I wanted to call this sermon “12 Random Drunks.” I chickened out at the last minute. That’s what has always grabbed my attention on Pentecost. Giant roar of wind, flaming tongues descending, that’s all well and good but what in the world kind of society are we dealing with when the assumption is that twelve people are drunk at nine in the morning at a religious festival. I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised, Mardi Gras and St. Patrick’s day have religious purposes in theory too.
Pentecost is originally a Jewish festival, it was also called the Festival of Weeks. By this point it seems to have developed two significant meanings, first and foremost it was an agricultural celebration. It came at the end of the spring wheat harvest and marked the beginning of a period of weeks (get it) where observant Jews were expected to come to the temple and present their first fruits offerings to God. So it had an agricultural bent to it originally, and if you look in Deuteronomy and Numbers and Leviticus you’ll find that reasoning, but overtime the festival developed a cultural significance as well. It conveniently came a few weeks (there it is again) after Passover, potentially enough time for the Hebrew slaves who left Egypt to have gotten to Mt. Sinai. And so the festival became a time dedicated to the idea of covenant renewal as well. They celebrated God giving the law to the people, pledged their commitment to following the law, all that good stuff.
The disciples are all staying together at this point. Acts 1 ends with the disciples gathering together in the upper room where they’re staying, choosing a replacement for Judas, and then spending their time in prayer, waiting, as they had been instructed, for the Spirit they had been promised. And then, on this festival day, the Spirit comes. I don’t think it is an accident that God sends the Spirit during this festival, and not just because it meant that a lot of people were gathered together and could hear the disciples’ message. The history of the church is linked over and over again with the life and history of Judaism. Christianity was not something that developed out of a vacuum uniquely for those who believed and followed it, it is something that comes to us as a continuation of the story of Israel. Christianity is the realization of the promises of that story, not something that casts it aside. Our tradition matters, the stories of faith matter, the promises and challenges God declares in the past are important for us to see as well. If you read Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 in full he ties everything into the story of Israel and declares, “the promise is for you and your children and for those who are far off.” The early Christians don’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to faith, they pay attention and recognize how God is acting in different ways and calling them to different action.
So the Spirit comes in a violent wind and tongues of fire and the sound of it all draws a crowd. And everyone in the crowd begins to hear someone talking in their own language. This is big moment that speaks to what’s coming for the church, everyone present is a part of what is going on. One of the potentially weird realities of scripture is that most of God’s mightiest works are exclusive. Moses is the only one allowed up the mountain to receive the law. Prophets who see God like Elijah are alone when they do it. Only a few disciples are present for the Transfiguration, Jesus only appears to the a select group after the resurrection. Everyone is included at Pentecost. The crowd rushes forward when all of them hear someone speaking in their own language. Luke apparently wanted to hammer that idea home, because he goes so far as to list all the different nationalities included in this moment. The coming of the Spirit is an inclusive moment, the outpouring of God that occurs in this moment touches every life present in that moment.
The rest of the story is pretty straightforward, Peter preaches, people are convinced, over three thousand decide to join the disciples’ ranks, and the momentum of the church begins to build and move from there. There is one big thing I want to draw out from Pentecost, and that is that the disciples are in the right place and right time for this to happen. Everything that comes out of Pentecost comes because the disciples are right where they need to be when they need to be there. Presence is what makes Pentecost possible. If the disciples aren’t in Jerusalem at this moment the events don’t take place. Presence is one of the most important things that we can offer to God. This is one of the biggest moments of growth or conversion or revival or whatever we want to call in the history of the church and it didn’t come as a result of a huge budget and a great marketing campaign and months of intense planning, it happened because the disciples were there, in their community, praying and making themselves available to God. Presence is something we can all offer. Embracing our community and waiting for the Spirit to move is something we can do regardless of our age or our abilities or anything else. It doesn’t take a special degree or training to be present in our community and our world. Presence is so important to the work of the kingdom and it should be easy for us to offer.
Presence should be easy for us to offer and yet its not. Show of hands, and yes, I want you to raise your hand while reading this at home, how many of you like receiving a phone call? Especially if you text someone and then they call? That’s the worst. I hate phone calls that could have been a text. How horrible is that? How horrible is it that I think of conversations as transactions and wish they would be shorter? I’m going to tell you all this, and some of you are going to judge me but I’m going to do it in the name of authenticity, next month Meghan and I will have been married four years. I have not spoken to the best man at my wedding since we left the reception that night. We’ve texted! We’ve commented on Facebook pictures and statuses! But we haven’t actually talked to each in almost four years. All the technology that we possess, all the advances we’ve made seem like they would make us more connected but in reality these things are a double-edged sword when it comes to presence. And that’s because we can be aware of our communities without being involved in them. We can have ideas about what’s going on in people’s lives without actually knowing anything. We can be so connected to the world around us, with email on our phones and 2000 Facebook friends uploading pictures and twenty-four-hour cable news telling us what’s going on at all times, that we don’t realize none of our connections are real, none of them have foundations, or worse, that we’re missing the things happening right in front of us because we’re trying to find out what’s happening somewhere else.
I think for us today Pentecost is a challenge to practice presence. I think it is a call to reject the weak, surface level connection that our world thrives on and strive towards real, honest to goodness, involvement in the lives of our communities. I think that’s what we see in the final words of Acts 2. The new believers devote themselves to the apostles’ teachings, to their community, to shared meals, to prayer. When they saw someone in need they didn’t ask if that person was working hard enough to fix themselves, they looked at what they had that was more than they needed and sold it so they could help (they realized that charity doesn’t really have anything to do with the person receiving it, charity is about our ability to recognize that God has blessed us and to be a blessing in return). Every day they met in the temple, every day they ate in homes. If you look a little farther into Acts 3 you’ll see Peter and John heal a man on their way to the temple. Right place, right time. All of these things are acts of presence. All of these things are ways they look for God where they are.
I heard a guy speak at a conference once. He was a banker or a lawyer, something where he worked on square of his town and he started to develop this sense of unrest about his life. He started to ask questions about what he was doing and whether he was serving a purpose and all this stuff, you know, big questions like that. Eventually he decided that he’d devote half his lunch hour every day to praying for discernment, to asking God to show him what he might be able to do on behalf of the kingdom. He wanted to take it seriously and he knew he needed to leave the office to do that so he started walking the square for thirty minutes. One of the churches on the square hosted meals for the homeless but they didn’t have a great waiting facility so the line usually reached out to the street. And every day this guy would get there and have to maneuver around the line and people would want to talk to him and it would really mess up his time of prayer asking what he could do to serve the kingdom. Have you figured out the rest yet? Yeah, its not a subtle story. He ended up volunteering and lead an effort to build a shelter and really devoted himself to helping the homeless population. Because he found himself at the right place at the right time. Because he became present. Because he took a moment to actually look at his life and his community. Presence is one of the greatest things we can offer to God. But before we can offer it we have to be willing to embrace it.