Pentecost Sunday

May 15, 2005

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

(Based on Acts 2:1-11; Psalm 104; 1 Corinthians 12:37-12-13; John 20:19-23)

“These people are not drunk! It’s only nine in the morning.”

Those are the words of St. Peter as he addressed the crowd on that first Pentecost Sunday, right after the account we have just heard from the Acts of the Apostles.

He was responding to some of the onlookers at that event who were cynical about what was really happening. They scoffed and jeered: “They’ve had too much new wine.”

I wonder what we would have said if we had been just onlookers?

But the reality is that as people of faith you and I are not allowed to be mere spectators at the scene. We are implicated in what is happening there so we have to become participants, not just onlookers.

So I invite you to take your place there that day. Close your eyes if it helps, but use your mind’s eye to taste the experience.

Look around at your companions. Are you one of the Medes? Or are you traveling with the Cappadocians? I see a few people over there from Egypt. Some from Cyrene on the left. Up front there’s Maurice [choir director] and his band of Cappodocians, all decked out in their traditional native dress. And back in the back row we even have people from the big city, Rome. Take your place, choose your group.

It’s still early in the day. Not yet time to go to the Temple for the ritual service. So as with any crowd of visitors, people are milling around, seeing the sites. Some are walking among the vendors looking for some gift they can bring back home. Maybe one of those T-shirts that says “My Dad went all the way to Jerusalem for Pentecost and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.” Some are buying those fat pretzels Jerusalem is famous for; others are eating brats or metts. [For those not initiated into Cincinnati’s culinary delights, those are German wursts.]

But then there is a loud sound from nearby, and people begin to run to see what’s going on. You look at your companions and say, “Why not? Let’s c heck it out” and you join the crowd. You come to an open plaza and there are eleven guys in the middle, each one shouting and trying to be heard over the din. It’s wild.

And then something extraordinary happens to you. In the midst of all that sound you begin to hear a single voice speaking to you. You’ve never seen these Galileans before but this fellow is speaking to you in Mesopotamian! And you can understand him! He’s speaking to you about amazing wonders that God is working through a certain Jesus, who had been preaching and working miracles before they crucified him. And most striking of all, Jesus has returned from the dead and these fellows have seen and eaten with him. You look around the crowd and you can see that all these other people are having the same experience in their own tongues.

And you can tell something else. You’ve been exposed to phonies and charlatans before, and these guys are different. They’re real, something dramatic has happened to them and changed them. They are on fire and not afraid to speak out and tell this incredible story.

Oh by the way, did you notice that in this crowd we’re all Jews? Not a Christian in the lot. They haven’t been ‘discovered’ yet.

It’s all so amazing. And Luke describes it with another word: it’s confusing.

Now when Israelites of that day heard the word Luke uses it would be clear that he put the word there to evoke in them a story they had heard from the beginning of their life among that people. He was signaling to them that the original story, from Genesis, is the key to understanding what was happening.

Here is that story:


The whole world spoke the same language. They settled in the land of Shinar. They said to one another, “Come, let us mold brick and harden them with fire. Let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and so make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered over the earth.”


The Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men had built. Then the Lord said: “If now, while they are one people, all speaking the same language, they have started to do this, nothing will later stop them from doing whatever they presume to do. Let us then go down and there confuse their language, so that one will not understand what anther says.” Thus the Lord scattered them from there all over the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the speech of all the world. (Gen 11:1-9)

On the day of Pentecost the world begins its long return from the spell of Babel: the Spirit, the one Spirit, begins to do what the Psalmist had foretold: to renew the face of the earth.

What’s it all about? Through the outpouring of the Spirit of Jesus we discover that we can communicate with one another again. The original confusion came from discovering that all bonds of solidarity had been broken. Now there is a different kind of confusion: after centuries of alienation and separation and being cut off from one another, we had grown used to our separation. The sudden experience of rediscovering the possibility of connection is one of confusion; it makes our heads spin.

No difference is unbridgeable. No matter what our backgrounds, our nationalities, our races, our genders — we have the power to hear and understand and appreciate another. We don’t have to exclude and marginate; we are not condemned to do violence to one another. A single call is given to every one of us, and the power to follow it: the call to overcome our fear and learn to love those who are different from us. It will involve dying to our selfishness and fear of being hurt. But we can do it, because Jesus has already done it for us. We don’t have to be locked up in our isolated cells, there are no barriers except those we choose to impose on ourselves.

