Welcome Holy Spirit! Fill our minds with your truth, open our hearts to your comfort, and empower us to do the work of God, following the way of Jesus in our lives. AMEN.
I have been known to say that Christians need to be very careful about complaining that our “religious holidays” have been co-opted by secular society since, in many cases, we “borrowed” quite a few of our holy day traditions in the first place. For example, if you were paying attention to our second reading today, you couldn’t help but notice that Christians did not think up today’s Festival of Pentecost. We know this because our story kicks off when the disciples (who were Jewish) come out of hiding to mark the festival of what is known to the Hebrew people as Shavuot. Shavuot (being celebrated today by our Jewish friends) is one of three pilgrimage festivals in which Jews would go to Jerusalem and bring their first fruits as offerings to God. It also marked the receipt of the ten commandments by Moses. The story of what happened to those Jewish disciples on that particular festival day is unique to the Christian story, which we celebrate as Pentecost – but the lessons of both religions are relevant to our understanding of Pentecost today. That’s why we also heard another famous story this morning: the story of the Tower of Babel.
This tale is from early in the history of our relationship with God. The writer tells us that at that time, “the whole earth had one language and the same words.” The people decide that in order to remain together, they will build a city and a tower “with its top in the heavens.” Traditionally, interpreters have suggested that the people want to build the tower to show off what they can do, and that God intervenes to punish their pride. But I think they are actually motivated by an even more basic emotion: fear. The people want to create a haven for themselves where they feel safe: a place where they can speak – and think – alike. Nowhere in the text does it suggest that God is condemning the people’s desire and ability to build. Rather, God suggests that since “this is only the beginning of what they will do,” they need to be pushed away from the comfort of uniformity and toward expansion outward, rather than upward. By willfully establishing diversity in creation, God provides an antidote for our fear. We are not allowed to cower away from difference; we are asked instead to embrace it. In other words, God does not want the world to consist of “one nation under God.”
If you have trouble believing that, then look again at today’s psalm -a clear celebration of the diversity of creation. The psalmist tells us that this world of living things too many to number is a product of God’s wisdom, and not to be feared. Even the scariest parts of nature - that Leviathan! Angler fish! Sharkanos! - are in God’s hand. All these good things are ours - as long as we recognize and honor the Creator. The troubles of the world- sickness, violence, starvation, and death – occur not because of the cruelty or anger of God, but as a result of human arrogance. When humanity becomes convinced that the power and the glory belong to us, we give birth to our own suffering – and whenever we pray only with our lips but not in our lives, God is unable to help us. You can’t put your faith in human power and then demand God use her omnipotence to repair the damage.
And so here we are, once again horrified as the most vulnerable of our citizens pay the cost of our deadly human desire for power and control. The violent deaths of 19 children and two teachers last week were rightly followed by many statements of support for the wounded and grieving – but we couldn’t help but notice that some of these sentiments came from individuals who labor mightily to protect the ability of individuals to purchase guns like those used to kill these people. And, given that many of these folks make much of their “Christian” values, it is no surprise that there has been a backlash against the intention of prayer, with some seeing it as the opposite of action. Nothing could be further from the truth. Prayer works, but only when it serves as a guide and preparation for faithful action. As it says on my office door: “Pray – and then get your hands dirty.”
This is pretty clear in Jesus’s response to Philip’s question in today’s gospel. When asked by Philip to show him God, Jesus tells him that the way to see God is by looking for the work of God. God, says Jesus, is working through him, and when we are directed by the words and the way of Jesus, we too are doing the work of God. Even better, when we do things that honor God, we can do anything. That is how “thoughts and prayers” work – and why they don’t work when they are not accompanied by the Spirit of Truth.
These days, it’s hard to know what the truth is. The really disheartening thing is that figuring out the truth may be hardest for people who are trying to do what they think God would want. It seems that more and more often faithful disciples of Jesus somehow end up having completely opposing ideas about what he would want us to do. We know that at least some of us are being led astray. We shouldn’t be surprised. Two thousand years ago, Jesus told his followers that, “Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray… When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed… nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines…[but]… When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say, but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak but the Holy Spirit.” Well, that’s a relief – but how do we know the difference between the whispers of the internet and the true voice of the Holy Spirit?
Today’s reading from Acts suggests that it should be pretty easy – what with the rush of violent wind and the divided tongues as of fire (not MADE of fire) that will appear and rest on us before we start speaking in other languages. Or maybe it’s not quite that easy. First of all, note that our story does not say the disciples started babbling unintelligibly. It says they started speaking in a way that allowed people of many different languages to understand them – as if they were speaking in each person’s native tongue. This was not normal. It was weird and scary. It was Peter – poor, foot-in-his-mouth Peter – who calmed everyone down by recognizing that what they were hearing was the arrival of the presence of the Holy Spirit. He remembered that just as Jesus himself was the fulfillment of God’s laws, the Holy Spirit was the fulfillment of Jesus’s promise that he would send his followers a permanent helper. This, he said, is the Spirit of truth. This Spirit will always be with us – teaching us, guiding us, reminding us of Jesus’s way, and empowering us to do what Jesus asks us to do.
We need to remember that too. The Holy Spirit is always with us. It is the knot in our stomach when we are preparing to do something wrong. It is the twinge in our heart when we know we should speak out but are afraid. It is the fire under our feet when we find ourselves too anxious, too depressed, or too fearful to do what we know to be right. It is the force that moves through a gathering when good people speak truth to power and the human potential for good rises above our fear and selfishness. It is when the people of God together prophesy the holy, see visions of harmony conquering discord, and dream dreams of one beloved community of God.
And lest we forget, the Holy Spirit is also here to comfort us. It is not only the power and wisdom of God. It is also the love of God. It is the peace that the world cannot give. Do not let your hearts be troubled. Do not be afraid. Do you feel it? Welcome Holy Spirit. We are ready for the Truth. AMEN.
Mark 13:6-8; 11-12 (NRSV).