May 19: Day of Pentecost

Tyson Conner is a lay preacher at St. Hilda St. Patrick and a licensed mental health counselor. The sermon for May 19, 2024 was preached in response to John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15 based on the manuscript below.

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place.
Among the older traditions of Christianity, the feast of Pentecost is, in part, the celebration of the founding of the Church. Before that night, 50 days from Passover and the last supper, the holy catholic and apostolic Church did not exist. What followers of Christ there were were a loosely affiliated group of religious zealots and followers of a faith healer and political agitator. At the last supper, Christ bestowed the Holy Spirit on his disciples and apostles, but before the events of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit had not been given to the Church, or so the elders say. By some ecclesiologies (an ecclesiology being a $50 word for a theology about the church), the Church does not exist without the participation of the Holy Spirit. Without their divine presence in and amongst and between and within us, we’re just a loosely affiliated group of religious zealots and followers of a faith healer and political agitator.
Another, and perhaps more well known, theologically significant element of the feast of pentecost is that it commemorates the revelation of the third-person of the trinity, the Holy Spirit, to humanity. There are arguments to be made for the Holy Spirit’s presence in other parts of scripture. For example, in Orthodox iconography, the icon of the trinity is a depiction of a story from Genesis, three angels who visit Abraham, believed by many to be the three persons of the godhead. Regardless of your particular Pneumatology (which is another $50 word for theology about the Holy Spirit), here at Pentecost, their divine presence is undeniable.
Our text today is a story about ecclesiology. It is a story about pneumatology, and it is also about theodicy and soteriology. We’ll get to those $50 words later. Our text today is about how a church is born, what miracles the church does, and what our part is bringing those miracles about.

And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.
The scriptures teem with miracles like Simon Peter’s net teemed with unexpected fish on the day he met the promised Messiah. Animals speak, angels decree, dead bones rise, waters part, mana descends, first borns die. In the gospels alone demons are sent packing into pigs, water is transmuted into wine, or a walking path, the blind are given sight, paralyzed men pick up their mats and walk, Christ teleports like nightcrawler. And now, this! A rushing of violent wind filling the entire house!
What an active God we see in these stories. What a participatory miracle-worker. You’d hardly suspect this is the same God who authored the laws of physics, biology, and time, given how often and how flagrantly this God breaks them. The miracles are often difficult for me to reconcile with my understanding of both reality and morality. If God can send a rushing wind that shakes a whole building, could he not use that same wind to blow missiles off course, away from children and refugees? Could he not use that same shaking force to shame the powerful into using their power for the good of all?
If we are the Church, and we have this powerful God, where is he?
Theodicy is a $50 word for the many ways that people try to reconcile the ideas that 1. God is good and 2. Everyone suffers, even when there is no good reason for it. There are no satisfying theodicies. There are many beautiful, mysterious, and sacred ones, but none of them satisfy. None provide all the answers.

Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.
Oh, the divine fire of the Holy Spirit. How can I talk about this briefly? How can I weave together the scriptural themes and theological metaphors of the uncreated light? The pillar of fire that escorted the hebrews out of Egypt, the burning bush, the flames called down from heaven by Elijah, the shining face of Moses, the blinding light of Christ at the transfiguration, the tongues of flame. Our elders of the faith saw a thru-line in these narratives. They thought this thru-line was the Holy Spirit. A thru-line that starts at “let there be light” and ends inside each and every human soul.
When I was a boy, one of my parents’ church’s favorite hymns was an English translation of a song they learned from a Kenyan bishop. The song had two verses that I remember. FIre fire fire, fire fall on me / as the day of pentecost, fire fall on me. And power power power, power fall on me / as the day of pentecost, power fall on me. I still remember the Swahili.
My parents and their church were enamored with the power of God. With miracles and wonders and divine madness galore. They called for fire and they called for power. That’s what we thought the Church was. We thought it was power. It makes sense. In the text of Acts, the nascent church, about 120 strong, was a fringe, soon-to-be outlawed group of weirdos whose leader had just been publicly executed. They held no power, politically, or spiritually. And then, a great rushing wind, tongues of flame.
That’s power isn’t it? That’s what power looks like. So, what does the Spirit and the baby Church do with that power? How do they subvert the genocidal machine of empire? How do they act on the miraculous confirmation that their teacher was more than just a faith healer and political agitator? How do they solve their theodicy?

