Sermon Archive

You might recognize the name Elizabeth Gilbert as the author of the bestselling novel Eat, Pray, Love.  Along with her fiction writing, Gilbert also writes and speaks about creativity – how it works and how it sometimes doesn’t work.  She tells stories about her own experiences with writer’s block and the fear of failure that can stop creativity dead in its tracks.

Beyond Imagining

Beyond Imagining
Acts 2:1-21
May 24, 2015 Pentecost
Jennifer Browne

It’s Pentecost Sunday!  How are you celebrating? 

  • Are family members traveling long distances to share a big turkey meal and exchange gifts?  No? 
  • Are you hosting a Pentecost cook-out, with lots of red decorations and a bonfire in the backyard, symbolizing the fire-y arrival of the Holy Spirit?  No? 
  • Well, then surely you’re going to take advantage of the many Pentecost sales going on at department stores and car dealerships?  No? 

It seems to me that, as a holiday, Pentecost is a failure.  It is the third major Christian holiday, after all.  Christmas and Easter are both part of our national life; even those who are not Christians know about Christmas and Easter.  At the very least, they know that something’s different and special about those days.  (Sometimes that’s all that Christians know, too!)

But who knows what Pentecost is?  Pastors, church musicians and Sunday School teachers.  Maybe a few of you very devoted church members.  Pentecost was (and still is) a Jewish holiday, coming 50 days after Passover, celebrating both the spring harvest and the giving of the Law to Moses.  For Christians, Pentecost comes 50 days after Easter.  It celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the followers of Jesus, the result of which was the post-Easter mission of the early Christian movement.  In other words, the birth of the church. 

There’s not much hoopla, though, for such an important day.  As far as holidays go, Pentecost is something of a failure.  

Furthermore, we seem to have gotten the whole story mixed up.  In the Book of Acts, we’re told that the Holy Spirit came upon the community of Jesus-followers with the sound of a “rushing wind”  “Divided tongues, as of fire” rested on each of them.  Filled with the Spirit, it says, the disciples began to speak in “other tongues.” 

What comes to our minds is that they are “speaking in tongues,” as Paul mentions in his letters.  What he calls “speaking in tongues” is unintelligible speech, prayer and praise language that isn’t understandable to listeners.  Its official name is “glossolalia.”  Paul lists it as one of the gifts of the Spirit, which is one reason we associate it with Pentecost.  Another reason is that some Christians still speak in tongues and we call them Pentecostals or Pentecostalists. 

But what happened among the early Christians was very different than speaking in tongues.  In fact, it was the opposite.  Jews in Jerusalem from many different countries and language groups understood, each in their own language, what the followers of Jesus were saying. They marveled: "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?" Rather than being unintelligible speech, it was supremely intelligible speech.

Not only is Pentecost a failure as a holiday, we don’t even get the story straight. 

But we can hardly be blamed.  The actual text itself doesn’t make much sense, according to biblical scholars.   The visitors to Jerusalem that witness the effect of the Holy Spirit on the disciples is notoriously difficult to pronounce and, according to Prof. Jacob Myers, nothing short of “wonky.”  Myers says they are “a motley patchwork of Elamites, Cretans, and Arabs sewn together with folks from Egypt, Libya, and Rome. 

Many commentators have tried to make sense of the list, searching for patterns that Luke may have been trying to communicate.  Some say the list comprises a geographical symbol of the known world, or is meant to be seen as the points of a compass with Jerusalem at the center.  Others have wondered if it’s an interpretation of some earlier list, or as a reflection of a political situation unknown to us.  But the idea that there is a pattern to Luke’s jumbled collection of ethnicities truly unravels when we note that two of the groups named – the Medes and the Elamites -- had been out of existence for centuries before the Pentecost experience occurred or Luke wrote about it. 

It’s possible, I suppose, that Luke was a terrible historian and just didn’t know what he was talking about.  But that would certainly contradict all that I have come to learn about the Bible and its writers, which is that they know exactly what they’re talking about; it’s just that we don’t know how to read it. 

So if Luke meant to put this odd list of nations and ethnicities together, this collection of people that defies geography and history…why did he do it?  Could it be that he was giving us a clue?  He was setting the stage for something truly incredible to happen?  Something beyond our ability to imagine? Something we could never control or plan for? 

Certainly we humans like making plans, and like thinking that we have enough control over our lives to fulfill our plans.

It is the time of year when the question “What are your plans?” is heard often, too often for most of those of whom it is asked.  “What are your plans”  “What are you going to do next year?” Seniors in high school and college wish we would stop asking it.  It makes them nervous.  It makes those of us who ask it sound like all of their mothers, put together. 

We know this, but we ask them anyway.  We ask, even though we are fully aware that, truly, nobody knows what his or her own future is.  There might be a college acceptance or plans for graduate school, there might be a job waiting or – more likely these days – an unpaid internship.  But even when we have plans, even when we have imagined the future, our planning is inadequate.  Inevitably we fall far short of what is actually in store.

“What are your plans?” we ask, when what we usually mean is “We hope you find the right job, or the right location, or the right person. We hope you find success, not in terms of money – although having enough is important – but in terms of your calling.  We hope you find the role that God has created you for. We hope you find your calling.” 

We mean all that, but it’s too difficult and personal to say all that, so we settle for “What are your plans?”

