From Ashes to Fire 05/20/18 (Pentecost B)

From Ashes to Fire

Text: Acts 2:1-21
Rev. Heather M. Hinton
May 20, 2018 ~ Pentecost (Year B)


Here’s a quote I came across this week as I did my research for this sermon: “Christmas without Easter is stupid. Easter without Pentecost is pointless.” [1]

Let me explain.

A baby was born 2000 years ago. But so what? Babies are born all the time, and they’re a reason to celebrate and they matter very much to their families (we hope). But why do we who call ourselves Christians remember and celebrate the birth of this particular baby who appeared on the scene so very long ago? Well, that’s because of Easter: if Jesus hadn’t been resurrected, he would have died in shame and humiliation; his disciples would have been left sorely disappointed and grieving; and we never would have heard about him. In other words, without the resurrection, Jesus’ birth wouldn’t matter to us. Christmas without Easter is ridiculous.

As for Easter being pointless without Pentecost: Pentecost is the birth of the church. Easter is only remembered because it led to the birth of a whole new movement that changed the world. Without Pentecost, the good news of Jesus Christ – his resurrection as well as the forgiveness, love, and justice he demonstrated – would never have spread beyond Jesus’ little circle of disciples. It’s Pentecost that brought this new way of knowing God, this new way of being community, to the world. It’s because of Pentecost that we’re sitting here in this sanctuary today. Without Pentecost, Easter is pointless.

Let me put it another way. For the six weeks of Lent, that season of ashes, and for the 50 days of Easter, that season of light, we pondered all that God did in the world through Jesus Christ. Now, on Pentecost, this day of fire and wind, we reflect on all that God did, and is still doing, in the world through the Holy Spirit.

On that Pentecost day, devout Jews from every nation under heaven were living in Jerusalem at that time (Acts 2:5); after all, the Jews had long lived in the diaspora. Acts names fifteen regions from three continents; indeed, “more Jews lived away from Judea and Galilee a that time than lived in those regions.” [2] Although they were tied together by the one identity of “Jews,” they also identified themselves by a wide variety of subcultures, languages, and practices.

Of course, we know that those far-flung Jews from all across that wide region were living under the rule of the Roman Empire. In contrast to the many languages and cultures that existed within – and were a vital part of – Judaism, the Roman Empire tried to impose one common language, and thereby one common (Roman) culture, on all the peoples and regions they conquered. “The [Roman] empire sought to promote a monocultural identity tied to a single language and saw the presence of multiple languages as a problem that needed to be resolved.” [3]

When the Holy Spirit descends on Pentecost, the disciples begin to speak in other languages – the languages of all those many regions, languages they never knew. Note that it isn’t that the three thousand people gathered that day suddenly understand the one language of the disciples. Rather, the disciples speak in the native languages of all those various people. The people are hearing the good news in their own mother’s tongues. Which is to say: in contrast to the uniformity and homogeneity of the Roman Empire, imposed through the promulgation of one language, the church from the very beginning is poly-lingual, diverse, and multi-textured.

And then what? Professor Jason Byassee puts it like this:

Those thousands do not all stay in Jerusalem. They do not form the First Pentecostal Megachurch with thousands on the rolls. No. They go home. Back to every obscure corner of the Mediterranean from which they came. They start countless mini-churches. [4]

We believe that we are all recipients of the Holy Spirit. And with the Holy Spirit comes our “marching orders.” [5] Just like those gathered thousands did, it’s time for us to get moving our of our own sanctuaries and into the world.

The problem is that many of us – maybe even most of us – would prefer to ignore those marching orders. And maybe that’s because we have a hard time believing in the God of Pentecost. Barbara Brown Taylor asks us:

Do we still believe in a God who blows through closed doors and sets our heads on fire? Do we still believe in a God with power to transform us, both as individuals and as a people, or have we come to an unspoken agreement that our God is pretty old and tired now, someone to whom we may address our prayer requests but not anyone we really expect to change our lives? [6]

If we don’t really believe in that radically transformative God, it’s pretty hard to proclaim good news in our own families, let alone to the ends of the earth. Moreover, without that fiery and windy God, we don’t have the language to speak to speak of that God – not to ourselves, and certainly not to others. It is the Holy Spirit who empowers us so to do. So: do we believe in the Holy Spirit? Do we feel ourselves touched by Her? Do recognize Her when she comes?

