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Descent of the Holy Spirit / Pentecost Cycle C (2)
Доброго дня, діти. Buen dias, ninos. Do you know what I just said? I said, “Good morning, boys and girls” in Spanish. Can you speak Spanish? What language do you speak? Most of us speak English, don’t we? But if we lived in Mexico, or Spain, or Puerto Rico, we would speak Spanish. And if we lived in other places, we would speak other languages. For instance, if we lived in Korea, we would speak some form of the Korean language. And in a country like India, there are at least fifteen official languages spoken in that one country. Did you know that there about 3,000 different languages spoken in the world? Can you understand 3,000 different languages? I sure can’t. But that’s what we’re going to talk about understanding.
Do you know why there are all these different language? Story of the Tower of Babel.
In our Bible story today, a group of Jewish men and women from different countries came together to celebrate a Jewish festival. Now, these people all spoke different languages, so they couldn’t understand one another. About 120 Jewish people from different countries were all gathered together in one big room, when the Spirit of the Lord came upon them. And suddenly, they could speak each other’s language, and understand one another. The only way they could do this was by God’s Spirit coming to them and giving them this knowledge. And these people all worshiped God together, and praised Him for His great power. You see, we may only understand one or two languages, but God knows and understands every single language on earth. And He loves everybody, no matter what language they speak. He sent His Holy Spirit on these believers so that they could worship Him together. And even today, there are people all over the world who are worshiping God in their own language, just like we are worshiping Him in English.
You have probably heard people tell you that you do not need to go to a priest to confess your sins. Why do we go to confession because as it says in today’s gospel that Jesus gave the Holy Spirit to his apostles – not to the whole church – for the purpose of forgiving and retaining sins. We do it because surprisingly the Bible tell us so.
I’m always amazed when authorities can take a childhood photo—particularly when someone is missing or abducted—and project it ahead. “This is what Shirley would look like at 15,” they say. And they morph the child’s picture before our eyes, broadening the face, lengthening the chin, darkening the hair, as if the continuity between our earlier years and later ones was all that clear. I know I’ve been surprised to see an old photo of a group and someone says, “There you are, in the corner,” and I have to look for two minutes to recognize myself. Or others are looking at me when I was 19 or 20; “That can’t be you,” they say. Sure enough it was.
How about the continuity of the Church, Christ’s community of believers. Can we imagine ourselves in the 1800s in Ireland, or the 1700s in France? What did Medieval Christianity really look like? Or Christians in the first millennium? Would we have felt comfortable in St. Ambrose’s Milan? Or St. Martin’s Tours? For that matter, do we see ourselves in the first reading the 2nd Chapter of Acts?
On first sight, it all looks strange. Blowing winds. Flames of fire. People speaking and being heard in a dozen languages. It certainly doesn’t look like us. But if we pull back, we can see some distinct features that really show our Catholic Church. We notice two things right off the bat. First, people are in Jerusalem from seemingly every known nation. We just have to look around our congregation to see how we more than maintain that trait. We are from everywhere. This is truly what it means to be Catholic – Universal.
Next is the communication of languages. Here the Apostles are not speaking in tongues which is when someone utters a totally peculiar language. Rather, they are speaking their regular language with their Galilean accents. What happens is that people from all these regions are able to hear them. People from other cultures are able to hear and accept the message of salvation. That, of course, is the history of the Church: from one land to another, from one culture to another, from one language to another, the proclamation of Good News.
What are those tongues of fire, you ask? Images to show people whose tongues were loosened so they could share their faith. What is that blowing wind? The same wind that has energized the Church from the beginning—wind meaning Spirit, meaning divine presence. Pentecost is the transfer of Jesus’ Risen life and power to those who accept him. Pentecost is our biography. Jesus breathes on them, breathes through history, and breathes upon us—breathing out the wind of divine love and salvation.
A little girl was visiting her grandmother one beautiful spring morning. They walked out into grandmother’s flower garden. As grandmother was inspecting the progress of her flowers the little girl decided to try to open a rosebud with her own two hands. But no luck! As she would pull the petals open, they would tear or bruise or wilt or break off completely. Finally, in frustration, she said, “Gramma, I just don’t understand it at all. When God opens a flower, it looks so beautiful but when I try, it just comes apart.” “Well, honey,” Grandmother answered, “There’s a good reason for that. God is able to do it because He works from the inside out!”
God Works From the Inside Out. That is the great message of Pentecost Sunday
It’s interesting to note that the three classic symbols for the Holy Spirit in the Bible remind us of how God works through us and how God works from the inside out. Do you remember what they are? The three traditional symbols of the Holy Spirit in the Bible: Breath: the symbol of Life. Fire: the symbol of Power. The descending dove: the symbol of Peace. Let’s take a look at these one at a time.
