Sunday, May 19, 2024

Day of Pentecost
Rev. Brent Gundlah

First Reading (Ezekiel 37:1-14/NRSVUE)
Second Reading (Acts 2:1-21/NRSVUE)

Creatio de novo is a theological term that means “creation without the use of any preexisting materials” or “creation from the new.” Because the early church fathers (yeah, sadly they were all men) spoke and wrote in Latin, this term was formulated and passed down through the centuries in that ancient language (stuff tends to sound really important in Latin and theologians like to sound important).

The standard Christian doctrine of creation, such as it is, asserts that God made all things from the new (de novo) or, if you happen to be a glass half empty type of person, from nothing (yeah, they had a Latin term for that too: ex nihilo). Either way, the point is that God didn’t just work with whatever God already had lying around.

That’s all well and good, I suppose, but the opening verses of Genesis, from the account of creation the Bible gives us, don’t actually say anything of the sort; rather they tell us that “when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the waters,” which implies that the formless void and deep waters were somehow already there.

Now, did God create those things — you know, the formless void and the deep waters from nothing? Yeah, that’s plausible; in fact, as Christian dogma goes, if we assume that God is the ultimate Creator, that’s the only way it could have happened. And yet, at least when it comes to the heavens and the earth, contrary to what we may have been taught or what we might otherwise believe, there seems to have been preexisting material for God to work with. The same could be said about Pentecost.

Hopefully, the red stole I’m wearing made you think that something unusual might be going on in here this morning (other than that your pastor might accessorizing in new ways, that is). And, indeed, there is something out of the ordinary about today. This red, together with the bright oranges and yellows on the altar table, symbolize the fire of Pentecost, the day upon which we commemorate the appearance of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’s disciples. This day has often been acknowledged as the birthday of the Christian church (though these first believers weren’t referred to as “Christians” yet).

Pentecost is one of the “moveable feasts,” the church holidays that float throughout the calendar — their dates dictated by when Easter falls in any given year. For those of you keeping score either in the pews or at home, Pentecost is always fifty days after Easter.

But Pentecost had been around long before the day on which the Holy Spirit decided to show up there in Jerusalem — and even longer before Christians decided to refer to it as the church’s birthday.

“Pentecost” is the Greek word for “fiftieth,” and it is the name that Greek-speaking Jews of that time and place used to refer to the Jewish Festival of Weeks, which is celebrated fifty days after Passover. In those days, the Festival of Weeks was one of the three pilgrimage festivals that brought tons of people to Jerusalem every year (Passover and the Festival of Booths, being the other two), which is the reason there’s a giant crowd on hand in our story for today.

By this point in history, Pentecost had become the day on which the Jewish people celebrated the giving of the law (you know, the directions for living in covenant with one another and with God). The Book of Exodus tells that, on that morning when Moses began his climb to fetch those Ten Commandments, “Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire.”

And so when God’s Holy Spirit drops in many centuries later to visit Jesus’s followers in today’s story from Acts, we probably shouldn’t be too surprised that this appearance takes place amidst divided tongues of — you guessed it — fire. Smoking mountains, burning bushes and now flaming tongues; for some reason, God seems to think that fire is great way of letting people know that God has arrived. Oh, and let’s not forget the “sound like the rush of violent wind” that came from heaven, which harkens back to that wind from God that swept over the waters in the beginning; the wind is another calling card that God uses frequently throughout the Hebrew scriptures. 

But even longer before Pentecost became either the celebration of the Law or the Christian church’s so-called birthday, it was the day on which the Jewish people honored God for dependably providing food for them to eat. As God says to them in Deuteronomy, “Begin to count the seven weeks [or fifty days] from the time the sickle is first put to the standing grain. Then you shall keep the Festival of Weeks to the Lord your God, contributing a freewill offering in proportion to the blessing that you have received from the Lord your God. Rejoice before the Lord your God — you and your sons and your daughters, your male and female slaves, the Levites resident in your towns, as well as the strangers, the orphans, and the widows who are among you — at the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and diligently observe these statutes.” And this is really important.

Remember that you were once a slave in Egypt. Remember what it felt like to be a stranger in a strange land, without food and a place to stay. So offer what you can from what you’ve been given in order to feed others; celebrate God’s grace towards you and towards everyone else. Gather everyone — from your family to complete strangers — and meet at God’s dwelling place, where all are welcome.

It kind of sounds like that celebration of Pentecost we read about today, doesn’t it? You know, the one where devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem gathered, and barriers of language and culture were broken down, and Peter preached the words of the prophet Joel, saying, among other things, that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Sure, Pentecost changed a bit over the years — starting out as the harvest festival at which the Jewish people celebrated God’s abundant grace toward their community; becoming the day for celebrating the covenant promises God invited the people to make among themselves and with their God; and later becoming the day on which God’s Holy Spirit appeared to the nations of Jews who had now come together despite having been scattered to the four winds by war and politics and strife.

But there is a common thread that connects all of these ways of understanding Pentecost across time: it’s always been, above all else, about bringing people together in God’s name, about celebrating our connections to one another and to God. The later ways of thinking about Pentecost don’t diminish the earlier ones, they add richness and breadth and depth to the meaning of the day. Pentecost is an ancient tradition, but traditions that don’t evolve eventually become irrelevant and die.

The Pentecost of our Christian churches definitely wasn’t created anew, it didn’t come from nothing; it’s as old as time, but it’s changed over time and, as it’s changed, it mirrors and celebrates the fact that God is always doing new things to inspire us to live into eternal ideals like unity and inclusivity in new ways. 

When Luke tell us that “devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem” came together that Pentecost day, he’s trying to convey the universality of that event. They didn’t speak the same language, they didn’t shared the same culture, they didn’t live in the same place — heck, they didn’t actually like each other very much. But they gathered, drawn together by something bigger than themselves, even if they didn’t fully comprehend it.

As the story of Acts unfolds, that idea of universality in our relationships with each other and with God will be expanded further still — beyond the small group of Jesus’s first disciples, beyond all of the Jewish nations mentioned here, to the Gentiles and to the whole world. And as the circle is drawn ever-wider, the challenges hinted at in today’s story from Acts grow too; working for unity amidst our diversity has proven over time to be an increasingly difficult thing to do.

When Peter, quoting the prophet Joel, declares that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved,” neither Peter nor Joel could have appreciated the implications of these words in the long run, as the widening circle they envisioned grew far wider than they could have possibly imagined from the in their place and time.

And what about us in our place and time? On this day when we welcome new members to our church community, as we expand that circle of relationship with one another and with God just a little bit further, what will that circle look like and be like and feel like as it continues to grow? It’s tough to say, really.

All we can do is remain open to the work of Holy Spirit as it brings new people and perspectives and possibilities and potential into the community we share, as it pushes us to live into our commitment to be open and affirming — even though that means we’ll end up being changed in the process. And that’s the way it’s supposed to go.

I mean isn’t it obvious that this has been God’s plan all along?