“Amazed and Perplexed” Acts 2:1-21
Rev. Sean Weston
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
June 9, 2019
The story of Pentecost we heard today in Acts is set in Jerusalem about 2,000 years ago, shortly after Jesus’ death and resurrection. During Jesus’ day, Jerusalem was the center of Jewish religious practice. The magnificent temple was the pride of Jewish people throughout the world. On festivals like Pentecost, celebrating the spring barley harvest and the giving of the law to Moses, people would travel from near and far to celebrate in Jerusalem, a place beloved by centuries and centuries of Jewish people. It was a deeply special place.
Below the surface of religious joy and worship, however, was layer upon layer of suffering. For thousands and thousands of years Jerusalem has been the site of serious and often violent conflict. Centuries before today’s story took place, the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and razed the temple to the ground, carrying leaders into exile and leaving everyone else behind. Along with the nation of Israel, Jerusalem has been ruled over the centuries by various empires. Some let the Jewish people live and worship as they wished; others forbade them from their practices at the pain of death. During Jesus’ life and for centuries after, Jerusalem was dominated and ruled by the brutally violent Roman Empire, the empire that killed Jesus. Yes, Jerusalem was the site of religious joy and sacred memories. And Jerusalem was also the site of deep suffering, death, and oppression.
And so, on Pentecost, when Jews from around the world gathered to celebrate in Jerusalem, they were surrounded with stories about God and ancestors, stories about war and peace, stories about crucifixions and resurrections, stories about weeping and joy. For many of them and their ancestors, the cost of faithfulness to God had been steep, the life of faith a deep struggle. They knew their lives were controlled by people far more powerful than they, that the emperors kept restricting their faith more and more, and some of them had followed this Jesus who had been brutalized and executed. And yet there they were in Jerusalem, celebrating the harvest and the giving of the law, in the middle of it all. I wonder what they expected. I wonder how they felt. Fearful? Uncertain? Determined? Hopeful? I would guess all of that and more.
Thousands of years later and halfway around the world, you and I lead very different lives than those gathered on Pentecost. Yet we too have places of deep memory and story, places that carry both pain and joy. Some of us visit cemeteries and are overtaken by joyful memories of loved ones, even while the waves of grief crash into our souls. Some of us visit childhood homes where we experienced both love and harm. And all of us today are in a place, a church, that has borne unbearable pain, whether at a funeral or in the pastor’s office or perhaps even during times of hard conflict. There is a reason some people in grief avoid churches for a long time or even forever. And yet this is also a place that has witnessed deep joy, in baptisms and weddings, in potlucks and in prayer, in moments when God’s feels so very near. We, too, know what it is like to walk in a place and be weighed down and lifted by memory at the same time.
Thousands of years later and halfway around the world, I cannot know what it was like for those gathered on that day of Pentecost. I cannot know what it is like to gather under the weight of oppression, under the boot of emperors who claimed to be the Son of God and Lord. I live a much easier life than that. But I do know what it is like to wonder
if this whole faith thing is worth all it costs.
if the church for all its flaws is worth my time and love
if it is worth the constant struggle to try and make the world a more just, peaceful, and loving place.
I know what it is like to drag myself to church and wonder
if what we are doing really makes much of a difference,
if God cares
why a so-called Christian nation elects leaders who grind the faces of the poor and drag us into wars, time and time again
why people have to keep dying if death has been destroyed
why we have to fight for people to have health care
why there is so much addiction, abuse, disease and destruction and despair
I imagine I am not alone in sometimes wondering, quite simply, what is the point? I imagine that in those times, times when we are surrounded by the weight and joy of memory, wondering why we even bother, we might have some small sense of what those people felt like so long ago in Jerusalem.
Yet when they gathered that day, something happened. The Holy Spirit rushed in like a violent wind, and divided tongues as of fire rested above peoples’ heads. All of a sudden people who spoke different languages could understand and speak with one another. The story gives us four words for how they felt in this chaotic moment: bewildered, amazed, astonished, and perplexed. “Amazed” in this text isn’t so much awe as fear. The people had no idea what was going on. This was certainly not what they expected. Peter stood up and gave a speech. This is what God promised long ago, Peter said, to pour out God’s Spirit on all flesh, to save all those who call on the name of the Lord. Peter goes on past what we read today to proclaim the Jesus Christ as the resurrected Lord, and to baptize three thousand people into the church, a place where according to Acts “all who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and good and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” A place where people broke bread, worshiped God, and served humanity.
God was making a statement at Pentecost, a statement about what the world looks like when ruled by the power of the Holy Spirit and not the power of the emperor, when Jesus Christ is Lord and not Caesar. God was saying to God’s people – your faith matters. Who you are in the world matters. It’s worth the trouble. It’s worth the heartache. Things can be better, and you can help. The world looks a lot different when ruled by God instead of emperors.
This is true even down to small details in the story. We are told that “divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” There is another place that people gathered that day would have seen divided tongues, as of fire: on a Roman coin. There was a coin that showed divided tongues of fire over the head of Caesar as a sign of royalty and divinity, a sign that as Rome claimed Caesar is the Son of God. Today we may not have coins like that, but there are plenty of leaders who act as if they deserve our worship even while they wreak havoc on all creation.
On Pentecost, God exposes that idea for the lie it is. The emperor is not the Son of God or Lord, and does not deserve your ultimate allegiance and loyalty. Jesus Christ is Son of God. Jesus Christ is Lord. And, as Jesus promised, God poured out power on all the faithful, not just one ruler. Each person has been given God’s spirit of power. On Pentecost, God gave God’s people the power to carry forth the ministry of Christ, to shared gospel in many lands and build communities that serve people instead of exploiting them.
The Spirit may not show up in your life the way it did at Pentecost. I wish I could promise you rushing winds and tongues of fire, but I can’t. Many people including myself can point to a few moments in life like that, where God’s presence seems as strong as a violent wind. More often than not the Spirit comes in a still small voice, in an extra burst of energy, in a moment of courage or in words of love. The Spirit’s presence can be easily missed if you aren’t paying attention.
But if you can learn to pay attention, you may just come to realize that just like our ancestors in faith you and I are offered a place in God’s great work of setting the world right. “Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus says in John’s gospel, “the one who believes in me will also do the words that I do, and in fact, will do greater works than these…..” You and I are offered God’s spirit of power, to carry the work of Christ into our world, today, here, now.
There would have been nobody for Pentecost to happen to if our ancestors had not found the courage to show up. And there were plenty of good reasons not to. So we begin as they did: by showing up; gathering as a community of faith. There are plenty of reasons for you not to show up today, but you did. Showing up is always the first step. Showing up when God is closer than breathing and when God seems nowhere to be found. Showing up among the weight and joy of memory. Showing up when we are filled with joy, and when hope seems nothing but a pipe dream. When we gather as church something happens whether we notice or not. God works in and around us, helping us grow, helping us claim our own power as children of God.
I close with a prayer by the Bible Scholar Walter Brueggemann:
“The news is that God’s wind is blowing. It may be a breeze that cools and comforts. It may be a gust that summons you to notice. It may be a storm that blows you where you have never been before. Whatever the wind is in your life, pay attention to it….and the blessing of God, Father, Son, and Spirit, will abide with you always.”
 Jana Childers, Homeletical Perspective on Acts 2:1-21, Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 3.