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Pentecost Sunday – June 9, 2019
Anyone who is a chemist (or anyone who has paid close attention to the television program Breaking Bad) is certainly familiar with the term chiral or chirality. In chemistry, chirality refers to a geometric property of some molecules and ions are asymmetric in a way such that the structure and its mirror image are not superimposable. Human hands are perhaps the most universally recognized example of chirality. In fact, the word chiral is derived from the Greek word for “hands.” It was a term first used my Lord Kelvin, who used it in a lecture at Oxford in 1893.[i]
Today is Pentecost, the Sunday fifty days after Easter when Christians celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit as tongues of fire given to the eleven disciples who were gathered in Jerusalem. This Sunday that falls each year after Ascension Sunday is considered to be the birth of the Christian church. As such, Pentecost services often feature red paraments and stoles, yellow and orange flowers, images of wind (wind and spirit derive from the same word), and the chaotic sounds of people speaking many different languages at once, as the disciples did on that Pentecost day two thousand years ago.
Today I would like to discuss the chirality of Pentecost – how it is the mirror image of important events in the Hebrew Bible, and how these Jewish roots of Pentecost are so very important for how we understand what Pentecost means for how we understand what it means to be the church and its visible witnesses today.
Pentecost was an important day of the year, an important religious festival long before Christians ever claimed it is as one of our high holy days. Pentecost is Shavuot, the Jewish Festival of Weeks (Shavuot is the plural for the Hebrew word “week” or “seven” and it occurs a “week of weeks” after Passover). It has a dual significance, celebrating the wheat harvest in Israel as well as Moses’ giving the Torah to the nation of Israel who had gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai. The festival of Shavuot is the reason that the disciples as well as a crowd of Jewish people from all around the world had gathered in Jerusalem.
So, in today’s reading. the day of Pentecost arrives, and the disciples are gathered together “in one place,” as Luke tells it, and the Holy Spirit comes upon them like a mighty, rushing wind, and tongues as of fire lands on each one of them, and they start to speak, and it is reasonable to assume that they did not understand what one another were saying either, but those around them did. Luke tells us, “There were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. And at [the sound of the disciples speaking] the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”
And they are speaking about the miraculous acts of God, and the people respond. Luke goes on to tell us that 3,000 people become believers, join the movement, and are baptized, and Luke tells us even later that God continued to add to their numbers, numbers that include you and me.
Yet, it would be a mistake to regard the Holy Spirit as an actor who spends time during the unfolding narrative of the Bible waiting in the wings for Pentecost to trod the boards for the first time. Indeed, the Spirit is at work in scripture from the dawn of creation in Genesis 1 to Mary’s conceiving Jesus in Luke 1. As such, it is always a mistake to characterize Pentecost as the day that the Holy Spirit “arrives.” It isn’t. It is instead the day when disciples encounter the Holy Spirit in a new way, that empowers them to live in a new way as the church, and that enables them to see a chirality to the work of God in the past that no one had ever seen before.
To see the first evidence of chirality in this morning’s text, we look to our Old Testament reading from Genesis 11, wherein the author tells the story that explains the development of different languages across the earth. In what is often referred to as the story of the Tower of Babel, the people of earth all have “one language and the same words.” The people decide to construct a city with a tower so high that it will reach the heavens. According to the story, God becomes concerned that with one language, the people will be able to do anything they wish and as such, will become too powerful, so God “confuses” the language of the people so they cannot work together as they once did, and the construction of the city ceases. The area is called Babel, the root word for Babylon, a Hebrew word for “confuse.”
The second example of chirality in the Pentecost story comes from the 3,000 people who are converted by Peter’s preaching. Luke tells this part of the story in the verse following the ones I just read by saying “Now when they heard [Peter’s preaching], they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’ Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.’ And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’ So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
Anytime a number is used in a story in the Bible, it is important to pay attention to it because it almost always means more than it first appears. For example, the number forty can refer to the number of years the Israelites wandered in the desert as well as the number of days and nights it rained on Noah or the number of days Jesus fasted in the wilderness or the number of days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Twelve can refer to the number of the tribes of Israel or the number of Jesus’ disciples, and so on.
Which brings me back to Shavuot. Where on Pentecost God adds three thousand people, on the first Shavuot, God subtracts three thousand people. While Moses was atop the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments, which begin with the commandment to have no other gods, the people at the foot of the mountain are busy crafting an idol by making a calf out of melted gold. Moses descends from Mount Sinai and witnesses this and orders the Levites to unsheathe their swords and kill 3,000 of those committing idolatry. You can read about this in Exodus chapter thirty-two.
Thus, the chirality should be clear: in Genesis, God confuses the language of the people so that they cannot understand one another. On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit enables the people to speak and understand each other’s language. Whereas Shavuot tells the story of God taking away three thousand people, on Pentecost, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God adds three thousand people to the Jesus movement and the church is born.
I love Pentecost for a host of reasons. I love the reading from Acts, and how it is filled with sights and sounds and smells. I love the redemption of Peter from coward to courageous (and successful!) preacher. I love the story of the birth of the church, the Jesus movement on earth, and I love how each year, we gather in worship to give the Holy Spirit some much-overdue attention, celebration, and adoration. Pentecost is an annual opportunity to gather and to consider what wondrous things happen when the Holy Spirit is at work in our midst.
