Rev. J.C. Austin
I had a plan for Pentecost. It was sometime not long after we had shifted the church’s life and ministry to digital-only, which was in mid-March; I’m pretty sure it started taking shape around the time that the stay-at-home order began here in Pennsylvania, which was April 1. But somewhere in there, I developed a plan for Pentecost: that this could be our first Sunday “back.” How great would that be?
Pentecost Sunday could be the first Sunday when we could “gather in one place,” as the Scripture says the remnants of Jesus’ disciples did that first Pentecost. It could be the first Sunday when we, like the disciples, could leave the rooms and homes in which we had been sheltering from danger to gather exuberantly to sing and pray and preach about “God’s deeds of power.” It could be the first Sunday when we could pass the peace by shaking hands and offering hugs at the beginning of the service, a boisterous cacophony of laughter and tears and shouts of joyful reunion that we had reached the end of this crisis, this trial, this wilderness exile from normal life before the pandemic, and that through the power of the Spirit we had stayed together and made it through to the end.
As it turns out, that plan wasn’t really a plan so much as a dream. Part of the problem, of course, was simply thinking that this pandemic would have a discernable and definite “end.” But it seems that is not going to be the case until we have a vaccine or a widely available and effective treatment, or both. Instead, we are going to be finding different ways of living with and in spite of the virus, and those ways will probably cycle through different seasons as the disease ebbs and flows, as we are about to do here in the Lehigh Valley when we transition from the “red” phase of the stay-at-home order to the “yellow” phase.
But part of the problem is also that we tend to treat Pentecost as an end, as a return to normal, even when we’re not living through a pandemic. We plan for it, in many ways. It’s literally the end of the season of Easter, and the beginning of what we often call “Ordinary Time” in the Christian calendar, which is almost the same as if we called it “Normal Time” instead; it simply means we are not in a special season like Advent, Christmas, Lent, or Easter, seasons that have their own themes and colors and rituals and celebrations. And so we often treat it as a “last hurrah” in the life of the church, as well.
After all, Pentecost is the last major Christian holy day until the season of Advent begins, which isn’t until after Thanksgiving! So on Pentecost we usually wear our red outfits and sing special songs and read the dramatic story that we heard in our Scripture passage again this morning, but in the days that follow we then usually settle into ordinary time, not just liturgically and theologically but in terms of activity and focus. Things go back to what’s normal, ordinary.
But those habits, those practices, of Pentecost being a doorway back to the land of normality are actually at great odds with the meaning and power of the Pentecost story itself. On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples of Christ like a sudden and rushing wind; something that looked like tongues of fire appeared and rested on each of them, and they began speaking about God’s powerful deeds. It’s not clear whether this was miraculous speech or miraculous hearing; there’s evidence for both conclusions in the text.
But what is clear is that there’s nothing ordinary or normal about any of this; the diverse and cosmopolitan crowd of Jewish pilgrims listening are amazed that these peasants and outsiders and ne’er-do-wells can do anything of the sort. And some of them are so amazed they simply can’t accept what’s happening right in front of them, sneering that they are just drunk on cheap wine. At that divided response to what is happening, Peter stands up and explains that, indeed, there is nothing normal about this, and that they are witnessed the promised gift of God’s Spirit poured out “upon all flesh,” resulting in prophetic speech and dreams and visions.
Now, the typical reading of this story on Pentecost ends at verse 21, when Peter is really just getting started with his sermon. And that, ironically, may actually contribute to why Pentecost often feels like a conclusion, a return to normal, rather than the start of something entirely and radically new. Because after verse 21, Peter summarizes the salvation that God has planned and undertaken throughout history and fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and by the time he’s done, the crowd is not simply convinced, they are “cut to the heart,” painfully pierced in the center of their very being by the sharpness of the beauty and power of this story of God’s grace and mercy and love embodied in Jesus; the sharpness of the cruelty and injustice of Jesus’ treatment by those who rejected his message and abused their power by accusing and executing him wrongfully, the sharpness of their own complicity in either actively supporting Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion or just standing mutely by.
“What should we do?” they ask urgently, hoarsely, anxiously; “what should we do?” Peter replies that they should repent and be baptized. And the Pentecost story concludes with three thousand people immediately responding by doing so. The church goes from about 120 beleaguered people hiding in rooms to a teeming community of faith of over three thousand, with more joining every day. So Pentecost is anything but a return to normal. If it is a conclusion, an end, then it is an end to what had been normal, and the beginning of a new reality in the power of God’s Holy Spirit.
The end of what was normal is actually one of the great promises and blessings embodied in the Pentecost story. But for many of us, it’s hard to hear that promise in normal times, and even harder to hear when what is normal is suddenly ripped out of our grasp without warning, like it has been right now, first by this pandemic, second by the protests against the murder of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer, and third by the cycle of increasing violence between protesters and police officers over the last few days.
It’s hard for many of us to hear the Pentecost’s promise of the end of normal as a blessing because, unlike the first disciples of Jesus, we are invested in normal staying normal; normal has been good to us on some level, and we fear what we may lose if we lose what’s normal. And so we can endure the suspension of normal for a time, but we have a plan, whether consciously or not, that things will eventually and definitively return to normal, and that’s part of what get us through. It’s why we hear a lot of talk about the need to return to normal, the desire to get back to normal, various plans to reopen and restore and return us to normal. For many of us, that sounds like a goal, a promise, a hope, a comfort.
