Jason Byassee: What is Pentecost?

Pentecost says this: We are called to be the church Jesus dreams about -- one that is on fire, that speaks in other tongues, one that is a hurricane, says a pastor.

Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. This sermon was preached May 19, 2013, at Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, N.C.

Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-18, 22-24

Pentecost is the birthday of the church. That’s why we’re having the festivities we’re having today -- one service all together, with bits of our usual three mixed, and a party after.

Some of my favorite moments as a pastor come when I introduce one of y’all to someone else. I’ll see you around town and say, “So-and-so, meet so-and-so; you’re church members together, parts of the same body.” Whether we know one another by name or not, we belong to one another, like ankles to legs, knuckles to hands. Pentecost is the reason why.

But what is Pentecost? Christmas is clear enough: God gets born. Easter, too: Jesus rises from the dead. There’s a reason marketers do well with those two holy days. Imagine trying to hold a Pentecost sale or to buy and send a Pentecost card. Pentecost is the day the Holy Spirit is poured out on the church. The Spirit is like a hurricane, “a violent wind,” Scripture says.

Tongues of fire rest on each disciple. Language has been a barrier since the Tower of Babel, when God confused our speech. Now we can tell about Jesus to someone whose language we have never learned. That’s the miracle of Pentecost.

Pentecost began life as a Jewish harvest festival. Fifty days after Passover, Jews from all over the world would gather in Jerusalem to give God thanks for wheat -- bread -- for another year. Fifty days after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the city is full of Jews from all over the world again. And suddenly, they all hear their own languages being spoken. Acts names 15 different peoples who can hear about Jesus in the language their mothers taught them.

This says something important about Christian faith. The church has always been multicultural. Every language under heaven can work to read the Bible in, sing in, talk about God in.

Most religions have one preferred language -- to be Muslim, you really need to read the Quran in Arabic, for example. Not the church. In the church, every tongue can bear the weight of talking about God.

David and Gunborg Presson are missionaries in Côte d’Ivoire supported by our church. They wrote on their blog recently about being in the market and struggling to speak in Moore, the language of a people from Burkina Faso in West Africa. And then they switched to speak to others in Hausa, a language from Niger. The Westerners stumbled over the difficult words, but the people listening were honored, delighted by the effort.

That’s a Pentecost moment. Jesus can break through our ignorance to present himself to others through you and me.

Think of the violent wind of Pentecost. Like a hurricane, or a wind roaring through the valley here in the high country. Wind that can uproot, destroy or at least whistle like a train and wake us up at night. Then imagine having that wind in your lungs. To be inspired means to be full of Spirit, wind. Think of the most inspired you’ve ever been.

Emily Dickinson said this, trying to define poetry: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”

Pentecost is like poetry. The Spirit rips through our lives to make us like Jesus, so warm no cold can cool us.

Fire. It can both destroy and create, like wind. Think of when things have turned to light for you. When everything was illuminated. When was that?

When I was a teenager, I was sick for one basketball game. Spent the first half throwing up. Spent the second half playing the game of my life; put in 29 points in a half -- could not miss. (If that had continued, college would have been free!)

Pentecost. A poet I admire speaks of the birds out his window -- “Yellow flames flutter about the feeder: a Pentecost of finches.” When Doc Watson died last [May], his statue bloomed overnight [with memorial bouquets]. When does bronze bloom? At Pentecost, that’s when. In one church in Rome, they drop red rose petals for Pentecost.

God is like the wind. You can’t see it, but you can see what it does. So maybe the only evidence we have for Easter and Jesus’ resurrection is faith like Pentecost, blown into us by the Holy Spirit.

The Twelve go from a defeated, sorry lot of losers to those who tilted the world on its axis. Chuck Colson, who was disgraced in the Watergate scandal, said he knows the disciples’ story of Easter has to be true. Because he knows how hard it is to get 12 people to stick to the same lie.

Pentecost lights the fire of the church in 33 A.D. that burns all the way to your heart and my heart this morning. A buddy of mine was a pastor in another college town like this. A parent called up and asked him to find his child at school to make him behave in college. (This never works, parents, just so you know.) My friend said, “Sir we’re not really in the behavior-monitoring business.”

“Well, what business are you in, then?”

He said, “We’re in the business of taking hearts and lighting them on fire.” Pentecost.

Languages. We’ve heard some foreign languages already this morning, and we’ll hear some more directly. Here are some other languages we speak. In this church, we speak the language of education. That’s why [Appalachian State University] exists. Our schools in this county are some of the best in the United States. And from Cove Creek to Blowing Rock to Mabel to Bethel to our high school, we have people from each in this church. We speak the language of leisure in this town -- vacations and retirements, housing and building and restaurants. We speak the language of commerce, business, entrepreneurship, banking. We speak the language of government, police.

It’s hard to think of a gathering of talent this diverse anywhere else in our county. What is God calling us to do, with all these languages we speak?

We also have great needs in this community. The school I’m most familiar with, Hardin Park, has more poverty now than it has in a generation. Other schools in the county have always had that poverty. Our era, with all its social networking, thousands of “friends” on Facebook, ours is a time of crushing loneliness. People are not meant to be abandoned. Think of the girls rescued from their kidnapper in Cleveland. How did their neighbors not know? But then again, what do we know of our neighbors?

Our community has unprecedented levels of animosity. Town vs. county. University vs. town. Business vs. government. And we have people across all those lines in this room this morning. What are we called to pray for in here? What are we called to do, to be?

Pentecost says this: we are called to be the church Jesus dreams about -- one that is on fire, that speaks in other tongues, one that is a hurricane.

One thing I love about our church is the fire we had in 1981. Our baptismal font is still blackened. These windows and some furniture survived -- and all the people, thankfully -- but otherwise, the building was a total loss, a church on fire and gone.

And you know what? It might’ve been the best thing that happened to us. Because this church knows the church is not the building, even with our beautiful structure here. Some of you have worshipped in four buildings in your lifetimes. You know the church is the people. The building can burn and you still have one another, and Jesus, and the fire of the Spirit -- which is all we ever really needed or had in the first place.

Amen.