A Meditation on Acts 2 and the Festival of Pentecost
I have a very particular picture in mind as I hear the Pentecost story this morning: it’s a large, framed picture hanging in a hallway in my childhood church in Boston. Pentecost. And all the disciples are there, somewhere in Jerusalem, in a dark room; their faces are turned upward, a few dazzled, many frightened, some kind of curious. And hovering above them, just above the tips of their noses, is flock of flaming tongues.
Now I remember standing before that picture almost every Sunday. Ten, eleven, twelve years old. Flaming tongues? What in the world was going on in there? Was that church? And I kept waiting for something to happen—something in my church, something on Sunday morning—that resembled what was happening in that picture. But friends, here’s a news flash. New England Yankees, Congregational Bostonians don’t dazzle easily; and if we’re frightened we don’t show it. Our faith was sober for the most part. And our Jesus was polite, a button-down kind of guy. Our worship was, from week to week, pretty predictable. So frightened faces, dazzled disciples, flaming tongues? No, not for us, not for New England’s Yankees. So I waited and I waited for fireworks—but to no avail. And it was a huge mystery to me: what this strange picture was doing in our church hallway. I stood there. I looked it up and down. And I just didn’t get it.
It’s Tuesday night in Santa Cruz. Five days ago. For our Jewish friends: Shavuot, the Day of First Fruits, the Festival of Weeks. Or for some, Pentecost. And this year, we’re keeping the feast together, Jews and Christians. Right over here in the Lounge. Remember our own text, Acts 2? How it’s the day of Pentecost when the disciples are in one place, and all these others from across the Mediterranean basin are gathering in the city, fixing to celebrate? That’s Shavuot. That’s Pentecost. And most importantly, for Jews, it recalls the day God gave the Torah to the entire people—all of them—at Mount Sinai. Revelation. In the wilderness.
And graciously, Chadeish Yameinu, the Jewish Renewal Community that worships right here at FCC, invites several of us to celebrate Shavuot, Pentecost with them. All night long. Because that’s their tradition: to gather on Shavuot after dark, and to study Torah and sing the old songs and revel in the revelation all night long. There’s some drumming involved, some midnight stargazing, and food too, all kinds of first fruits.
Never done this before. Never celebrated Pentecost all night long. But what an opportunity! What a gift! And what a way to appreciate their Jewish traditions—and ours!
And just as we’re getting started, one of our Jewish hosts puts the whole thing in perspective, the whole Shavuot, Pentecost thing. And he’s got a huge, warm, bearded smile. Seems like a mystic. And he says, “It’s kind of like we’re born as a people at the Red Sea; and we get married to God, married to the Mystery, married to the Eternal, at Sinai.” Born at the Red Sea. Married at Sinai. And he pauses for a moment, maybe for effect, this mystic, and then he says: “The rabbis like to say that what happens at Sinai is just this: God kisses us. God kisses us. So there’s nothing between us and God at Sinai: no veil, no idol, no ritual, no thing. At Sinai, with the Torah, God kisses us.”
And friends, that’s Shavuot, that’s Pentecost. Shining in the memory of any biblical people—and that has to include us—is this experience of God kissing us, this experience of God speaking words of life and courage to us. Not easy words, mind you: they have to do with resistance and courage; they have to do with generosity and nonviolence; they have to do with discipline and restraint. Reacquaint yourself with those ten commandments. But the Torah is life, the Torah is courage, the Torah is this kiss. We are married to the Mystery, married to the Eternal, married to the Great I Am. And our hearts—all our biblical hearts—beat to the rhythm of that Mystery.
There’s a lovely line in the Sinai story where God says to the people: “I bear you on eagle’s wings and carry you to myself.” Isn’t that something? “I bear you on eagle’s wings and carry you to myself.” Life’s hard, but we are not bereft. Nights are long, but we are not alone. “I bear you on eagle’s wings and carry you to myself.” That’s Shavuot. That’s Pentecost.
So it’s late Tuesday night, might have been the wee hours of Wednesday morning, and I’m listening to this teaching about marriage, about intimacy, about God. I’m pretty sure my mouth’s hanging wide open, my jaw’s on the floor. Nothing separates us from the love of God. Sinai. God kisses us.
And I get it. That’s what this is about, this whole Pentecost thing, this whole spiritual tornado, rocking the disciples’ world, with tongues of fire, and an explosion of languages; that’s what it’s all about. It’s not about burying Judaism and raising Christianity to some kind of exalted status among religions. And it’s not about burying my Yankee forebears all over again and insisting that real religion is wild and loud and on fire with craziness. This whole Pentecost thing is about God coming close. It’s about God choosing us and blessing us and feeding us and instructing us again. It’s a marriage: a marriage of the mystical and physical, a marriage of the mind and body, a marriage of Jesus and community, a marriage of justice and mercy, a marriage of vision and voice. It’s all one now. Heaven and earth. You and me. East and west. God and life. That’s the kiss. That’s the kiss. And that’s Pentecost.
