plus two does not equal four but five – whenever you find yourself speaking with an eloquence you know you do not have, or offering forgiveness you did not mean to offer – whenever you find yourself taking risks you thought you did not have the courage to take, or you reach out to someone you intended to walk away from – you can be pretty sure that you are learning about the gospel of the Holy Spirit. And more than that, you are taking part in it,
breathing in and breathing out, taking God into you and giving God back to the world again with some of yourself attached.
Do we still believe in a God who acts like that? Do you? More importantly, do we still experience a God who acts like that? Do we still have room for Eldad and Medad in the church? I do not know what your answer is, but I hope you will discover one, maybe starting right now. Join with me and your pastor and Eldad and Medad and the disciples and all who have answered that call of God.
Breathe in. Breathe out. And see what happens next.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo
Metropolitan New York Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America