Today’s a major holiday! Does anyone know what day it is today? No, it’s not Mother’s
Day or Cinco de Mayo.
Today is Pentecost. It’s the special day, seven weeks after Easter, when a lot of people
in the Christian church celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit.
You probably haven’t heard very much about Pentecost, but if Quakers had an official
holiday, it would be today, because Quakers have a special interest in the Holy Spirit.
Let’s read the story, from Acts chapter 2.
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken.
Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?
Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs – we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”
Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “W hat does this mean?” Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
– Acts 2:1-13
People talk about the Holy Spirit in a lot of different ways. It means different things to
each of us.
We can’t really define the Spirit. We can’t domesticate it, or make it stay inside any kind
of boundaries. Jesus once said, “The Spirit blows wherever it pleases. You hear its
sound, but you can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going. That’s just the way it
is. . .” (John 3:8)
For some people, the Holy Spirit is like the soft, fluttering wings of a dove. Elijah, who
was one of the prophets in the Old Testament, experienced the Spirit as a “still, small
voice”. That’s a the favorite expression that Quakers use a lot. The Spirit speaks
silently, within our hearts, without words, guiding us, challenging us, questioning us.
The Quaker poet, John Greenleaf Whittier, described the Spirit when he said, “Drop thy
still dews of quietness, till all our strivings cease; take from our souls the strain and
stress, and let our ordered lives confess the beauty of Thy peace. . . ”
We talk about Jesus calming the storm. We talk about feeling Jesus as the presence in
our midst, when we meet here for worship. Those are all calm images, quiet images,
images of peace.
Well, that’s not everybody’s experience of the Holy Spirit! In today’s reading, it says that
a group of Jesus’ friends were all gathered one day. And it says that a sound like a
violent wind came and filled the room.
Have any of you ever been down at the beach when a hurricane was coming through?
The kind of wind that blows 100 miles an hour? Trees bend, roofs are torn off, cars get
rolled over. That kind of wind. Have any of you ever been through that?
When my wife and I lived in the Midwest, every year at this time we were afraid of
tornadoes. We never had one touch down near our house, but lots of other people did.
They said it was as loud as a freight train bearing right down on them. It blew out all the
windows, and tore houses apart. It was a sound that made you want to take cover and
hide down in the basement.
That’s the sound they heard at Pentecost. The hurricane sound. The tornado sound.
And before anyone could move or run away, the room was filled with fire. Bright, hot,
enough to make you cover your eyes and shield your face.
The fire split up and came and rested over each person’s head. And then the Spirit
filled them, and they all began to speak.
That’s the Spirit. That’s Pentecost.
Our experience of the Spirit goes all the way from one extreme to the other. The still,
small voice. The soft wings of the heavenly dove. The quiet presence in the midst.
At the other extreme, the hurricane. The tornado. The searing fire. The overwhelming
urge to speak. Both extremes are real. Both describe the way the Spirit feels.
Did you know, the Holy Spirit is first mentioned right at the very beginning of the Bible?
“When God created the heavens and the earth, the earth w as a formless void, and
darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of
That’s the first time we meet the Holy Spirit – at the creation, at the very beginning of
everything. The Holy Spirit is creation itself, bringing light out of darkness, being out of
emptiness, life from dust.
All the variety in everything we see, everywhere in the world we know, comes from the
Holy Spirit. All of the millions of beings that have ever lived, had the Spirit’s breath in
them. Every one.
The Spirit doesn’t belong to us. The Spirit isn’t something we corral or control. Every
child born, every wonderful thing with the breath of life in it, has the Spirit already. We
don’t put it there. God puts it there.
Did you know that in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is mentioned more than 250
times? It’s the same Spirit – the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ – but there’s something
different, every time.
The early Christians were astonished to discover that different people from every part of
the world, were all capable of receiving the Spirit. Before that time, people thought that
only natural-born Jews, inheritors of the tradition, were fit to receive it.
But no – they discovered that foreigners, outcasts, men and women, slaves and free,
rich and poor – all of them were Spirit-filled.
I wish that people today could appreciate and realize in their hearts what that variety is
really like. We try to box the Spirit in, and it just blows our boxes to pieces. The Spirit
can never be captured by any definition we try to make. And wherever we go, the Spirit
is always there ahead of us. That shouldn’t suprise us, but it does.
I remember my mother-in-law, who went to a very traditional church, talking with a
friend of hers, who was from a more contemporary church.
Her friend asked, “Do you praise God in your church?”
And my mother-in-law said, “Yes, of course we do!”
