Homily for the Feast of Pentecost

May 25, 2007

St. Agnes, Cincinnati


(Based on Acts 2:1-11; Psalm 104; 1 Corinthians 12:3-7, 12-13; John 20:19-23)


“They made bold proclamation as the Spirit prompted them.”


For the seven weeks since Easter Jesus had been forming his disciples. Just as the church has been forming us in the liturgies of these past seven weeks since the feast of Jesus’ resurrection.


What he was preparing them for is a mission. They were being prepared immediately for the coming of the Spirit. But the gift of the Spirit is never an end in itself, it’s always for something further. They were being prepared to spread the Good News of salvation. Just as we have been formed for that very same task, for mission. Just as Jesus himself had been sent on a mission: “As the Father has sent me, just so I send you.”


If we are to appreciate the full impact of the Pentecost experience, it seems to me that we need to spend some time imagining what the apostles looked like on the day before Pentecost. Remember the account of last week’s reading, the story of Jesus’ impending departure from his disciples. They had been very anxious, concerned about what would happen to them when Jesus was no longer there, concerned about being on their own. He had told them he wouldn’t leave them (or us) orphans. He had even said that if they loved him they would rejoice that he wad going away—because if he didn’t leave he couldn’t send them the Spirit.


And indeed we read that after that they did return to Jerusalem “filled with joy.” Their formation had changed them. It was going to be alright, he would still be with them. But how? They had heard his words about sending a “Holy Spirit.” But what did that mean?


Nevertheless they did as he had told them. They went about their normal routine as good Jews.


And then we read the day of Pentecost”was fulfilled.” That was a technical expression in the scriptures. It alerted the hearer that God was about to cause something to happen which would be a profound shift in the direction of salvation. It was the word used when the time of Mary’s pregnancy was fulfilled and she would give birth to Jesus. It was the word used when the ministry of Jesus in Galilee was fulfilled and he would begin his exodus, the ascent to Jerusalem and his death.


Everything was ready. But they were still a small band huddled together, unable to confront a great big world out there. We have a wonderful English expression to name what they were going through. They were “tongue-tied.” We can almost see the constraint that blocks their tongues.


And all of a sudden the promise of the Lord is fulfilled. Luke tells the story with all the dramatic effects of God’s epiphanies in the Old Testament. There is a howling wind, and those tongues of fire. We can scarcely capture it in our imaginations. It’s stuff for Stephen Spielberg or George Lucas.


And then two amazing things happen.


First, their tongues are loosed and they can speak! For the first time we hear a word which will recur over and over as the account of the early church in Acts unfolds. The word is “bold.” They not only can speak but they speak with assurance and confidence. They speak boldly.


And the second amazing thing that takes place is that all those different people from so many different places and tongues actually understand them. On hearing this account any Jew would immediately recall another dramatic event from the people’s story, the confusion of tongues at the time of the tower of Babel. At that earlier moment people who had been working together on a project to reach—on their own—to God had had their tongues confused. They had become strangers to one another. Alienated and unable to understand each other.


The good Jew would know that this event of Pentecost is being presented as the reversal of that earlier confusion. This is the beginning of a new age in the story of humankind: with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit it becomes possible for us to connect with one another, to hear and understand each other. We are not compelled to be forever estranged from one another. Peace among so many disparate people is still really possible. All those people, from countries we can barely recognize today, represent the whole world, all the nations to whom the good news of salvation would be preached. It’s really a prologue to what actually happened n the rest of the story in Acts. as Paul and the other disciples spread the word across the known world.


And that mission, the sending which began that day, has continued down to our own time. We who might never have met one another are gathered together here in this church by that same Spirit. If Luke were writing today he would have to add to his list of places. He would name Bond Hill, and Paddock Hills, and Forest Park, and Oakley and Hyde Park and Over-the-Rhine. And even Kentucky, for God’s sake!


As Isaiah tells us, the word of God is powerful. It comes down from heaven like a refreshing rain. It nourishes our earth and makes it fruitful. And it does not return to the heavens until it has accomplished the work for which God sent it.


Luke is at pains to tell us that the Spirit fell on each one, and that’s important. The Spirit is a gift to the whole church, of course, gathering us together as a single community. But the Spirit does that by working through each one of us as an individual. It works through you, and you, and you, and you, and me. Paul tells us that we’re all not expected to do the same thing. There are different ministries. There are different gifts. There are different tasks. All are expressions of the same Spirit but they are different.


We’re all on different stages, some apparently quite small—as small as a home or workplace or a school playground or barbershop—and some apparently quite big. Those big stages are the arenas of popes and cardinals and bishops; they’re the show places of kings and emperors and presidents and ayatollahs. But we need always to keep in mind that experience of Jesus when he went to the temple and watched different people putting their offerings in the box as they entered. The big shots made a show of how much they contributed. They were real players on the big stage. But Jesus noticed the poor widow who put in only her last two cents. He said, “Amen I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the others. They gave from their surplus but she has given from her poverty.” She gave her all. There is no stage too small for the action of the Spirit.


Remember the parable of the talents. Jesus praises the guy who had been given ten talents and made ten more, or the other fellow who had been given five, and worked with it. The only one he reproaches is the fellow who buried his talent because he was afraid that the master would judge him harshly.


The Father who sends Jesus to us, and Jesus who sends the Spirit to us, are not to be feared. They are compassionate, desiring only our salvation—and our joy. Let’s pray for ourselves, for sure. But let’s pray also for one another, and for the whole church whom Jesus has joined to himself as his body. We pray that the Spirit will untie our tongues and make us bold proclaimers of the good news of our salvation.


You know, when your tongue has been tied and suddenly you discover the rush of freedom, the very first thing to do is to break out in praise of the Lord. In song:


I will sing the Lord a new song,

      a new song–

      I will sing God’s praises while I live,

      I will sing God’s praises

            forever more—


    Sing God a new song,

      Make it loud and clear;

    Sing God a new song,

      for all the world to hear:


   I will sing the Lord a new song . . ♬


Amen?