The Day of Pentecost, May 19, 2024

March 11, 2024 | by Nichole Torbitzky

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Acts 2:1-21

Historical Background and Setting
Our passage for today is set during the Jewish festival of Pentecost (also known as the Feast of Weeks or Shavuot), which was (and is still) celebrated by Jews 50 days after Passover. The story takes place in Jerusalem, where the disciples had gathered after the ascension, as instructed, to wait for the promised advocate. Pentecost is one of the three major annual festivals in Judaism. It is a harvest festival and a commemoration of God’s giving of the Torah (Law) to Moses on Mount Sinai. In Jesus’ day, and up until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE, Jewish pilgrims from various nations would gather in Jerusalem. This gathering could create a diverse and perhaps cosmopolitan crowd in the city.

The Spirit of Transformation and Transcendence
Acts 2:1-21 tells the story of events of Pentecost, which marks the birth of the Christian church and the empowerment of the disciples by the Holy Spirit. There is so much to address in these verses and much of it, dear preacher, I am sure you are already aware of. This passage is pivotal for Christian understanding of ourself as a religion unrestricted to ethnicity or geography and serves as a cornerstone for understanding the ongoing work of the Spirit in the world.

The Spirit functions as an agent of transformation regularly in the stories found in both the Hebrew and Greek scriptures. At Creation (Genesis 1:2), it is the Spirit of God was “hovering over the waters” during the creation of the world. God’s Spirit transformed the chaos of the deep into a new beginning, not separate from or disconnected from that chaos, but transformative of it. The Spirit of God brought opportunity and transcendence out of the welter of chaos. In Genesis 2:7, the Spirit of God appears again in the “breath of life” given to the first human. Here, the text uses the same Hebrew word for “breath” as “spirit.” We can understand the Spirit of God as that which transforms the inert to the living. The Spirit of God transforms by empowering Individuals to serve God’s people as judges, warriors, and prophets. We see in, Numbers 27:18, Judges 3:10, 6:34, 1 Samuel 10:9-10 the Spirit empowered Joshua, Othniel, Gideon, Samson, and Saul, for specific tasks and leadership roles, transforming their lives and through them, the lives of God’s people. In Genesis 6:3, God declares that humans’ days are numbered, and God will not allow the spirit to remain with a person for more than 120 years. In this, we see the spirit as that which animates and gives life; its absence marks the end of life. Even when the Spirit of God takes Ezekeil and transports him to Jerusalem (see Ezekiel 3:12-15), the spirit is the agent of transformation and possibility. Time and again, the Spirit of God creates new possibilities as it transforms.
We see this same pattern in the Greek Scriptures. The Spirit appears at Jesus’ conception in Matthew and Luke. It appears again at Jesus’ baptism inaugurating and transforming Jesus to set him on his mission. It appears again in Mark to drive Jesus into the Wilderness. In Luke 4:14, Jesus returns to Galilee in the power of the Spirit. Jesus promises the disciples later in Luke that the Spirit will help them figure out what to say while they are out spreading the word. In John 20, Jesus breathes the Spirit into the disciples. It seems that the Spirit of God is just as busy in the Greek scriptures as in the Hebrew scriptures and in each it is the agent of transformation and possibility.

Which brings us to our story for today. While Christians often understand this holiday as marking a beginning, particularly the beginning of the church, it also marks transformation and renewal. The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost transforms those who hear Peter from people disconnected by language barriers and ethnicity to connected in understanding in a way that transcends language and ethnicity. The Spirit transforms a group of scared followers into empowered leaders. It marks the transformation of loss and loose ends into purpose and hope.

It should not be surprising that God’s spirit works in this world exactly like God acts in the world. God is the source of novelty that draws us to transcend ourselves and transform our world. While God does not coerce, while God is not all powerful, God is not a passive by-stander either. In the actions of the Spirit, we see a God who wills and works for the transformation of the world. On this Pentecost Sunday, the miracle is less about the ability to understand languages that are not their own, and more about God’s persistent love that will not leave a rag-tag group of washed-up religious revolutionaries afraid and aimless. It seems like preachers regularly miss the importance of this part. Pentecost is about the coming together of God’s people. Pentecost is also about the action of God’s spirit to transform. It is the story of how God will not leave us alone and lost. God will never leave us aimless or hopeless or mired in grief. God can’t force us to follow, but God can offer us the Spirit. Time and again, God will offer us a way forward, a way toward the good and the better. Sometimes that offer can be experienced as powerful, like a great rushing wind or the feeling of being aflame. Sometimes, maybe most times, that offer is gentle opportunity, the opening of eyes and doors. The Spirit of God calls to each of us in each moment, offering and encouraging a kind of self-transformation that opens the future up to more and more goodness.