Her friend wasn’t completely convinced. Her friend asked, “Do you praise God like
this?” (While she asked, she raised her hands above her shoulders and waved them.)
My mother-in-law said, “No.”
Her friend said, “Oh. Well, in our church, we praise God like this!”
That’s funny. But there’s a world of truth in that story. One isn’t right, and the other isn’t
wrong. The Holy Spirit is fully at home in both kinds of worship. The Holy Spirit is
present, wherever hearts are open.
I usually worship in Quaker meetings like the one we have here. But I have also
worshiped in classrooms, at hospital bed sides, and in prison cells. And the Spirit was
I’ve been to Quaker meetings where people didn’t speak English. (That’s actually the
majority of them around the world.) I’ve been to worship where we sat on the ground in the shade of a tree, because the people were so poor that they couldn’t afford a building. The place doesn’t matter. The Spirit matters!
And the variety of things the Spirit does in people’s lives just amazes me. Paul talked
about that. Paul talked about people who are filled with the Spirit who are teachers,
healers, preachers, ambassadors of Christ, prophets, administrators, stewards and
many more things.
Paul said that everyone has a gift of the Spirit! Do you believe that? If that’s true, then
everyone here has a ministry. That’s a challenging idea. Where do you feel the Spirit
calling you? Where do you feel the Spirit speaks in you?
What are your dreams? We talked about that a couple of weeks ago. What are your
Do you want to write and sing new songs? Do you want to build? Do you have a gift for
making people feel welcome and accepted? Do you like making things beautiful? Are
you excited about the message? Do you feel joy when you’re working with young
The Spirit works in so many ways! It searches our hearts, it opens up doors that we
never dreamed of. If you think the Holy Spirit is boring, you haven’t met the Spirit yet!
One of the parts of this morning’s story that always fascinates people is the part where
it says they were filled with the Spirit, and began speaking in other languages.
For our cousins in the Pentecostal church, “speaking in tongues” means a kind of
ecstatic experience, where people speak in words or phrases which don’t sound like
ordinary language. Some people call it babbling, and I think that’s what the critics in
today’s story meant when they said the apostles must all be drunk.
I interpret today’s story differently, because it lists the different languages they were all
speaking. I won’t repeat the list, but it says that the languages were from everywhere in
the world they knew – the Middle East, Africa, Greece and Turkey, Rome, even the
countries beyond the edges of the civilized world.
They were speaking in all these different languages, and they were all talking about the
wonderful things that God was doing. Different languages, but the same basic
You know, I wish that I could speak every language in the world. I wish that I had that
gift. I speak English pretty well, and this year I’m learning to speak North Carolina. I
speak a little bit of French that I learned when I was in school, and I still speak some
Italian from when I was a little boy in Italy.
I can speak a few phrases in Spanish – my Latino friends can tell you how badly I speak it! – and a few words here and there in other languages as well. I wish I could speak them all!
What I can do, though, is I can reach out to people. I do that really well. For me, today’s
story isn’t about speaking in tongues. It’s about sharing God’s message with people
from everywhere. It’s about listening to people from other countries and other cultures.
It’s about welcoming them, in Jesus’ name, and not expecting them to sound or to look
just like me. They’re fine, the way they are, and neither of us should change. But where
other people hear confusion, where other people see strangers and foreigners, I see
the Holy Spirit in the lives of people who are different from me.
I call that a miracle. It feels me with joy and wonder. The Holy Spirit is in all these other
people. God is at work, in all of our lives. All I can do is applaud, because God is the
one who’s responsible. My experience is just one of many, and all of God’s gifts are
Pentecost is important, because it was the day people stopped trying to limit the Spirit.
They stopped trying to keep the doors closed. They stopped building walls, and built
bridges instead. They let themselves be amazed, instead of trying to live inside a small,
And you know what? Pentecost was the day they started to grow.
When they got up that morning, the entire Christian church, the whole movement, was
probably about the size of this group of people right here. I’m serious! We’re so used to
Christianity being big, we forget how small the group was when it started.
But when they opened the doors, when the Holy Spirit blew the place open, when the
fire filled their hearts and minds, when they started speaking to everyone they met –
that’s when the church began to grow. It grew bigger and faster than they believed
possible. They were amazed themselves!
The Spirit didn’t make them all the same. The Spirit made them one. They kept their
diversity. It was beautiful and amazing! But they discovered that the same Spirit was in
all of them.
And every time we make that same discovery, we grow some more. Because that’s the
way the Holy Spirit works.
Copyright © 2016 by Joshua Brown