YEAR A - PENTECOST - JUNE 7, 2014

Acts 2:1-21    
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b    
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13    
John 20:19-23
Homilist: Paul Mallery

Pentecost is a beginning. 50 days from Easter, it’s the day that we remember when the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples with a rushing wind and tongues of fire.  It’s the day that we think about what the disciples managed to do over the next hours, years, and centuries as they took the good news of Jesus first to the people gathered in Jerusalem for Shavuot or Pentecost, the Feast of weeks that celebrated the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai, and later towards the end of the earth.  Pentecost is the birthday of the church.

But as we celebrate that birthday this weekend, I’d like us to spend some time thinking about the ways that Pentecost is also an ending.  There are two Biblical narrative that I think come to their conclusion on the day of Pentecost.  The first is the resurrection of Jesus.

But Easter was weeks ago…aren’t we past that yet?  I think that Hollywood in general and Disney movies in particular may have spoiled some of the inherent tension present in the Easter resurrection. In our tendency to think of Easter as the Disney-ending to the Crucifixion story, we lose a lot of the complexity in the Gospels.  We think that yes, there may have been some confusion at first about Jesus, and Thomas doubted for a little while, mostly we focus on the doubt-free joyous reunion between the disciples and the miraculously-raised Son of God.  (The Son of God that we assume the disciples understood theologically about the same that we do, having the benefit of two thousand years of hindsight.)  Easter is over. Jesus was resurrected. The disciples’ grief and confusion is resolved. The end. Roll credits.

But the story of the disciples and their interactions with Jesus after his resurrection are not at all clear cut. In fact, it appears to me that the disciples didn’t always recognize him when they saw him (I confess that I often share that fault with the disciples), didn’t always know what to make of him when they saw him, and doubted him (arguably either that he was Jesus, or who he was existentially) for quite some time. Even when they saw him, they didn’t always know what to do with that information:  Should I tell someone? Would they believe me? Perhaps, was I imagining it? What should I do now that my understandings of Jesus that I had developed for years were shattered?

This shouldn’t surprise us as much as it does—it takes us time to adjust to major life-changing events, and we don’t know what to make of them either.  A birth is a joyous occasion, but can be as stressful and take as long to adjust to as a death. And we do so like a happy ending.  But if Jesus’ resurrection is the climax of the story, the denouement takes place over weeks.  Seven weeks, I think.

Let’s look at some of the complexities of that resolution of the story as Jesus’ followers try to make sense of his return:

First, they didn’t always recognize Jesus immediately.

  • In Luke, Jesus first appears to Cleopas and his traveling companion on the road to Emmaus.  But they don’t recognize him until after they have been with him for miles and come to their home.
  • In John’s account, when Mary saw Jesus she at first thought that he was the gardener.

Second, it was more than just Thomas who doubted:

  • In Mark, when Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome were told by a man dressed in white at the empty tomb to go tell the disciples that Jesus had gone ahead of them and they should look for him, “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” And when Mary Magdalene and later two others saw Jesus and told the disciples, they did not believe them.
  • In Matthew, the 11 disciples met Jesus on a mountain in Galilee.  “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”
  • According to Luke, the disciples didn’t believe the group of women who had been told by “two men in dazzling clothes” that Jesus was risen.
  • And when Jesus first appeared to all the disciples in Luke’s account, he provides a wonderfully ambivalent description of their reaction:  “[I]n their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.”

But if the story of the resurrection didn’t end at the resurrection—if it took so long for the disciples to figure out what to make of all of this—when do they get over their shock and confusion and immobility?  I think that happened not when they got their theology right, or when they worked hard to eliminate their doubt (or their doubters), but rather when they were waiting for God to make sense of it for them and the Spirit moved among them.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

And what did they do?

14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

The story of the resurrection ends with the earliest Christians coming alive and acting to tell the story of the coming of the Spirit and the dawn of a new era when everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.  The Sprit came and the church was born so that we could be spiritually resurrected and so that we could act on the implications of Christ’s resurrection. The passage that Peter quotes from Joel explicitly mentions gender, age, and class as categories that are broken down. And the story itself emphasizes the breakdown of language barriers as well:

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 

In this gift of the Spirit, I think we can find another, much older narrative that can be understood and finally resolved in the light of the Pentecost story.  Let’s look all the way back to Genesis 11 and the story of the Tower of Babel:

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

5The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

At Babel, people were wanting to make a name for themselves. At Pentecost, the disciples were praying trying to understand God.  At Babel, God confused them by having everyone speak different tongues and scattered them around the earth. At Pentecost, God gave them the gift of communicating to people with different tongues and they started to go around the earth to share the news of salvation. In Pentecost and the gift of tongues, we find that the curse given at Babel is undone.  (See http://www.agapebiblestudy.com/charts/Tower%20of%20Babel%20compared%20to%20Second%20Pentecost.htm for a nice table summarizing this argument.)

So in the story of Pentecost, we find a group of people who move though their confusion and lack of clarity about what to do with this knowledge of Jesus’ resurrection, who are energized, mobilized, and gifted by the Holy Spirit, who are breaking down the barriers between peoples and cultures that existed since shortly after the flood.  And through this powerful inclusion, the church was born.

12For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.  [1 Corinthians 12]

Happy birthday, church.