Rev. Rebecca Heilman
My favorite movie as a child wasn’t a cartoon, it was the old black and white movie with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers titled Swing Time. Please note that there are scenes in that movie that have not aged well. But as a child, I absolutely loved the music and loved the dancing. I would pretend to dance around my living room as if I was Ginger Rogers in her heavy glittering dress and then switch to Fred Astaire leaping like a deer around the room. Sadly, I never took ball room dancing lessons until a few months ago when Douglas and I took one, emphasis on one, dance lesson in anticipation of our wedding next Saturday. And let’s just say, we didn’t catch on quick. I kept placing my hand in the wrong place, naturally wanting to lead Douglas in the direction we were going. When I finally got my hands and posture right, I still tried to lead him. It didn’t work out well for us. He went one way, I went another. He stepped forward, as I stepped forward bumping our knees. The only thing that saved us is that we somehow, someway have natural rhythm. Thank God for that! By the end of the lesson, we were still quite awkward and terrible, but we had the steps and the idea down. I would lead at certain points in the dance and Douglas at others. We leaned into and trusted each other when it was our turn to lead. We used our bodies so that when I turned one way, Douglas turned with me. Or when he placed his hands on my back and gently pushed, I knew to step with him.
And isn’t that how the Holy Spirit tends to work? She takes hold of our hands and leads not only our ears for listening or our mouths for speaking, but our bodies as well and the body of the church as a whole. The Spirit pushes us, guides us, welcomes us to take a step with her. Often when we hear the Pentecost passage we focus on the ears that are hearing new languages and mouths speaking new foreign words. Less often do we think about the impact this passage has on our bodies and the body of the church as a whole.
The community in our passage today is diverse. Jewish pilgrims from all over are gathering in Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish Festival of Pentecost. They were there to praise God’s gracious provisions of harvested food and land. They all speak different tongues, different languages, different dialects. They had different cultures and ways of life. They were diverse in image, skin color, who knows – sexuality.
And so, as we just heard, the disciples are gathered in a room, at this festival, when just as Jesus said in the first chapter of Acts, the Holy Spirit dramatically, uncontrollably filled the community. A new tongue rested on each of them. They were each filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak each other languages. Suddenly, they could converse and understand all the people gathering in Jerusalem for Pentecost. It’s now not only a diverse community, but an inclusive and egalitarian community as well. This is a game changer for everyone.
Bewilderment took over the crowd because they could each hear and speak is each other’s native languages. Amazement, astonishment, perplexity was in the air. And also, the Spirit moving and pushing, guiding and pulling, swaying and whooshing in and around everyone in uncontrollable manners. This was the beginning of the church. For Luke, the author of Acts and interpreter of the Holy Spirit, he believes that the Spirit brings life, renewal, and restoration, sometimes in sudden, disruptive, uncontrollable fashion: like hubris transformed into humility, fragmentation into community. And this Pentecost day is only the beginning for the church. Throughout the Books of Acts, the Spirit will mobilize the church, move the church, change the church, ignite it, transform it, it’s people and its ministries.
In Hebrew, the word for Spirit is Ruach. This word would have been well known to the disciples and the Jewish people in Jerusalem that day. Ruach can also mean breath, wind. It was first used in the beginning, in the creation story when the Spirit, Ruach, hovers over the face of the earth. And again when God created humankind and breathed into our nostrils, our lungs, giving us life. For Luke, breath, ruach, the spirit means new life — and new life means new growth, change, leaning into the Spirit and where the Spirit might be gently leading us. The Spirit gathers and protects, but also opens and challenges, provoking and pushing us along. She can move us to tears and help us make bold decisions for the life of the church and the life of its people.
And so, yes, “Happy Birthday to the church,” — we certainly can celebrate that, but that’s not enough if the church doesn’t do what the church is supposed to do. And so we say Happy Birthday, and also, “Let’s go!” Let’s be moved, let’s dance with the Spirit, let us be led into directions that might scare us or challenge us.
In a time where we are all in communal grief, trying to understand a nation where black lives are shot down in grocery stores or in a Bible study, where children are shot down in their classrooms next to their friends and teachers, where people, average people, not just our most vulnerable, are shot down in medical centers. It’s never been more pressing for the church to be church. For us to let go of our fears of not stepping too far outline, to let go of only thoughts and prayers, to let go of apathy and numbness to these violent situations and instead let the spirit shake us, move us to tears. Let us be taken into the wind and respond in the way Christ expects us to respond.
Christ wept and then immediately raised Lazarus from the dead. We weep and then we gather as a community to truly live into our baptismal vows of loving, protecting, and nurturing our children so that they might simply live. Christ was angry, he flipped tables and then immediately healed people in the temple. We are angry and then we advocate for the most vulnerable, for the voiceless, those who are persecuted, those deemed the lowest in our society because of their skin, sexuality, or gender. Christ was often tired and tried his best to leave the presence of the crowds and then immediately, when he saw he could not escape, he had compassion for them and broke bread with them, making sure all were fed. We are tired and we feel like we can’t escape the plague of pain in our communities. We’re tired of the mass shootings, we’re tired of natural disasters, we’re tired of the polarizing fear and division in our nation, we’re tired of war, we’re tired of fearing for the future of the church. But that’s the thing, the Church, with a capital “C”, is not a building, it’s not even just a group of people who gather, rather, at its heart, the church is verb, a movement, an act of doing. It’s certainly an adventurous challenge that the first church knew well. Read on after this Pentecost chapter in Acts, you’ll see. It’s an adventurous challenge of understanding and connecting with neighbors near and far, burdened with pain and glistening with hope. It’s listening and learning and speaking each other’s languages when we’re polarized by different opinions. It’s weeping and making bold decisions that might scare us, but would make Christ cheer with pride.
Church, with a capital “C”, is celebrating and serving with the Spirit’s winds in our sails, dancing us towards a kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. In an age of polarizing fear and division (over gun violence, abortion, politics, and so much more), the church’s mission — the essence of Pentecost – of being led by Spirit— has never been more pressing.