Together apart

“When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place.”

Well, isn’t that special? It sure seems special to us, who have not been all together in one place for 11 weeks now.

How we would love to be gathered all together in one place, cheek by jowl, hugging and laughing, drinking coffee and munching breakfast sweets, singing and clapping and shouting and smiling and crying and carrying on in ways we might get away only with in church. How we would love to be able to do those things again!

One day – perhaps sooner than we think, most likely far later than we would want – we will be able to be all together again in once place. So the big question is this: When next we gather, will the Holy Spirit fall on us the way it did on this crowd of Jesus followers on that first Pentecost long ago?

Will the Spirit fall on us, and will we be enthusiastic witnesses to the world that Christ is risen, Christ is king and Christ reigns over all things and someday will return to wrap up his rescue mission and restore all things to their original goodness?

What will it look like for us to be a Spirit-filled church when we come back together in the shadow of this deadly virus?

Before we go there, let’s talk about Pentecost. I’ll be making 10 points, and because I can’t put them on a screen for you, I’ll number the subtitles so you can keep track.

1. Pentecost is an ancient holy day for both Jews and Christians.

Then as now, the day is known among Jews as Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks. It comes on the 50th day after Passover. It’s called the Feast of Weeks because it comes seven weeks after Passover – a week of weeks, get it? Christians call it by its Greek name, Pentecost.

Shavuot celebrates completion of the grain harvest started at Passover. It’s also a celebration of the giving of the Torah, God’s instruction to Israel, at Mount Sinai. At the time of our story, it is the second most important religious celebration in Judaism, second only to Passover, and Jerusalem is crowded with pilgrims from around the world.

Pentecost is the earliest known Christian holiday. The Apostle Paul mentions it in his first letter to the church at Corinth (1 Cor 16.8). That was written only 20 years after the death of Jesus, so Christians must have celebrated Pentecost almost from the start.

2. Today, Pentecost is the least celebrated of Christian holy days.

That is partly because of its nature. We have seasons of preparation for both Christmas and Easter, our two other big holidays, but there is no time of preparation leading up to Pentecost. It just happens. One week, we are talking about the Ascension of Jesus, and the next week – bang! – hey, it’s Pentecost!

But, of course, that’s how it happened to the first followers of Jesus, too. Jesus told them that something big was coming, but it still came a surprise.

There’s another reason that we fail to celebrate Pentecost more fully. We lack a robust sense of what it’s all about. As much as we do or don’t talk about the Holy Spirit, the Spirit remains a mystery to many of us. Sometimes, when we talk about Father, Son and Holy Ghost, the Spirit might as well be a ghost.

3. Pentecost is the birthday of the church.

It’s often said that Pentecost celebrates the birth of the church. The book of Acts tells us that at 9 that morning, there are 120 followers of Jesus (Acts 1:15), and by nightfall, there are more than 3,000 (Acts 2:41). Talk about church growth!

All members of the church for the first several years are Jews, but a wave of persecution centered in Jerusalem forces believers to flee in all directions, and they take their faith with them. One of the early persecutors, Saul of Tarsus, flips sides. Known by the Greek form of his name, Paul, he becomes the premiere Christian apostle to non-Jews throughout the Roman Empire.

4. Pentecost is the promise of the ages.

The outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost was dreamed of for centuries. Numbers 11 tells us that when Moses is old and tired, God’s Spirit burns in him so brightly that the fire threatens to burn him out, so God decides to divide some of the Spirit that rests on him among 70 elders of the people.

But God’s Spirit sort of slops over onto two others, too, named Eldad and Medad. Someone complains to Moses: “God’s Spirit has fallen on the wrong people!”

And Moses says, “I wish God’s Spirit would fall on all of God’s people.”

Later, other prophets are assured that it will happen. God promises Ezekiel that Israel will be renewed. “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you,” God says (Ezekiel 36:26). God also tells Joel: “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (Joel 2:28).

John the Baptizer sees it coming, too. While dunking people in the Jordan River, he announces, “I baptize you with water, but the one coming after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3.11, Luke 3.16).

5. Pentecost is the promise of Jesus.

Jesus tells his disciples: “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5)

“I will not leave you orphaned,” he assures them (John 14:18). I will ask the Father and he will send you the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, your Helper, Counselor and Companion, who will remind you of everything I’ve told you and teach you everything (John 14:15-26).

