“When the Day of Pentecost had come, the apostles were all together in one place.”
That is how Luke begins his 4-verse account of the bestowal of the Holy Spirit. He does not explicitly say why they were all gathered together in one place, but we can assume it is because that is what the Jewish people did on the fiftieth day after Passover. Pentecost, which literally means “fiftieth day” in Greek, was actually the Jewish festival of Shavuot, the commemoration of Moses’ reception of the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai.
According to the time tables given in the Old Testament, the Israelites arrived at Mt. Sinai fifty days after having left Egypt through the Red Sea. They had persevered through the harsh landscape of the desert, escaped the brutal Egyptian army only by the grace of God, and had found themselves camped out at the base of a rather nondescript but yet imposing mountain in order to get further directions from God as to what he wanted them to do and what type of people they were going to be. That was the basic idea behind Moses’ tablets: a definition not only of what they were to do, but also who they were to be. They were but a hapless little community of brick-laying slaves, yet the law would give them clear identity and purpose. It was an instance of divine grace. The Israelites knew they had done absolutely nothing to receive these gracious laws and commands, but having them—and living them—would set them apart from the rest of the world.
As it happened, in Jesus’ day, the festival of Pentecost, or Shavuot, was one of the three main pilgrimage holidays whereby families would gather themselves together and take a trip to Jerusalem. I suppose you may think of it like Thanksgiving, except everyone who had the resources to make the trip was descending upon the same place, and things in Jerusalem could get a little rowdy. So, in a way, I guess it was like Spring Break. Thanksgiving and Spring Break, rolled into one, all on the occasion to celebrate God’s gracious outpouring of his law.
So, it is in this context—in a Jerusalem filled with pilgrims from all over the known world—that we find the disciples of Jesus gathered together in one place. Little did they know that as they would gather—as, in fact, as their risen Lord had directed them to—God would once more miraculously pour out his grace yet again, showing them what God wants them to do and what kind of people they are to be.
This time, however, God would really not hold back. The very bond of love and power that had radiated between the Father and the Son from the beginning of creation would be issued down upon the believers not like stone tablets, but like a mighty rushing wind. The very entity that had given life and shape to the Father’s relationship with the Son would be sent to dwell among human beings. Here, at Pentecost, when most of the people around the city would be remembering the day when Moses came down the mountain with his face glowing like fire because he had been in God’s presence, God would shower tongues of fire to light up the faces of all believers.
So, then, what does Pentecost for those apostles turn out to be? It turns out to be about receiving God’s grace, once more, in the form of God’s own Spirit. It is about receiving a new law, but this time one that is written upon people’s hearts and that is how they are set apart from the rest of the world. Pentecost is about the formation of a new movement, a new pilgrimage of faith that will take the message of Jesus and his resurrection not to the city of God, but in the other direction—to the ends of the earth. All types and groups of people will be drawn in to know what it means to know that Jesus is risen: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, and all those other far off places that are difficult to pronounce. We may as well add residents of the West End and Glen Allen, and parts of Richmond technically belonging to Chesterfield County. All of these diverse, different peoples are brought into the family of the Spirit known as the Church. Just as Jesus, in his resurrection, has declared victory over sin, death, and all that separates creation from God, the Spirit, in its outpouring, has put an exclamation point on that victory by drawing people into this movement and giving them the power to share the good news.
This is what Pentecost now celebrates, for those who follow the Lord. This is what the Holy Spirit does. It gathers. It unites. It calls together. It breaks down barriers. It helps embody forgiveness and selfless love among people of all kinds. And just like the Spirit gathered an unsuspecting community of disciples that first Pentecost in Jerusalem, the Spirit is still doing that today.
I ask you this: where else will you find a gathering this multi-generational, this demographically diverse, this…well, let’s be honest…random, on a regular basis? Where else will you find such an otherwise disconnected group of people coming together, week after week, to learn and speak together a new language of love, no less? In this place, and in others like it throughout the world, we share our hopes for our children, our desires for a better world, our prayers for healing and wholeness. Look around you. The church of Christ—this peculiar movement that is 2000 years old and going strong—is the only place where this type of interaction happens, and it is the Spirit who enables it.
In his recent article entitled, “Reasons to Join: In Defense of Organized Religion,” Episcopal priest Garret Keizer remarks, “If I were asked to say in one sentence what was the chief benefit of all my years in church, I might say that it forced me to hang out with people I’d not otherwise have met" (The Christian Century, April 22, 2008, p 30). In a culture that continues to glorify personal preference and idolize the power of the individual, the Holy Spirit draw us back in to each other, forming a community that transcends time and space. In societies that are hell-bent on breaking us apart into groups and getting us to concentrate on our differences, the Holy Spirit speaks to us the word about Jesus, reminding us that in baptism we are all made children of God, “and if children,” the apostle Paul says, “then God’s own heirs.” That is the type of people we are to be—God’s own heirs. Can you imagine it?—and the types of things we are supposed to do will flow naturally from this new identity.
In fact, in this movement we are so renewed by Christ’s grace we will be empowered to go do things for and in the world that, left completely to ourselves and our own desires, we would never normally do: deeds of service and selflessness that will set us apart in their very extravagance. We are so transformed by the words and language we hear here—so free, Paul says, from our old spirit of slavery to sin—that the world will at times think we’re drunk, that we must be out of our minds.
Earlier this week I was at a conference in the Rocky Mountains, invited to be a part of a conversation with other pastors and lay leaders about the future of the church, especially when it comes to Christian education, confirmation ministry, and equipping people to live the faith in their homes. It was a stimulating discussion. We talked about the challenges and the strengths of youth and family ministry, and shared each of our congregation’s best practices. We lamented the statistics that show an appallingly low percentage of Lutheran youth—15 percent—remain active in this movement called the church as they become adults. We wondered allowed about what might be behind that statistic, what trends it might portend, and how it might be changed. We considered a future where this movement includes, for whatever reason, fewer and fewer young people sharing their gifts to be the community of God’s own heirs.
“When the day of Pentecost had come, the apostles were all together in one place.” No, Luke does not tell us explicitly why we are all gathered in one place, but, deep down, we know. It is to breathe. To celebrate God’s grace and to breathe together the Spirit. To breathe together the Spirit and begin the adjustment to a new altitude, a new attitude, a new kingdom that is rapidly approaching and claims us all in the love of Christ.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.