Sermon: Becoming Spirit-filled witnesses

By Joanna Lawrence Shenk

Pentecost Sunday, Acts 2:1-21

There is so much going on in this text that it’s hard to know where to start this sermon:

  • with the violent wind
  • or flames of the Spirit
  • or people speaking in other languages
  • or the prophetic words from Joel, with their apocalyptic imagery…

So I will start at the very beginning, “When the day of Pentecost had come.”

What was Pentecost to the Jewish people who were gathered? We know what Christians say about it. That it’s the birthday of the church, but it was a holiday long before Christianity existed.

I did some research, including talking to our resident Jewish scholar Andrew Ramer, and found some things that deepened my understanding and illuminate a path toward humble and Spirit-filled Christian witness.

Pentecost is a Greek word referring to the 50 days since Passover. But the older and Hebrew name for the holiday is Shavuot, which means “the feast of weeks” which is celebrated seven weeks after Passover. It is an agrarian festival celebrating the first fruits of the grain harvest and it is also in commemoration of the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. This was when Moses received the five books of Moses or at least the 10 Commandments from God. It is a celebration of Divine revelation and Israel’s covenant with God.

Last night Congregation Sha’ar Zahav had a Shavuot celebration and people stayed until midnight. They had a Torah study session with Joy Ladin, based on her book The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective.

The practice of staying up all Shavuot night to study Torah – known as Tikkun Leil Shavuot (Hebrew: תקון ליל שבועות) – has its source in the Midrash, and comes out of the mystic Jewish tradition. It relates that the night before the Torah was given, the Israelites retired early to be well-rested for the momentous day ahead. They overslept and Moses had to wake them up because God was already waiting on the mountaintop. To rectify this failing, many religious Jews stay up all night to learn Torah… or at least until midnight like what happened here last night.

With this background in mind it does not seem a coincidence that the early followers of Jesus connected the coming of the Spirit with the celebration of the giving of Torah. Both are about the Divine breaking into human experience with power and vision.

An article that Andrew Ramer wrote on Shavuot begins with a quote by Rabbi Isaac Mier Alter, well known for his commentary on Hebrew scriptures.

“The giving of Torah happened at one specific time, but the receiving of Torah happens all the time, in every generation.”

Pentecost was one of these ongoing revelations to a community that was struggling to overcome their fear and make sense of God’s revelation through Jesus of Nazareth. Although there is no way of historically prove the events of this Pentecost, one thing is for sure, the followers of Jesus at that time were not trying to start a different religion. They were connecting themselves to the ongoing revelation of God to humanity as articulated by their tradition. Given that the writer of Acts authored this book decades following the event, he had the hindsight to interpret it through the experience of the early church.

What does it mean for our Christian witness to understand the text through this lens? On the one hand it is a downer because it majorly throws into question the traditional Christian understanding that Pentecost is the birth of the church. On the other hand, I think it breathes new life and power into a celebration of Spirit liberated from the confines of Christian triumphalism.

To these ends Sarah Nahar, who preached at my ordination last year, had this to say,

“Pentecost does not replace Shavuot. Rather, we are re-placing our theologies in connected religious movements. [We are] connecting our stories because of our shared roots…our shared experiences as Earth-based religious practices that pay attention to the seasons and that celebrate the dynamic motion of God in the world.

Thinking about our traditions in dynamic motion rather than part of a ‘forward march of progress’ can lead us to our shared human experience of vulnerability on this planet and toward authentic interaction. We need each other for survival, and we have to figure out how to live on this planet with people of different and similar truth claims.”

Some scholars suggest that a more accurate title for this book of the Bible would be “The Acts of the Holy Spirit” because it is about the power of God working through humble people to transform the world.

So let’s take a closer look at the text. What words of truth and power are here for us? How might the Divine be speaking through these ancient texts today?

They were together in one place (vs. 1)—they were in one accord, they had spiritual unity. They were offering a counter-narrative to the oppressive status quo. They were in agreement that Jesus of Nazareth had been a witness to God’s redeeming work in the world. They believed that he showed the way to a life liberated from the bonds of oppression and sin. They knew that he had been a threat to the powerful and that the intent was to snuff out his movement.

The spirit comes and they are speaking new/different languages (vs. 2-4)—They come out of hiding and have a powerful word. The dynamic motion of God’s Spirit reveals a spoken word, reminding people who are celebrating the written word (Torah) that Divine revelation is not contained in just one or the other. Do we serve a living God? Do we believe that Divine power is active in our world? In this text the Spirit was acting… it was filling them and giving them the ability to speak. Rev. Barber says we need a new language, a deeper language, a more powerful language in these days to name the sin of our society and come out of hiding as people of faith. “None can stop the Spirit, burning now inside us…”

This was a radical reversal (vs. 6-13)—Galileans, the country folks, the poor, were speaking with authority. They are sneered at for being Galileans and assumed to be drunk. Who are they to have anything to say to us urban elites? And in speaking in many different languages, they were embodying God’s expansive desire to transform all people.

