As I’ve said before, I grew up in an evangelical, at times borderline charismatic, Episcopal church. Unlike a lot of Mainline Protestant congregations, there was a significant focus on the Holy Spirit as St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church. We were an Alpha training parish, where we taught others how to put on a ten-week crash course in Christianity, with an entire weekend retreat devoted to the work of the Holy Spirit. Later, when I worked there as a youth minister, our Associate Rector regularly held healing services, where people would fall out in the Spirit. That’s an usher assignment I will never forget.
One of my responsibilities as youth minister was to organize the annual trip to the Creation Music Festival, a multi-day Contemporary Christian Music festival in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania. We had such a large group attending, we got our own section of the campground and two private port-a-potties. You can imagine how popular that made me. We were there for three days and two nights and saw hours upon hours of live music. Christian rock, Christian pop, Christian rap, and lots and lots of praise and worship music. During the concert, I noticed that there were two kinds of Christian music fans. On the one hand, there was the group of fairly reserved listeners. They might move their lips to quietly sing along or sway a little bit if the groove hit just right, but for the most part, they listened and enjoyed the music rather stoically. I associate this group with the coming of the Holy Spirit as told by John. The other group was more Acts 2 in their response to the music. Eyes closed, hands raised, songs bursting forth at the top of their lungs, and spontaneous dance were the marks of this second group. They were clearly caught up in the Spirit in the more Pentecostal sense: big, brash, and bold.
This Pentecost morning, we hear two very different stories about the coming of the Holy Spirit. The more familiar one comes to us from Acts, chapter 2. The eleven remaining original disciples, Matthias, a group of women, and likely a handful of others were all together celebrating the Feast of Shavuot. One of three major Jewish festivals that brought pilgrims to holy city of Jerusalem, Shavuot, known in Greek as Pentecost because it comes fifty days after the Passover, is the feast of the first fruits. The first loaves of bread baked from the early wheat harvest were dedicated to God in hopes of a fruitful remainder of the growing season. Pilgrims from all over the Jewish Diaspora, the world as it was known to those in Israel, would come to bring their offerings.
With the city teeming with hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of tourists, the disciples were holed up in a house, having waited ten days since Jesus ascended into heaven, wondering when the power of the Holy Spirit might arrive. All of sudden, the room was filled with a cacophony of wind, flames alighted upon each of them, and they began to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ in every language spoken by the Jewish faithful around the world. The scene was so chaotic that it garnered the attention of passersby. Through the narrow streets filled with people, the news of this strange event began to spread rapidly, and soon, the house was surrounded by thousands of onlookers wondering why they heard this group of clearly Galilean bumpkins speaking in the languages of the Egyptians, Parthians, Medes, and others. Some assumed it was the result of an early celebration and they were filled with new wine, but others looked on in true amazement.
From the midst of the chaos, Peter stepped forward and began to speak alone, though he seems to have been understood by the many. He proclaimed to the crowd gathered that this was not the result of beer in their Cheerios, but rather that the Spirit they were filled with was the very Spirit of God who had come to fulfill the promise of the prophet Joel, that every human being would receive the Spirit. Young or old, all genders, all classes, free or enslaved, it didn’t matter, the Spirit of God was available such that anyone who called on the name of the Lord might be saved. Luke, the author of Acts, tells us that 3,000 people from every kingdom, language, people, and nation were added to the Jesus Movement that Pentecost Day, and from there, the Good News couldn’t help but be spread far and wide.
This wasn’t the first run in the disciples had had with the Holy Spirit. Fifty days earlier, they were once again gathered in a room. This time it was locked out of fear. Jesus had died on Friday, by Sunday, word was out that his body was gone and that he might have been raised from the dead, and the disciples were terrified. Ten of them, along with various Marys and other women were holed up behind a locked door, when all of a sudden, Jesus was standing in their midst. “Shalom,” he said to the stunned group before him, “peace be with you.” Clearly, they were in shock, and so he showed them his hands and his side, and they finally began to realize who was in their midst. Jesus, their rabbi and friend, who just a few days ago was dead on a cross, was alive! “Shalom,” he said to them again, “peace be with you.” Jesus then commissioned them to follow in his footsteps by proclaiming that the Kingdom of God had come near and breathed the Holy Spirit upon them. This breath of new life was meant to be shared. If you help others be set free from their sin, Jesus tells them, then their sins will be forgiven, but if you fail to offer them the Spirit of forgiveness, their sins will be retained. Go, therefore, as the Father has sent me, and share the Good News.
There isn’t a right or a wrong way to engage with the Holy Spirit. Some of you might be more subtle in your Christianity, more Johannine, with the Spirit of Peace coming calmly as a breath of new life. Others of you might associate more with the Holy Spirit in Acts, ready and willing to jump up and down showing others the power of God’s love. Either way, polite or wild, what we learn from these two stories is that the Holy Spirit calls all of us to a ministry of evangelism, of sharing the Good News of God’s love to a world that desperately needs it. Our job as disciples of Jesus is to encourage others to follow in the way of love. We do so not in isolation, but as members of a community brought together by the Spirit precisely for this purpose, that the whole world might see and know the saving love of Jesus Christ. Go, therefore, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and follow in the Way of Jesus, proclaiming in word and deed that Jesus Christ is Lord. Come, Holy Spirit, come. Take our minds and think through them. Take our lips and speak through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire with love for you. Amen.