6. Pentecost is the promise of the future.

The coming of the Spirit is a guarantee, Paul tells us. It’s like a deposit or down payment toward God’s promise. It’s an assurance that we belong to the Lord. It’s the seal of God that marks us forever as God’s own and not followers of Satan (2 Corinthians 5.5, Ephesians 1.13, Revelation 7:3, 14:9).

7. Pentecost is about overcoming barriers.

With the rush of a mighty wind and individual flames of fire, the Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples in such a powerful way that language barriers fall. Somehow they can speak directly to those who are gathered for the Feast of Weeks from many nations around the world. No wonder everyone is amazed.

At the least, this is a powerful metaphor for the way the good news of Jesus can speak to people from anywhere, whatever their language or national origin or cultural background. The gospel knows no barriers.

The barriers we have erected, to God and to one another, have to come down.

As a deadly virus continues to spread among us, we also are suffering in the wake of yet another murder of a black man by a white police officer. Regrettably, riots have erupted in several cities. As a nation, we must find a way to stop this vicious cycle of institutional violence and outraged response.

This has to be more than individual pledges to renounce racism. It has to be a social effort, something we engage in as a people. It would surely be the greatest national undertaking of our lifetime, something that would make ours the “greatest generation.”

It will take a powerful movement of the Spirit to make it happen. We pray for that today.

8. Pentecost is about the coming of the Holy Spirit.

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” Jesus tells his followers (Acts 1.8).

There’s a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and something like tongues of fire appear among them. The sound of wind is easy for us to understand. We live in Kansas, after all. But those tongues of fire are harder to imagine. Most efforts to illustrate them verge on the cartoonish.

When you look through a gallery of art portraying the event, as we did earlier, you may notice that the more stylized or abstract the depiction is, the more convincing it actually is, and the more woodenly literal the depiction, the less convincing it is.

We can’t quite imagine what it would have been like. Luke, who wasn’t there, can’t quite imagine it either, so his language is stilted and tentative. Maybe he couldn’t have done much better even if he had been there. It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words. I’m not sure how many thousand words it would take to produce a clear picture of this event. Maybe, like the speaking in different languages, it’s a wonder beyond explanation.

Something happened. We know that much. Something happened, and these 120 Jesus followers were not the same as they were before.

9. The Holy Spirit is alive and well in us.

The primary mission of the Holy Spirit is to make you more like Jesus, which is to say, more the person God created you to be. In this way, the Spirit works for the restoration of God’s good creation, one person at a time.

“Be filled with the Spirit,” Ephesians 5:18 tells us. How we demonstrate that we are depends a lot on which faith tradition we follow. Some stress outward signs, such as speaking in tongues. Others suggest that we look at the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5.

I think the most important sign of the Spirit, the true seal of the Spirit on our lives, is loving action. Without it, Paul tells us, everything we do is just random noise, like a noisy gong or a clashing cymbal (1 Corinthians 13.1).

Every act we make, every decision we make, is either loving or it is not. We can disagree on whether a certain action is the best loving choice, but love remains the gold standard that we use to evaluate everything.

10. We remain apart, but we are still together.

“We are one in the Spirit,” the song says.

That’s what keeps us connected as a church. I have tried to provide regular updates by email and postal service, plus an online presence every Sunday morning – hardly a full-fledged worship service, but at least some prayer time and a message – plus online communion and most recently Zoom Coffee, and occasional phone calls and notes or cards.

These efforts try to overcome the barriers of distance between us. But what really keeps us together is the presence of the Holy Spirit. Without that presence, nothing I or anyone else could do would keep us connected in the ways we need and want to be connected.

Because of the presence of the Holy Spirit, none of us is alone. Each of us is connected with all others, through the Holy Spirit. Yes, the Spirit works mysteriously. We know the Spirit is there when we are physically present to one another. We also have experienced the reality that the Spirit works when we are not physically present to one another – when we are present only digitally, through a computer or telephone link.

If the Spirit lives and works in us, we are one when separate as much as we are one when together. That won’t change when we come back together physically. But it does raise the question: How will we be different?

Things will not be the same as they once were. As it is said, too much water has flowed under the bridge. How will we have grown in the Spirit because of our experience of being apart? How can we share that with others? How can we say, “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us”?

This message was delivered online on Pentecost Sunday, May 31, 2020, for Edgerton United Methodist Church, from Acts 2:1-21.

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