I learned a couple other things Tuesday night that I want to share with you this morning. I learned that the old rabbis say that if God had spoken with just one voice at Sinai, that one voice—God’s mind-boggling magnificence—would have shattered the world itself. Humankind just couldn’t hear it or bear it. Not one voice. Instead, the rabbis like to say that the wonder of revelation consists of six hundred thousand different qualities of voice. I don’t know how they got that number; but I’m going to take their word for it. Six hundred thousand qualities of God’s voice, qualities that are registered by each listener. By each of us.
So think about that. God allows that one voice to be refracted into hundreds of thousands of voices, nuanced and shaded, tuned to the particular passions and sensitivities of each listener. Each one of us. I’m mixing the metaphors (and similes) a bit; but God’s revelation is like a stunning, dazzling diamond. Six hundred thousand surfaces, each refracting that one light, that one love, that one grace in all kinds of ways, in all kinds of language, in all kinds of people.
And it’s right there in the Pentecost story, too, isn’t it? You’ve got all these folks, from all over the world, and they’re all hearing good news, courage and peace in their own particular languages. God’s deeds of power. Parthians and Judeans, Egyptians and Libyans, Romans and Arabs. The Holy Spirit catches the great light of love and refracts it in a thousand ways—so that all the world, all God’s world can be healed and bathed in that one light. Now I’m telling you, if that’s what it means to be a Pentecostal people, if that’s what it means to claim a Pentecostal faith, count me in. I want a faith that catches that great light and refracts it in a thousand ways. I want a Jesus whose passion, whose purpose is the healing of all the world. Enough with judgment and division and violence. It’s time for a Pentecostal faith.
And for you and me? What does this mean? I think it means that you know the language of God already. Don’t be fooled. Don’t let religious bigots tell you they’ve got your answer. Don’t let late-night know-it-alls tell you they know God’s will for your life. You know the language of God already. You were there at Sinai. We were all there at Sinai.
Here’s what I mean. I was sitting over a bowl of cereal one morning this week. Early morning. And I looked up just in time, just in time, to see my thirteen-year-old daughter pirouetting, dancing elegantly across the kitchen to the refrigerator. She was just going for a glass of milk. But she made going for a glass of milk an act of such grace, such wonder, such exuberance—that I dropped my spoon and splashed steamy oatmeal all over myself.
You see, Fiona knows the language of God. She hears it, she speaks it. Not the way I speak it, necessarily. Not the way you speak it, necessarily. But she hears what God’s saying. In her life. In her flesh. In her heart.
And the same is true of you and me. God speaks to you in ways you can hear and understand, in the language of joy, in the rhythm of wonder and the cadence of passion. You might hear Her in the sound of silence. You might hear Her in rap and hip hop and a jazz riff in church. You might hear Her in a sonata or a requiem or a great old hymn we don’t sing much anymore. But you know the language. It rises and falls with your breath. It’s like the match that sets your soul on fire. The Holy Spirit catching the great light of love and refracting it just right—so you can see and hear and understand. That’s the kiss. God’s kiss. And there you are.
In the end, what Pentecost is really all about is bringing Jesus into the very center of our lives. Not Jesus as some kind of religious zealot or nutty prophet of the end-times. But Jesus as love. Jesus as light. Jesus as God’s passion for justice. God kisses us—and all that love, all that light, all that passion is ours again. We come to realize and then to cherish our own giftedness, our own blessedness, our own power as children of God. And we turn toward the world—to give ourselves away as servants of the poor, as makers of peace, as dancers and artists and poets of the light.
This spring, during our Lenten series on Jesus, I came across a Thomas Moore quote that goes with me now, wherever I go. It goes like this:
“A Jesus ego is not centered only on personal choice and responsibility, but also rooted in relatedness and always aware of a larger mission. Today it’s tempting to numb ourselves against the horrors that are reported in the news every day, to disown our mutual interdependence. But the Jesus way is to feel the despair and, out of the resulting disturbance, make a difference in the world.”
I believe—with all my heart—that that’s the Pentecostal faith. Rooted in relatedness. Aware of a larger mission. Acquainted with this mutual interdependence. And making a difference in the world. God kisses us that we may be God’s beloved in that world. That we may be God’s partners in its healing. May be it ever, ever be so. Amen.