The coronavirus and shelter-in-place rules have changed everything from the way we work to the way we run errands to the way we interact with one another. We have been sheltered in place for months. We’ve seen the same faces and the same four walls each and every moment. We’ve had our bank accounts affected. We’ve had loved ones get sick and even die. We’ve seen people who are desperate to put food on their tables and desperate to get their minimum wage paychecks, putting their families and their own lives in danger.
My wife, Amanda, has been on in-patient bedrest in the hospital for over five weeks due to complications from her pregnancy. That’s a long time and we hope and pray that she has a long time yet to go. Now that some visitation restrictions have been lifted at Baylor, a big part of my day is visiting Amanda as we fervently pray for our baby boy to not be born quite yet and to keep growing. Loneliness and anxiety and frustration swirl around Amanda, as I know those emotions surround each and every one of us as we see social distancing and restrictive protocols get extended to the fall. With all of this heaviness, it doesn’t feel like the right time to throw a party, does it?
The day before Amanda was admitted to the hospital several of our close homeschool family friends lined up their cars at the end of our cul-de-sac and slowly made their way down our street, honking their horns loudly and shouting out their windows. Each car was decorated with balloons and posters, proclaiming their love and prayers for Amanda and our baby boy. Several spry kids in the line of cars jumped out of their seats and put baby gifts on our front lawn. Maybe to some it didn’t seem like the right time for a baby shower, but there they were, startling our neighbors with their celebratory cheers. And it felt just right to us.
Maybe it doesn’t seem to us like the right time for a birthday party, church, but here we are, on Pentecost Sunday, celebrating the day when the Holy Spirit came to the gathered people with shouts and celebration. Today, regardless of the pandemic, we are throwing a Holy Ghost birthday party.
This scripture in the book of Acts is one of the few readings assigned for every year in the lectionary cycle, which, I think, shows the importance of this story in the life of the church. You see the apostles and other followers of Jesus were waiting. They were waiting for the promised Spirit, the spirit of God that Jesus said would come to make sure they would not be alone in their journey to bring the power and purpose of God into the world. They were waiting.
But while they were waiting, they celebrated and had a party. That’s where we get the name for this holy day, Pentecost. The gathered people were together celebrating the feast of Pentecost. Pentecost, also called the Feast of Weeks in Jewish tradition, marked the all-important wheat harvest in the land of Israel and it commemorates the anniversary of the day when God gave the Torah, or the Law, to the nation of Israel assembled at Mount Sinai. It was also a celebration of the grain harvest. In ancient times, the grain harvest lasted seven weeks and was a season of gladness. It began with the harvesting of the barley during Passover and ended with the harvesting of the wheat at Pentecost. Celebrating the bounty of the earth was a way for people to recognize the bountiful love of God.
And so, it was the Feast of Weeks, Pentecost, a celebration of the harvest, a party to recognize that the earth and its people were growing and thriving… kind of like a birthday party. And the people of God were together, waiting on the Holy Spirit to come. They were already gathered in one place, people from all different backgrounds, cultures, nationalities, and identities. They were waiting on the words of Jesus to become blazingly true in their lives and in the world.
You see, the people of God were not just celebrating and partying and waiting in order to make their own lives better. They were hoping that their celebrating and partying and waiting would make the world more alive with the power and spirit of God. This passage in Acts 2 makes it quite clear that the powerful birthday gift of the spirit – tongues of fire and rushing wind and hearing of all languages that day in Jerusalem – came “not for the sake of the church, but for the sake of the world.” This Pentecost party event was universal and unlimited, and it united all different kinds of people, not making them one muddled and same voice, but gave all the capacity to hear their own language, to recognize their uniqueness, to celebrate who they were and who they were becoming. What a birthday gift, indeed!
Preaching Professor Tom Long tells of teaching children in a confirmation class. “It was a very small group,” Long says. “In fact, there were only three young girls in the class. In one session, I was instructing them about the festivals and seasons of the Christian year, and when we came to the discussion of Pentecost, I asked them if they knew what Pentecost was. Since none of the three knew, I proceeded to inform them that Pentecost was ‘when the church was sitting in a group and the Holy Spirit landed on them like tongues of fire on their heads. Then they spoke the gospel in all the languages of the world.’ Two of the girls took this information in stride, but the third looked astonished, her eyes wide. I looked back at her, and finally she said, ‘Gosh, Reverend Long, we must have been absent that Sunday.’”
And I think that is how we feel in this time in our lives. We feel as if we are missing out on the power of God and that we just can’t see where God is moving in our midst. We would really like to throw a Holy Ghost party and have some fun and feel the energy and enthusiasm of being the passionate people of Christ in this city. Maybe that is the gift of this quarantined time, this time when we are waiting for things to get back to normal and for a new and lively spirit to blow through this stagnant world. Maybe we are ready to bring God’s newness to all people.
The birthday gift for this pandemic Pentecost party is that something new is indeed coming. When all of the languages were spoken and the people were all in one place, they were not uniting again under one language like at the Tower of Babel. No, the text says that the diversity of their languages and their lives was on full display. This was a Holy Ghost party where every person could witness their true selves and know that the power of Christ had come for all people, each and every one of them. This party was the beginning of the church and the beginning when the world would be changed by the people of God. One commentator said that “the author of Acts prefigures the movement of the story of Jesus into all the world through references to multiple peoples and cultures. If the Gospel of Luke represents the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, Acts recounts the way the gospel was carried to Corinth, Antioch, Philippi, and even to the Gentiles. Pentecost is thus the beginning of universal evangelism.”
This Pentecost party was the beginning of new age, a new time of carrying the mission and ministry of Christ into the world. This Pentecost spirit that ignited those Jesus followers and blew them out into the world was one of power and purpose. This Pentecost spirit was powerful! Jacob Myers asks, “What if Luke’s intention… is to break apart a theology that is wrapped up in ethnic identity and expand or even rebuild the foundations so that God’s bigger vision of power might burst forth? The Pentecost Party would not stay in Jerusalem. It would spill out into the streets, into the villages, into the hills and the highways, into other countries and all over the world. The party had legs.”
Oh, if we could just bring our Pentecost, Holy Ghost birthday party to the world. Maybe you are already thinking of ways to spread God’s love, even while in your home and behind a computer screen. In this season of waiting, how are you spreading the inclusive love of God? And I know it’s difficult to be in a place of waiting. You see, before the Pentecost party could happen, the people had to wait. They had to wait in their longings and yearnings. They had to wait in their frustrations and failures. They had to wait in their isolation and loneliness. They had to wait. And we have to wait. We are in the Holy City, waiting for the spirit of new life and new strength and new power to arrive. We are all huddled in one place waiting for freedom to blow through this world and set us free, and set all people free. I know we don’t want to wait for that!
Church, the day will come when we are finally able to spread the spirit of Pentecost out into the world again. But, by that time, things will have changed. We will have changed. And that is the beauty and the gift of this pandemic Pentecost party. Maybe when we leave the isolation of shelter-in-place we will be emboldened, emblazoned, impassioned people who know that the Joel prophecy needs to come to life, right here and right now, that God did send God’s spirit upon ALL flesh, each and every one of us. And that a new and vibrant diversity is being unleashed in the world where we see, acknowledge, and dare I say, celebrate, the gifts of God in all of the people of God. What a party that will be… when we throw a Holy Ghost party.