David Brooks, columnist for The New York Times, wrote an article at graduation time a few years ago entitled “It’s Not About You.”  He wrote about the commencement addresses he had seen or heard or read, and how graduates were being told to “follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself.  The implication,” Brooks said, is that young adults “should (and can) first find themselves and then go off and live their quest.” 

But who, at age 18 or 20 or 22, can A) take that inward journey in the first place; and B) emerge from it having discovered a mature, developed self?  Those who truly find their callings, who meet with true success, not just a big paycheck, don’t do it by looking inside and then planning their lives.  They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life. 

·        “A relative suffers from Alzheimer’s and a young woman feels called to help cure that disease.

·        A young man works under a miserable boss and must develop management skills so his department can function.

·        Another young woman finds herself confronted by an opportunity she never thought of in a job category she never imagined. This wasn’t in her plans, but this is where she can make her contribution.”

“Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life,” Brooks says. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually” by their response to that problem.

When Jesus died, the disciples could see no other future than the one that looked like the past.  Even after his resurrection appearances, the problem was that he was gone.  They could not imagine what would happen or who they could be without him. 

But 50 days later, on the first Pentecost, the Spirit rested upon them and their imaginations were turned loose.  Their lives were the solution to that problem, their new lives of witnessing, preaching, healing the sick and building the Christian community.  The Spirit empowered them to do what they’d never done before, what they didn’t even know they could do.  They hadn’t made plans for this, they hadn’t prepared, they hadn’t studied or passed exams or gotten licensed.    

How did they get from here to there?  From then to now?  How did we get from here to there?  From a tiny band of leaderless followers in Jerusalem to the world’s largest religion, lasting now 2,000 years? 

Peter, the bad-boy disciple who never seemed to get anything right, got this one right.  He realized what the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost meant:  God has poured out the Spirit on all flesh;

  • with the power of the Holy Spirit even youth see with wisdom,
  • even the elderly dream brand new dreams,
  • even slaves have powerful insight. 

The Holy Spirit calls even the most unlikely persons to be instruments of God’s own hand, healers of God’s own people, builders of God’s own kingdom.

Think of it this way: on that Pentecost Day so long ago, the Spirit did not change the world, the Spirit changed the disciples.  Not one thing in their world was different: the Romans still ran the show, life was still nasty, brutish and short, death was still certain and often painful.  All the disciples but one were martyred for their faith.  None of those facts changed.  What the Spirit changed was the disciples, enabling and empowering them to live as changed people in an unchanged world.  It wouldn’t have been possible for them to do it on their own, and they certainly couldn’t have imagined that they would do it, but with the power of the Holy Spirit, they found they were capable of being the body of Christ.

The Rev. Peter Gomes says that his definition of a Christian is “to be a changed man or a changed woman in an unchanged world.  Anyone can be a Christian in a Christian world,” he says, but in case you haven’t noticed, that’s not the kind of world we live in.  We live in “a fallen world, a secular world, a sordid world, a shabby world, and it happens to be the only world that we have.  That’s it.  To be a Christian in it is to be changed in the middle of that which is unchanged.”

Luke’s Pentecost narrative in the Book of Acts really doesn’t make much sense.

  • He includes a list of people who would never – and could never – have actually gotten together in one place. 
  • They observe the Spirit-filled disciples and accuse them of being drunk.  The explanation that Peter gives is that the disciples couldn’t be drunk: it’s only 9:00 in the morning.  As if it might have been a reasonable explanation of their behavior at noon! 
  • And there’s this odd description of what the Holy Spirit looked like: “divided tongues, as of fire, rested on each of them.” 

Every Christian holiday has its artistic theme.  At Christmas, it’s the Holy Family in the stable, surrounded by animals and shepherds and often the Wise Men and their gifts.  At Easter, it’s the empty tomb, the surprised women, the angel or angels (depending on the gospel) pointing upward. 

The artwork depicting Pentecost is not nearly as popular or recognizable...which befits this 3rd holiday that lags so far behind the other two.  Usually what we see is a circle of the disciples – oddly calm given what’s going on – with little flames dancing above each head.  It looks absolutely implausible.  Even more unlikely than a baby in a manger or an empty tomb. What was Luke thinking?

A flame burns on the end of a stick or a match.  Even if we concede that we’ve entered the realm of artistic imagination, why not on the disciples’ fingers?  “This Little Light of Mine…”

Ah, points out the well-known preacher Rev. James Forbes, if we’re holding a match, we can always blow the flame out.  When the fire of the Spirit rests on our heads, it’s safe from the extinguishing effect of our small plans and limited imaginations. 

Tomorrow we all get a day off.  I know, it’s Memorial Day, not Pentecost Day.  Even if it’s not officially in honor of the Holy Spirit, I hope you will take a moment – maybe early in the day before the grilling and the parades have started – take a moment to consider what problem exists that you are being called to address. 

  • What absence might be filled by your presence?
  • What need might be eased by your gift?
  • What miscommunication might be straightened out by your willingness to go first? 
  • What sorrow might be lessened by your love? 
  • Who might you turn out to be, and what plan might be fulfilled, if you could let go of your plan for success and say yes to the Spirit’s?

Truly, we can’t begin to imagine what lies ahead!




Jacob Myers. Commentary on Acts 2:1-21. Posted at May 27, 2012.

Frank L. Crouch. Commentary on Acts 2:1-21. Postedd at May 24, 2015.

Peter J. Gomes. Strength for the Journey: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living. HarperOne. 2004.

David Brooks. “It’s Not About You.”  The New York Times. May 30, 2011.