A reflection on Acts of the Apostles 2:1-21 and Romans 8:22-27 for Pentecost
For a year or so when I was a little girl I was very afraid of the monster that lived under my bed. Now the monster was curious because it only came out at night. During the day I could sit on my bed and do homework or read without fear. But at bed time, pajamas on, teeth brushed, I’d enter my room and flip off the light switch for the over head light. (Apparently I did not have a lamp on a nightstand, although I don’t really remember). Anyway, once the light was off I had to walk across the room and, from a distance several feet away, jump into my bed to avoid the long arms of the creature that was surely waiting to reach out and grab me. The monster had these long tentacle kinds of arms – it could stay in the center under my bed and just reach its arms out around one side of the bed or the other to get me. I solved part of the problem by having one side of the bed against the wall – apparently the creatures arm could not squeeze between the bed and the wall. Then I had to sleep perfectly in the middle of the bed, because well, the arms were not long enough to reach from under the bed to the center of the bed – they could only get me if I slept near the edge. Fear of the night, fear of darkness, irrational fears.
Of course that fear of a monster under the bed left me many many years ago. Now I sleep in a bedroom with a window as big as the wall it rests in. From this window I can see the stars at night and during a full moon, the shadow of the Santa Rita’s. It is a breath taking view and sometimes when I wake up at 4am, and the stars are their brightest, I gasp at the sight before me. Lately, as we sleep with the window slightly open, we hear the coyotes as they wander and hunt through the arroyo just beyond our house. Sometimes their chatter is playful, but often it is haunting and eerie. I find myself wondering about the rabbits, ground squirrels, and quail who are awakened in the night by the coyotes, these small animals and their young, now possibly a meal for the hungry family of night hunters. Fear of the night, fear of darkness, real fears.
It’s been fifty days since Easter. Seven weeks since Jesus gathered with his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. Since that fateful night when the disciples could not stay awake, since Jesus was arrested and the disciples ran away or denied know him. It’s been six weeks since we heard about the women running to the Upper room to tell the disciples about the resurrection. Six weeks since Jesus himself appeared in that Upper Room to quell the doubts of Thomas, since Jesus beckoned the disciples out of their fears and back into the world again.
In the weeks between then and now we have listened to the stories of disciples trying to find their way again. Stories from the Acts of the Apostles of what those early days were like, as the Church was being formed. Decisions had to be made, decisions about who was in and who was out, and why. Decisions that ultimately led to an understanding that all were in and none were out. That’s what we hear today. After all the struggle to move beyond fears, both irrational fears and rational fears, after all the struggle to figure out what to do next, after all the struggle to really understand the Good News of new life in Christ, the disciples find themselves at a transformational juncture.
In the Jewish custom a feast was held each year, fifty days after Passover. What we hear in Acts today is likely the disciples gathering at just such a feast. Traditionally Passover commemorates the deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt and the feast held 50 days later commemorates their arrival at Sinai, when Moses saw God in the burning bush and received the Ten Commandments which defined the Hebrews as the people of God.
As Christians we have come to understand the Passover as the time in which Jesus was crucified and then, resurrection. Now, 50 days later we celebrate Pentecost – the giving of the Holy Spirit to the disciples. Suddenly everyone speaking in their own native tongue is able to understand others who speak a different language. It would be as if we, speaking English, could suddenly understand Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Russian, and so on – and people from those countries could understand us, even as we continue to each speak our own language. This amazing break-through of language barriers, given through the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, propels the disciples to proclaim the Good News of God’s love in Christ to all the world. Suddenly, in a burst of wind and fire, the disciples understand that the love they have known in and through Christ is a love meant for everyone. The disciples are not to guard this love, nor hide it away, nor contain it to just a select group. The power of the Holy Spirit on this day of Pentecost blows strong and fierce. It removes all barriers of fear and thrusts them into the world boldly. For a moment, maybe longer, their faith is strong and deep and real. It is open and generous and inclusive. It is the birth of the Christian Church.
Throughout history Christians have not always been able to live and proclaim our faith in this same bold, deep, open, generous, and inclusive manner. There are clear examples in history when Christians have failed miserable to do this. And yet, over two thousand years later, the church is still here. True, in some ways we continue to struggle over issues that divide us more than we struggle over the issues that unite us. We continue to have tendency to lose sight of the Good News of God’s love intended for all and instead focus more narrowly on who is in and who is out. But we are still here, most likely because of the ongoing power and presence of that same Holy Spirit who does not give up, but moves in and among us. Sometimes the Holy Spirit moves in big bursts like a gust of wind or a fire. Often times the Holy Spirit moves quietly through the night, piercing the darkness with sparks of light and love. Most often though I think that the Spirit is present in the prayers we cannot pray and the words we cannot say, in the moments when, caught by fear we lie stiff in the center of our beds. That is perhaps the moment when the Spirit is most obvious to us, the point when we are most able to comprehend that the Spirit helps us in our weakness; when we do not know how to pray as we ought, then and always, the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.