06/04/17 – Pentecost Sunday – A Spiritual Tornado

 A Spiritual Tornado

Sermon: Acts 2:1-21 – Pentecost

I first learned what a tornado was when I was a young child watching “The Wizard of Oz” for the first time. I can’t remember exactly how old I was, but I was young enough to be frightened by more much more scenes than the one that has always seemed to be the most anxiety-producing among children – the one with the Wicked Witch and her flying monkeys. No, right from that early scene when Aunty Em alerted everyone to get into the storm cellar before the tornado hit put me on high alert for the whole movie.

Sometime after that my aunt lived through a terrible tornado in Topeka, Kansas in 1963. My aunt makes everything from going to choir practice or a doctor visit high drama. She inherited my grandfather’s gift of colorful story-telling. She told every gruesome sight, every emotion of every minute she experienced during the duration of the storm. And, she told it so often it was seared into my young mind. She and her husband were so shaken by the event that, in a matter of weeks, they packed their bags and moved back to North Carolina.

When it became certain that Tom and I would be moving to the Midwest, one of the things I thought of was: “We must get a house with a basement.” I would not look at a house that didn’t have one. Of course, hearing about the devastating tornado that hit Washington, Illinois the previous year certainly raised my concern.

The author of Acts is the same author who wrote the Gospel of Luke so I’ll refer to him as Luke from here out. Luke described the Holy Spirit’s sudden presence on a crowd of pilgrims coming to Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost –or the Hebrew title, Shavuot — as a “violent wind.” What Luke described was no “sweet, sweet spirit” or gentle “breath of God” about which the traditional Pentecost hymns announce. This was a powerful force that stirred people up.

And suddenly from heaven, there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” (Acts 2:1)

The Holy Spirit was a power that consumed them, so much so that their whole being was focused on this divine presence among them. Luke’s account is very clear that this was not a “me and the Spirit” experience but a communal experience. The Holy Spirit descended upon a community. The boundaries of the country of origin and language disappeared and they all heard the same message that Jesus the Christ came to reconcile and bring salvation to all the peoples of the world.

The story of Pentecost is the reversal of the Genesis story of “The Tower of Babel.”  “According to this story, the people of the earth once spoke a common language. God had already conducted a religious cleansing, ridding the earth of the unrighteous, leaving only Noah and his family to repopulate the earth. But, after many generations, Noah’s descendants, like their ancestors, wandered off the right path. Like a pack of disobedient hunting dogs, we always seem to follow the scent of sin. Our own egos galvanize us to run off from our Master.

The English word “babble” comes from the name “Babel.” The people had become so assured of their own power that they believed they could construct a tower that would reach the heights of God. In punishment for their disobedience, God scattered the people into different linguistic groups. No longer able to communicate with one another they became siblings in the mold of Cain. Fragmented by their inability to communicate with one another, they became fearful of and hostile to groups that spoke a different language.

At that celebration of Pentecost, Christ brought peoples throughout the known world into a unified body. Then, by the power of the Holy Spirit, one with both God and Christ, humanity became “unBabeled.” It was their newly bestowed ability to understand God’s message about Jesus Christ, delivered through Peter, that brought God’s Word to them. Like tongues of fire fanned by that powerful wind — another Old Testament allusion –  divine imagination sparked theirs and the Church was born.

It seems, at least in this country, there are many Christians, white Christians, who want to go back to the days of Babel. Instead of a tower to God, they want to build walls to divide God’s children. Instead of admiring immigrants who have endured great hardships to come to our country in search of a new life, we marginalize them because of skin color, religion, and yes, language. As they struggle to learn another language and culture, we tell them they are unwanted. Christ’s message of inclusive love is drowned out by our hurtful language and behaviors.

This week the deadly knife attacks in Oregon and London, a bombing in Afghanistan highlight humanity’s propensity to insulate, isolate, and destroy one another. The indifference of some political leaders towards those less fortunate than themselves throws a harsh light on our acceptance of injustice and callous disregard for the needs of others. There is just no way one can read the Gospels and claim Jesus supported leaving people without healthcare, taking from the poor to give to the very rich, or not welcoming people whose skin color or native tongue is different from one’s own and even marginalizing them in society.

Yet, if we looked for them in the midst of the violence and its tragic consequences this past week, we will have seen the ones, Christian, and non-Christians, who, for at least a few moments, saw not strangers but brothers and sisters in need and ran to their aid. Presbyterian pastor and child advocate, the late Fred Rogers, offered what his mother told him when, as a child, he heard about violence and suffering in the world and became fearful and sad. She advised him: “Look for the helpers.” These witnesses to the Gospel, whether they know it or not, show us how to love as Christ loved.

In our reading from Acts, Luke quotes from the Old Testament book of Joel. Yes, the Holy Spirit is also in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible that inspired Jesus, the devout Jew. This Holy Spirit, we read in the Old Testament, emanated from God. The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways. The author of Luke-Acts gives us an idea of God’s divine creativity in the Holy Spirit with the words of the prophet Joel:

“God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.(Acts 2: 17,18)  

Luke tells us that at Pentecost God, and God’s Son, Jesus, were one and the Holy Spirit joined the two to make the Holy Trinity. I love Walter Brueggemann’s definition of the Holy Spirit:

“The Holy Spirit refers to the intrusive, invasive, energizing power from God that comes like the wind to blow us beyond ourselves, to take actions, to dare dreams, to run risks that in our accustomed powerlessness are well beyond us. The assurance of Jesus is that the wind of God will blow us to freedom and courage, in spite of our tired fearfulness.”

For the Church to grow spiritually and numerically, we need to open our hearts and minds to the working of the Holy Spirit among us in worship, in Bible study, in mission, in stewardship of our property and finances, and in our evangelism. The Holy Spirit is a power that will rush in like a powerful gust of wind fanning the dying embers of our faith in God’s promises, our commitment to Christ’s commission, and our hope of new life if we invite God’s imagination to fire up ours!

If you need to be reminded of what Westminster is already doing, take a look at the summer issue of “The Windows” when you receive it. If you want to be a part of what Westminster will be doing for the future, be a part of the eternal life of the church, and of your own, by letting the Holy Spirit drive through your despair or complacency like a tornado. Let this powerful wind uproot what holds you to the past. Let the Holy Spirit fire your imagination for what can be.

And when the Holy Spirit has hovered over your head and blown through your heart, Jesus tells us to get out of the basement and go out to restore this broken world. Our commission begins at 1420 Moss Avenue and on to the Southside of Peoria and throughout the city to the ends of the earth.

And so, we come to the Table because Jesus told his disciples before he left them: “Do this in remembrance of me.” He commanded our sacraments because we need to sense, to touch, taste and feel to help us remember God’s everlasting promises. At the baptismal font, we remember that we are God’s beloved children, called into community. At the Table, we are fed so that we may be nourished and strengthened for service out in the world. The simple, ordinary elements of water, bread, and wine strengthen us to reject the unjust and cowardly status quo. They draw us toward the places of pain and suffering and fuel us to heal with God’s compassion. They embolden us to resist the powers of evil at work in the world. They remind us to risk love in the name of Christ.

All power, honor, and glory to our Triune God.


© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2017, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois