The Promise of Pentecost

A sermon for Pentecost

by Ken Sehested
Texts: Acts 2:1-21; Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:22-23

      Word association: What images or associations come to your mind when you hear the word “Pentecostal”?

      Three texts intersect for today’s service:

      •the “dry bones” story from Ezekiel

      •the lyrical prose from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, where he writes that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.” Creation—not just human beings—are destine for redemption.

      •the story in Acts 2, read a few minutes ago.

      This text in Acts is among the most fantastic in all the New Testament. But it’s also among the most embarrassing:

      •all those awkward names

      •the coming of a “violent wind” and “tongues of fire”

      •Peter preaching on the street in Jerusalem (those street preachers are always embarrassing)

      This is a story chocked full of symbolic language and images and references from Hebrew Scripture:

      •It was in Isaiah that God promised that the divine mandate would be spoken by means of “strange men and a new tongue” (28:11)

      •It was a mighty wind (or “breath”) that divided the Red Sea so that the Hebrew people could make their escape from Pharaoh’s pursuing army

      There is a full restating of the remarkable prediction in the book of Joel of a day when God’s Spirit, God’s “breath,” will be poured out on all flesh, “and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young ones shall see visions, your old ones shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit.”

      It is the divine breath which appears to the Prophet Ezekiel, showing him the valley of dry bones, asking the impossible: “can these bones live?”

      And of course there is the miracle of “tongues”—not the “tongues” of ecstatic speech, but the amazing capacity of all present to understand each other’s native language.

      The timing of this story is the Jewish festival known as the Feast of Weeks. It’s basically a celebration of the harvest, of the ingathering of crops, of provision being made for the coming year. And Jerusalem is crowded with people from all over.

      In fact, if you know the geographic background to all those strange nationalities mentioned in the story—Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libia, Romans, Cretans, and Arabs—you know that the writer of this story is saying: From every point of the globe, from every imaginable place. This is no regional gathering. This is a global event.

      Most importantly, though, is a reference that is implicit in the text but never specifically mentioned: the story of Pentecost is the cosmic account of the undoing of the Babel story of Genesis 11. Do you recall it? It is the story of the beginnings of civilization itself. “Now the whole earth had one language, and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And the said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks. And they had brick for stone and bitumen for mortan. And they said, “Come let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.”

      The story accounts in this way the emergence of human technological arrogance. By building a tower with its top in the heavens, we will become masters of our own fate. We will become as gods.

      And the text says “The Lord came down to see the city . . . and said, ‘This is only the beginning of their impirial ambitions.” And so God “confused their language, so they could no longer understand each other, and the people scattered over the face of the earth.

      So what does Pentecost signify for us? To answer that question, we first need to back up to Luke’s Gospel. Luke, as you may know, is also the author of the book of Acts. Near the end of his Gospel account, he records the final words of instruction from the resurrected Jesus, and Jesus says: Wait. Don’t go anywhere just yet. The announcement of the Reign of God must be proclaimed to all the earth. But first you have to be empowered to take on this mission.

      The revolution has begun, but it's far from over yet. God intends to restore the work of creation. The Deceiver has staged a palace coupe, taken over, and now rules with an iron fist. Babel’s power is still in force. But the Deceiver's days are numbered. The triumphant assault against death itself has begun. But don't you go off half-cocked. Wait here. Supplies are coming. Reinforcements are coming. Fire power is coming—fire like you've never seen, power like no one has ever seen. The flames of Pentecost are about to erupt. That will be your sign to break out of your hiding places at full speed. You've experienced the resurrection moment; next comes the resurrection movement.

      These are militant images. To be sure, it is a militancy governed by Jesus’ own submission to the cross (instead of calling forth 12 legions of angelic protection, cf. Matt. 26:53). But militant nonetheless, for there are times and occasions that offend our sweet-tempered disposition.