One day when my then three-year-old daughter Ellen and I were having lunch in Waynesboro, we learned that there was to be an African dance recital in a week or so at the Waynesboro Public Library, and we made the decision then and there that we had to go. I wanted to go for three reasons: the first was that Ellen and I both love music, the second was that I try to expose my daughter to as many different cultures as I can, and the third was that I was really curious how anyone could pull of African drums in a library. I have spent a good deal of time in libraries and had always learned to see libraries as somewhat cold, quiet, austere places with lots of shushing. I could not wait to see how those dancers were going to pull this off.
The dancers were from the University of Virginia African Music & Dance Ensemble, which consisted of college students of different races from all across the country. They were all wearing t-shirts and all had bare feet. Some were playing African instruments, which included some very big drums; others were demonstrating dances for us. The dances were all from West Africa, particularly Ghana. They all seemed to somehow tell the story of the communities they were from, and all of the dances were full of passion and energy and rejoicing.
They told us that before the recital was over, we all would have a chance to dance with the dancers. Now, I am no dancer, but I was willing to at least give it a try with Ellen, who was a week from turning four. When the time came for the audience to participate, Ellen amazingly in the midst of all of the sounds of those powerful drums, had fallen asleep on my shoulder, which meant no dancing for me that day. The instructor of this group told us that she was going to teach us a traditional dance from Ghana called “the dance in the middle of your back.”
The basic premise of this dance is that all off your body moves except for your back, which acts as the center of your motion. She told us that in Africa, women sometimes perform this dance with swaddled infants tied to their backs, and that some think that these babies begin to develop their sense of rhythm by being rocked back and forth while their mothers danced. After showing us the basic moves, the instructor invited the other dancers to demonstrate this dance to us.
The drums began to play, and the dancers began to dance, and they invited those present to join them in the dance. As they did, I looked around at all of the different people who were there together. There must have been sixty or so of us. There were public school children and their teachers, business men in their suits, a woman from the sheriff’s department with her sidearm in its holster, stay-at-home moms, those college students from all over the country, elderly women, and a United Methodist pastor with his three-year-old asleep on his shoulder. There were residents of a group home for mentally challenged adults and their caretakers. All together and enjoying the music and dance from a country half a world away.
As the music played and the dancers danced, those people, as if lifted by a strange and mysterious force, began to rise from their seats, and they began to dance.
I looked and I saw the children jump from their seats and dance, the elderly, the officer with her sidearm, the teachers and stay-at-home moms, the men in their business suits, all standing and smiling and laughing and dancing along with those college students the dance in the middle of their backs. I looked across the room and I saw those mentally challenged adults begin to rise from their seats to, unsure if they wanted to join in. There was a woman in their group, who slowly rose, and she looked around and she began to smile and she began to move, and she took off her coat and she handed it to the man standing next to her (and I don’t know if it was someone she even knew), and she too began to dance.
I sat there, looking around the room at all of that unadulterated joy, all of those different people from all of those different experiences and vocations and races and generations, all dancing together, and I remember thinking to myself, “This must be what heaven looks like.” This is what the power of the Holy Spirit means for the world. We were made to dance. We were made to rejoice.
This is the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst. The work of the Holy Spirit is joy and peace, new challenges, new blessings, and new life. The work of the Holy Spirit is renewal, it is God putting right that which is wrong, repairing that which is broken, breathing new life into the dry bones that are our lives.
In the gospels, Jesus tells us that job one of discipleship is to love God and that job two is to love our neighbors as ourselves, and even though he does not explicitly say so, I believe that job three for us as Easter people is to be so filled by the Holy Spirit that we rejoice. Too often, Christians and Christian congregations have let the world and our present circumstances steal our joy. We have chosen to weep when God calls us to laugh and to sit in our ashes when God is inviting us to dance. On Pentecost, God turns our mourning into dancing because by the power of the Holy Spirit, God reminds us that God is setting the world aright, giving us a common tongue of praise, new life, and new beginnings in our very midst, if only we have eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts open to receive.
This sermon series is called “The Visible Christian: Revealing Jesus to an Unbelieving World.” Sisters and brothers, even if we cannot work miracles like Jesus or even preach like Peter, we can, each of us and as a church together, be a joyous people. We can rejoice at what God has done for us, rejoice at the blessings of salvation, rejoice at the Holy Spirit’s movement in our midst. The church has tried dour long enough. It is time to choose visible joy and visible rejoicing and visible hope. Rejoicing is the language of God, and Pentecost is our annual reminder to speak it, our annual reminder that God is good, and that God’s kingdom is greater, more diverse, and more expansive, more inclusive, more wonderful than anything we can conceive. Peter knew this; it is why he quotes the prophet Joel and reminds us that “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”
It is the chirality of grace. In the midst of our division, the Holy Spirit brings unity. In the midst of our idolatry, the Holy Spirit brings our diverse voices together into a unified proclamation of praise to our savior.
The Holy Spirt is afoot, God is forever doing a new thing in our midst. Can we not perceive it?
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.
For the structure of this sermon, I owe a debt of gratitude to the Rev. Jason Micheli and his article on Pentecost found at his most wonderful blog. It is truly the best thing out there.