(Acts 2: 1-13)
Methodist minister Dave Faulker tells the story of a pastor visiting a children’s Sunday school class one morning. They’d been learning about the Trinity that month. So he says, Tell me what you’ve learned so far. Who’s the first part of the trinity? And the kids all eagerly raise their hands, shouting over each other: God! God created the world. God loves everyone. God is Jesus’ father.
Speaking of Jesus, the minister replies, since he’s part of the Trinity too, tell me about him! More raised hands, more shouting: Jesus is God’s son. Jesus was born in a manger. Jesus had disciples.
Wonderful! Now what’s the third part of the Trinity?
The Holy Spirit, the kids say.
Yes, the Holy Spirit! So what do you know about it?
Silence. The children wear blank faces. Hands rest securely in laps. The teacher looks embarrassed. And after an uncomfortably long pause, one child blurts out, Sorry, pastor, but the kid who understands the Holy Spirit isn’t here today.
Last week, Grace and I began a new sermon series called Awkward Moments In The Bible. Those passages we read, those stories we hear and say to ourselves, “I can’t believe that’s in there!” or “what in the world is going on here?” Certainly the Holy Spirit qualifies for such a distinction. I mean, let’s face it: we can dress up the Holy Spirit with its own Sunday and communion celebration. We can release red balloons in the sky and have a big flaming red birthday cake after worship – neither of which we’re going to do here. But when you remove all the window dressing, all the pomp and circumstance, the Holy Spirit is one big mystery to us. It’s awkward! We can wrap our heads around God; we get Jesus. But the Holy Spirit? What we find is that we’re not all that different from those kids in that Sunday school class.
And maybe part of the reason for this is the way we’re first introduced to it. We’ve given it a name: Pentecost. It’s found in only one place in the Bible – Acts 2, our scripture today. Basically, Pentecost goes like this: The disciples are there, along with others, all waiting for …… , well, waiting for something. They don’t know exactly what. Jesus wasn’t big on specifics. Which, as an aside, is kind of like the time you’re at the airport picking up someone, except you don’t know what they look like. So you’re that guy holding a sign with their name on it, which is great for them, but not very helpful for you until they see it. So you’re just waiting for….someone. Which is a little awkward.
Anyway, the disciples are all there, we are told. Then a big wind blows in. Then tongues of fire on their heads. Then the ability to suddenly speak languages they didn’t know, and in some cases never heard before.
I mean, awkward, right??
You know, over the years of ministry, I’ve kind of given up on trying to understand Pentecost. Like, dissect it and analyze it as if it were some science project. Because I’m not convinced that’s what the writer of Acts intended in the first place. As a wise mentor once told me, some things in scripture are meant to be just experienced rather than understood.
And so when I think about the experience of Pentecost, there are two things that really jump out at me:
First, the way it all begins. Scripture says: they were all together in one place. Which, if you think about it, is redundant, right? They were all together in one place. It’s the kind of redundancy your English teacher joyfully marks up with thick red pen all over your paper. But here, it’s intentional. It means something. As if there’s more going on than just people occupying the same physical space. That this togetherness takes place at a more intimate level; a compelling that drove all these people here on this very day, for this incredibly awkward, waiting, hopeful moment. Whatever Pentecost is, it begins with togetherness.
At least initially. Until what comes next. All heaven breaks loose! Suddenly, “divided” tongues of fire, we are told, resting on their heads. We imagine different hues of red and orange, no one like the other. And suddenly, all kind of different languages spoken – not incoherent babbling, as the Pentecostals claim, but actual dialects use in the ancient world, dozens of them, languages they did not previously know.
Does it not strike you, the dichotomy? This mish-mash of two seemingly polar opposites, all in the span of two verses? Togetherness – and difference. All in one place – and divided. Unity – and diversity. This is how the Holy Spirit – and, by virtue, the church itself – makes its grand debut.
Now I don’t know about you, but I find this contrast incredibly compelling and, at the same time, frustratingly maddening. Because some 2000 years later, the church of today is still trying to make sense of this. The beautiful and often chaotic clash, this odd cosmic pairing and the question it forever perpetuates: how exactly does the church be both alike and different at the same time? How does the church do “unity in diversity?”
It’s not easy, is it? Especially when we in the church confuse unity with uniformity – which we do a lot. The two are not the same. Unity is the common bond we share as the people of God. It’s being “all together in one place.” It’s not about agreeing on everything. It’s not about believing exactly the same thing. It’s about being church to all people in all ways that unite us in the embrace of the Holy Spirit.
Uniformity, though, is when people see everything in like mind. When the end goal is to have everyone be identical, everything be the same. When differences are seen as obstacles to get rid of; when uniqueness is discouraged and, at worst, feared.
