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Pentecost Portents -- Acts 2:1-21 (Pentecost)



When we celebrate Pentecost, we often mention – as a bit of background – that the word Pentecost comes from the Greek word for 50th -- and that Pentecost comes 50 days after Easter. We rightly connect Pentecost – the experience of the Spirit – with Easter – the experience of the Risen Christ. At Pentecost, we experience the Spirit of the Risen Christ alive in us.


I want to add something to that, and refocus just a bit. Pentecost not only comes 50 days after Easter – Pentecost also comes just 52 days after Good Friday. 52 days is not a long time. We have been sheltering in place longer than 52 days. The folks gathered together at Pentecost – they are the same folks who experienced Good Friday. Just 53 days before Pentecost, they were gathered together for the Last Supper – they slept in Gethsemane as Jesus prayed. Just 52 days before Pentecost, they had watched as Jesus was arrested, and beaten, and executed, murdered.


All that is to say that when they experience the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, they are still living in the same world that resulted in Good Friday. The Spirit comes to a people whose lives are deeply embedded in the reality of their world. Then and now. So let’s listen for how they experienced Pentecost in their world – as we think about how we are experiencing it in the context of ours – and let’s notice a few things.


The first thing we notice is that they are together. In the harsh realities of their world, they keep gathering together. We’ve noticed that throughout Easter, as we’ve seen them gather together again and again behind closed doors – and here they are again. As they experience the trauma of their world, their instinct is to be together. Their experience of the Holy Spirit is an experience that they have... together.


That sense of together grows even more expansive as the Pentecost story unfolds. They are all together in one space and the Holy Spirit descends upon them as of flames of fire, like the roar of a mighty wind – something big is taking place – and the Spirit rests on each of them. Everyone is included, no one is left out.

Not only that, the experience starts to spill over out of that room. They are enabled to speak and to understand – each and all – and then people from every nation living in Jerusalem – they hear the sound and they, too, come together. It’s not just the folks in the room. It’s the folks in the room, and this immigrant community living in Jerusalem – folks from all around the known world. They all gather together in ways that transcend separation and division. They are together in ways they never would have dreamed possible.


And I’ll just pause for a moment and say, so are we. We are gathered together beyond what we would have thought possible. We are gathered from different places, different nations. This Pentecost worship is actually taking place – this one worship service – in California and Florida and Virginia and Switzerland – and we are people born in so many places – so many American states, and Madagascar, and Northern Ireland. And we are here – together. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit draws us together – then and now – in ways that are expansive beyond what we could have imagined. That’s the first thing to notice.


And the second – once they are all gathered together – as the Spirit continues to gather them – the Spirit comes upon each and all, and they are empowered to see, and to listen, and to speak, and to do, and to create. Eric Law points out that we usually think of Pentecost as a speaking event – everyone speaking – but he says that the real wonder here is the listening.[1] Here they all are, speaking languages that they knew not, and everyone understands. Everyone speaking, everyone listening, everyone understanding. What the Spirit empowers here is the ability to listen deeply to someone else – to hear and to comprehend what they are saying.


And there is the insight too. “Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your youth will see visions. Your elders will dream dreams.” As one writer says, “the Spirit gives extraordinary insight to those it fills.”[2] I’d describe it like this: The Spirit enables us to see the world plainly with the eyes of Christ – to see and to hear and to sense the world as it is – and to see visions of the world as it can and ought to be. All of us.


And then, the Spirit empowers us to articulate all that, and to work to make it so – to actually work with God to create that world as it should be. Remember, what follows from this Pentecost story – is that glimpse we had at the beginning of May of an early Christian community – where they see their life together according to the dignity and need of each person – and they create an entirely new economy and new ways of being community together. At Pentecost, the Spirit empowers all of us with insight and the capacity to create. That’s the second thing.


So let’s bring all of that -- the gift of being together in ways beyond what we ever could have imagined, and, the Spirit ability to see, and to listen, and to speak, and to do, and to create – let’s bring all of that to the third thing. Because we will need it.

The third thing to notice here is that, with Pentecost, a new reality is breaking forth. I want to talk about these signs and portents.


Until this week, I’ve never focused on this last bit of the Pentecost story: “I will show portents (or wonders) in the heavens, and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord’s great and glorious day.” It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but my default on Pentecost is to talk about the parts of this story that tell us that everyone is included and that no one is left out.


But these portents – these signs and wonders – these disruptions in the natural order – they all point to the Lord’s Day. And the Lord’s Day is apocalyptic talk. That’s not something I or we usually talk about. Maybe that’s because we associate that with a theology that focuses on the end times – the end of life as we know it. And there’s some sense of that to the apocalyptic – but what the apocalyptic is really about is the inauguration of a new time, a new era, a new epoch. A new reality is breaking forth. God’s reality. God’s reign. Yes – something is coming to an end; something is being dismantled; something must be dismantled. And just as importantly, something is being created. And that’s the third thing to notice here: Pentecost -- with its signs and wonders – is about a new reality that is breaking forth, even now.


And maybe, these portents – these wonders – these signs -- caught my attention this year, because we are living in a time of massive disruption. We are living in pandemic – the globe is gripped with disease.

