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Acts 2.1-21 & John 15.26-27, 16.4b-15

On this Pentecost Sunday, I want to offer a few images that I believe illustrate the meaning of Pentecost, stories that remind us of the purpose and work of the Holy Spirit. Allow me to begin by once again recalling a seminal event in my life, a mission trip to Nicaragua during my senior year in college. One night, when we North Carolina college students were participating in local church services in a very poor barrio of Managua, I had the opportunity to strike up a conversation with a local high school student. It was challenging. I knew only a little Spanish. He knew only a little English. But, somehow, using broken English, broken Spanish and a lot of hand signs we communicated. We talked about education and about our faith. I specifically remember his hopes to be able to continue his high school studies, something most young people couldn’t do because the country couldn’t afford to provide everyone with a full high school education. We did not just communicate, we connected. We did not connect because of language or culture; indeed, we connected in spite of great differences in both. I believe that we connected because of two essential things which transcend culture and language. We connected because of our shared humanity and because of our shared faith in Christ. Neither of us had to give up our language our culture to connect with the other. Instead, by God’s grace, we were made one in Christ with all of our differences.

That’s Pentecost.

During the Feast of Booths, Shavuot—a harvest festival which had come to be associated with God’s gracious gift of the Law to the Children of Israel at Mt. Sinai—Jews from all over the Roman Empire and the Ancient Near East had gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate. The Holy Spirit, promised to the disciples by Jesus at his Ascension, descended upon the gathered disciple and gave them the ability to speak in foreign languages. They went out and begin to proclaim the Good News about Jesus to the crowds. Everyone heard in their own language and they were rightly amazed. Perhaps we have heard this story so often that we are no longer amazed. We should recall how much differences of language can separate us, how frequently those differences can lead to conflict and controversy in human relations. And yet, those differences in language are no barrier to God. As we see in the story of that first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit works to overcome the separation and draw us together across our differences. It is the good news of what God has done in Christ which unties people—Parthians and Phrygians and Egyptians; Nicaraguans and Americans—across the differences of language.

But the Spirit’s work doesn’t stop at transcending barriers of language. Those who heard the disciples’ message on that first Pentecost were all Jews, but they came from different places and no doubt came from different cultures and had different customs. Perhaps there was some rivalry among them. One can certainly imagine Jews from Alexandria, a great center of learning, thinking themselves intellectually or theologically superior; or Jews from Jerusalem, the very center of the faith and the location of the Temple, thinking themselves somehow better than those peasants from Galilee or more connected to and serious about their faith than Jews from the far reaches of distant Parthia.

Separation within a religion persists to this day. There is an ecumenical community in Northern Ireland named Corrymeela which was founded to address such a problem.  The Rev. Ray Davey and students at Belfast’s Queens University were concerned by the sectarian tensions and violence between pro-British Protestants (Unionists) and pro-independence Catholics (Republicans). So, in 1965 in the coastal town of Ballycastle, they established the Corrymeela Community as a place where folks from both sides of that deep divide in Northern Irish society could come together and learn about each other. A place where peace might become possible through familiarity.

In 2015, the American scholar, John Appleby from Notre Dame, was invited to Queens University to speak on the role of faith-based activism in addressing the division and violence in Northern Ireland. In his lecture, he told of an encounter with a taxi driver who was taking him to the airport at the conclusion of his first visit to Northern Ireland back in 1990. He learned that the driver was from Shankill Road in West Belfast. During the Troubles, Shankill Road was a hotbed of Protestant Unionist militancy. The Ulster Volunteer Force, a violent loyalist paramilitary responsible for multiple deadly attacks on Catholics, was founded there in the mid-1960s.

With the naivety that only an American could get away with, [Appleby] asked the taxi driver if he had ever joined the paramilitaries.

The taxi driver told him, “No,” but that his brothers had. Appleby pressed further, and asked why he hadn’t.

“Well,” the taxi driver told him. “When I was young my mother sent me to Corrymeela. I made friends with Catholics. And after that, it didn’t make sense to fight them.” [“The Taxi Driver Who Went to Corrymeela,”; quoted in Pamela S. Saturnia, “Easter Day/Resurrection of the Lord—Acts 10.34-43: Commentary 2: Connecting the Reading with the World,” Connections, Year B, Volume 2, pp. 188-189]

This too is Pentecost.

