We celebrate Pentecost, as well we ought to, as the birthday of the church. The moment at which the Holy Spirit came down, indwelling in everyone present, the moment at which the church became more than just individuals in community and began to live and move and have its being as an institution in the world.
We celebrate. We wear red, the color of festival days in the church. In some congregations, this day is celebrated with birthday-like trappings, with balloons and crepe paper, with birthday cake and party hats, with confetti and Silly String. Some of my clerical colleagues have figured out how to use flash paper and make a fire in the baptismal font. You will notice that we’re not trying that here. For which I’m sure that our janitor is grateful.
So today is absolutely a celebration. It also serves as the redemptive conclusion to the story of human overconfidence that led to the Tower of Babel. In the earliest days, all humans spoke one language, and wished to build a tower to the heavens to see God. To protect us from ourselves, God confounded our communications and made it so that all were speaking different languages and no one understood.
And here today, in the reading from the Book of Acts, is the redemptive conclusion. Here, everyone is speaking different languages, and everyone understands. Because the Holy Spirit has changed everything, and whatever happens next, we are all in this together. Buckle up.
Here we have people from all over the known world gathered in one room in Jerusalem. They are in town for a Jewish religious festival, Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks.
Shavuot is held fifty days after the second day of Passover, which itself celebrates the Hebrews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. Shavuot marks the time when, fifty days into their sojourn in the desert, God gave them the law, the Ten Commandments. “This is how you are to live as my people.”
Shavuot is why there were all these Medes and Elamites in town, all these people from Phrygia and from Cappadocia. Shavuot is why there were gathered from all the ends of the Earth all these people speaking all these languages – as they had been since the days of Genesis chapter eleven and the Tower of Babel.
And then the Holy Spirit came in to dwell in everyone – just as Jesus had promised. The Gospel reading from John, in the last hours of Jesus as Teacher with his students, shows us Jesus promising this thing that has come to pass. This is how you are to live as my people, with the law and with the Advocate.
“I am leaving. But once I have left, I will send God in another way to be with you, the Holy Spirit, the Advocate. And this Advocate will be Emmanu-el, this Advocate will be God with you, in you, through you, always, as close and as vital as your very breath.”
Spirit, you see, means breath. In Greek, pneuma, as in pneumatic, as in lungs. In Hebrew, ruach, meaning wind.
Re-spiration, breathing, is air going in and out, over and over. Spire and re-spire. In-spiration is air coming in. The Holy Spirit, the Holy Wind, the Holy Breath, filling us up and dwelling in us, abiding with us, Our Lord Emmanu-el. God with us.
And with the fulfillment of that promise, made very nearly with Jesus’s last breath, the family of God explodes with joy. Oceans roar, hills sing. And we the body of Christ – we celebrate as yet another one of God’s many and extravagant promises comes true.
What was it like?
What was it really like?
Would we really truly have wanted to be in that room when the Spirit blew in? Through the open windows, shredding the curtains, knocking over clay cups, blowing out oil lamps, the hair on everyone’s arms and necks prickling and standing on end, and then whoosh. The Holy Spirit is inhabiting you and me, the hair on our heads ruffling and stirring, our bodies jolted like Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost when the spirit of a departed loved one actually enters her body and speaks through her mouth.
Ask anyone. It’s exciting when the Holy Spirit moves in and sets up housekeeping. Exciting, yes. And also deeply unsettling.
Because I know, and you know, each of us at different places in our lives, have felt the whoosh and the ruffle and the jolt and the sickening roller-coaster swoop that signals that, oh boy, the Spirit is in the house.
And we know. You know and I know and Peter knows and everyone in that room in Jerusalem knows: Life as we thought we knew it is over. Nothing will ever be the same.
All the way back in Genesis 11, the first few steps into our journey with God, we got ahead of ourselves and started to build that tower to see God. To protect us from ourselves, God confounded our communications and made it so that all were speaking different languages and no one understood.
And here today, in the reading from the Book of Acts, is the redemptive conclusion. Here, everyone is speaking different languages, and everyone understands.
On this day, on this Pentecost, on this birthday of the church, everything is the same here at St. Michael, and nothing is the same. The Holy Spirit is blowing through this place and in and through all of us. Can you feel it? In, out. Respire. Inspire. Make way, make room, the Holy Spirit is in the house.
Because the Holy Spirit has changed everything, and whatever happens next, we are all in this together. Buckle up.