Genesis 11:1-9++Psalm 104:25-35, 37++Romans 8:14-17++John 14:8-17, 25-27
On Wednesday of this week, I was at a meeting of the Hoboken Clergy Coalition, a body of faith leaders in this city of which All Saints was a founding member back in 1981. As is our custom, we each shared a little about what’s going on with our congregations and ministries, and I mentioned that this Sunday would be Pentecost, and we would be baptizing five children into the household of faith. As I was leaving the meeting, Rabbi Rob Scheinberg of United Synagogue of Hoboken remarked to me that we would be celebrating Shavuot together this weekend. For indeed, Pentecost is the Greek name for the Jewish festival of Shavuot, or the Festival of Weeks. For Christians, Pentecost, as the name implies, comes fifty days after Easter. For Jews, it’s fifty days after Passover, and those dates do not always coincide.
Before the destruction of the great temple in Jerusalem, there were three pilgrimage festivals that required all Jews to travel to Jerusalem: Passover, Sukkot, or the festival of booths, and Shavuot. This last one served two purposes. It was the first wheat harvest of the year, and the pilgrims were required to bring the first fruits of the wheat harvest to present to God in the temple. It also commemorates the giving of the law, or Torah, to Moses on Mount Sinai.
You may remember that, back on Palm Sunday, we recalled that Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey was a mockery of Pilate’s arrival on a great horse with soldiers trailing behind, their armor gleaming in the sun. The Romans were always wary when these festivals took place, because Jerusalem teemed with people, and the oppressor knew that a tiny spark of conflict could erupt into a major uprising, and they were determined not to let that happen.
I would imagine that this first Shavuot following the crucifixion and resurrection were especially tense for the Roman occupiers. Surely they had heard the stories that Jesus had risen, had walked among his people, and had ascended into heaven. They were probably wondering when the other shoe would drop. They could hardly have expected what happened on that first Pentecost.
Actually, even Jesus’s followers could hardly have expected what happened. Yes, Jesus had promised, many times, to send an Advocate, a Comforter, to be present with them once he went away, but there was no way to know what exactly was meant by that until it actually happened.
So, the disciples and other followers are in Jerusalem for the festival, just as they have always come to Jerusalem for this festival. They were gathered together, according to Acts, in a house, customarily the same house where the Last Supper was held and Jesus appeared to the disciples after the resurrection. They’ve seen and heard a lot of things these past fifty days. Maybe they were a little wary of what might happen next, too.
I have never experienced a tornado. Hurricanes, many, but no tornados. But what I have heard is that the wind sounds like a speeding train. It causes houses to shake and roofs to blow off. This is how I imagine the rush of wind described on the first Pentecost – loud, violent, flames falling from the sky. The people must have been terrified. And if that were not enough, suddenly words are coming out of their mouths that never had before. Languages they had never learned. Now wouldn’t that be great?
And all those Jews gathered there from all parts of the empire where Jews had been dispersed, all of them understood the Good News the disciples uttered. Peter claims this moment as fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy that the Spirit would be poured out upon all flesh. Everyone would be able to prophecy, young and old, enslaved and free, male, female, everyone without distinction. It was positively unheard of!
What were you expecting when you came here this morning? I imagine you were hoping to see some friends, hear some good music, receive the sacrament, head out for brunch, maybe, and go about your Sunday. I imagine that these families who have brought their children for baptism were seeking an initiation into membership in the Church, something that is clearly important to them.
What y’all may not know is that when I baptize these babies in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, I am inviting the same kind of chaos as the disciples experienced on that first Pentecost. When I invite the Holy Spirit to descend upon the bread and wine so that they might become for us the body and blood of Christ, I am invoking a divine power that is beyond all our imaginings. Like those gathered in the Upper Room on that first Pentecost, you may be expecting one thing, but whether you know it or not, you are risking an experience that will have you seeing visions and dreaming dreams, that will take you places you never thought you would go, and uttering words you never thought you would say.
In C.S. Lewis’s classic, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, the four Pevensie children discover beyond the wardrobe the enchanted Land of Narnia, frozen and under the control of the White Witch. Their explorations lead them to Mr. and Mrs. Beaver who tell them that King Aslan will free Narnia from the witch’s control. Lucy and Susan, the two sisters, assume that Aslan is a human king, but Mr. Beaver tells them that he is actually a great lion. Susan tells Mr. Beaver, “I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion” and asks if Aslan is safe. “Safe? Mr. Beaver replies, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
The Holy Spirit is like that. There is nothing safe about her. When you least expect it, she will turn your world upside down and set your heart aflame for the love of God. Safe? I don’t think so.
aren’t you glad you came to church this morning?
 C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch & The Wardrobe (Penguin, 1950)