And then we have the prophesy from Joel (vs. 17-21)

The last days (vs. 17)—This might seem strange. The early followers of Jesus did believe that his return was imminent. So there was an urgency to the call to repentance. We can either laugh at that (because it obviously didn’t happen) or take seriously the “last days” that are happening among us due to climate change. Indeed these are the last days for many creatures and habitats on our planet. Science and technology alone will not save us, we need the power of God to confront this evil. Our sons and daughters are prophesying.

Where are you seeing God’s Spirit poured out in these days? Who are the visionaries? Who are the dreamers? I see this power in the elders and youth that are working together with Faith in Action to make housing affordable for our elders and grandparents. We are calling it “an action of faith for our grandparents.” We’ve been told in numerous research meetings that there isn’t any money for subsidies… that the city budget is fixed… that there’s nothing that can be done. But these Latina elders won’t take no for an answer. They have a vision of a San Francisco that cares for it’s grandparents, for the people who have worked decades in this city and deserve to live their elder years in peace. They are dreaming dreams and are empowered by the Spirit of God to believe that the impossible can happen. They are working people from the Mission, first and second generation immigrants struggling to stay in the city. And they have the gall to go to City Hall and speak with authority about the dignity elders deserve, and not back down. “Are not all those who are speaking Galileans?” My faith is strengthened through the power of their witness.

Signs and wonders (vs. 19-20)—The sun to darkness and the moon to blood. An Eclipse and a blood moon—acknowledging the power of the natural world. There is energy in these events and it’s our colonization by the powers of sin (white supremacy, settler colonialism) that separate us from their transformational power.

The Lord’s great and glorious day (vs. 20)—Judgement, justice. Christians understood it as when Christ would return, but the day of Lord is also understood in Hebrew scriptures to indicate Divine, apocalyptic judgment. In the biblical canon, the earliest, direct use of the phrase is in Isaiah 2: “For the day of the LORD of hosts shall be upon every one that is proud and lofty, and upon every one that is lifted up; and they shall be brought low” (Isaiah 2:12). The day of Lord is ushering in an order where the oppressed are liberated and those holding them in bondage are crushed. And I know that’s dicey to say in a Mennonite congregation. The people following Jesus were dispossessed of land and livelihood, they were under surveillance by the powers that be, they were cruelly punished for any uprising and they sensed only an act of God could lose the grip of oppression on their lives. There were many insurrectionary movements happening before and after the life of Jesus and banditry was commonplace. That’s why they asked Jesus in Acts 1 if this was the time when he would restore the kingdom of Israel. They were eagerly awaiting the day of the Lord.

Calling on the name of the Lord (vs. 21)—This is an insurrectionary statement. For Jewish people it harkens all the way back to their origins as a nomadic people without a king ruling over them. God was their Lord, not a king. And followers of Jesus named him as Lord in defiance of Cesar who was worshiped as Lord and God. Calling on the name of the Lord defies the lordship of market forces and white supremacy and settler colonialism. It’s an act of humility, acknowledging a power greater than ourselves that is at work in the world.

It wasn’t just a spiritual transformation—this in-breaking of the Divine changed people’s material realities. At the end of Acts chapter two people are selling their properties and possessions (a very big deal… just like if we did that today) and were sharing everything in common. There was an urgency and a willingness to act. It was another way that the Spirit was bringing about reversal and equity.

The poor country people were speaking with authority. The young, the old, the economically disenfranchised were dreaming dreams, having visions and were prophesying. People were divesting from the means of exploitation and sharing with each other. They were praying together and eating together and worshiping together.

This is the power of the Divine, dynamically acting in history, inviting creation (us) into a cosmic dance of renewal and rebirth. Our ancient stories celebrate these times of transformation. We are in a moment now that demands visions and dreams. We need a new language and a unity across dividing walls to overcome the weight of sin that so thickly permeates our world. With Rev. Barber I believe that only a movement with Divine power can break the bonds of injustice. The Spirit is at work.

Let us pray for spiritual unity, that we will be ready when the rushing wind comes. Let us pray for ears to hear the prophets among us. Let us pray for the courage to be spirit-filled witnesses like the early Anabaptists. Let us pray for the Spirit to come down and set all people free! AMEN