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
In ancient near-east Judaism, Pentecost was a gathering time for the faithful and a commemoration of the Law being delivered to Moses. People from all over the known world came to Jerusalem to celebrate. God’s people all in one place. They spoke as many languages as they had hometowns. Their differing currencies inspired the money-changers to set up shop in the temple courtyard, which in turn inspired Christ to weave a whip out of cords. At this Pentecost, the Church and the Spirit do not see an opportunity for commerce, but for connection. The Holy Spirit inverts the tower of babel and allows the apostles to understand and be understood. The tongues are no longer confused, they are unified in the community of the Church.
Synergism is the name of a particular soteriology (our final $50 word, this time meaning theology of salvation) that proposes that human redemption is not an exclusive work of God, nor is it an exclusive work of individual humans. Rather, it is a collaboration between the salvific work of God and the will of the believing human. Some synergistic theologians (like me) extend this theory beyond the scope of salvation and out into anything good that the Church or a Christian does. The analogy, as it was shared with me, is the image of two torches held together to create a single flame.
The miracle of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit’s arrival in and within and among and through the followers of Christ, making them a church, is not a miracle of smiting the enemies of God. It is not a miracle of escaping unjust persecution. It is not a miracle of survival in the wilderness, or even an awesome display of power. The miracle is one which expands the boundaries of this Church even in the moment of its conception. Later in the text, after Peter gives a fancy speech, we are told that three thousand new members of this day-old Church were baptized that day.
We celebrate a baptism today. We will bring someone new into the church. They will be baptized by water. I pray they will also be baptized by fire into the invitational, stranger embracing, community building, synergistic work of the Spirit.
Okay, so, what does it all mean? What does it mean that the first thing that happened when the Holy Spirit worked together, synergized with, the fledgling Church was an invitation to strangers and foreigners who were previously permanently outside the fold? What does it mean that the first great miracle of the Church after the ascension was to speak so that all could understand? If this is a theodicy, what solution to the problem of pain and evil is the Spirit and the Church offering?
I am leery of calling for the power power power to fall on me. Power is dangerous. Fire scorches and destroys and I have been burned. But, if the fire that falls is the fire of synergy. If those tongues of uncreated divine, burning but not consuming flame are an invitation to participate in the healing and redemptive work that Christ started and we carry forward, breaking what seem to be laws of reality in an effort to invite in the outsider and the stranger; if this is the fire that illuminates the way to universal peace and warms the hearts of all people, then I will gladly ask for that fire to fall.
This is what I’m trying to say, dearly beloved. The world is a mess, and none of us have the power to solve its suffering. The ultimate power offered to us, the ultimate miracle, is to become the church. To live into the theological promise of a community united with the divine will and power of the spirit. Based on this narrative, that Church and Spirit do not promise that our enemies will be vanquished, they ask that we make them into our dearly beloved. The Spirit does not give us spectacle, nor does she ask us to be all that spectacular. The miracle of the Spirit as I read it here, in this text, is the miracle of communication and invitation, of understanding and being understood. This sort of work is usually not as full of obvious divine presence as a shaking building and tongues of flame. The work of being in community with one another, of inviting and expanding the boundaries of who I call my neighbor, is usually mundane, is usually uncelebrated, is usually difficult, thankless work.
This is the work of the Spirit: to be the church. To speak to each other about the redemptive work of Christ. To invite in those who we could not, or would not, understand before. To baptize. To share life. To share resources. To listen. These are the miracles. These are our hope in the face of empire and death. This is our fire, our power. The power to extend the boundaries of our community to encompass any and all we encounter.

Fire fire fire, fire fall on me. Fire fire fire, fire fall on me. As the day of pentecost, fire fall on me.

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