Acts 2:1-21
John 14:8-17, 25-27

For the second time in a few short weeks, Jesus is gone. The first time, if you remember, takes us back to Holy Week and Easter. The disciples watched as Jesus was arrested, tortured, executed, and buried. Out of fear, they locked themselves in a room, unsure as to what their next steps would be. And yet, as they were huddling in that locked room, Jesus appears to them, showing them his hands and his side, offering them peace and urging them to believe.

But this time, in today’s reading, Jesus is truly gone. The disciples watched as he was taken up into the sky until they could no longer see him, and two angels confirm that he has been taken up into heaven. And so they went back to the upper room where they were staying, cast lots to decide who would replace Judas as the twelfth disciple, and waited for whatever was to happen next.

And as they were waiting, there suddenly came from heaven something that sounded like the rush of a violent wind, nearly deafening. Tongues of fire appeared out of nowhere, it seemed, and one tongue rested on each of them. The scripture tells us that they were “filled with the Holy Spirit” and began speaking in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability.

Naturally, this kind of ruckus drew a crowd. Luke tells us in Acts that those living in Jerusalem were from every nation under heaven; a mass of immigrants who likely spoke different languages and had different customs. And yet, even in the midst of such diversity, each person was able to hear the disciples speaking to them in their own native language. They were astonished and confounded, and naturally they tried to figure out what was going on. The most sober-minded among them came up with the most natural conclusion: they were drunk.

But Peter stepped out and addressed all of those who were speculating. It was far too early to be drunk; brunch hadn’t even started yet. Instead, he reminded them of what the prophet Joel had foretold long ago, of God pouring out the Spirit in the last days.

This is the story that we hear on the very last day of the Easter season. For forty-nine days, we have been celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. But this Sunday, as we transition into what we call “Ordinary Time” in the church calendar, is Pentecost—the time when we commemorate and celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the earliest followers of Jesus. In many respects, Pentecost could be considered the birthday of the Church universal, a transition from the Gospel as seen in the person of Jesus Christ to the Gospel as seen in the works of the Holy Spirit through the Church.

In some churches, Pentecost is one of the most significant holidays of the Christian Church, often more celebrated than Christmas and only falling behind Easter in importance. In many of the churches like our United Methodist Church, however, its influence has waned. Few if any of us have a big dinner planned after service today; we don’t walk through the streets and see Pentecost decorations hanging up in store windows. I’d even dare say that some of us didn’t even know that today was Pentecost until we saw the word on the front of our bulletin.

And I’m curious why this isn’t a bigger celebration for churches like ours. On one hand, getting into the theology of the Holy Spirit—actually discussing who the Spirit is, what it does, and how it relates to the other persons in the Trinity—is a daunting effort. On Wednesday night, the scripture that we sat with during our Lectio Divina service focused on the Holy Spirit, and most of our time was spent thinking through these very questions. I can’t say that we got too far. The Spirit is probably the least talked about  of God, because she by nature is hard to describe and hard to pinpoint. Sometimes, then, the best way to deal with Pentecost in worship seems to be to avoid the topic; to speak around it rather than of it.

But I don’t think that’s quite it. Rather, I think that we inherently know something about the Spirit, something that’s just enough to scare us.

We’re familiar with the Spirit as a comforter of sorts, the presence of God that abides with us in times of deep sorrow and mourning, that meets us as a protector. But if we’re looking for that aspect of the Spirit, I don’t believe that Pentecost is the day for that. What we see instead seems dangerous—a violent wind and flames coming down from the heavens. And once the disciples catch this Spirit, they make a fool out of themselves, going out onto the street speaking in languages that they couldn’t understand. It was enough of a ruckus that people began to gather, astonished and confounded as to what was happening; enough chaos that some in that crowd just assumed that they were drunk. And the message was just as turbulent—the one that the authorities had put to death a few weeks ago was now alive.

And then you have Peter—did you catch what he said from the prophet Joel? Let me read it to you again:

In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your young will see visions.
Your elders will dream dreams.
Even upon my servants, men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.
The sun will be changed into darkness,
and the moon will be changed into blood,
before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.
And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. [1]

This isn’t comfortable; this isn’t some kind of sentimental or domesticated message. This is apocalyptic. This is radical. What we find today isn’t the comforting Spirit, though that’s certainly one aspect. No, what we find today, as Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, is the one “who blows and burns, howling down the chimney, and turning all the lawn furniture upside down.” [2]

Disruptive. Causing a scene. This is the Holy Spirit, my friends.

But throughout the years, we as Christians have tried really hard to institutionalize her, as if the four walls of the Church could somehow contain Pentecost to the past. We have tried to make an experience with her something private and individual, as though only some certain holy ones truly experience Pentecost anew. But for centuries of trying to tame the Spirit, we as the Church have failed. For the Spirit continues to move within us together as a community; as the Body of Christ; as a gathering of followers. The Spirit continues to move and speak to those regardless of language or culture or status. The Spirit continues to orchestrate movements of justice and love and grace far outside of our doors. Thanks be to God that we as the church have failed.

On this holy day of Pentecost, then, we have to ask ourselves: are we ready for the Spirit?

Are we ready for the one who has been poured out on all flesh, destroying any boundaries or divisions that we have put up around ourselves to keep certain people out? Are we ready for our sons and daughters to prophesy about the injustices around us? Are we ready to see the visions that our young ones have about our church and our world, visions of the Kingdom of God breaking into our midst? Are we ready to listen to the dreams of the older ones around us, dreams of what could be? Are we ready to hear the voices of the enslaved around us, crying out for peace and liberation? Are we ready to set out of our comfort zones, to embrace the fresh word from God that’s being spoken around us? Are we ready for this unruly, unpredictable Spirit?

Alan Jones, the dean of the Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco, once stated that “Only a fool would pray for the Holy Spirit to come.” [3] But the good news is that the Spirit takes us beyond our comfort zones, beyond our limitations, and even beyond our own abilities.

So whenever we find ourselves speaking prophetically in a way we couldn’t have imagined; when we have offered grace in those moments where it seems impossible; where we have loved what seemed unlovable; when we take risks that we never would have had the courage to take; or when we’re being like Jesus and flipping over a few tables for the sake of love; when we stretch ourselves in worship—even to the point of throwing gin some bass and drums to more accurately reflect our own diversity in this place; and when we break from our hymns for fresh expressions of worship and praise; and when we’re causing a little bit of a holy ruckus, we can be pretty sure that we somehow have caught the fire of the Spirit. And let me tell you—people will notice and can’t help but join in.

My friends, this is Pentecost. It’s the time that we remember those first terrifying moments of the violent wind and the tongues of fire, and we are invited to join the story. It may be terrifying, and it may be may be wild. But we’ll find along the way that, sometimes, God is not only found in the silence and calm. Sometimes God is found in the fire, in the violent wind, and in the chaos. Come, Holy Spirit. Make us ready.

1 Acts 2:17-21
2 Barbara Brown Taylor (1997). The Bread of Angels, p. 67.