May 20, 2018
Holy Wisdom Monastery
Pentecost is no doubt the least well known and understood of the Church’s three great feast days. But it’s a very important festival, especially in our time, when so many people are far more drawn to a living spirituality than to institutional religion. It is, after all, as Jesus tells us in John 6, “the Spirit who gives life.” So, for a few minutes this morning I would like us to explore together the meaning and mystery of Pentecost.
Today’s reading from Acts is the classic Pentecost story. There are two scenes in the story. In the first, the Jesus community is gathered together at a house in Jerusalem. Perhaps it’s the room in which the traumatized and confused community gathered in fear behind locked doors immediately after Jesus’ execution. While together in this place the community has a powerful ecstatic experience, an experience that radically transforms them. It dispels the despair that had overcome and paralyzed them after Jesus’ execution. It gives them a new sense of identity and calls them to a new vocation. It imbues them with the courage to embrace this vocation with boldness and fills them with a new kind of non-violent power like the power they had seen in Jesus.
But Luke’s Pentecost story doesn’t end with the gathered community’s inner, spiritual transformation. The Spirit immediately propels the community out into the world. The second scene of the story is set in the public square. In this scene, Pentecost becomes a public, indeed, a political event. The explosion of the Spirit’s energy, the energy of love, which Teilhard de Chardin believed is the energy of evolution that draws the whole universe toward unity, drew together in one community complete strangers from all the nations under heaven—old people and young, men and women, even male and female slaves. This, of course, is Luke’s picture of the Church, which the Spirit created and re-creates in an on-going Pentecost. The creation of this diverse, global community by the Spirit’s love energy is a political event that is changing history, because it challenges the divisions and hierarchies which demagogues and ruling elites the world over exploit to maintain their power and control. From the perspective of these elites, Pentecost was and still is chaos. No wonder some people accused Jesus’ followers of drunkenness.
The political quality of Pentecost comes across in Peter’s sermon as well, especially in his last sentence, which is not in today’s reading. Peter ends with these words. “Therefore, let the whole house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” This sentence is a sharp and public inditement of the political and religious leaders. Peter emphasizes and makes explicit the political significance of Pentecost by proclaiming that Jesus is “Lord.” We don’t use the word “lord” much at Holy Wisdom and I appreciate that. But in this verse, it is exactly the right word, because it claims for Jesus one of the titles use by the Emperor and other worldly Powers. Giving Jesus this title is not only politically subversive. Since Jesus redefines greatness as service and himself lived a life of service, calling Jesus “Lord” gives the title a radical new meaning. If you want to be a “Lord” or “Lady,” you must be the servant of all. Here Peter is clearly getting into politics. If he had been chaplain of the House of Representatives, this sermon would surely have gotten him fired.
Because of this bold sermon and his healing of a beggar in the Temple in Jesus’ name, Peter was brought into court and put on trial for disturbing the peace, a sign that the political leaders themselves very quickly understood the political significance of Pentecost. The Jewish High Council ordered him not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. He replied to the authorities, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Here the Holy Spirit speaks Truth to Power through Peter.
This is Pentecostal power, the power of the Spirit, the power of truth and love. When it is claimed and used, it can change the world even in the most gruesome and sadistic of times. I discovered one example of this when I was a student in Germany. My land lady told me that during World War II her husband was suffering from muscular dystrophy. The family doctor visited regularly to check up on him. Once her doctor was ill, so another doctor came. This doctor was a Nazi and wanted to euthanize her husband. She refused, of course. Later I learned that not long after this the Nazi’s backed off their euthanasia program to in part because of the church’s opposition. On the other hand, there was very little opposition to the extermination of the Jews even from the church, so the Nazis proceeded full speed ahead with the holocaust. I wonder what might have happened if the Church and Christians had claimed their Pentecost power and there had been serious and significant opposition. Many would say “nothing would have come of it” because they believe nonviolent, Pentecostal power is weak and ineffective. Martin Luther King met this criticism with these perceptive words. “If we can’t put a fire out with water we don’t conclude that water doesn’t put out fire.’ We say, ‘We need more water.’” When applied in sufficient measure, nonviolent, Pentecost power can accomplish almost miraculous thing, as we saw throughout the world in the 20th century.
But be warned! Along with Pentecost power comes Pentecost danger. In John 16:2, a verse within the section of John from which today’s gospel is taken but which is left out of the reading, Jesus says, “Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.” And as we saw earlier, Peter’s use of Pentecost power got him in trouble with the authorities very quickly.
My Pentecost prayer for Christians and for all people of good will today is that we will be sensitive to the movement of the Spirit within us and in the world around us and that the Spirit will move and empower us to speak out when we see truth trampled underfoot, the hungry and homeless abandoned, prisoners exploited and abused, the sick unattended, and opponents and enemies demonized. This is what Pentecost is about. This is what it means to testify on behalf of Jesus.