- FIRST, THERE IS BREATH… THE SYMBOL OF LIFE AND VITALITY.
Remember in the Garden of Eden when God created Adam and Eve, He shaped them… but they were lifeless until He breathed into their nostrils the breath of life. They didn’t really come alive until He breathed His spirit into them. Again, we see it here at Pentecost. The Breath of God, like the rush of a mighty wind, blew upon that place… and the disciples came alive.
A few nights ago I was watching the National Basketball Association play-offs on television. After the game, the coach of the losing team was being interviewed. He was not happy with the way his team played and he said, “We deserved to get beat because we were absolutely listless out there tonight. We had no drive, no emotion. We were like zombies… just going through the motions. We had no life at all!” And then he said, “We had no spirit!”
As he said that, it made me think that that’s how some people go through life spiritually… absolutely listless with no zest, no commitment, no drive, no fervor. Like robots, they stonewall through the days just going through the motions of living, but not really living at all. They have blocked the Holy Spirit of God out of their lives… and they are not really living at all!
Listen! How is it with you this morning? Is God in your life? Is the Holy Spirit in your soul? Has God’s spirit breathed on you the breath of real life? If not, you are not really living! You may be existing, coping. You may be floating along… but until the Holy Spirit comes into your heart, you are numbered among the lifeless… you are numbered among the walking dead.
SECOND, THERE IS FIRE, THE SYMBOL OF POWER.
We often put those two words together, don’t we? We talk about firepower. In the Bible, fire is often used as the symbol of God’s presence and power. For example, we see it in the burning bush of Exodus and again here in the New Testament story of Pentecost.
In the novel Barabbas, a Christian man named Sahak is brought before the Roman governor because he refuses to renounce his God and this dialogue takes place:
Roman Governor: “If you renounce your God, no harm shall come to you.
Sahak: “I cannot.”
Roman Governor: “Why not?”
Sahak: “I cannot deny my God.”
Roman Governor: “Extraordinary man… surely you must be aware of the punishment you force me to sentence you to. Are you really so brave that you can die for your God? Is not life dear to you?
“Yes,” answered Sahak, “it is.”
Roman Governor: “But if you do not forswear this God of yours, if you do not renounce your God, nothing can save you. You will lose your life.
“Yes,” answered Sahak, “But I cannot lose my God!”
Do you know what Sahak was saying? He was saying “I have fire power of Pentecost! Do you? Do you have that? Do you have that kind of power and strength? Can you stand up and defend the teachings of the Church? Are you willing to die for God? (An interesting question to ask to people who are willing to die for their country.)
THIRD AND FINALLY, THERE IS THE DESCENDING DOVE… THE SYMBOL OF PEACE.
The early Christians in creating this symbol were very wise to show the dove descending because peace does indeed come from above. Inner peace… the poise, the serenity, the courage, the confidence to meet life and its troubles with steady eyes comes from the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
Three times this past week, I was reminded of this. Three different conversations with three different families revealed vividly the peace that comes from having God in your life…
- A young couple facing a nightmare experience beyond description in the sudden illness of their baby,
- An older couple dealing with the bad news of a medical report and considering their alternatives,
- A heartbroken woman grappling with the abrupt loss of the man who had been her husband for over 50 years,
… And all of them displaying a peace that passes understanding, a peace that comes only from the presence of God in their lives.
That’s the good news of our faith and the message of Pentecost… God is with us right now working from the inside out, giving us the Breath of Life, the Fire Power of Commitment… and the Peace That Passes All Understanding.
Descent of the Holy Spirit / Pentecost Cycle C (1)
Mark L. Feldman and Michael F. Spratt in their book Five Frogs on a Log tell about a family visiting Mexico that found itself in a difficult situation. On Sept. 6, 1960, the Salado River in Sabinas, Mexico, overran its banks. Flood waters filled the main road leading from Sabinas across the border into the U.S. Numerous cars and trucks stalled while attempting to cross the border. However, a tow truck driver observed the mess with happy anticipation. You can guess why. He charged an exorbitant fee to tow waterlogged cars across the border.
Along came this old station wagon, packed with this family from the U.S.–a man, a woman, and three small children. They were obviously tired and eager to return home. The man approached the tow truck driver about a tow across the border. The truck driver demanded an outrageous sum of money. As the man considered his options, a Greyhound bus pulled up to the road. Suddenly, the man knew what to do! As the bus charged across the flooded road, the man pulled his station wagon behind the bus and traveled in its wake. The bus displaced enough water to clear the roadway for the station wagon. (1)
Welcome to this celebration of Pentecost. Pentecost is sometimes referred to as the birthday of the church. More properly it is the day when the Holy Spirit descended upon the believers and empowered them to do amazing things. Metaphorically, the Spirit parted the waters to help those early believers reach thousands of people with the Good News of Christ.
