Today marks the Feast of Pentecost, the day when we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples in Jerusalem, to the church, and to us. It also is the end of the Easter Season, the 50 days during which we celebrate Christ’s resurrection. Today, the liturgical color is red, the color of the flames of fire that rested above the disciples head in our reading. We are marking a turning point in the liturgical year, the end of the long cycle that begin last December with Advent. We begin the liturgical year looking forward to the birth of Christ. In the intervening months we acknowledged several moments in his life, and then we commemorated his death and resurrection. Next Sunday, or the Sunday after, depending on which liturgical scholar you read, begins the long season of Ordinary Time that will continue right through November and the very end of the church’s year.
We are at a turning point in our lectionary as well. During Eastertide, we read primarily from the Gospel of John, from the Book of Acts, and from the Book of Revelation. After next week, we will return to the gospel of Luke and to the Hebrew bible, which we will continue to use throughout the remainder of the church year. So our reading of the Pentecost story from the Book of Acts is not only an opportunity to reflect on Pentecost, but it also allows us to think a little more carefully about the Book of Acts as a whole.
We have not read, really, the complete book. In fact, our reading only took us a little over halfway, and even then, we heard only a few select stories. To remind you, we heard of Peter and Cornelius, the conversion of Paul, and several episodes in Paul’s ministry, including the raising of Dorcas from the dead and his time in Philippi. That limited selection is probably enough to give you a sense of the overall shape of the book, of the mission activity of Jesus’ followers as they took the good news of Jesus Christ from Jerusalem to the world, and began to include Gentiles among their number.
Acts is a beguiling book. Its stories of the exploits of this new community have been a source of inspiration for Christians over the centuries. The depiction of life in the earliest Christian community has served as a model and call for action for generations of Christian leaders. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost became in the twentieth century the hallmark of the Pentecostal movement that first swept across the USA and is now a powerful force in Latin America and Africa. The description of this new community’s common life that appears a little later in Acts 2, a community of constant prayer and the sharing of property have also been imitated.
But Acts can be a problem as well as an inspiration. All of those reformers over the centuries have used the stories of the early church as a yardstick by which to judge the vitality of Christian communities and the Christian life in their own day. It’s hard for us, hearing the stories again, not to have a similar response. Our worship, our common life, pales in comparison with the spirit-filled worship, and the mighty acts that the apostles and other Christian leaders did alongside their preaching.
Acts records that 3000 people came to faith through Peter’s preaching on Pentecost; that’s quite a difference from the effects of most Episcopal preachers, for example. We look back at Acts, look around our own church, and see the stark differences between the two. We may wonder whether the Holy Spirit still dwells among us, whether it still inspires us, whether it can still inspire us.
Those are all good questions but they are slightly misleading as well. The Holy Spirit works in other, less spectacular ways in Acts as well. Just before the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, in fact, the disciples gathered to select one from among them to take his place as the twelfth apostle. He was chosen by lot. It’s the sort of thing that has occurred countless times throughout the history of Christianity, the community gathering to deal with organizational issues. Every congregation has to deal with mundane matters like budgets and elections and we tend to view them as mundane, unrelated to the gospel but the Holy Spirit is at work in such moments as well.
These two divergent examples, tongues of fire and miraculous speaking in tongues, on the one hand and an ordinary church business meeting, the election of a new leader, help us to understand the diverse ways in which the Holy Spirit works among us. It’s also true that often we can discern the working of the Holy Spirit only after the fact, when the dust has settled. Conflict and change that may seem to be tearing a community apart can from a later perspective come to be understood as the bringing forth of new life under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
In Acts, while Pentecost marks the coming of the Holy Spirit on the disciples and their empowerment for ministry, there are other occasions when the Holy Spirit is clearly at work, leading the disciples in new directions as they spread the gospel throughout the world. These other moments of the Spirit’s activity should be seen as important in their own right. When Peter discovers that his preaching has brought the Holy Spirit on to Cornelius’ household, even though none of them have been baptized, he realizes that the Spirit is doing a new thing. He learns that the gospel cannot be confined to the Jewish community. He also discovers that the Spirit cannot be held in by the church’s own rules. He baptizes them on the spot.
I would like to leave you with two questions to think about today and in the coming weeks. The first has to do with the Holy Spirit and this congregation. Where have you seen or experienced the Holy Spirit’s working in our life together? When have you felt it move—you and our whole congregation—to new understandings, new forms of life, new ministries? Can you discern the Holy Spirit’s activity in our midst in this season of our common life? And how might we be more open to the Holy Spirit’s leading us in the future? How can we enable the Spirit to move us in response to God’s call?
The second has to do with our personal lives and journeys. Where is the Holy Spirit at work, prodding you, encouraging you, enlivening your faith? In Romans, Paul writes that we have received a spirit of adoption, that through the Holy Spirit we have become children of God and heirs with Christ. That’s a remarkable claim about our transformation through faith. I know it often doesn’t seem like we have achieved that stature. We experience ourselves, our shortcomings and sins, as keeping us distant from God. But Paul says that through baptism, we share with Christ as God’s adopted children. To accept that gift is one thing. To allow the Spirit to work freely in our lives, nurturing our faith, is important. But more than that, we also need to open ourselves to the Spirit leading us more deeply into relationship with God and with Jesus Christ, and leading us out into the world, seeking to serve Christ in all of our lives.
Pentecost may be a time when we want to look back and celebrate the church’s birth and its early mission. It is also a time when we need to look forward, to discern where the Spirit is leading us, and how it might be empowering us in our faithful response to God’s call. Let us discern, and follow, where the Spirit is leading us.