I know it’s a half-year away and that this is hardly the time to bring it up, and I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I want to take just a minute today to talk about that weird phenomenon that is “family Christmas.”
We all have an idea of what Christmas with our family is supposed to look like, right? We have our traditions, whether it’s gathering at a specific person’s house, or what we eat, or what we do. Every aspect of our celebrations is designed to be something warm and fuzzy and familiar. So maybe you’ve not thought too much about this, but you know, those traditions change, and have to.
When I was young, I would gather with my parents and my cousins and their parents all at my dad’s parents’ house. This was simply what happened. There wasn’t planning, there wasn’t any question – that just how Christmas was done. Of course, we don’t do that anymore. My dad’s parents have died, and those who were the grandkids have become the parents, and those who were the parents have become the grandparents, and people have moved all over. So a necessary shift happens, and we move away from seeing the same people all the time.
And of course, families grow and change as people get married and have kids. And traditions change with those changing families. It’s perfectly natural that those things happen, and it’s good that we respond to the circumstances with which we’re presented. I know that my family traditions around Christmas are different now that I’m not the youngest generation; same with Carissa; and both of us have different traditions since we became a couple and began celebrating with one another’s families.
The day of Pentecost is such a day in the church – a day whose meaning and mode of celebration have changed over time. In Judaism, Pentecost is a holiday that’s celebrated, though it’s known (most of the time) as Shavuot. Shavuot is a celebration of the giving of the Ten Commandments. It’s a big deal because, while God is present in the Old Testament before that moment, if you think about it, there was nothing permanent, nothing codified, nothing written down. There was no one thing you could point to and say, “THIS is what God is saying to us.” Instead, there were individual instances of what God was doing, but followers had to pray hard and hope they heard a clear answer. They had to meet people with spiritual gifts who had a special relationship with God, and follow those individual people. But the giving of the Ten Commandments made a fundamental change in how Judaism operated.
So it makes sense, then, given how important that moment is in the Jewish faith, that Jesus’ disciples were in Jerusalem for that holiday, and so were Jews from around the world – or at least the world as they knew it, which (since you probably didn’t recognize most of the place-names in our passage this morning) was mostly southern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Still, there were people in Jerusalem for this particular celebration of Pentecost from all those areas.
So, given the holiday crowd, the disciples decide that this is a great opportunity to reach people. They have an audience of religious believers, so why not use it? So they begin to speak. And as they speak, the Holy Spirit comes like a violent wind – something anyone from out here on the prairie can understand – and it looked or felt like tongues made of fire were resting on each of them. God performed a miracle that day, not in this showiness, but in that, when they spoke, people understood, no matter where they came from.
Most people, in reminiscing about this passage, will think of it as the disciples spontaneously being given the ability to speak new languages. But a close examination of the text reveals the hidden truth – “And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” they ask. They were listening to the same speaker, yet understanding in different languages! So God was somehow giving them the ability to speak in some sort of universal language, that anyone could understand. The miracle was placed on the ears of the hearers, as much as the tongues of the speakers.
So we have a holiday that was celebrated because God chose to be revealed to followers through words; Pentecost shares proudly in that tradition. Only this time, the words being shared are no words about how we are supposed to conduct ourselves; this time, they are words that bring a message of Good News.
Now, on some level, that’s an assumption, because we never see exactly what the disciples themselves were saying during this portion of the story. It’s an interesting detail to be omitted, but it’s definitely not there. Fortunately, we do have Peter’s summary of what they said from the end of our reading today: “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— 23this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. 24But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” In other words, when Peter needs to summarize what the disciples were saying about Jesus to all these travelers from all over the world, his go-to message is this: God is stronger than death. Even the ending that ends all endings is not the end of God’s love and power in Jesus.
That’s the message of Pentecost. It’s a special day in the church year for a lot of reasons. It’s really the first action taken by the disciples after Jesus has gone up to heaven, so it sort of serves as the “birthday” for the whole church. But more important than that, Pentecost is a day on which the Gospel message of Jesus who came, lived, died, and was raised for us and for our salvation was first preached without Jesus even being around. It’s the message we’re all asked to live out and to share with others.
But one of the coolest consequences we see in this passage is not just the core of the Gospel. But we see that God chooses this moment, the Pentecost moment, to teach us about things that divide as opposed to things that unite. Peter’s message focuses on the death of Jesus not having the final say. Death is the greatest separation of all, and yet it is nothing to God. But on a more practical level, in our everyday lives, we don’t talk to the dead. But on the other hand, we may talk to people who don’t speak the same language we do, sometimes in subtle ways and sometimes in more serious ones. “Anymore,” “lunch,” and “dinner” are all words I had to re-learn coming to Marion, because I use every one of those words differently than most of the people around here do, and I’ve been speaking English my whole life! But in this passage, God shows us that language, the fundamental way we communicate, is not a barrier to God’s acceptance of us or ability to desire to be with us.
The human divisions that separate us include many things, like race, country of origin, and language. And in this one passage, God shows us that the Good News of Jesus Christ is for anyone and everyone. It’s not limited to just a specific group of people who are given the truth while it’s hidden from everyone else. Jesus is for everyone. This message stretches out to be people who aren’t even from Jerusalem, but they get to hear the message anyway.
In just a couple of hours, some of our youth, along with a couple of us adults, are going to leave for Denver. Our kids are going to have chances to meet people who have, on the surface, nothing in common with them, at least on the surface. Sure, they will share a language, but maybe not all of them will. They definitely won’t share economic situation, they won’t share the type of place they live. They won’t share a background, or life experiences, or any number of other facets of human life. In short, they’ll have come from vastly different circumstances. But at the end of the day, there are people in Denver who need a hand of help to reach out and serve them, and our kids are going to get the chance to be that helping hand. They have the chance to live the message of Jesus for a couple of days. For this one week, they can be the church of Pentecost.
The truth is, we adults need to take just as much responsibility as the youth are taking this week in their trip, and we need to do it every day. We need to be sure that the differences we put between ourselves are not things that divide, but things we’re willing to work through. We have to let the love of God cross every boundary. We have to let God’s faithfulness be the thing that reaches out to us, not rely on our fallen human condition to be what we’re supposed to be. After all, we’re reminded in this passage that Jesus shows us that not even death itself is enough to keep God away from us.
We’re going to meet a lot of different people in our lives. They’re going to be people with whom we agree and disagree, people with whom we share a lot or nothing at all, people with whom we’re able to speak and those we aren’t. But when we meet those with whom we have these differences, our job as Christians is not to try to beat them into submission, or to shame them, or to try to make them just like us. Our job as Christians is to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ and tell the world of his love.
We do that when we take care of people who need help. Jesus tells us that, whatever we do to the people at the bottom of the social ladder is what we do to him. And at the same time, we’re asked that this not be a secret, but that we are out and open and proud of the fact that we worship Christ It’s a worthwhile goal to shoot for. We attempt to be disciples, not by being perfect, not by being the only ones with some special knowledge of Jesus, but by being people who strive to know him better, to hear and share his word, and to love our neighbors.
Sometimes, we may miss the mark. But the lesson of Pentecost is this: with God’s help, we can get past any boundary that we as humans create between ourselves and other children of God. So let us remember that, and let us share in the love of God, in word and in deed, in Marion, in Denver, and all over the world. Amen.