“In the last days,” God says, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams.
(Preached on Sunday, June 4, 2017)
Well known Disciples of Christ preacher, Fred Craddock, was asked to give a lecture a few years ago at a seminary in California. Just before the lecture, one of the students stood up and said, “Before you speak, I need to know if you are Pentecostal.” The room grew silent. Craddock said he looked for the Dean of the seminary, but he was nowhere to be found in the room! The student continued with his quiz right in front of everybody. Craddock was taken aback, and so he said, “Do you mean do I belong to the Pentecostal Church?” He said, “No, I mean are you Pentecostal?” Craddock said, “Are you asking me if I am charismatic?” The student persisted, “I am asking you if you are Pentecostal.” Craddock said, “Do you want to know if I speak in tongues?” He said, “I want to know if you are Pentecostal.” Craddock said, “I don’t know what your question is.” To which the student said, “Obviously, you are not Pentecostal,” and left.
In truth, the student’s question is a good one. We can’t simply use the noun “Pentecost.” We dare not just celebrate a word that represents a date or an event in the history of the church. “Pentecost” cannot simply be a memory of something that happened back there somewhere. When the church is being true to its birth and its creation the word describes the church. If the church is alive in the world it is Pentecostal! And you thought we were simply United Church of Christ!!! No, we are also Pentecostal! We are Pentecost People! But what does it mean to say we are “Pentecostal?” What does it mean to say we are Pentecost people?
Pentecost people are those who overcome our differences through prayer and the power of God’s Holy Spirit. The history of humanity is a story of division. The story of the Tower of Babel is symbolic of our divisions. The people on earth plot together to use their technology to build a huge tower, greater than anything ever built or imagined, in order to show God that they are in control. (Sound familiar? We have continued to do that same thing in every age and especially today. Just think of the world wide web; space travel; robotics and artificial intelligence; skyscrapers to rival the Tower of Babel; and on and on.) God is so offended by their self-possessed arrogance that God scatters them across the face of the earth and confuses their languages in order that they might never cooperate again in rebelling against their Creator. Since that ancient time humanity appears doomed to ethnic and cultural conflict and strife. This past year has seen the rise of nationalism and isolationistic tendencies that we had thought were behind us.
But this is not the world God intended when God created it. God created everything with an order to it, a balance, and a unity and God created everything “good.” The history of God is a story of unity, of reaching out to people, of striving to bring people back together and restore that original oneness in Creation. Pentecost is the reverse of the Tower of Babel. It is a story of the healing of divisions.
Jerusalem, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, is swelled with foreigners arriving for the festival of Pentecost, celebrating the giving of the original Law of God to Moses on Mount Sinai. The followers of Jesus are all together in one place. They are waiting, they know not for what, and they are immersed in prayer. They are seeking God’s guidance; they are placing themselves at God’s disposal. They are not strategizing what to do next; they are not setting goals and developing objectives with plans of action. They are waiting on God. They are spending time, together, in prayer.
Henri Nouwen points out: “Many people tend to associate prayer with separation from others, but real prayer brings us closer to our fellow human beings. Prayer is the first and indispensable discipline of compassion precisely because prayer is also the first expression of human solidarity. Why is this so? Because the Spirit who prays in us is the Spirit by whom all human beings are brought together in unity and community.” In other words, prayer unifies. It brings people together and creates something greater than their individual realities.
The followers of Jesus are all together in prayer when suddenly they are overwhelmed by God’s Holy Spirit. To everyone’s astonishment, especially their own, these simple Galileans begin to preach, going forth into the streets to proclaim the good news of Jesus. Even more miraculously, everyone in Jerusalem understands them perfectly. People who cannot understand each other’s language and who despise each other’s culture comprehend the disciples’ joyful proclamation that we are all one in God. The miracle of Pentecost is that God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, forever reverses the Tower of Babel.
Fire, wind, and humble Galileans speaking persuasively in many languages were dramatic signs that God was doing a new thing that would transform the lives of all those present, and far beyond, in time and place. There have been remarkable displays of God’s Spirit in the Bible before, of course, with sound and light and amazing “special effects,” as we would call them today. But those events, like Moses on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments and Jesus being transfigured, had only a few witnesses, the most inside of insiders.
But here, at the dawn of a new era, on the birthday of a church called to spread to the ends of the earth, the display is for EVERYONE. Not just for the disciples, gathered in a room, getting themselves together after Jesus is once again departed. Not just for the holiest or the most faithful or the most learned; not just for the believers; not just for those who were with Jesus on the road or witnesses to his Resurrection. No, in this case, at this moment, “all flesh,” male and female, old and young, slave and free, are invited and included – and not just invited but expected to prophesy and dream, too!
The details in the story affirm this truth. The divided tongues of fire resting above each disciple indicate they each receive a portion of the Holy Spirit. The ability of all the people in Jerusalem to hear the good news in their own language indicates they are all included in this new thing God is doing. As we remembered in our Call to Worship this morning we are each given gifts from the Holy Spirit that we are to use for the good of the Church and for the work of God in this place and in the world.
We are used to associating gifts with birthday celebrations. But these gifts are slightly different because we receive them as signs of God’s dreams and visions for us. The first birthday in Korean tradition is often the most celebrated. Dol is a ceremony in which the child is blessed with a prosperous future. (We had the great privilege of celebrating Grace Roach’s dol a couple years ago.) Much of what happens at a child’s dol is centered on dreams, visions, and hopes for that child. This includes a “gift” table on which are scattered assorted objects that represent elements of prosperity, as well as the dreams and visions of the parents, grandparents, and others for that child. Traditional items include a paintbrush or book for wisdom; money for wealth; a long piece of thread for long life. Whatever the child chooses is the destiny the child claims. The dol table links children to the past, as the objects placed by the grandparents and parents embody their hopes for the child. The child, however, gets to interject their own visions among the buffet of hopes and dreams, as they do the choosing.
On Pentecost, the table has been set before us. We may have the ability to choose the objects before us, but it is God who sets the table. Sons and daughters will prophesy; the young will see visions; the elders will dream dreams; servants, men, and women will have the Spirit poured onto them. The good news is that we don’t have to choose. It is all made available to us – no matter our gender, age, or status. This Pentecostal event, the Spirit poured out among the people, grounds us in the past with the words of the prophet and launches us into the future with the call to dream dreams and see visions.
What is clear in Acts 2 is that a party is taking place – that dreams and visions are not meant to be dreamt alone but in a diverse community united in the Spirit. This task of dreaming involves all of us. We have each received a portion of the Spirit of God and are blessed with the gifts of our destiny, intended to help spread the Good News of God’s love for all people.