The Holy Spirit works to break down the barriers of culture that divide us, to overcome the political and social conflicts that push us into opposing, mutually antagonistic camps, to end the violence which destroys community. Though the Holy Spirit, Jews from across the ancient world and Irish Christians of opposing denominations are reunited as God’s people.

Of course, the Spirit doesn’t stop with intramural harmony. The story of the early church told in Acts is about the disciples fulfilling Jesus’ commission to be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” [Acts 1.8], by proclaiming “repentance and forgiveness of sins…in [Jesus’] name to all nations.” [Luke 24.47] Thus, as Acts progresses, the mission grows wider and takes in more and more diverse people. The most significant ethnic boundary for Jesus’ original first century disciples, the division between Jews and Gentiles, must be crossed. And through the labors of Paul and other missionaries, it will be crossed and the Gentiles will be brought into the fellowship of God’s people untied by faith in Jesus. But despite Paul’s prominent role in Acts, he is not the central character. The Holy Spirit is the central character. As Willie James Jennings points out, this gathering in of the Gentiles is the Holy Spirit’s doing; Paul simply “yields to the Spirit;” he follows the Spirit’s lead and barriers fall. [Jennings, Acts, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, p. 1-2 (Spirit as central character), p. 11 (Paul yields to Spiirt)]  

This past week I participated in the Festival of Homiletics via livestream. At the end of one worship service something occurred that caught my attention and moved my heart. The service concluded with a Reaffirmation of Baptismal Vows. At the conclusion of the traditional baptismal prayer, everyone was invited to come forward and dip their hand in the baptismal font as a way of remembering their baptism. As a hymn began, the preacher, Rev. Jacqueline Lewis, and the worship leader (liturgist), Rev. Donna Giver-Johnston came down together and a beautiful thing happened. Lewis, who is black, and Giver-Johnston, who is white, joined hands as they descended from the chancel. At the font, Lewis dipped her hand in the water and then made the sign of the cross on Giver-Johnston’s forehead, reminding her that she was a beloved child of God. Then Giver-Johnston did the same for Lewis. It was a visible sign, apparently completely spontaneous, of the two women’s unity as baptized disciples of Jesus.

This is also Pentecost.

The Spirit overcomes our racial divisions, the fear and distrust between us, and unites us as the people of God. As Paul observed, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” [Gal 3.28] I recall that Martin Neimöller, the German pastor, once declared, with a group of SS soldiers standing in the back of the church, “There are no stormtroopers in Heaven.” Let me be bold and update Neimöller: There are no white supremacists in Heaven. There are no white Christian nationalists in Heaven. Oh, folks who hold such prejudiced views may well make it to heaven; I hope and pray that they do. But they will not be able to carry those biased, exclusive world views with them, because God made all people—of every race and ethnicity and nation—in God’s own image and Christ became incarnate and lived, died and was resurrected for all of them. In heaven, as John of Patmos saw, the Holy Spirit is assembling a great multitude from “every nation, tribe, people and language” who are united together as the people of God. [Rev. 7.9, see also Rev. 5.9]

A final story, one I share a couple weeks back.  At the United Methodist Church’s General Conference which concluded May 3rd the delegates voted to affirm LGBTQ clergy and allow for same-sex weddings (though clergy and congregations are not required to perform them), as well as several other changes that make the denomination more welcoming of queer folks. Despite the controversial nature of these decisions, there was a surprising—and refreshing—commitment to unity and love even as folks disagreed, often strongly, with one another.  

Tracy Smith Malone, chair of the Council of Bishops and a supporter of the changes, acknowledged the disagreement. But calling for unity in the midst of diversity, she quoted Methodist founder John Wesley: “Although we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?”

Rev. John Stephens, a pastor in Houston, who did not agree with the changes, also spoke for unity with his brothers and sisters in Christ. He said, “I think that we can live together as the church. We can be in unity together. We can be in mission together, even though there are going to be…other things that we will disagree on [in addition to these decisions].” [Jason DeRose, “United Methodist Church lifts bans on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex weddings,” heard on All Things Considered, May 4, 2024, 5:54 p.m.;]

This too is Pentecost.

