Today we once again have this amazing story that we hear every year about Pentecost. And while it is really only four verses that we hear today, I want to start by once again doing a bit of a word study. What I read to you today said “they were all together in one place”. The word translated as “all together” has much deeper meaning than just “being together in one place. It means more, “they were in one accord” in that place, or they “shared the same ardor, heat or passion”. In other words, they weren’t just in the same place physically, but also mentally and more importantly, spiritually. This passage follows the last time they have just seen Jesus. They have seen him, Jesus has declared to them that the Holy Spirit will be coming upon them, Jesus has left them, they have travelled to Jerusalem, picked the disciple to replace Judas and now they are gathered together in a spirit of prayer and commitment when the Holy Spirit descends upon them.
Later in Acts, as we heard in our last month’s study of Acts, that this time is followed by many, many conflicts, and disagreements about who they are to be, who and what the church is and what it will and should do. But that is not where they are here. Here it began, with this moment of deep oneness, connection, and excitement about who they were and what they were called to do. They understood their mission and they were about to begin it.
It is often in that space when we are most closely connected, most deeply aligned, excited about starting something new in which we experience the Spirit. Note once again that this Spirit is not experienced by people alone here. It comes to them when they are in community and worshiping, praying together. These are not individualistic experiences. They are experiences in community, in one-ness, in ardor. And again, it happens at the beginning, in their excitement and passion about their work.
As my lectionary group discussed this passage this week some of the pastors in our group talked about beginning congregations, being the start-up pastors for new churches and that in that excitement and spirit of passionate unity, they, too had group experiences of deep and profound movement of the Holy Spirit in their midst. Everyone was working together towards one goal, the startup of the particular congregation, and the intensity of prayer and commitment often brought about these deep moments of sensing God’s presence in their midst, of feeling the Spirit guiding, shaping, encouraging their work. But these wonderful and intense highs of the Spirit’s calling, the Spirit’s movement don’t usually last. They are mountain top experiences of deep and profound joy, wonder, awe that quickly end up forgotten when conflicts arise, when differences of opinion show up.
They shared that often those mountain top highs of sensing the Spirit can come back during a new pastor search or at the beginning of a new pastorate. Then you have the “honeymoon” stage for a while, but that too wears off after a time. And then those moments become harder to find. But Holy Spirit moments do not have to be big events. They don’t have to be big highs. They are just moments when we rest in God, moments when we feel God’s presence, moments when we remember our deep connections to God, and through God to one another. Holy Spirit moments are times when we are able to put aside our differences and to be united as one body, connected to God and one another. All were connected, all were united under this Spirit.
Today’s passage from Galatians is an extension of Pentecost. To remind you of what we read, Paul writes about the facts of Roman society at the time. “As long as the heir is a minor, he has no advantage over the slave. Though legally he owns the inheritance, he can’t claim it until he is officially an “adult”, an age set by a father. But when they become legal adults, they can claim their inheritance. Paul says that in a similar way, in grace we have now been set free as adults, able to experience the heritage which God has prepared for us. We are fully adopted as God’s heirs now. That once the Spirit was received, we were made full adults, no longer slaves but full children, heirs. This, too, then is a statement of inclusion and full heirs/adults. Acts 10 tells us that God has no partiality. As we read last week from Galatians 3, Paul tells us the walls no longer mean anything. In Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, male nor female, etc, etc. Inclusion is no longer limited by walls that need to be broken down. That Pentecost passion includes everyone, which is why everyone can now understand each other even across differences in language. That is what Pentecost is about.
But we struggle in our regular times, in our down times, when our passion and excitement for our faith, our church, are low. And much of this struggle begins with the fact that we just don’t hear each other. We just don’t understand one another. I thought about starting this sermon with the words, “Hola! Como Estan? Estan felices ahora? ¿Qual día es hoy en la iglesia?” I know some of you would understand, but some wouldn’t.
Still, we don’t even have to be speaking different languages to fail to understand one another. One of my lectionary friends told us that when his son was little, their car broke down and they had to have it towed. He told his son that he would soon get to see the car towed. But when the tow man showed up to tow the car, the son was very confused and said, “where’s the car toad? I want to see the car toad!” thinking that there would be a toad hopping around. I remember when I was a child being told that the world was round. I kept looking up to see the people on the other side of the world because I thought we were all on the INSIDE, rather than the outside of the earth.
When we speak different languages, we can look it up in a dictionary when we don’t understand. But idiomatic phrases still make it hard to understand each other. Phrases like “don’t have a cow!” or “it’s raining cats and dogs”. What are some of your favorite idiomatic expressions? I used one the other day that was so familiar to me but that my children said they had never heard before and didn’t know what it meant. “a Tempest in a teacup”
We also have trouble because we don’t communicate well. I can’t tell you how many times people have made to me extremely vague unhelpful comments that communicate absolutely nothing. “It isn’t like that” they will say. “It isn’t like what?” I will ask. “It just isn’t like THAT!” they will insist. “Tell me what it is like?” I will push. “Not like THAT.” They will say.
But even more than poor communication, we struggle as a people to listen. We don’t reflect back to check things out, we don’t ask clarifying questions. But even more than all of this, we plan our responses while we are listening rather than just listening. I’ve found this to be especially true in the Bay Area in which we talk so fast that there is no time for listening, for giving space to truly hear and THEN to form our responses. I’ve shared this with you before but when David and I first met we struggled a bit with communication because he doesn’t listen in this terrible way. He actually listens to hear. Then he pauses to determine his response. Because I was used to the pace of communication here, I would assume he wasn’t going to respond at all when he took the time to respond. We’ve both learned: but I fear his learning has been in the negative direction of realizing he has to jump in more quickly rather than what he used to do in order to stay in the conversation.
We are divided. And we make that so much worse than it needs to be.
When I was in Cleveland there was a music group formed called “Elders of Jazz”. These were “elders” in two senses of the word: they were all Presbyterian elders (ruling and teaching elders) from different Presbyterian congregations in the area. They were also all retired, so “elder” in that sense too. They served together, going around to different congregations with offerings of Jazz music for a Sunday. However, at one point the founding church had a strong disagreement with the Presbytery. That disagreement started with a theological difference, but moved then into the church withdrawing from the Presbytery and arguing with the Presbytery over the cost of doing so (as you know, our churches are owned by the Presbytery, not by the congregation, so when a church leaves the denomination, they are required to buy their building and grounds form the Presbytery). This created a rift. There was no longer a place for them to meet, to practice. There was no longer common ground for them to be a united “elders of jazz”. But they had the vision to see that disputes are temporary if we trust in the Spirit. And that God’s call to be united in Christ extends beyond our differences and our diversity. So they put a statement together for the Presbytery that said, “We currently are not meeting, but we are still in existence and waiting for the Spirit to unify us once again.” With that attitude, they were, indeed unified once again, despite their differences and despite their struggles. They remembered what it was to be “one in Christ”. They remembered that the Spirit’s job is to connect us all and God and that if we let the Spirit do that, She will. They remembered that they did not need to be in charge of everything, or control everything, or fight every time there was a disagreement. And so they prayed. And they waited for the Spirit. And they trusted that the Spirit would come. As it did.
God gives us the gift of understanding each other across our differences – differences in understanding, differences in culture, differences in beliefs, differences in language. This is the gift of God’s Spirit, uniting us and calling us to be church together, to be one together. Amen.