Today is the festival of Pentecost and for the first time since all of this started I am finding myself slightly relieved to be preaching to a camera rather than to a full house of people. Pentecost is a festival that calls forth the stagecraft and the showmanship of pastors and worship committees.
Many years ago I was in a choir that processed into our sanctuary on Pentecost waving banners that had these ribbon things in red and orange to a hand drum beat as we processed down the aisle. I have been part of a choir when rubbing alcohol was ignited in a dish and as the choir sang our anthem we stood aside to reveal the flame leaping up behind us. I have recruited volunteers to speak in multiple languages that Acts reading that we just heard. The reader began reading it in our translation and someone popped up and started reading it in koine Greek and someone else popped up and continued in Chinese and in French and in German and in Spanish until there is a cacophony of languages happening in the sanctuary.
Peter stands up and says no these are not drunk as you imagine, but this is the fulfillment of the prophecy that you have heard.
Capturing this moment and trying to replicate some measure of its power is a very difficult thing to do. There are times when stagecraft works very well in church. The imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, the washing of the feet and the stripping of the altar on Maundy Thursday as Christ is taken into captivity, the veneration of the cross on Good Friday and the way you will see people touching or kissing the feet of an effigy of Jesus crucified for them: these are very powerful moments. Even Easter Sunday, a moment in the scriptures that is very hushed and ambiguous, in our festival becomes this glorious moment with with trumpets and banners and hymns.
And yet in Pentecost I have never seen it work. All of these attempts to work worshippers into a kind of codependent emotional frenzy have never succeeded in my sight. It points, I think, to the limits of imitation. Two thousand years later we are here in our pews and in our buildings and in the expectations of worship that have grown up over many centuries. This is who we are, for better and for worse, and there is no imitation of the appearance of the Holy Spirit that can simply change it.
The Holy Spirit comes on Pentecost not as a show to be repeated but as a hinge in the year of the church. Since the beginning of advent we have been in the time of the church year that is focused on the coming of the Christ, his revelation to the nations, his death and resurrection. And in the six months that follow we are in the time of the year focused on the church and on Christ's words to his followers, in which we are to grow and be built up.
And that day of pentecost 2000 years ago was a hinge in history. Until his coming all of Creation had been waiting for the revealing of the Christ, and after his life, death, and resurrection, the coming of the Holy Spirit inaugurates this new and last of all the ages. The age in which the Holy Spirit will guide the unfolding of history through the community of the church as its witness.
And as that event happens the Holy Spirit does not descend into a spiritually vacant world. The people on Pentecost are not empty vessels waiting to be filled by a new spiritual power. Instead, the people at Pentecost and in the world around them would have known human life and the whole world to be filled with all kinds of spiritual powers and influences. Whether it was stars in the heavens, whether it was a demonic or angelic forces around us, powers that penetrated human life, that shaped our character, our behavior, our destiny, the world was full of spirits.
It's into this world that the Holy Spirit comes to do battle, to claim territory from the other spirits that are at large.
Today people might not might not speak in those terms of spirits and spiritual powers as much. Today we might describe the same phenomena as “ideologies” or as “historical forces” that build up over lifetimes, over generations, that shape our understanding, our actions and reactions in ways that we are not even aware of.
The classic instance is racism. Racism is not a personal failing or a personal vice but a deeply embedded way of seeing the world that started so long ago and that continues on such a level that that most of us are not even aware that it is working through us--in the ways that we assume who is in charge in the world, who must bear with suffering, and who may demand rectification. Another kind of spiritual power is group psychology: the way a group of people, whether they represent the civil authority or another group can be almost as if seized by an impulse to violence or destruction that no one person by themselves would necessarily choose, but the spirit of the moment overtakes them.
This might be a more familiar way to describe the world now. But in either case the coming of the Holy Spirit is God's extension into a world that is full of invisible forces that shape human life. It is God's claim to shape human life in a new way.
And so we see in Paul's letter to the Corinthians today: You were pagans once, and when you were, you were led astray by idols. These idols are works of human hands that human beings fill up with our own words, and then we all pretend to believe that the idol is the one speaking to us. And you, people of Corinth--gentile people in a city built by Roman imperialism--you are empowered to say that Jesus of Nazareth--a non-citizen crucified Jewish God-man from Palestine--is lord of the world and of your life only by the Holy Spirit. Only the Spirit could give you the power to believe that and to confess it.
And as it was 2 000 years ago, so it is now: not a moment to attempt to work ourselves up into a state of spiritual excitement, because it doesn't matter that I have never spontaneously spoken in a language i did not know, and it does not matter that perhaps none of us have seen tongues of flame descend upon anyone, and it doesn't matter that no mighty wind has pushed us out of our homes or out of this building into the streets to speak to pilgrims in every language under the sun.
What matters is that the Holy Spirit today, as it was then, is the power of God to make the impossible possible. And it is the power of God to do the unexpected. And so in a world that is so crammed with evil spirits, with demanding ideologies, with all of the pathologies of group behavior, with all of the curses of history; in a world that suddenly seems so fragile; a world where so much that we have taken for granted, good and bad, where so much that we assumed would be permanent appears to be up for grabs; it is the work of the Holy Spirit in us to believe the impossible in us and to expect and to claim the unexpected for the world. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to believe that there may be justice in a way we have not known it; that there may be love and the human acceptance of one for the other that we have only fleetingly seen; that there may be healing and peace not as the absence of conflict but as the true recognition of our mutual humanity; that all of this may be worked and will be worked by the Holy Spirit in us and thr ough us for the whole world. Amen. Amen.