It is a dramatic scene. The Spirit appears as tongues of fire resting on each of the disciples. They begin to speak in many languages all at once with such enthusiasm and volume that they attract a crowd.
Not surprisingly, people are amazed at what they see and hear. And the disciples themselves are changed forever.
But the sheer drama of the story can be distracting. There is more going on than pyrotechnics. To get at what is really happening on Pentecost, we have to start with our gospel reading.
As we just heard, one of the last things Jesus says to his disciples during his earthly ministry is, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.”
That is striking. Jesus did NOT claim to tell his disciples everything they needed to know. Jesus pointed his disciples forward, to an ongoing, open-ended revelation, under the continuing guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
The goal is “all truth.” But all truth is a future possibility, not a present reality. That was true for them. That is true for us.
That means we can never claim to know all there is to know about God. We can never claim to know all there is to know about God’s creation. We are always called to learn more, to grow, to open ourselves up to emerging truth.
That call to continual learning and growth can be exciting. One of the wonderful things about working in colleges was being surrounded by people who took that call seriously, people who explored our world and took pleasure in sharing their knowledge.
Not all of the colleagues I worked with thought of themselves as answering the call of Jesus Christ to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit into all truth. But that is exactly how I would describe what they were doing.
Jesus invites us to see any truth as God’s truth, to see any genuine discovery as offering insight into God and God’s creation. Christians are called to be curious, to be open to new knowledge. That can be tremendously exciting.
But there is a downside. The sheer quantity of knowledge in our world has become overwhelming. We all have so much information at our fingertips that no one can possibly master it all. No one can master even a small fraction of it.
The point is so obvious that it is hardly worth making. Today ordinary people are confronted with different cultures, constantly evolving technology, incredibly complex political and economic questions, and a whole host of other things that we cannot adequately understand.
I bump up against my own ignorance all the time. At Carrie’s talk on Wednesday, everyone in the audience except me knew about recent horrible events in Kenya. (I am looking into it!)
That was not too bad. At least I am married to someone who knows what is going on.
But relying on other people to make up for our own inevitable ignorance can be a real drag.
Last week, I had the oil changed in my car. No big deal. But the mechanic told me I really needed to replace a part. Apparently I also needed a new alignment. Probably, he added, I should replace another part. Suddenly my oil change was costing me several hundred dollars.
My problem was, I had no idea what the mechanic was talking about.
I decided I had to trust him, and I had most of the work done. But in that moment, I felt my own ignorance keenly. I wished I knew more about cars. I HATED having to rely on a stranger because I did not know enough about something that mattered to me to make an informed judgment.
The point is simple. Given how much truth is out there, as well as how much falseness, we all necessarily rely on other people. The Holy Spirit may be leading us into all truth. But the Holy Spirit is not leading any individual into all truth. The truth is too big.
We all have our own little part of the truth, our own little gift of the Spirit. The car mechanic has a lot more of the car truth than I do. If I want to follow the Holy Spirit into some of that car truth, the fact is, I have to rely on people like my mechanic.
That is true for all of us in huge areas of our lives. If we are going to experience the whole truth as Christ promises, we will necessarily experience the truth together, as a community. If we want to experience the fullness of truth, we have to rely on other people.
But trusting other people is hard, particularly when we do not know them personally. I will probably never know whether I was wise or foolish to trust my mechanic.
Now, at last, we reach the real miracle of Pentecost.
Devout Jews from every nation under heaven were in Jerusalem. They did not know each other. They were divided by language and nationality from each other and from Jesus’ followers. Why should a Jew from Mesopotamia or Egypt trust a bunch of Galileans who did not even speak their language? Real community, a community of trust and sharing, was not possible.
And then it was. The Holy Spirit came to make real community possible.
We can get distracted by the miraculous sign, which was that everyone heard the disciples speaking in their own languages. The point of the story is that the Holy Spirit made genuine communication possible where before it had not been. The miracle is not just speaking in tongues. The miracle is communication that creates community.
Thanks to the Holy Spirit, Peter is able to communicate the gospel to people from every nation under heaven. When, later, the disciples spread out to other nations, I suspect that some of the people hearing Peter that day were very helpful. They could share their contacts and their knowledge of their homelands. Together, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the disciples and the people who heard them on that first Pentecost took a step towards a shared truth that was greater than the truth any of them had alone.
We should not overly romanticize that time. They struggled with community just like we do. Their Spirit-created unity breaks apart. People went their separate ways. Christians and Jews grew hostile. Christians fought among themselves. That was happening in the first decade after Jesus’ resurrection. It has been happening ever since.
But the vision of Pentecost endures: the vision of a truly universal human community pooling its wisdom as, together, all people follow the Spirit into all truth.
Our task is to hold on to that vision in our day. To seek truth wherever we can find it. To communicate honestly and openly with each other across our differences. To share knowledge. To learn from each other. To trust that the Holy Spirit continues to draw us into community as the Spirit leads us into all truth.
And so on this morning I give thanks to God for the gift of the Spirit, the possibility of true community, and the call to grow in the knowledge and love of the Lord. And I pray that we may faithful to the Pentecost vision in our time.
In the name of Christ. Amen.