An even better analogy to Pentecost is a story that comes to us from the 1800s. Some people were attempting to build a bridge across Niagara Falls. “Engineers were consulted. Money was raised. No stone was left unturned, but they could not get a cable across the Falls. They could not float it across the rapids. They could not shoot it far enough with a bow and arrow. They could not climb the steep cliffs and get it across that way.
“Finally, a ten-year old boy made a ridiculous suggestion: ‘Fly the cable across the gorge on a kite.’”
“How absurd!” said the engineers. “How foolish!” declared knowing adults. Yet, after trying every other conceivable method, that is exactly what they finally did. They flew the cable across with a kite. (2)
The reason this is a better analogy is, of course, the relationship between the words, “spirit” and “wind.” The word spirit in both Hebrew and Greek means “breath” or “wind.” Both a breath of air and a breeze are appropriate images for the Holy Spirit doing its work in the world.
You remember when God created Adam. He breathed into him the breath of life. In other words, God breathed into him His own Spirit. The point is that the Holy Spirit breathes new life into the believer and gives us the lift we need to witness to the presence of God in the world.
Our lesson for the day from the second chapter of Acts demonstrates the Holy Spirit in action. You know the story well. The day of Pentecost had come. The disciples were all in one place. The King James Version says they were “in one place with one accord.”
I’ll remind you of the old joke about the little boy who told the story of Pentecost and said that when the Holy Spirit came the disciples were all crammed into a Honda. That is because the Bible says they were “all in one Accord.”
I didn’t say it was a good joke, only an old one.
The word “Pentecost” is literally translated, “fiftieth day.” It was originally a Jewish holy day celebrated on the fiftieth day after the Sabbath of the Passover week. It was an annual feast and was one of the three great annual feasts of Israel (Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Booths). The fact that Pentecost was a major festival is indicated by the fact that Jews from all over the Mediterranean region had poured into Jerusalem for the celebration.
On the Day of Pentecost the apostles were also in Jerusalem where they were gathered in a house. We would need Hollywood special effects to do justice to what happened next. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the house, and the Apostles saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. Suddenly they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them. This phenomenon spilled out into the streets and attracted a crowd. Remember, Jews from all over the known world were visiting Jerusalem on that day. Do you suppose that was a coincidence? Hardly. What a wondrous opportunity for disseminating the Gospel all over the known world!
When these visitors heard the sound of the disciples speaking in these different languages, they were bewildered, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans . . . ?”
They were essentially asking, how are these uneducated rednecks speaking in all these languages? Good question. And there is only one explanation–a miracle. Of course, there is more than one way of viewing this miracle.
The highly esteemed poet W. H. Auden once suggested that we reread the second chapter of Acts. The miracle of Pentecost was not only the gift of tongues, says Auden, “but was it not equally,” he asks, “the gift of ears?”
And, of course, he’s right. The miracle here is not only what was said but what was heard. Each heard and understood in his own language.
Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
Some, however, made fun of the disciples and said, “They’ve had too much wine.”
Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel.” Then he began to quote the words of the prophet: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”
Notice, Ladies, that the prophet said that men and women both will prophesy. It is true that in many ways society was strictly male dominated back then, but the Holy Spirit was already breaking down those divisions.
Then Peter began telling the story of Jesus. And when he was finished, the writer of Acts tells us, “those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” And the church, indeed, was born that day. A mighty movement began that would shake the world. Like a Greyhound bus parting the waters for an old station wagon or like a kite bearing a cable above Niagara Falls, the Holy Spirit took a handful of uneducated men from a rural region of an obscure part of the Middle East and started a movement that is still at work more than 2,000 years later preparing the world for the kingdom of God. It’s a wondrous story, but how does it connect with our lives, your life and mine?
Notice, first of all, that Pentecost is a God thing. Most often in life God works through very ordinary processes to bring His will into being. Sometimes He uses people who are specially gifted, but it is rarely very dramatic.
A professor sits at his desk one evening working on the next day’s lectures. His housekeeper has laid that day’s mail and papers at his desk and he begins to shuffle through them discarding most of the mail to the wastebasket.
He then notices a magazine, which was not even addressed to him but delivered to his office by mistake. It falls open to an article titled, “The Needs of the Congo Mission.” Casually he begins to read the article when he is suddenly consumed by these words: “The need is great here. We have no one to work the northern province of Gabon in the central Congo. And it is my prayer as I write this article that God will lay His hand on one–one on whom, already, the Master’s eyes have been cast–that he or she shall be called to this place to help us.”
