Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you always.
Last week, Leigh and I had a very in-depth conversation about all our theories about what’s next after the wild ending of Avengers: Infinity War. I promise, no spoilers, unless you are surprised to hear that the ending was wild. It’s a multi-billion-dollar superhero franchise that somehow keeps us all hooked, so I think a cliffhanger ending is kind of a given. Leigh and I talked about all these different characters, and their fates, and weird details we didn’t know about them—neither of us has read any of the comic books that serve as source material for these movies, but we have read a bunch of fan theories online.
One of the things that true, deeply committed, lifelong superhero comic book fans tend to know about is the whole complex relationships between the heroes, as well as the heroes’ origin stories. Some of them are more obvious than others, like, Peter Parker became Spider-Man when he was bitten by a radioactive spider on a school field trip. Or Captain America, who was an American soldier during WWII who was given this “super soldier serum” and woke up decades later, essentially indestructible. The narratives and relationships that develop are set in motion by those origin stories, and we can always go back to them to see the motivation of that character, what drives them to be the hero they are.
Pentecost, my friends, is the Christian Church’s origin story.
The reading from Acts—the one we did in various languages—sets the stage for the rest of the work of the apostles, the early Church, and us. The apostles are all together in one place, as the story goes, because it was the Jewish festival of Shavuot, seven weeks after the second day of Passover. Pentecost is the Greek word for “fiftieth day” and is celebrated 50 days after Easter. Shavuot is the celebration of God giving the Torah at Mount Sinai, and God “re-gives” the Torah each year.
In this way, these holidays are deeply linked for us as Christians, as they commemorate receiving something important from God, forging deeper connection between God and God’s people. The gift received on Pentecost, for those first Christians, was the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit showed herself by making it possible for all of the people gathered there—from different regions, tribes, cultures—to hear the good news spoken in their own language. The family of God is so expansive, that language does not limit us.
Each of us, as children of God, carries within us that same power, that same gift. Each of us can—and must—share the story of Jesus with everyone we know. Now, I know what you’re thinking, that sounds scary and your friends are already not sure about your whole Christian thing, and you’re not about to start yelling on street corners about how the kingdom of heaven has come near.
The Most Reverend Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, was the preacher at the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle last Saturday. I imagine you’ve heard that the royal wedding took place, and perhaps you’ve heard that Bishop Curry brought the house down with his jubilant 13 minutes on the power of love. Did you watch the video? It’s so great. He is a very dynamic preacher, and you can imagine that the congregation at the royal wedding is a bunch of stuffy white British people, who are definitely not used to someone with so much enthusiasm.
After the wedding, Bishop Curry was quoted as saying that he was only allotted 8 minutes, but that he “caught the spirit” and went off-script in the middle. Nobody else has ever gone over their time limit, so there was, apparently, no protocol to stop him. Bishop Curry is an incredible person, and will keep doing God’s work in the world that will be worth talking about, but I sort of want this to remain my favorite story about him, forever. Bishop Curry was given the responsibility of preaching the good news of Jesus Christ on one of the world’s biggest stages. He knew what the parameters were, and he intended to follow them. But once he got going, he still left room for the Holy Spirit to move him. And she sure did!
As a black man preaching in one of the world’s oldest whitest institutions, Bishop Curry quoted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and an old slave spiritual. In the video of the ceremony, audience members are shown looking at each other sideways, suppressing smiles, raising eyebrows.
In our Acts story, I can only imagine that those who were witnessing the Holy Spirit in action were doing the exact same thing. The story tells us that someone thought the apostles were drunk! Clearly they were behaving outside of the expectations, speaking in all of these different languages, and those in the vicinity did not know how to respond. This may not be convincing you that you, too, should be engaging in this behavior, but I swear I’m getting to the point.
In Bishop Curry’s sermon, he quoted the spiritual There Is a Balm in Gilead. Balm like b-a-l-m, like lip balm. Like healing balm. One of the verses goes “if you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul, just tell the love of Jesus, how he died to save us all.” What that songwriter, and Bishop Curry, and Pentecost are all telling us is that it doesn’t have to be fancy. Because of this Pentecost daty, we are filled with the breath of God, inspired—literally—to spread the word. We do this each in our own ways, each in our own languages, each according to our own cultures and capacities.
When we treat each other as equal partners in the work of the gospel, we are telling the love of Jesus. When we treat every person with dignity and respect, we are telling the love of Jesus. When we tell the truth about things we have done wrong and then work to do them right next time, we are telling the love of Jesus. When we strive for equity for everyone, we are telling the love of Jesus. When we share in experiences of joy with each other, and sorrow with each other, we are telling the love of Jesus. When we live in response to the grace we know we have received, we are telling the love of Jesus. When we do this authentically, when the love of God shows through us to others in their own language, we can change the world.
The Holy Spirit changed the world on that first Pentecost day, and she hasn’t stopped. Today, we are celebrating that we share in that story and we share in that power.
After worship tonight, it’ll be time for our annual Pentecost balloon launch. Every year, we write our prayers for the church and the world on pieces of paper that we tie to—biodegradable, minimal turtle murder—balloons. We launch these prayers into the sky, in hopes that our words and our work will move far beyond these walls.
This activity may feel silly; we live in a cynical world. Our cynical world routinely disparages or gives up on something before it has even begun, rather than risk being disappointed or rejected. We struggle to trust that any good news is not fake news. In this environment, the bearers of good news are desperately necessary.
You may not ever have the opportunity to tell the love of Jesus from the pulpit at a royal wedding. You may not ever have the opportunity—or desire—to tell the love of Jesus from any pulpit. But you have the power to do so, and you have the power to tell the love of Jesus in whatever way you know how. In whatever languages you speak, in whatever time and place you live, you are co-conspirator with the Holy Spirit!