Primed for Joy: May 19, 2024

May 23, 2024

Year B, Pentecost Acts 2:1-22

Last week I had the opportunity to complete my women’s leadership training through Princeton Seminary.  It started 18 months ago and included women from across the country.  We were split into small groups and our group had 7 women from 6 different states and 5 different denominations.  I have learned a tremendous amount from these women over the past year and a half.  

One of them is at University Baptist Church in Austin– right across from the University of Texas.  During our time together, she shared what it was like opening her church up as a respite center for the college protesters.  Her church became not just a safe space, but a place of healing.  People could come after being sprayed with pepper spray and tear gas, a place people came to weep after being released from jail.  She said she never saw any violence from the students, but excessive use of force from the police in riot gear.  She spoke of poetry readings, interfaith worship, and the joy that accompanied these unexpected moments.  The group she encountered was made up of Jews, Muslims, Christians and agnostics, all working together.  One of the other pastors in our group said it sounded just like Pentecost and I thought…well Pentecost with riot gear. It made me wonder what would happen if Pentecost happened today.   

A lot of people think that Pentecost was always a Christian holiday, one of the originals that we invented.  But it was, and still is a Jewish holiday. Our story from Acts refers to a crowd gathering.  It says, “Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” That crowd was there to celebrate the Jewish feast of Pentecost. In the Jewish faith, Pentecost marks the end of the spring harvest.  People gathered together to present their first fruits of the harvest.  It was a time to praise God and show gratitude for all God had given.   

Later in chapter 2 of Acts, it says that 3,000 people were baptized. Presumably not everyone present was baptized which means this crowd was at least 3,000 people.  That is significant crowd. They were there for their own purposes (the Jewish feast of Pentecost) and it must have been rather jarring to have their holiday suddenly usurped by 12 Galilean fishermen who were speaking in different languages. Their behavior was so bizarre that people assumed these disciples of a crucified Messiah were drunk.  It had to be very unsettling.   

Peter defended himself and his companions by quoting the prophet Joel and talking about the sun turning to darkness and the moon to blood.  That’s just a weird way to try to calm a crowd.  It seems to me that would have just stirred people up, which is exactly what the Holy Spirit is known for, stirring things up.  But the crowd didn’t know that.  They were there for a harvest festival.  They were not there for tongues of fire, blood moons and seemingly intoxicated disciples.  This was in Jerusalem…a city. This wasn’t in a field in the middle of nowhere.  What do you think would happen in Old City if there was an event like that…without a permit? Would there be police? Almost surely.  I would probably be the one calling them, because this would be alarming 

After Peter preached his disturbing, but inspiriting sermon, the people were clearly moved. That was why they were baptizedYet I can’t help but wonder what the Roman authorities were thinking. We don’t actually know if there were any Roman soldiers on the scene at Pentecost. The Roman military was known for getting involved in anything that might be perceived as disturbing the peace.   The years 27 BC to 180 AD are referred to as Pax Romana because it was a period of relative peace and security for the Roman Empire. Jesus’ life and death and the birth of the church falls squarely in that periodBut that peace was enforced by the Roman military.  One of the reasons that Jesus was killed was because they feared rebellion.  Yet, even if there were soldiers on the scene, they didn’t respond with violence, because that would have been included in the story. 

When I started thinking about this sermon, I wanted to talk about why our nation and world seems to deal with things so violently and I was going to contrast our present day with the peaceful Pentecost 2000 years ago. But the reality is that humans have been hurting each other since Adam and Eve’s eldest son killed the younger one.  We have just found more and efficient ways to do it.  

Now I understand that some of these protesters are bad actors and that many are breaking rules that are there for a purpose.  I also know that some of these protests have included anti-Semitic behavior.  And that is one of the reasons I have not wanted to discuss it. I have heard personal stories of some horrific anti-Semitic behavior. It’s terrifying and heinous.  But there has to be a way for people to express themselves on divisive issues without it escalating to violence.  Not every college protest has ended with the police coming in.  We are capable of disagreeing in this nation without it leading to violence. 

I have struggled so much with this sermon because while I never pretend to have all the answers in any sermon, I try not to leave you more confused at the endI have been thinking, what’s missing in our world…or maybe not missing, but it short supplyWhat had made us so quick to attack rather than finding ways to communicate? We had our last class on spiritual disciplines, which Noah brilliantly ledAnd our final spiritual discipline was celebrationWe spent a lot of time talking about the things that bring us joyAnd I realized…that’s what’s in short supplyIt’s joy.   I am not talking about happiness which we often equate with worldly things or even things that we have to earn—I am talking about the joy that comes when we see God in the world around us—when we show gratitude for what God has given us, which is exactly what the first Pentecost was. 

When my friend at the University of Texas talks about everything going on, it comes out in a mixture of tears, smiles, laughter, and more tearsShe has found so much joy in this new community that she is witnessing. She has also seen a lot of pain. If she can see joy in that tense and volatile situation, then we still have hopeThere is joy in our world.  Sometimes it is more subtle and sometimes quite obvious. We have a beautiful opportunity to witness joy today in our service because what is more joyful than a baptism?   What is more joyful than welcoming a new person into our community? What is more joyful than telling someone that they are marked at Christ’s own forever? 

But what about those times when joy is harder to recognizeOur Acts reading is full of energy and joyThe reading from Romans speaks to those times when joy and hope are elusive—times when it’s hard to pray and praise. In those times Paul (the author of Romans) writes that the Holy Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. The Holy Spirit doesn’t just come to us on happy occasions, or in tongues of fire, or even worshipIt comes to us in one on one conversations, sometimes painful conversations.  Sometimes moments of silence, or when we choose to listen instead of talk.  It come in sighs too deep for words…  

The Holy Spirit is here for all of it. I wonder if the answer is in that very first PentecostThat crowd gathered was there to praise God, to thank God for the harvest God had given themThat joy and gratitude—it primed them to hear what the disciples were saying, even though it wasn’t at all what they expectedThat is why prayer and praise helps us, not just in our relationship with God, but in our relationship with one anotherIt primes us for joy.