Pastor Jon Hughes
Molalla United Methodist Church
Reflection: June 5, 2022
Scriptures for today: Psalm 104:24-34; 35b, Acts 2:1-21, Romans 8:14-17, John 14:8-17
Reflection: Let the Flames Spread!
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, o God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Happy Pentecost! Today is generally regarded as the birthday of the Church. That’s Church with a capital C – the Church of Christ, the Church of all believers. We’re currently located in a church – little c – but we as people, together with all the others who proclaim Jesus as their savior, are the Church – big C. All the Methodists, Catholics, Baptists, Orthodox, nondenominationals, and many, many more – all of us together are the Church. We don’t all get along with each other very well sometimes. We may even come to blows over how we understand what Jesus has done for us, but we’re still the Church.
Last week we read the story of the ascension of Jesus; one of his last messages for his disciples was to wait. “Stay in the city until you have been furnished with heavenly power,” he said. “You will receive the power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.”
Waiting is HARD, especially when you don’t know exactly what you’re waiting for and you don’t know exactly when whatever it is will be happening. It’s excruciating to sit and know something big is going to happen, but you just don’t know what it is.
I can only imagine the disciples, fresh from watching their teacher and friend rising up to heaven, trying to figure out how to wait for the ambiguous next thing. Jesus had spoken of the Holy Spirit in his lessons to them, but the details were pretty obscure. The end of Luke’s gospel tells us that they went back to Jerusalem after the ascension and continuously worshiped in the temple together. But what do you think was going through their minds as they worshiped? We’ll never know, but I have a few ideas.
We of course have our own timetable for things, so we figure we know about how long they waited. The Christian calendar places Ascension day on the 40th day of Easter – that is, 39 days after Easter Sunday itself. Was this really the day? Possibly, but we can’t know for sure. Remember the significance of certain numbers in the Bible and in early Christian tradition – 40 is an important number. It rained on Noah for 40 days and nights. Moses lived in Egypt for 40 years and then after taking the people out of Egypt they wandered the desert for another 40 years. Oh, and during that wandering in the desert he spent 40 days on Mt. Sinai as he received the Law from God, and Jesus himself spent 40 days fasting in the desert following his baptism.
Numbers in the Bible represent significant events, so always take notice when you see a number repeated. In this case, the number 40 is symbolic of a journey or a transition to something new. The world entered a new phase after 40 days and nights of rain, with God’s rainbow the promise of a new level of care for the planet. The Hebrews who fled Egypt entered a new relationship with God after Moses’s 40 days on Sinai. Jesus began his new ministry after 40 days in the wilderness, and he left the world 40 days after his resurrection with the promise of a new thing quivering in the air.
And then there’s today, which breaks that pattern of 40 with the coming of that thing the disciples were all waiting for. Despite the fact that we Christians now celebrate this Sunday as Pentecost, it was actually a festival day on the Jewish calendar. The disciples were gathered together on this special day to observe the festival of Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks. It’s the day that marked seven weeks since Passover and traditionally marked the start of the wheat harvest in the Holy Land (quite a bit earlier than here in the Valley, huh?). Shavuot is one of the three “pilgrimage festivals” of Judaism – it was expected that, if possible, one would travel to Jerusalem to celebrate. (The other pilgrimage festivals, by the way, are Passover and the Festival of Tabernacles.)
I imagine that the disciples, in hindsight, looked at each other and said, “Yeah – it makes sense that the Holy Spirit’s big reveal would happen on Shavout.” Why do I say that? Well, as a pilgrimage festival there were LOTS of people in Jerusalem, and they were people from all over the commonly known world – the Mediterranean and the Middle East. It was a perfect setup for something big.
The crowd was there…the disciples were ready for something to happen. And then it did, in a big way. The Holy Spirit announced its presence with a roar of wind! Flames seemed to dance on the heads of the disciples – flames that burned but didn’t burn, if you get my meaning. We’ve seen those flames before, remember? Remember the burning bush of Moses where the presence of God was announced by flames that danced and sparkled in the bush but did no harm to it? This was God’s signature move – Luke includes that detail, I’m sure, not just because it was a sight to see but because the people of his time, the people reading his story would recognize right away that this was a sure sign of the One God’s presence.
And then the disciples tongues began to dance just like those tongues of flame – they began to speak in the languages of all the people who were there in Jerusalem to celebrate Shavuot. Lucy, I apologize to you that you had to read that list of people and places! It’s a long one, but it’s there to really impress on us that EVERYONE was able to understand the message of the disciples. It was such a barrage of languages that the skeptics just figured the disciples were drunk, but it wasn’t the case. Those who listened realized the truth – God was speaking through the mouths of those 11 apostles, sending a message to all who gathered. It was a message of the end of time, but it was also a message that faith in God would be the salvation of all who proclaimed it.
This first Pentecost Sunday – and every Pentecost Sunday since – marks the beginning of a new thing that was the inspiration for the spread of Christ’s Church! It isn’t marching orders, it’s inspiration. On that day all the disciples – from the 11 apostles to the newest disciple who heard that message in their own language – were inspired by the message of the Holy Spirit: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved!”
I have heard plenty of Christians declare that their way is the only way; that their particular brand of Christianity is the only correct and proper path to salvation for all time. But you know, as I study the events of that Shavuot Sunday, I can’t accept that. The message of God shared that day was a message for all – something every single person could hear tailored in their own dialect. God met the people where they were, with only one important invitation – call on God’s name and be saved.
During his time in ministry on Earth, Jesus frequently dealt with the insecurity of his disciples. They knew and trusted Jesus, but it was hard to accept some of his teaching. It was hard to accept that Jesus would die. It was hard to accept that they were going to be left in charge of his ministry. In our Gospel reading today Philip asks for something that I can really appreciate – “Lord,” he said, “show us the Father; that will be enough for us.”
We’d love to have the proof these days, wouldn’t we? We’d love to see Jesus in the flesh, to see God standing in line in front of us at Bi-Mart. It would make this whole faith and witness thing so much easier to take on. Jesus’s answer to Philip was one we have to cling to, though. He assures Philip that Jesus and the Father Philip is asking for are one and the same. He assures Philip that God – the same God that is the Father and is Jesus will also be present as the Holy Spirit, the companion who will walk beside them. It’s the best promise we have for now, but it’s a great promise.
This last couple of weeks have been rough for me. For a lot of us. Most of us even? They have been weeks when I’ve only wanted to seek comfort in the church, in this vocation for which I only have a few hours a week to dedicate. Covid and shootings and war and politics – it has made me want to retreat to a house of worship and pray with my head covered in fear of the world around me. But this morning I read Paul’s message from Romans again, and though things are still pretty rough right now, I caught something to put a little light back into my heart. “All who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons and daughters,” Paul said. But here’s the thing that hit me: “You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear; but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children.”
That day the Holy Spirit called out to all the people of the world in their own languages? That’s the day something new broke through. That’s the day the time of waiting and transition ended and the disciples – that is, the disciples then AND all of us, the disciples now – were entrusted with the mission of Christ. And even though some people will look at us and say, “they’re talking crazy talk,” and even though we may feel like we’re being led into fear, it’s really the day that God sealed our relationship as adopted children to the Creator of all things.
Remember that today! We’ve been entrusted with the mission to go out into the world and share Christ’s message to the best of our ability in the languages we know. People may say we’re talking crazy. The message may fall on deaf ears. But we are the adopted children of God; let’s remember that on this Pentecost Sunday and march out with a renewed spirit to share the amazing news. Amen.