Maybe we sense the Holy Spirit when we find ourselves embracing the opportunity of a beginning that arises out of what seemed to be nothing but a dead end, a failure, or a loss. Maybe we are receiving the Holy Spirit when we’re inspired to try something new and transformative. Maybe we feel the Holy Spirit when we are restored to relationship with someone we care about. Maybe we notice the Holy Spirit when we find ourselves offering or receiving forgiveness when we thought forgiveness would never be possible. Maybe we are being touched by the Holy Spirit when we experience moments of awe, wonder, joy, or love – emotions that fill us up and pour over the edges of our souls into those around us. There are so many chances to experience the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit. Our task is to receive those opportunities and run with them out into a world that needs Her too.

At the beginning of worship each week, I invite you to slow down and breathe. There’s a reason for that – a reason that goes beyond just the physical act of grounding ourselves and slowing down from the week we’ve just lived through.

I’d like to read to you one more time from Barbara Brown Taylor’s reflection on Pentecost, because she so beautifully sums up the exact reason that I begin worship each week with intentional breathing. It’s a little lengthy, but I think it’s worth it. She writes:

Did you know the word “conspire” means to breathe together? Take a breath. Now blow it out again. There! You have just launched a conspiracy! You can hear the word “spirit” in there too – to conspire – to be filled with the same spirit, to be enlivened by the same wind. That is why the word appeals to me, anyhow. What happens between us when we come together to worship God is that the Holy Spirit swoops in and out among us, knitting us together through the songs we sing, the prayers we pray, the breaths we breathe. It can happen between two people and it can happen with two thousand people…

Now take another breath. If you have studied earth science, then you know that our gorgeous blue-green planet is wrapped in a protective veil we call the atmosphere, which separates the air we breathe from the cold vacuum of outer space. Beneath this veil is all the air that ever was. No cosmic planet-cleaning company comes along every hundred years or so to suck out all the old air and pump in some new. The same ancient air just keeps recirculating, which means that every time any of us breathes we breathe star dust left over from the creation of the earth. We breathe brontosaurus breath and pterodactyl breath. We breathe air that has circulated through the rain forests of Kenya and air that has turned yellow with sulfur over Mexico City. We breathe the same air that Plato breathed, and Mozart and Michelangelo, not to mention Hitler and Lizzie Borden. Every time we breathe, we take in what was once some baby’s first breath, or some dying person’s last. We take it in, we use it to live, and when we breathe out it carries some of us with it into the next person, or tree, or blue-tailed skink, who uses it to live.

When Jesus let go of his last breath – willingly, we believe, for love of us – that breath hovered in the air in front of him for a moment and then it was set loose on the earth. It was such a pungent breath – so full of passion, so full of life – that it did not simply dissipate as so many breaths do. It grew, in strength and volume, until it was a mighty wind, which God sent spinning through an upper room in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. God wanted to make sure that Jesus’ friends were the inheritors of Jesus’ breath, and it worked…

[She concludes:] Take a breath. Now just keep breathing. This is God’s moment-by-moment gift to us. We can call it air or we can call it Holy Spirit. It counts on us to warm it up, to lend it our lives. In return, it promises to fill us with new wind, to set our heads on fire, giving us tongues to speak of things we cannot begin to understand.

Do we still believe in a God who acts like that? More importantly, do we still experience a God who acts like that? I do not know what your answer is, but if you do not have one I hope you will discover one. Join the Gospel of the Holy Spirit Conspiracy and see what happens next. [7]

What can I say to that except: thanks be to God.


[1] Lydia and Becca on Lit Liturgy Podcast (paraphrase).

[2] Matthew Skinner, “Pentecost as Resistance to Monoculture: On the Inclusive, Hospitable, and Prophetic Community Imagined in Acts 2.” Journal for Preachers (Pentecost 2018), p.8.

[3] Raj Nadella, “Pentecost as a Challenge to the Roman Empire’s Values and Ethos.” Journal for Preachers (Pentecost 2018), p.2.

[4] Jason Byassee, “The Holy Spirit’s New World Order.” Journal for Preachers (Pentecost 2018), p. 18.

[5] Eric Fistler and Robb McCoy, Pulpit Fiction Podcast.

[6] Brown Taylor, p. 146.

[7] Brown Taylor, pp. 143-144, 149.

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