But for many, many people, it doesn’t. A couple of weeks ago, I was talking online with a friend about the impending end of the stay-at-home order in our respective states. We talked about the various dynamics of it, our concerns that it was getting harder to sort through the arguments about when and how to re-open various aspects of the economy and society as that conversation was becoming increasingly politicized. And then, he admitted that he is also worried about his son; he, also, has a son, just a year older than my own. Surprised, I asked if his school district was actually going back before the end of the school year. “No,” he said slowly; “It’s just that, during the shutdown, I never once had to worry about him being killed by the police. Now he’s going to start walking out that door again. And I’ll have to worry again every time he does until he gets back home.”
My friend, of course, is black. Now, stay with me through this next part, because we need to acknowledge some things that many of us really don’t want to talk or even think about, but they are not only at the center of what’s been happening in the country the last few days, they go right to the heart of what God is up to in and through Pentecost. The simple truth is that, as a white person, I have never worried that my teenaged son would be perceived as a threat and shot by a police officer simply because of how he looks; not once. My friend worries about it every day; it is part of what returning to normal means for him.
For black parents all across this country, it is outrageous, but very normal, to sit their children down for “The Talk,” which is not about sex, but about what they need to do to give themselves the best chance to stay alive in an encounter with the police. For many of us who are white, the killing of an unarmed, unresisting, handcuffed George Floyd by a police officer in front of pleading bystanders and impassive other officers was horrifying because such a thing seems so abnormal to us, despite how many times we’ve heard similar stories. Many white people are still saying things like, “I can’t believe this can still happen in our country in 2020.” But for black people and many other people of color, what’s truly horrifying is how appallingly normal this all is, normal enough that teaching their children about the best ways to try and avoid is is considered a basic responsibility of parenting and a generational rite of passage, all the while knowing that it still may not be enough to keep them alive.
Now, when we hear that truth and accept it, it doesn’t mean we’re calling all individual cops racist or justifying violence against them, any more than rebuking the use of violence against cops is calling all protests or protesters violent or hateful. We can condemn the kind of violence that was used against George Floyd and so many, many others whose names don’t make the headlines without supporting the kind of violence that happened against cops yesterday in Philadelphia and New York City and in so many other places.
And we must acknowledge that in our world, in our country, what happened to George Floyd is not an aberration or an exception; such a thing is reprehensible and indefensible, but in the lived experience of black people and other people of color, it is also normal. We who are white need to hear that, and know it, and agree that it simply cannot be allowed to stay normal anymore. It must be changed, we all have a role to play in that, and it will take all of us and more to do it.
And the time is now, following the spirit and example of Police Chief Andy Mills and the protesters in Santa Cruz, California yesterday. As the protest gathered, Chief Mills tweeted an affirmation of both the protest and the conviction that, to quote him: “Black Lives do Matter.” Then Chief Mills went to the protest and knelt beside protesters in the midst of them, in solidarity with their cause. And they welcomed him and knelt beside him, and together they made a more powerful statement than they ever could have done without each other.
I had a plan for Pentecost, and it wasn’t that we would be remembering and celebrating the gift of the Spirit’s holy fire coming upon the church in a world that is in flames. But that is where we find ourselves: in a world filled with the blazes of righteous anger, with the uncontrolled and voracious wildfires of unbridled rage, with the pale blue tongues of internalized fear; with the guttering embers of soul-weary despair, with the cold and bitter ashes of bottomless grief. Which leaves most of us feeling something like the crowd that listened to Peter’s sermon: we are cut to the heart by all that we are seeing and hearing; we know that this all must change; and we are asking urgently, hoarsely, “what should we do?”
Strangely, I think the start of the answer to that question is pretty much the same as it was when I first planned this Pentecost sermon, well before the events of the last few days happened, before I ever talked to my friend. And that is that, if the story of Pentecost tells us anything, it tells us that there is no going back to normal once the Holy Spirit is on the loose. And that is a good thing, because there’s a whole lot of what we have considered normal or accepted as normal or just resigned ourselves to being normal that we shouldn’t want to go back to, that we shouldn’t be willing to go back to, things that Jesus Christ came to save us all from. So what we should do is what Peter says.
First, we should repent. Now, all the word “repent” means is to turn in a new direction: to turn away from what normal has been and turn towards what God intends normal to be. We need to turn away from fear and towards love; to turn away from hate and towards acceptance; to turn away from division and towards inclusion; to turn away from oppression and towards justice; to turn away from violence and towards peace. And it is not enough to simply turn. We must move in the directions to which we have turned; otherwise we stay in the same normal place, just with a different view. We will be talking more and exploring how we can do that in concrete ways in the coming days, because this is just the start of an answer to, “what should we do?” But a start is a start, and it must and will continue.
And the promise of Pentecost is that when we do that, when we repent and and start to change direction, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, as Peter tells the crowd. Which, truth be told, is cause for both trepidation and confidence. Trepidation because the Spirit will almost certainly propel us in directions and into places that we would rather not go, directions and places that put us into close contact with the world’s deep brokenness as witnesses and ministers by virtue of our baptism in Christ, who spent his entire ministry doing that very thing.
But it is also cause for confidence, because the promise of Pentecost is that we do not turn and go into the world’s brokenness in our own power, but as the church of Jesus Christ alight with the power of God’s Holy Spirit that brings and shares the good news that Jesus Christ came so that we might have life, and have it abundantly, and that through the Spirit we will have the power and guidance to do so until that abundant and eternal life is normal for all.