We get the story in our reading from Acts. Jesus’ followers are gathered together. Suddenly they hear a sound like the rush of a violent wind. They see divided tongues as of fire. The fire touches each one of them, and they are filled with the Holy Spirit. They surge out into the street, each one of them speaking, in a different language, about God’s great deeds of power.
Imagine that you were there, on the street, going about your business. All of a sudden, more than a hundred people appear, yelling, in different languages, loud enough that a crowd of thousands is able to hear. It must have been chaos.
Part of the miracle is that Jesus’ followers could speak all those different languages. But it is almost as miraculous that anyone could make sense of what Jesus’ followers were saying. It was a miracle of speech, but also a miracle of hearing. Hold on to that thought.
Pentecost is the birth day of the Church. On this day, two thousand years ago, the Jesus movement went from a group of Jesus’ friends to a community of thousands united by the Holy Spirit and committed to following Jesus. We are the direct descendants of the people on the streets of Jerusalem on that first Pentecost.
I love this story. And even if this kind of thing does not happen very often today, big events remain part of the Christian deal. Next October, our Diocese is sponsoring a revival. An Episcopal revival is a new thing for me. But it should be dramatic. The Spirit will swirl around, and will hopefully reach lots and lots of people, and lives will be changed. If should be like a little Pentecost.
But it is worth remembering that, despite occasional fireworks like the first Pentecost, the early Church also grew in quieter ways. A little community would form by the power of the Spirit in a place like Corinth or Ephesus or Agawam. Outsiders would witness their love and their joy. Individual Christians would share their faith with friends and neighbors. And one person or one family at a time, people came on board. They would seek baptism into the body of Christ, and enrich the Church with their spiritual gifts.
That is the enduring promise we hear in our Gospel reading, a promise partly fulfilled on the first Pentecost, a promise that continues to be fulfilled today.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus promises to send his disciples the Holy Spirit to strengthen them when he is gone. And, Jesus says, “the Spirit of truth … will guide [them] into all truth.”
That is an astonishing claim. The apostles were not ready for the fullness of God’s truth. But, Jesus says, the Holy Spirit will lead them, will lead us, deeper and deeper into the truth of God, deeper and deeper into our Lord who is himself the truth of God.
This is not a promise of instantaneous revelation accompanied by the fireworks of Pentecost. This is a promise of ongoing growth in the knowledge and love of God over time as individual Christians and as a community of faith.
That promise continues to be fulfilled today. The Holy Spirit is with us right now, helping us in our weakness, interceding with sighs too deep for words, guiding us as we take the next steps in our journey into God’s own truth.
The Holy Spirit is speaking. The question is, can we hear?
Imagine yourself one more time on the streets of ancient Jerusalem on that first Pentecost. A lot is going on. And in the middle of it all, the Holy Spirit is calling, inviting us to intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. The fact that people could hear was a little miracle.
Now imagine yourself going about your life in western Massachusetts. A lot is going on. And in the middle of it all, the Holy Spirit is calling, inviting us to intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. Can we hear? That might take its own little miracle of the Holy Spirit.
It also depends in part on us. Here are two stories about that.
When my brother was quite young, my parents worried about his hearing. They worried enough that my mother finally took him to the doctor to have him tested. The doctor was wise. Before doing anything else, he put Roby on one side of the room, went to the other, and whispered “cookie.” Roby perked right up. His hearing was fine. He just needed to be motivated. My wife suggests his brother has the same problem. I have heard similar things from a lot of wives.
Here is the point: we are not likely to hear the Holy Spirit if we don’t really want to.
The so-called “monkey business illusion” makes the same point. It is a short video clip of people in different color clothes passing a pair of basketballs. The viewer is supposed to count how many times people wearing white pass the ball.
While people are passing the balls back and forth, a grown man in a gorilla costume walks slowly across the screen, pausing halfway to beat his chest. Here is the amazing thing. When people do not know the gorilla is coming, about half do not notice him. A grown man in a gorilla suit walking across the stage right in front of them!! But they are too busy counting the passes.
The first time I saw this video, I missed the man in the gorilla suit. When the speaker who showed me the video told me about the man in a gorilla suit, I didn’t believe him. But he showed me the video a second time, and there the gorilla was. (I have ruined it for you, but a link to one version of this video is below.)
Human beings have a remarkable ability to not notice what is happening around us, in part because we are too busy paying attention to something else.
Now think about your life. What do you pay attention to?
I pay attention to things like e-mail and dirty dishes and the Church newsletter. I spend a lot of time watching television and doing Sudoku. What I don’t do very often is concentrate on listening for the still small voice of God. As a result, I am in constant danger of missing the Holy Spirit swirling around me, inviting me deeper into God’s truth, deeper into relationship with the one who is God’s truth.
It is a little depressing to think how many times I have failed to heed the Holy Spirit. But the promise remains. The fullness of God’s truth is ahead of us, not behind us, and the Holy Spirit continues to guide us forward.
We sometimes regret the passing of the good old days, when life was simpler and people did right. Of course, the good old days are partly myth and depend entirely on how old we are. For my children, the good old days were about ten years ago.
Thankfully Christ doesn’t call us backwards to a mythical past golden age. Christ pulls us forwards, into deeper truth, into deeper relationship with him, into a closer approximation of God’s kingdom.
My prayer is that we can accept Christ’s invitation, that we can open ourselves to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that we can take the next step in our journey into all truth. And I ask this in the name of Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.