The sanctuary of Community United Church on Pentecost Sunday 2015 was a visual shock to some people. The white banners of Easter were all replaced with bright red ones, and a handful of red balloons hovered above the pews. As the clock struck 11:00 AM, the usual time at which we start worship with an opening song, we heard these words boldly read from two candle-bearing readers standing at the opened doors in the back of the sanctuary:
“When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples 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 the ability.” (Acts 2:1-4).
The sanctuary of our church looks different now because of the Church holiday being celebrated throughout the world: Pentecost. In the tradition of many churches, red is the color that sanctuaries and people have decorated themselves with on this holiday–a reflection of the tongues of fire that we heard about in the scripture reading above.
Let’s be clear: mysterious sounds like rushing wind, and tongues of fire, and bright red banners, and balloons are out of the ordinary. They catch us off guard–and if we like things “as they were,” they’re even disrupting.
But that’s the point. On Pentecost everything changes.
For example, everything changed for the Jewish people on the first Pentecost. We can’t place a sure time in history about when the first Pentecost was, but we are given a theological narrative about it in the Book of Exodus. According to the Hebrew Scriptures: fifty days after the Passover (and the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt), God met with Moses on a mountain top and began revealing the Torah, the Law. In the Hebrew language, this day is called Shavuot. From this day forward, 613 distinct laws would be articulated (in what are now the first five books of the Bible), and these would reshape the Israelite people as a “set apart” people. As the Hebrew Scriptures further explain it, the Israelites were called to be a royal priesthood, “set apart” in their ritual and cultural practices; chosen to be a community through which “the whole world would be blessed” (Genesis 22:18).
As a set apart people, the Torah distinguished the Israelites from all the other nations. As a set apart people, the Law directed the Israelites not to eat pork or shrimp. Not to wear mixed fabrics. The Law even directed the Jewish people to practice agriculture differently than the nations; and most certainly, the Law required religious ritual of the ancient Israelites in very specific ways. Some of our Jewish scholars today tell us that many of the Torah laws fall under the category of the”Khukim:” laws that do not make rational sense per se (i.e., bacon is yummy, and God doesn’t hate shrimp), but which functioned (then, and in many ways now) to set the Jewish people apart.
The Jewish people aren’t the only ones whose cultural and ritual practices are unique. For example, we often know that a person is a Christian minister or priest because of the clergy collar worn. We may not know the person wearing the collar, but the collar sets him or her apart. Or, at sporting events, people wear particular colors to set them apart from the “other” team. So too, traditional Judaism has long practiced the Torah laws that came to them at Shavuot–and by doing so, they practice being a “set apart people.” And if we’re curious (as we should be), we can seek out the many meanings of the Torah laws from our Jewish brothers and sisters.
And yet, even if the Torah laws are unique to the practice of Jewish people, we can affirm more generally that through the Shavuot (the giving of the Law), everything changed. It didn’t change all at once–but it set in motion a new direction for a small group of people, which in time would be known throughout the world.
As the Greek language became the language of the people, Shavuot was rendered “Pentecost,” meaning: the fiftieth day, or, fifty days (after Passover).
So when the Book of Acts mentions that “the day of Pentecost had come” and “the disciples were all together in one place,” that in itself is a reference to the Jewish commemoration of the giving of the Torah/Law.
But then something else happened.
In a narrative that reads fairly parallel to the Shavuot story, God uniquely manifests–but this time, as the Book of Acts claims, through the Holy Spirit with “sounds like violent wind” and “tongues of fire.” And for all we know, those sounds and sights either happened in ways that ears and eyes can register; or, the author described such a dramatic scene to indicate a powerful internal shift that happened in those first disciples of Christ.
Namely, the disciples went from being closeted about their faith, to having the tenacity to openly proclaim the good news about Christ and the reign of God.
In other words, God’s Spirit brought courage.
And once again, everything changed for a small group of people.
That small group of people would step out into the world and lay the groundwork for a spiritual path that we now (broadly) call “Christianity.”
And much like the outcome of the first Pentecost (Shavuot), and much like our Jewish neighbors, Christianity too is “set apart” by a range of beliefs and practices. Not the least of which come from the second Pentecost experience of God’s Spirit upon Christ’s disciples, through which many of us see a spiritual path, upon which we believe it is good to walk, grow, serve, and learn.
We can profess that kind of an affirmation about the path of Christ without being theologically arrogant or “anti” everything else. As Christian theologians like Maureen Waun and Brian McLaren have said it, we can hold our faith with open hands instead of clenched fists. We can indeed proclaim our faith, while still being hospital and open to the spiritual and philosophical offerings of our neighbors. Unfortuantely, we Christians have sometimes used our faith to conquer, hurt, and condemn others–more than we have used it to heal, inspire, and empower. Terribly, we have too often mistaken the empowering of Pentecost with a mandate to power over others.
That need not be the only rendering of Christianity. We can choose to bear witness to something else about the power of God’s Spirit. We can dare to reveal something more loving and more inspiring about the presence of God.
And what would that look like?
Well, we might affirm that God is manifesting when Spirit-filled qualities like courage (anywhere, and in anyone) leads to moments and movements that heal the world. Like when Rosa Parks wouldn’t move. Like when drag queens resisted corrupt police at Stonewall. Like the atheist or agnostic person who stands up to egregious and brutal religious teachings and practices when the “faithful” remain silent in fear of authority and tradition. Like Benedictine Sisters who place their bodies in violent places to be a presence of peace. And…
…like you. Like you, when in any number of obvious, subtle, or even trembling ways, you suddenly find within yourself the courage to do something that brings healing to our world. Is that not God in you, collaborating to heal the world? Did you not (and do you not) feel as if a rush of wind and a bright light of illumination manifest within and around you as you step forward to transform the world?
In those moments, everything changes. And in these moments, God’s Spirit has come.
And if all of that is true, then Pentecost not only changed the world through the the coming of Torah and Spirit, it continues to change the world through us, and through you.