While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied— altogether there were about twelve of them.
Yesterday, the commentator David Brooks said, “This has been one of the worst weeks in our collective lives,” and few of us would disagree. Only the most callous hearted could shrug off the news of this week: that the number of Covid-19 victims passed 100,000, that this week an African-American man was killed by a policeman calmly kneeling on his neck, that this week Minneapolis and cities around the nation burned, that this week the President of the United States tweeted incendiary words of violent threat against our fellow citizens, that this week our world slid into darkness. The news of this week isn’t just “out there” happening to someone else; it is happening to us. There is not a person listening today who has not been affected by the pandemic: some of us have friends or family members who have died of Covid-19 and many of those listening have struggled with financial loss and worry. Even what should be a simple choice of wearing a mask versus not wearing a mask has become instead a complex issue of political alliance that each of us faces every time we walk out the door.
And the death of George Floyd and the broiling racial tensions of the past few weeks are personal as well. My son, John, who grew up in this church, is Black and no one here should make the mistake of thinking that just because John is the son of a minister and a wonderful guy who works at a good job and has no criminal record, that what happened to George Floyd would never happen to him. He lives every day knowing that some people will judge him first and sometimes only by the color of his skin, and I live every day knowing that for John, jogging through a white neighborhood, or a minor traffic violation could be a life and death choice. If you want to know what Black families thought and felt about the death of George Floyd, picture my son John under the knee of that policeman and maybe you will have a small glimpse of their grief. It can be terrifying to be a person of color in America today.
The news of this week isn’t just “out there” happening to someone else; it is happening to us.
In light of the horror of this week, it might seem odd to talk about Pentecost, a church holiday that doesn’t compete with Christmas and Easter on our most respected Christian holy days list. Pentecost is the day the church remembers the coming of the Holy Spirit to the apostles, an event that for most of us conjures images of people bursting out in tongues or rolling on the floor as they are slayed by the spirit. When the world is falling apart, however, we aren’t interested in personal emotional displays of faith. Privatized religion that comforts the believer but does nothing to heal the world feels self-centered right now so what can Pentecost have to say to us in our grief and despair?
When we pay attention to today’s scripture reading, however, we will realize that Pentecost is exactly the word we need right now because in the book of Acts, it is clear that God didn’t send the Holy Spirit for the disciples’ own personal use but God sent the Holy Spirit to help them create a new community. On the days before Pentecost, the disciples too, were coping with a world falling apart. Jesus had been brutally executed by the governmental and religious authorities and though God had resurrected him, Jesus had then ascended into heaven leaving his disciples to figure things out on their own. The disciples were confused about the way forward and they prayed day after day for God’s guidance. It was in response to that prayer that on the day of Pentecost, God sent them the Holy Spirit; not so that they could feel personally holy or have a mystical experience of being bathed in divine love, but to give them the skills that they would need to go out into the world and create God’s vision of a beloved community. We know that that was God’s intentions because after receiving the Holy Spirit, the disciples didn’t say, “Thank you, God, that was so cool. It was just the lift I needed right now,” and then go back home to their fishing. They went from that room out into the city where they talked to everyone they could find about Christ’s gospel of peace and grace in that person’s native tongue. You can’t build a society of justice and compassion for all people if you can’t understand each other and so God gave the disciples the tools they needed to do the work the world most needed from them.
Pentecost is not about personal religious experiences; Pentecost is about believing that God will give us the tools we need to change the world. And I don’t know about you, but I need to know right now that God promises to equip us with the strength, the wisdom, the skills, the boldness, and the persistence we will need to heal the awful brokenness of our communities.
I asked members of our congregation to read the passage in their native tongues today to to remind us that the story of Pentecost is one of finding unity in our diversity. Even in this one small congregation in Alfred, we have a diversity of nationalities, race, backgrounds, and experiences yet to be the body of Christ means to respect the diversity of its members and work for the unity of all of us. The gospel insists that what affects one member of the body affects us all, that there is no “them and us;” there is only “we.” The health care worker dying of Covid-19 is your sister, the small restaurant owner facing bankruptcy is your brother; the Asian-America spat on as she walks down the street is your sister, and George Floyd is your brother, your father, your son. To carry the grief of so many in our hearts can feel like an overwhelming burden which is why so many people turn away from that responsibility, but we cannot turn away because as Christians, it is our charge to think not of ourselves but always of others. God, however, has also given us a source of holy strength that will enable us to bear the heartache of the world without breaking: Pentecost declares that we have been given the Holy Spirit, the living and present strength of God in our lives who not only helps us to bear our grief but gives us a way of transforming that grief into meaningful work. No matter how bleak things seem, and we cannot deny that things feel bleak right now, God promises that we can rise from our grief to once again put our hands to the plow with the help of the Holy Spirit. The cities may be burning, the hospitals may be overflowing, social media may be enflamed with bigotry and ignorance, but God has not given up on us. Who are we to deny hope when the God of the universe continues to believe in us? And God not only continues to believe in us but continues to place God’s spirit in our hearts and in our hands to give us the tools we need to do God’s work to create a society that loves one another without judgment, that is grounded in justice for every person, that treats one another with decency and respect, and that strives always for peace.
With the help of the Holy Spirit, we will have the conviction to continue to try to care for one another no matter how complicated and hard that task might be.
With the help of the Holy Spirit, one day, we shall overcome.