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Pyrotechnic Pentecost

San Williams

June 8, 2014
Acts 2:1-21

This is the time of year when the summer blockbusters start arriving in the movie theaters, action thrillers, such as Edge of Tomorrow. These summer blockbusters have similar elements:  lots of explosions, crashing building, loud music, and dramatic action.  This genre of movie may or may not be to your liking, but Luke’s version of the coming of the Holy Spirit sounds and feels a lot like a summer blockbuster movie.  He tells the Pentecost story in as noisy, boisterous, and flamboyant a style as you can imagine—violent winds, leaping flames, babbling tongues, noisy crowds, people sneering and jeering, Peter shouting, images of blood, fire, and smoke.   Welcome to Luke’s summer blockbuster!

Of course, not all of us are drawn to noisy, highly dramatic blockbusters, whether in movie houses or scripture.  In fact, many of us may prefer the way John depicts the coming of the Holy Spirit in his Gospel.  Like Luke, John proclaims the gift of the Spirit to the church.  But John tells the story in a quieter, less boisterous way. In john, Jesus promises to send his followers an advocate, a comforter, a helper.  Accordingly, after his death, the risen Jesus quietly enters the room where the disciples are huddled, and he greets them, saying:  “Do not be afraid” and “Peace be with you.”  Then he breathes the Spirit on them.  We can almost hear the disciples singing softly, “Breathe on me, breath of God.  Fill me with life anew, that I may love what thou dost love, and do what thou wouldst do.” 

I’ve heard the Holy Spirit described as a gentleman who only comes when invited. We Presbyterians like to think of the Holy Spirit as a bit reserved, mannerly and courteous.   And truthfully, most of us, most of the time, experience the presence of God’s Spirit in subtle, quiet, reassuring ways.  

But there’s nothing quiet or subtle in Luke’s account. Like the director of a summer action movie, Luke employs an array of special effects—clanging noise, tongues of fire.  He uses full stereophonic sound—rushing winds, a cacophony of languages.  He brings in an unwieldy cast of characters—the disciples, of course, but also Jews from every nation, a few disruptive ruffians, and Peter shouting out words from the prophet Joel—apocalyptic words about the moon turning to blood, a darkened sun, fire, smoke.  Luke’s pyrotechnics may offend our sensibilities, but he surely gets our attention.

Look, we don’t really know, and will never know, exactly what happened at Pentecost.  But what’s more important for us to know is why Luke tells the story as he does.  For one thing, there’s no doubt that Luke wants his readers to connect the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost to the epic sweep of the biblical story, beginning with creation.  Luke opens the story of Pentecost with the eruption of sounds from heaven, and of wind, which description takes us back to the first chapter of Genesis.  On the very first morning of all mornings, the Spirit, the breath of God, swept across dark waters.  Well, Luke is telling us, the wind of creation is once again bringing something new to life.

Moreover, Luke locates the event in the Jewish festival of Pentecost, which was associated with the giving of the Law to Moses at Sinai.  Luke expects us to connect the dots:  the God of Sinai and the Law is acting again.

Then, when Luke tells of the diverse people from many nations who hear and understand in their own languages, we flash back to the biblical account of the tower of Babel in Genesis.  Recall how Babel is associated with the confusion, strife, and enmity that keep people apart and at odds.  Now, Luke declares, the Spirit of Christ has come as a power of reconciliation, to draw diverse people together in understanding and peace. 

Finally, Luke brings his narrative to a soaring conclusion by connecting the outpouring of the Hoy Spirit to Israel’s prophetic hope for a New Creation.  These are the days envisioned by the prophet Joel, Peter shouts, the days when young and old, men and women, begin to dream and see visions about a world that can be transformed into a Kingdom of peace and justice.  Even should the sky turn dark and the moon drip blood, the great and glorious day of the Lord will prevail and liberate the creation from all its groaning.  Yes, Luke intentionally paints a picture of Pentecost as one scene in the ongoing biblical story, one that stretches from Creation to God’s promised New Creation. 

So even if blockbusters aren’t your favorite book or movie genre, let’s give Luke a five-star rating.  He’s succeeded in communicating to his audience that the gift of God’s Spirit is a momentous, history-transforming event.  Some events are so significant that what may have been heard in a still, small voice has to be shouted from the rooftops.  What may have been experienced in black and white must be projected in bold Technicolor.  Clearly, Luke wants his readers to be jolted into the awareness that the Spirit, the breath, the presence of God which was incarnate in Jesus, has not abandoned us.  Jesus had promised his disciples that he would be with them always, and through the gift of his Spirit, Jesus has kept his promise.

Friends, your experience of the Holy Spirit, like mine, may be mostly in the form of quiet encouragement and gentle guidance.  But whatever the form, God is pouring out his Spirit upon us.  If we listen carefully we can hear the sound of it whispered in hospital rooms, or as a kind word spoken to a stranger, or a word of forgiveness uttered to a friend.  Open your eyes and you will see the Spirit in the faces and deeds of a congregation seeking to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.  Open your hearts and the Spirit will fill them with God’s love.