· It is laying bare our deep need for each other, which we have so long taken for granted.

· It’s laying bare how we’ve mistreated the planet – as we see how – when we all stop spewing carbon – how the skies can clear.

· It is laying bare our systems of inequality – as those who are already at a disadvantage suffer the harm of pandemic more than people of privilege.


And then this week – as we gather with a Scripture that evokes the Spirit as tongues of fire – we see on the news a different kind of flame and fire. As cities burn from the collective, systemic racism we have allowed for far too long. As we witness together, George Floyd lying on the street, begging for his life, as a police officer grinds his knee into Mr. Floyd’s neck, as onlookers plead for him to stop – as George Floyd is murdered. And we wait for days, with no arrest of the police officer – and Minneapolis erupts in flames, and then city after city, as the one who is supposed to lead this nation stokes the flames with the violent rhetoric of his tweets. And we come to this Pentecost language: “I will show portents in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.” I’ve been struggling all week, because I’m not sure what we do with all that.


When cities were burning in 1968, Dr. King said that it was incumbent upon us to look to the root causes – to be vigorous in understanding and condemning the circumstances that had brought about what he called “the violent explosions in American cities.”[3] Those disruptions, he pointed out, “did not develop out of thin air.” Dr. King said this: “[Those disruptions] are the language of the unheard. And what is it that America’s failed to hear? [America has] failed to hear that the plight of [African Americans] has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of justice and freedom have not been met. It has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, humanity, and equality, and it is still true. It is still true that these things are being ignored.”


Dr. King said those things when I was 6 months old. And they are just as true today.

At Pentecost, the Spirit comes upon people who are living in a Good Friday world – a world where systems of violence grind their knee into the neck of folk again and again.


Resurrection has declared that the powers of that world are ultimately powerless – even as we see the persistent last gasps of the death-dealing violence of oppression.

And at Pentecost, the Spirit of the Risen Christ empowers those gathered together – what we come to call the church – to see and to challenge and to dismantle the powers that made Good Friday happen. The Spirit enables us to see, and to listen, and to speak, and to do, and to create. And the choice is ours to use those abilities to do the work that is ours to do – to dismantle the persistent systemic American racism that has harmed far too many for far too long – to name and to stop our participation in those systems – and to join the work of creating the new reality that even now is breaking into the world.


There are things to see here – to see plainly with the eyes of Christ. We have been talking for some time now about entrenched systemic American racism. In January, we traced it from the founding of this nation – embedded in the slavery clauses of the Constitution – through violent resistance toward any progress toward civil rights – Jim Crow. Just last week we looked at “the new Jim Crow”– and how the criminal justice system has created a system of unequal justice that has resulted in the mass incarceration of people of color.[4]


We see that lived out again so plainly this week – exactly as Michelle Alexander has prophetically described – a system that vests discretion in law enforcement to do what that police officer did – a system that vests power in prosecutors to hesitate in their unchecked discretion to bring charges – and then to bring only third degree murder charges, thinking it is the best the system can do.[5] If we look plainly on all this with the eyes of Christ – we must see the system of death-dealing harm, and the harm inflicted on George Floyd and millions before him, and name it plain.


And there’s listening to do – that Pentecost listening to hear the truth of what others are saying – particularly to those whose voices for too long have been silenced and shouted down. For white folks, even as we do the work that is ours to do, it is incumbent on us to quiet ourselves and to listen to the voices of people of color, to the voices of Black mothers weeping and raging for their murdered children, to the voices of Black leaders and activists holding us accountable – and dreaming the dreams of a better world that we can build together. I’m haunted by Dr. King’s question from 52 years ago – “What is it that America has failed to hear?”


We just sang “Every Time I Feel the Spirit, moving in my heart I will pray.” That’s an African-American spiritual first sung by those held in slavery – will we listen to their song as their song? When they experienced the Spirit moving, what prayer moved in their heart? Will we listen for their prayer and for the prayers of their children – and lend our voice and our lives to make it so? Will we live into the Pentecostal, Spirit-given ability to speak and to do – to do the work that is ours to do?


At Pentecost, the Spirit comes into a Good Friday world. But the point of the Story is that, on Pentecost, the Spirit brings the power of the Risen Liberating Christ to life in all people – including us – to change that world – to name and relinquish our participation – and to join in the liberating work of Jesus Christ. At Pentecost, the Spirit empowers us to see the world plainly with the eyes of Christ and to create with God – together – the new world that is breaking forth, even now.


© 2020 Scott Clark

[1] Eric Law, Devotion for May 26, 2020 in the Upper Room Disciplines, 2020, p. 183. [2] Robert Wall, “The Acts of the Apostles” in New Interpreters’ Bible, vol. x (Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN: 2002), p. 55. [3] Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Other America,” speech delivered March 10, 1968, excerpted by Beacon Press on the 50th anniversary of the speech at https://www.beaconbroadside.com/broadside/2018/03/martin-luther-king-jrs-the-other-america-still-radical-50-years-later.html [4] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press: New York, 2011). [5] See id.


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