With thanks to my friend and colleague, Rev. Karon Cook, for the line “Some said it was the wine, others said it was the Spirit”, from an unpublished sermon.
Something happens in Jerusalem at Pentecost. Something so exhilarating, so powerful, even Wall Street, K Street and Madison Avenue have yet to figure out how to sell it, brand it, or monetize it. In a single day, 120 followers of Jesus grew into a community 3000 strong; people glad and generous, praising God, and increasing in number daily. Now that, my friends, is church growth.
Apparently, the eleven apostles have settled into a secluded, quiet, orderly life centered in prayer. And then, God’s Spirit blows through the door of the small room where they are gathered, blows them out into the street, dances like tongues of fire upon their heads, and fills their mouths with words in languages they didn’t even know how to speak. And people understood them!
What happened that day was so outrageous, that some would say “Jesus’ people are drunk!”
The Pentecost miracle takes place out in the open, in the marketplace, in public. Peter, not always the disciple who did or said the right thing at the right time, finds his voice. “Not true! Not drunk!” For Peter realizes that this is the day the prophet Joel anticipated. This is the day of the Spirit’s descent. “Remember” Peter says. “Our sons and daughter will prophesy! The young will see visions! The old will dream dreams! And anyone who asks for the Spirit’s help will be saved.”
Pentecost: something so explosive happens that it fills the little band of apostles with impetus and courage, with passion and power, with liveliness and vigor to become the church. Not the institution, not the building; rather the living, breathing, on fire body of Christ let loose in the world as joy and gladness. And you know what? Some say it is the wine. Others say it is the Spirit.
The pandemonium of it shakes us to the core. It is as if a tornado has blown through the order of our lives; our neat stacks, organized files, tidy calendars, all for naught at Pentecost. And yet we like our stacks, our boring, orderly sameness. We especially like it in the church.
We want to take this outrageous outpouring of the Spirit and manage it somehow. Calling Pentecost the “church’s birthday”, we throw the Holy Spirit a little party, blow out the candles on the cake, our way of saying “Nothing like that first Pentecost will ever happen here.” Or we try to tame this unruly rush of wind; to douse those tongues of fire, by creating our own personal brand of spirituality: gentle, centering breaths; no flames bigger than a tea light, slow circles around the labyrinth. Which is fine.
Except the Holy Spirit will not be housebroken by us. The Spirit we meet in Scripture stirs Samson to unbelievable strength, falls mightily upon a young David, fills the prophet Hosea so powerfully the people proclaim him quite mad. The Spirit impregnates Mary, young and unwed, and if we believe what Jesus tells Nicodemus, the Spirit will blow wherever it chooses.
The Spirit comes, says Walter Brueggemann, “pushing against our controlled world, subverting all our knowledge and certitude, opening the way for the reign of God.” (Brueggemann)
And when the Spirit comes, some folks create massive windbreaks. And others throw open every window in the house to welcome the breeze.
Something happens at Pentecost. Some say it is the wine. Others say it is the Spirit.
When the Holy Spirit comes, something passes between heaven and earth. Reaching down with eloquence, the Spirit invites holy, truthful speech. And we, like Peter, find our voices. And we reach up to speak to God with newfound clarity and insight. Things change.
Gloria describes a moment, in the early months of her widowhood. “There’s a time” she says “when you haven’t quite taken into your being that your loved one is dead. I remember that time. And I remember when it closed. I was in my car, leaving the church parking lot, and drove over a speed bump. Dick had been dead about three or four months, and I was talking to him.”
“’I am ready for you to come back now. I’ve proved I can make it on my own.’ An unexpected realization overwhelmed me. Dick wasn’t coming back. Am I going to be mad or sad about that? Something I had read about grief and gratitude came to me. Another realization came from somewhere. I could choose. And I thought it might be possible for me to be grateful.”
“That insight allowed me to think about Dick, to talk about him, as part of my life. He could be present in a different way.”
Something passes between heaven and earth when the Spirit comes. Something we cannot explain. We only know it as true. Something happens, and we receive insight and clarity, the gift of possibility, a new beginning.
And some will say it is the wine. And others will say it is the Spirit.
Notice! What the Holy Spirit is and does in us individually, it leads us to be and to do for others. Gathering up the broken and bruised and bloodied pieces of humanity, the Spirit blows us out of our safe, secluded, orderly places out into the streets for the sake of our neighbors.
Denise came to visit me for help in discerning direction for her life and ministry. The Spirit’s pull proved very strong. Denise was resisting.
She asked me to describe parish ministry; the rhythms of sermon preparation and liturgy planning, visiting the sick and the homebound, running a Sunday School. And I am holding in my hand the scores of her aptitude testing for ministry; her gifts and grace for mission and evangelism, for service to the poor and disenfranchised, simply flying off the page.
We kept talking, for ten, maybe 12 years. And during all those years, the Spirit continually pushed Denise out into the neighborhood. A rape survivor, her heart for serving abused and misused women astonishes. From Denise, I first heard the stories of the meanness and magnitude of the sex trafficking industry in our country. She knows these women and their children.
The church Denise worked at had long ago fled their changing inner city neighborhood for the outmost suburbs of the city. Denise led an adult Bible study and taught an adult Sunday School class. She shared her prayer with them, and her dream: a place where women and their children escaping abusive and dangerous situations could call home. The women would agree to enroll in school, to provide attentive care to their children, to work towards independence.
Do you know what happened? Someone gave her a lease on 15 acres of land for a dollar a year. Three hundred volunteers built a four room house and furnished it and became the first volunteer staff. Magdalena House, place of hope and promise, in less than seven years became two houses and continues to expand and grow. “You have to invest in a woman’s life every day to make a difference.” says Denise.
And some will say it is the wine. And others will say it is the Spirit.
“Come Holy Spirit” we sing and say this day. Come and seal the newly baptized. Come and renew the promise of our own baptism.
We’d best be careful what we wish for! The winds of the Spirit are always blowing, pushing us out into the open. The flames of the Spirit dance even now just above our heads, igniting new possibilities of love and relationship within us. All that is lifeless and listless and lackluster in us the Spirit conspires to turn to justice and love and mercy and grace for the sake of the neighborhood.
And we know what happens after that! Some will say it is the wine. Others will say it is the Spirit.