Nearly everyone has heard inspirational stories of transformations, caterpillars to butterflies, or corporate powerbrokers who leave their high stress-high financial reward careers and start over at something slower and more satisfying to the soul. (Think hallmark Christmas special where the high-powered attorney comes home to her small town only to fall in love with the local artisan bread maker and give up her glamorous life in the big city for satisfying small town love.) These are good stories, and many of the personal anecdotes are true. And most of us are not high-powered corporate types or caterpillars. Let me tell you a brief story of transformation about a friend of mine. She had a high-powered job, with lots of responsibly and lots of money, and hated it. She hated the dullness, she hated the stress, she hated the limitation. Mostly, she hated the thought of pushing papers and taking calls for the rest of her life. So, she got out. She went to beauty school and started cutting hair. And she hated it! She hated the long hours. She hated how her feet ached. She hated having to make so much small talk. She couldn’t imagine standing there chatting all day every day for the rest of her life. So, she got out. She took a job selling products to salons, and she hated making cold calls and dealing with customers who wouldn’t pay and feeling pushy. So, she got out…and she started driving Uber. I think you can see a pattern here. There is plenty of change, plenty of opportunity, none of them seem particularly transformative. Or, maybe transformative for the worse. You may be thinking to yourself that the problem is not the jobs, but the person. I can still hear our friends encouraging her to “have a positive attitude” and “look at the good” to “count her blessings and start a gratitude journal” and “even, I know a good therapist.” As you can imagine, none of this was particularly helpful. It was about this time that she started meeting with a group of writers who encouraged her to spend a little time with them each week working on writing the book she always wanted to write. So, she did. And she eventually finished her book but couldn’t find a publisher. So, she self-published and bought a dash-cam for her car. She continued to meet with her writing group and continued to write. Eventually, she started meeting with some success. Some of her short stories and poems were published in journals. She is working on finding a writing agent now that she is polishing up her second book. She’d like to get this one published for real.
Were you hoping for a riches to rags to riches story? That’s only Hallmark. The rest of us have to follow the possibilities that are often not great. God doesn’t have perfect plan all mapped out for each of us. My friend does not look back on her previous careers with fond nostalgia. She does not rationalize her journey as part of God’s plan to help her learn what she needed to know in order to appreciate what she has now. She thinks that God is kind of a jerk who, if He was really the powerful God classical theism says he is, should have just made her find writing first and be successful at it. Those who like to argue that the Classical God first had to work with her to lead to the right place, are at least partially right. God works with us. The Spirit moves with us, abides with us, nudges us toward the good and the better. This is a far cry from a perfect plan. The Spirit’s action with us is much like we see depicted in the Acts story for today. The Spirit works with us, stays with us, and empowers us to take the next step, to make the next choice, and calls us toward self-transcendence and the good.

The Spirit may well be working this way in the life of your congregants and your congregation. Here is some good news for your people, like the Spirit worked with a bunch of defeated and aimless followers of Jesus, transforming their loss into a world-wide movement over thousands of years, God will work with us to help us transform our lives, our churches, and our world today. Transform into what? We’ll work that out with God along the way. We can rest assured that the Spirit will be with us every step of the way.

Nichole TorbitzkyRev.Dr. Nichole Torbitzky is Associate Professor of Religion and University Chaplain at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, MO. Her current research investigates Whiteheadian notions related to Christian atonement theory. She serves as the editor for the Center for Process and Faith’s Lectionary Commentary series. She co-edited the process and preaching book, Preaching the Uncontrolling Love of God: Sermons, Essays, and Worship Elements from the Perspective of Open, Relational, and Process Theology.