Acts 2.1-21; Psalm 104.24-34, 35b; Romans 8.22-27; John 15.26-27, 16.4b-15
I had to get one more in because even though it is most definitely the festival day of Pentecost, the season of Easter is not over. Today is the last Sunday of Easter, the last Sunday of a season of great excitement and joy. A season book-ended by Easter and Pentecost. Thinking about a season begun and ended but such incredibly holidays, I found myself comparing them to being part of a theater production.
That first Easter Sunday was perhaps a bit like opening night. It’s a huge deal, but it’s also one filled with jitters and uncertainty. There is great excitement after a lot of work, and waiting for this night to come. But on opening night, I also carry onstage a significant amount of nerves, perhaps even dread. You are about to show the world for the first time something that you have poured so much of your life into for months. And you don’t know for sure how they will react or what might go wrong. I imagine the disciples felt a similar sense of anticipation, jitters, even dread on that first Easter as they waited to find out if the promised resurrection was really true, as they walked the road to Emmaus, not really sure what it expect.
On the other hand, the closing night of a show feels much different than opening night. The joy and excitement of opening night is still there, but since the story has been told so many times already, a lot of the dread is gone. You know what to do, and you KNOW you know what to do. It is the last chance to do this incredibly important thing. It is also bittersweet, and there is grief, because once you leave the bubble of being a part of this show, things will change. Pentecost is like this too - the grief that Jesus has ascended, but celebration that the Spirit has begun to move in a new way as the church is born. Perhaps in this moment, Pentecost is a bit more like the closing ceremony of the Olympics - one thing is ending, but there is a huge celebration of what country will host the Olympics next, what is coming in the future.
There is something else about closing night that highlights something unique about Pentecost Sunday. It’s something most often I’ve experienced in high school productions. On closing night, the cast takes a moment to honor and thank the adults that have been a part of the production: directors, costume designers, choreographers, vocal coaches. I remember what it felt like to be a cast member involved in honoring those people. It was one of the moments filled with great emotion. Because to us, as young people, being a part of a theater production was about so much more than a play or a musical. It was about us discovering who we were, doing something hard, being brave, building relationships - it changed our lives. Whether it is a theater troupe, a sports team, a Girl Scout group, a close group of friends - a huge part of growing up is being a part of something bigger than yourself, part of a community, and recognizing what that community has done for you.
A couple years ago, Pastor Seth and I went to see Les Mis at Peninsula High School. We didn’t know any of the students in the production, but we did know the director, Agnus Dei’s own Kara Belote. We were there closing night, and, as expected, after the final bow, the thank yous began. It was delightful to hear them talk about Kara, but after that, there was no one on stage speaking or being thanked that we knew. And the thank yous kept going….and going...for what felt like a really long time. But I wonder, was it actually long, or did it just feel long because we weren’t connected? Weren’t included? I found myself wanting to duck out, but I knew what those kids on stage were feeling, what they needed to name and share, and I wanted to honor that.
It was a poignant moment, to realize I had witnessed this closing night ritual from within and from without. And being on the outside felt different, even if I could appreciate what those young people were feeling.
My realization was about something incredibly minor. This was not a moment of injustice. No one was deliberately excluding me. It mostly just made me think about how much fun it would be to join a production again. But being on the outside is much more painful, especially to those who experience it again and again, especially to those who are excluded on the basis of their God-given identity. Unlike a play, where the story may be profoundly affecting to those in the audience, but only some are involved in the telling, the church is called to leave no one outside, to have no spectators, only participants. This call and mission has been a part of the church since it was born on that Pentecost Sunday.
The disciples have experienced the profound story of Emmanuel, God with us. They have been given a mission to go and proclaim this story, but they are afraid and hesitant. When the Holy Spirit intercedes and enables them to speak all of those languages so they can tell that story, something profound is happening. Because of what the Holy Spirit does, we see a picture of a church where no one is left on the outside looking in. The level of inclusion in this story from Acts is profound. It was radical in the culture then, and it’s still radical today.
Notice what happens when the disciples start speaking so many different languages. The Holy Spirit didn’t change the hearers, she changes the proclaimers. She takes those ‘in the know’, those who are leaders, those who know the story best and changes them, forms them, so others can hear. As we share the story of God with the world, are we expecting those different from us to adapt and change and become like us, or are we willing to speak in different languages, both in our words and actions? Are we willing to go beyond inviting people in, and also go meet them where they are?
This story is also the biggest lector challenge of the year, naming all those places that are so unfamiliar to us. This long list is a reminder that this new movement of God’s spirit, this new church, is central to no one ethnicity, but is active among all. The inclusive nature of Pentecost is not about making us all the same, but instead is about celebrating our diversity, our differences, the ways that God has made us. What unites us is not our same-ness, but the Holy Spirit.
On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit takes a frightened group followers, huddled behind closed doors, afraid and uncertain, and thrusts them to the streets of Jerusalem to proclaim the gospel in a way everyone can understand. The Holy Spirit didn’t solve all their problems. She didn’t magically take away their grief, uncertainty, and brokenness. Because the Holy Spirit isn’t about magic, she’s about mystery. How exactly she moves and works is impossible to get a firm grip on, but also impossible to miss.
The Holy Spirit brings challenge and opportunity, and they are often costly. Our problems aren’t solved, but we are invited to see possibilities we would have not seen otherwise. Our fear isn’t removed, but we are given courage to move forward. Our grief and pain does not vanish, but the Spirit accompanies us through our valleys. Remember - this is the same Holy Spirit that drives Jesus directly to the wilderness temptation after his baptism.
While the story of the first Pentecost is fantastic, written about with flair and drama, it is not a once upon a time story - a story about an event far behind us. The Holy Spirit did not simply give rise to the church and then leave - the Holy Spirit continues to be a gift to imperfect communities like the disciples, like us. She moves through our locked doors and into the places where we huddle in fear. Not to make everything all better for our individual lives, but to empower a community to make things better for the whole world. This day is a gift and a challenge.
The season of the church that starts next week is often called ‘ordinary’ time. Perhaps it feels like a misnomer, because after the coming of the Holy Spirit to birth the church, the mission we have been invited into is nothing ordinary at all. But then again, perhaps that is exactly the point. What is ordinary in the church is radical to the world. The passionate love of God, so ingrained in our life as the church, is unique to the church community. And so as we move into our ordinary lives, in the coming ordinary time, may we carry with us the extraordinary story of God with us, inviting others into the telling and living out of mercy, grace, and love.