Today is Pentecost, which is often called the ‘birthday of the church’. On Pentecost, which literally means ‘50 days’, we remember how God’s Holy Spirit came among the disciples 50 days after Christ’s resurrection, and how said disciples then started their mission of sharing the good news of Christ’s life, death and resurrection with folks beyond their immediate circle – how they, in effect started a mission that eventually led to the development of the Christian church. And we just heard – or read – the story again. There is a mighty wind, there are tongues of fire, there’s action, people speaking of the great deeds of God in foreign languages. It’s quite dramatic, to say the least. And we can read about all that in the Book of Acts, chapter 2.
But today I would like to focus on the days leading up to all these dramatic events. What happens in chapter 1 of the Book of Acts?
Well, we heard part of the story last Sunday, as we commemorated the Ascension of Christ. 40 days after his resurrection, Christ ascends into heaven as his faithful disciples look on. But before he ascends, Christ gives his followers some last instructions. One of those is: Stay put. Don’t go anywhere. Wait. Wait in Jerusalem for what I’ve promised you, the coming of the Holy Spirit. And the disciples waited.
Now we all know something about waiting, don’t we? Here in the Bay Area, we’ve been waiting – how many days now? 80 or so? We’ve been told, not by Christ, but by federal, state and local authorities to stay put, not to go anywhere, to shelter in place, to not conduct worship services in person, and wait, until – until what?
Until COVID-19 has run its course? Until there is a vaccine? Until there is a number of new cases and deaths that’s not too bad? Until people take all that physical distancing stuff seriously and follow the rules without insisting on exercising their self-centered liberties?
We don’t know what we are waiting for. Scientists, physicians, epidemiologists just don’t know, they can’t predict what’s going to happen with this blasted coronavirus. It’s novel, that means it’s a new thing, something we haven’t seen or experienced before – it’s an unpredictable threat and strikes not only in expected, but also in unexpected places, in unexpected ways. And I think it’s this feeling of uncertainty that is so grinding and exhausting. If we were told, there’s a vaccine by February 2021 – okay, that’s still a long way down the road, but at least, at least we’d know there’s an end in sight, it would give us something to hang on to.
Waiting for who knows what sucks – please excuse my French, but I can’t find a better word. The crisis may be long from over – but mentally, emotionally most of us are probably done with the situation. I want to break out, I long to go about my life without worrying about becoming sick or making someone sick. And I am praying with the psalmist, how long, o God?
Now here’s the thing: even when all this we’re going through is more or less over, things probably will never be the same as they were before. And they probably shouldn’t be – there has just been too much social and economic and racial and ecological injustice going on. And that adds to the uneasy feeling – what are we waiting for? Who knows? God knows…
And the disciples waited. After Christ ascended to heaven, they remained in Jerusalem, just as he told them. Now we know that they only had to wait 10 days for the Holy Spirit to come. But they didn’t know. Christ didn’t give them a timeline. The disciples had to trust that, eventually, what Jesus had promised them would come to pass. But what would this promise entail? The disciples didn’t exactly know what they were waiting for. Imagine, someone told you, God’s Holy Spirit will hit you at some point in the future. Would you know what that means?
I wouldn’t. To be honest, it would make me uneasy, to say the least. What is God up to? Will it turn my life upside down? Will I be pushed to do things outside of my comfort zone?
I am sure the waiting disciples had similar feelings of uncertainty and unease. They had to be ready for anything.
And what do the disciples do during this time of uncertain and uneasy waiting? As we can read in the first chapter of Acts: they hang out together, and not just the eleven, but also with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and other woman followers, and the brothers of Jesus. They build a community, where they can hold each other up. And: they pray, pray fervently, without ceasing. So they do two things: seek community with each other, and seek community with God. Whatever happens, they have God – and they have each other.
In addition, they get their house, their community in order. The original 12 disciples, symbolizing the 12 tribes of Israel, have been reduced to 11 through Judas’ suicide. Something has to be done about that, so they identify two candidates for the vacant position of 12th Apostle and cast a lot, which falls on a follower named Matthias. The disciples make sure they are as ready as they can be for whatever is to come.
Maybe there’s something we can learn from the way the disciples wait as we are in an uncertain period of waiting now. Pray, be it alone or with someone, seek connection with God. Seek community, connect with people using technologies like the phone or the computer. Prepare as much as we can for whatever is to come, get our house in order. We don’t know what we are waiting for. But whatever happens to us, we have God – and we have each other.
And then the day of Pentecost comes for the followers of Christ. They disciples are gathered in the place where they use to hang out. Thousands of pilgrims are in Jerusalem to celebrate this high Jewish holy day, a thanksgiving for the first harvest of the year. God’s Holy Spirit is a force to be reckoned with, a mighty wind, a burning fire. The Spirit drives the disciples out into the streets filled with Jewish people from all parts of the Roman Empire and beyond. And the disciples can’t help but talk about the good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection to all the strangers they encounter. They speak in different tongues, different languages, finding ways to connect with those who are not part of their inner circle.
The disciples’ lives are turned upside down, they are out in the open now, and, yes, they become targets of ridicule and sneering, but they are also touching the lives of some. The disciples may not have known what they were waiting for, but they have open minds and hearts for God’s limitless and loving imagination. They embrace this wild gift of the Spirit – and history changes because of that.
I can’t help but think of our current situation as a pre-Pentecost scenario. Maybe God is telling us after all: Wait for it. We are waiting for ‘it’, whatever it may be. And perhaps we should see this waiting as a waiting for God’s Holy Spirit in our time and circumstances. What is God up to in these unprecedented and uncertain times?
Whatever it is, I hope we keep open minds and hearts for God’s limitless and loving imagination. It’s okay to feel unease about it, trepidation, maybe even a healthy portion of fear. But remember: we have God. And we have each other. And who knows what can happen when we embrace this wild gift of the Spirit.
Picture by Chandan Chaurasia on unsplash.com
This post is also available in: German