The work of the Holy Spirit to unite people across differences is perhaps, by now, an obvious example of Pentecost. But I want to be bold again and suggest a second work of the Spirit in the UMC’s decisions. In our reading from John, Jesus tells the disciples that there are other things he needs to say to them but they aren’t ready to hear them yet: “I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” Thus, it will be the work of the Spirit to speak those things and enlighten the disciples to new dimensions of truth so they can continue in the way of Jesus: “the Spirit of truth...will guide [them] into all the truth.” [John 15.12-13] Surely, one of those things they couldn’t yet bear was the inclusion of Gentiles in the community of faith. That was a long and bitterly contested struggle that takes up a good portion of Luke’s narrative in Acts. Pentecost involves the opening of minds to receive wisdom and truth, as well as the pouring out of God’s love into hearts [Rom 5.5], so that Christ’s work can be continued.

Lance Pape observes, “The text [of John 16] anticipates a future moment in which the believing community will be in a new situation that will enable and demand new words. The role of the Spirit will be to speak that future truth…. to interpret new situations and to speak afresh into those new situations in ways that are consistent with the identity and mission of Jesus.” [Pape, “Day of Pentecost—John15.26-27; 16 4b-15: Commentary 1: Connecting the Reading with Scripture,” Connections, Year B, Vol. 2, p. 325]

I believe that the United Methodist Church’s decision to be more inclusive of gay, lesbian and transgendered people is reflective of the Holy Spirit speaking a new word, one that is faithful to Jesus while addressing a new situation. The Spirit is expanding once again the scope of the church, the membership in the people of God, just as the Spirit did with the inclusion of Gentiles, and, centuries later, with the rejection of slavery, the affirmation of equality for African-Americans, and the overturing of South African apartheid. And just as the Holy Spirit continues to do by encouraging the inclusion of women in the pulpit and other leadership roles within the church.

I am reminded of some lines from the hymn “Once to Every Man and Nation.” The hymn is an adaptation by James Russell Lowell of his poem “The Present Crisis,” which was written in 1845 as an expression of Lowell’s opposition to slavery and the looming Mexican-American War (which was in part about the expansion of slavery into Texas). The hymn’s second verse concludes with these words: “New occasions teach new duties, / Time makes ancient good uncouth; / They must upward still and onward, / Who would keep abreast of truth.” [#399 in the Evangelical and Reformed Hymnal, © 1941, reprinted 1985; see #634 in the Chalice Hymnal, “To Us All, to Every Nation”] We must follow the Spirit of Truth as she leads us upwards out of the valley of ignorance, prejudice, fear and violence, upwards toward new visions of God’s Beloved Community, teaching us new dimensions of truth so we can respond faithful to the new occasions that arise and challenge our old assumptions and ways, inspiring us with love and creativity so that we can meet our present crisis, whatever it may be, in the spirit of Jesus.

This tearing down of the walls that separate us [Eph 2.14], this widening of the circle to welcome more and more people into the fellowship of Jesus, is a challenging and ongoing work, often marked by sincere disagreements and painfully slow upward progress, but I believe it is an essential work which is consistent with the ministry of the One who ate with outcasts and welcomed tax collectors, sinners, Samaritans and even Gentiles like us into God’s kingdom.

 Pentecost is the birthday of the church, the inauguration of this international, multi-cultural, multi-lingual fellowship of the people of God. But in a very real sense, Pentecost is an ongoing event. The Holy Spirit still comes to us: calling, cajoling, pushing, goading us into continuing the work of Jesus. The Spirit still comes pressing us to reach out to those whom we would never dream of associating with, to welcome those we would rather ignore. [Jennings, Acts, p. 11] The Spirit still comes to fill us with God’s love and transform us by God’s grace so that we might truly be children of God. The Spirit still comes speaking words of wisdom, new words of truth to carry the church forward into a new time. The Spirit still comes inviting us to follow Jesus into God’s future. May our ears, and minds and hearts be open so that we might discern the Spirit’s leading, be emboldened to follow, and empowered to be Jesus’ witnesses. Amen.