These men speak out, as Acts tells us, boldly. It’s a word that runs all through the Acts. The first thing the risen Jesus proclaims is: “fear not!” Fear will be overcome, you will find the words to speak out, to tell the story, to proclaim the dream which is God’s dream, of peace across all differences.

These people are intoxicated! But Peter tells the crowd that they miss the point if they think it’s due to ordinary wine.


“No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

‘It will come to pass in the last days,’ God says,

‘that I will pour out a portion of my spirit upon all flesh.

Your sons and daughters shall prophesy,

your young men shall see visions,

your old men shall dream dreams. . . .

And I will works wonders in the heavens above . . .

and it shall be that everyone shall be saved who calls on the name of the Lord.’

God has raised up this Jesus whom you crucified; of this we are witnesses. . . God has made him both Lord and Messiah.”

What does all that happened there on that first Pentecost have to do with us here today? What is the connection?

To answer that question I want you to look around in your imagination and pick out just one individual from that crowd. You see, the reality is that some individual in that crowd is ultimately responsible for passing on the faith to someone else and to someone else, until it reached you and it reached me. There weren’t any others to do the job.

An old man went home from Jerusalem to a community center in Phrygia A teenage boy returned to a gym in Pontus. A girl went back to her class in school in Pamphylia. They each went home and shared their excitement at what happened to them. They told the story! The story of Jesus; the story of God’s dream for our world. And they told how they had discovered the ability to connect, to communicate.

They became witnesses and others caught the spark. It wasn’t always — or even primarily — through what they said. It was through the fact that their lives had been changed. They were different. And those who met them in all those different worlds knew. These Christians aren’t like us: see how they love one another.

Then gradually those communities began to send out individuals from their midst to still farther places. Four centuries later a man from Rome named Patricius — Patrick — told the story to some wild pagans howling at the moon on the moors of Ireland, and the faith had a chance of reaching me. There are men and women in this congregation today whose great-grandparents first heard the story of Jesus in the foul hold of a slave ship crossing the Middle Passage to a life of unbelievable indignity in Virginia or South Carolina — or perhaps in the sacred ground of that real slave pen down at the Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

You and I are only the latest in a long line, standing on the shoulders of men and women who were witnesses. And today it reaches to the three people in the front pew who will be confirmed in their faith and called to become witnesses to still others.

And it’s important that we notice that the Phrygians didn’t become Egyptians that day. The Mesopotamians didn’t begin to dress like the Romans. They didn’t go home all the same. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit doesn’t blot out differences; it enables us to value and love them. In Corinthians Paul tells us that indeed there is only one Spirit but there are many different gifts; there are different offices and roles.

That’s important because the church always has within it people who want to smudge it all together, to make us all pray the same or think the same or organize ourselves the same. The Spirit poured out on Pentecost doesn’t work that way. We’re each called to follow Jesus, but each still has different gifts. We witness in different worlds. We imagine God differently. Some pray the Rosary; others wouldn’t know how to use one. Some receive Communion on the tongue; others on the hand. Some serve by beautifying our grounds or the sanctuary; others lift up our neighbors by sorting used clothes in the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Each of us faces similar difficult moral dilemmas; and we come to different conclusions about God’s will for us. We’re not called to be the same, we’re called to allow ourselves to be enriched by difference.

Near the end of John’s Gospel Peter got upset about John coming along with Jesus and he said, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus minces no words. He says he has his own plans for John: “What concern is it of yours? You follow me.”

Sometimes I think the church is like a glob of rich, wet mud. Sloppy but born of good soil. If you try to squeeze it into a nice neat ball you discover that it won’t be compressed. It squishes out between your fingers and as soon as you think you have it all contained and put it down it changes shape.

So when you leave here today, go back to your neighborhood in Pontus. Your playground in Mesopotamia. Your office in Phrygia. Your shrine in Rome. We go to different arenas but we go with a single Spirit, poured out by the same crucified and risen Lord. With the same power: to respect and understand and include and love those who are different from us.

Let our neighbors see that we are intoxicated because the Spirit has begun to renew the face of our inner earth. We go as happy drunks, singing:


I will sing the Lord a new song,

a new song,

I will sing his praises

while I live

I will sing his praises forever more.


Sing God a new song!

Sing it loud and clear.

Sing God a new song,

for all the world to hear:


I will sing the Lord a new song,

a new song,

I will sing his praises

while I live

I will sing his praises forever more.