      Easter is God's resurrection moment; Pentecost is God's resurrection movement, the birthday of the church, the shock troops of the Kingdom. On Easter God declares divine intention; on Pentecost God deploys divine insurgents. On Easter God announces the invasion; Pentecost is when God establishes a beachhead. At Easter God announces, "I Have a Dream." On Pentecost Sunday, the marchers line up, the police close in, the first tear gas canisters fly, the first arrests are made. But the people of God keep on marching, heading for the courthouse, headed for the White House, headed for the jail house, headed for the school house, headed for the big house. Headed for every house that's not built on the solid rock of God's righteousness, God's justice; headed for every house that's been stolen from the hands that built it; headed for every house in every segregated neighborhood; headed for every house that shelters oppression, every house that welcomes bigotry, every house that schemes violence.

      "For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel," said Isaiah, "and the Lord looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, a cry! Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land" (5:7-8).

      "Therefore," says Amos, "because you trample upon the poor and take from them exactions of wheat, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them" (5:11)

      "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" Jesus warned, "for you devour widows houses and for a pretense you make long prayers" (Matt. 23:14).

      But at Pentecost, the stolen house, the segregated housed, the house of oppression, even the big house is slated for redemption. Recall this description of the houses of the first Pentecostal powered community: "There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need" (Acts 4:34).

      Pentecostal power is an assault on segregation; Pentecostal power is antagonistic to apartheid; Pentecostal power extinguishes ethnic cleansing; Pentecostal power negates nationalism; Pentecostal power wreaks havoc on racism; Pentecostal power triumphs over tribalisms of every kind.

      Now, notice here—and this is very important—the Pentecost story in Acts doesn't say everyone suddenly started speaking the same language. Pentecost does not destroy the various distinctives between and among people. But the story does affirm that these differences are brought under the binding power of the Holy Spirit. They can no longer claim autonomy. They are no longer barriers to community. They are now in the service of God—the very God who repeatedly, time after time after time, has acted to nudge creation back to its purpose in Genesis.

      Pentecostal power is the power to overcome ancient hostility, to gather the excluded, to scale the walls of social, racial, even class divisions. Between gay and straight.

      I'm convinced that Pentecost is now the most important season for us as Christians. The true energy of Easter is more than, is fundamentally different from the "sugar high" you get from eating chocolate Easter bunnies. That kind of energy burns off within hours, leaving us weary, exhausted. That kind of energy is quickly dissipated. Within a week the Body of Christ is dragging its sparse remnants to a half-hearted post-Easter Sunday service. The resurrection moment is producing very little movement.

      A cynical journalist once wrote that a conservative is someone who worships a dead radical. Dead radicals can't bother us anymore. We quickly domesticate their memories, kind of like the way we do with Dr. King. Of course, we don't think of Jesus as dead; but he does seem to be safely tucked away in heaven. And from a lot of the preaching I hear, you'd think our job is simply to convince people they need to start making payments on a ticket to join him there when they die. No threatening movement seems to occur when Pentecostal power is preached from our pulpits.

      By and large the believing community has become strangers to the power Jesus promised. The subversive character of his life has been entombed in memorial societies we call churches. We revere his memory but we renege on his mission. The proclamation of the Gospel no longer threatens the new world order our leaders envision for us. The erupting, disrupting flow of Pentecostal power has been pacified, rendered harmless, packaged for television broadcast.

      There was a time when the redemptive power activated at Pentecost was the power to mend the rips within our social fabric, to restore splintered relationships, to repair broken communities. Pentecostal power once indicated the power to stand in the cracks, to face the hostilities without fear, to confess, repent and repair.

      Among the names for God in Scripture is one that means “Advocate.” Or, you could say, “Counsel for the Defense.” In other words, someone who is For Us, a Divine Protagonist—not to get us or trap us or force us into embrace. But One who is in the process of turning us all toward each other, even to our enemies. A Protagonist who lets us in on the divine secret: the world is headed for a party, not a purge. A Protagonist who assures us that we can risk much because we are safe, that nothing—not even death—can forestall the divine purpose of redemption. This Protagonist, the Holy Spirit, this wind and fire, is taking us into the very heart of God’s and God’s purposes, aligning us with divine intention for creation. In the Pentecostal movement, God is pitching a tent in our midst.

      What would it look like if the Circle of Mercy were immersed in such power?

      We will carry on this conversation more specifically next Sunday when we focus on the call of Isaiah.

Circle of Mercy Congregation
Asheville NC
4 June 2006

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