More and more I’m beginning to wonder if this is the challenge for the church of all ages, especially this one. You don’t need me to tell you that there’s an awful lot of divisiveness undergirding our culture right now. Everything, it seems, is a lightning rod for something. No place is safe from an act of terror or sudden mass shooting. We have two presumed candidates for president who each bear the highest disapproval rating a candidate for that office has had in recent memory. A few weeks ago, this great state of ours enacted legislation that quickly riled up respective party bases and, in the span of just a couple of hours this past Monday, saw the state and federal government sue each other in rapid succession.
And then there’s tow truck guy. I don’t know if you’ve heard about tow truck guy. A week or so ago, outside Asheville, a twenty-something motorist got stranded on I-26 and called for a tow truck. When tow truck guy got there he went back to hook the car up to his truck. And that’s when he noticed her bumper sticker promoting a presidential candidate he did not support. So he stopped what he was doing and told the motorist that he would not tow her car, told her why, and then just drove off, leaving her stranded on the side of the interstate.
There’s more to the story. When the news of this eventually got to the press and they tracked down the guy, this is what he told them: “Something came over me, I think the Lord came to me, and he just said, get in the truck and leave. And when I got in my truck, I was so proud of myself for doing that.”
Now when these sorts of things happen on a regular basis, as they seem to be happening more and more, we have to ask ourselves, what is going on? And then we have to ask the really hard question: where does the church fit into all of this? What is our role? When vitriol is razor-sharp, when the lines are drawn in permanent ink, when both figurative and sometimes literal walls are being built, what voice does the church seek to proclaim?
And I keep coming back to that Pentecost scene – that contrast of togetherness and difference; the chaos that ensued. And you know what strikes me most? That church is what came from all of that. Literally, that’s how church was born. Not from books of order or proper polity or “neat and in decent order.” No – the chaos, the craziness of it all when the Holy Spirit touched down – that was, and still is, the very essence of church.
It reminds me of a beautiful image our Celtic brothers and sisters use, not to better understand the Holy Spirit, but to better experience it. The metaphor they use for Holy Spirit is a wild goose. And why a wild goose? Because a wild goose, like the Spirit, is loud and noisy, honking annoyingly. Because it flails all about with frenetic flapping wings, and falls all over itself, void of any sense of rhythm or cadence.
And then there’s the story noted author and speaker Nadia Bolz-Weber likes to tell about the time her small church in Denver was going through some paraments handed down to them from a larger congregation. When they came to the red Pentecost set, they were struck by one with an image of a descending dove with completely crazed eyes and claws that looked like sharp talons. It looks like a raptor! one of them said. Nadia loved it, but some of the others weren’t as enthused. And when she asked why, they said Because it makes the Holy Spirit look dangerous.
Well, you know what? Maybe that is exactly what the Holy Spirit is! Maybe a little “dangerous” is precisely what the world needs from the church right now. A flailing wild goose, a taloned raptor. I talk to people about the church, both in and out of the church, and if we’re able to get to that honest moment where all pretenses are set aside and we go headfirst into the awkwardness, what I constantly hear from them is that they have no need for a church intent on playing it safe. Right? The world, rife with partisanship and divisiveness, has no need for a church sitting on the sidelines. The world, paralyzed by an endless pursuit of uniformity, has no need for a church seeking sameness. The world, sick with the fever of fear, has no need for a church void of vision and hope, unwilling to take risks and be bold in what it says and what it does.
That is why I love a church like the one we are becoming! A church that welcomes all kinds of people “together in one place” on a Thursday evening on our front lawn to do nothing more than create space for kids to run, bands to play music, food trucks to serve, and fellowship to blossom. That’s why I love a church that boldly embraces the new, something as simple as a hymnal, when it might’ve been tempting to just stay put. It’s why I love a church that welcomes its children in worship instead of shipping them out halfway through the service because “they’re not old enough for it,” and instead embraces the joyful restless squirming that is, in itself, an act of worship. It’s why I love a church whose driving force is not “how do we get by” or “how do we maintain what we have” but instead is “what can we do differently, what needs out there are not being met, how can the church be church in ways no one has even thought up yet?”
They were all together in one place. And then, divided tongues! And then, different languages! It takes a wild goose to engage an awkward world. It takes a taloned raptor to get past the fear. It takes a wildly unpredictable, dangerous Holy Spirit to birth something as powerful and dynamic as the church. And it takes people like you and me to be crazy enough to let the Spirit in and let it do its thing. Not to better understand it. But to experience it.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 Based on a story told by Dave Faulkner, https://bigcircumstance.com/2010/05/22/sermon-the-purposes-of-pentecost/, visited on 5.4.2016.
 Credit goes to my friend and fellow By The Vine member Sarah Brouwer for sharing this.
 Nadia Bolz-Weber, “The Pentecost sermon I preached at the Festival of Homiletics,” May 25, 2012. patheos.com.