And Professor Albert Schweitzer closes the magazine and writes in his diary: “My search is over.” He gives himself to the Congo. That little article, hidden in a periodical intended for someone else, is placed by accident in Schweitzer’s mailbox. By chance he notices the title. It leaps out at him. Was it chance? (3)
Well, that depends on your theology. It certainly was not chance that Professor Schweitzer responded to God’s call. It is evident that God had been working on him for some time. And even though Schweitzer’s commitment touched millions of believers around the world, it was a gradual thing. There was nothing very dramatic about it in the beginning.
That’s the way God normally works–through the normal processes of daily living. If you are waiting for something spectacular to happen in your life as a sign that God is calling you, you will probably miss God’s call. That would be a real shame.
At Pentecost, however, God worked in such a way that no open-minded person could doubt that this was a God-breathed event. First there was the wind and the tongues of fire. Then there was the gift of inspired speech.
A Pastor tells of walking through an airport concourse. He saw a display case full of matching yellow boxes, each with the name of a language prominently displayed upon it. At the counter, a traveler could purchase a set of tapes for learning any of a number of the world’s major languages. With these tapes, plus time and persistence, it was possible to become, if not fluent, then at least familiar, with the everyday speech of millions of people.
What’s available for sale at that airport counter came free to the first disciples on the Day of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit of God filled them so that they spoke diverse languages which were recognized by the cosmopolitan crowd which thronged the streets of Jerusalem that day. People in the crowd were bewildered to hear folks from nearby Galilee talking in languages from all around the Mediterranean basin. (4)
The mighty wind, the tongues of fire, the speaking in many different languages all said this is not from man, but from God. However, the best indication this event was from God was the instantaneous change that took place in the disciples, especially Simon Peter. This is the same Peter who was so timid the night the soldiers took Jesus in the garden that he denied he even knew him because he was afraid of being killed also. This is the same Peter who wanted to go back fishing despite being called to be a fisher of men and having been commissioned to go into all the world. And yet, here he is on the Day of Pentecost before this enormous crowd, boldly declaring that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead. And quite miraculously three thousand souls are baptized and added to the church. Wow! Peter could never have done this on his own. Pentecost was definitely a God thing.
Of course, God-things are still happening anywhere people will wait on the gift of God’s spirit and allow God’s spirit to do great things through them. That’s the place of worship in our lives. I hope you don’t come to church as you might come to a museum or a theater, to be fascinated or to be entertained. I hope you come here each week prepared to receive a life-changing encounter with God’s Spirit. I hope you come anticipating a God-thing occurring in your own life.
Author Anthony De Mello tells a story that I think is particularly appropriate for Pentecost. It is about a man who invented the art of making fire. The man took his tools and went to a tribe in the north, where it was very cold, bitterly cold. He taught the people there to make fire. The people were very interested. He showed them the uses to which they could put fire–they could cook, could keep themselves warm, etc.
The people of this tribe were so grateful that they had learned the art of making fire. But before they could express their gratitude to the man, he disappeared. He wasn’t concerned with getting their recognition or gratitude; he was concerned about their well-being. He went to another tribe, where he again began to show them the value of his invention.
People were interested there, too, a bit too interested for the peace of mind of their priests, who began to notice that this man was drawing crowds and they were losing their popularity. So they decided to do away with him. They poisoned him, crucified him, put it any way you like. But they were afraid now that the people might turn against them, so they were very wise, even wily. Do you know what they did?
They had a portrait made of the man and mounted it on the main altar of the temple. The instruments for making fire were placed in front of the portrait, and the people were taught to revere the portrait and to pay reverence to the instruments of fire, which they dutifully did for centuries. The veneration and the worship went on, says Anthony De Mello, but there was no fire. (5)
Of course, his point was that this could be a picture of many churches today. The veneration and the worship go on, but there is no fire. We don’t gather in this place each week to simply pay our respects to the crucified Christ. We gather here in the expectation that we might encounter him in this place and that he might fill us with his Spirit, fill us with his love that we might go forth from this place to do great things in his name. Pentecost is a God-thing. Through the power of the Holy Spirit God worked in a wondrous way to lift the church to a new level of service to the world. On that first Pentecost a new movement began and it continues today. Today it is in our hands. Is the fire still burning? Is the wind of the Spirit still blowing? Are the waters still being parted? The Spirit is still willing to do its part if we are faithful to Christ’s call to make disciples of all people. May Pentecost 2016 be a time when God’s Spirit fills each of us and helps us become what God has called us to become. Amen.
1. (New York: HarperBusiness, 1999), pp. xvii-xx.
2. Rev. Dr. David Sapp, http://day1.org/2754-salvation_by_faith.
3. Harriette Cross, http://aplaceforshalom.blogspot.com/.
5. Awareness (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1992), pp. 174-175.