Sermon: Sunday, May 31, 2009: Day of Pentecost

Texts: Acts 2:1-21 •  Psalm 104:24-34, 35b  •  Romans 8:22-27 •  John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15


Not long after St. Luke’s established itself as a congregation in 1900 (an anniversary we’ll be celebrating next weekend on Anniversary Sunday), another outbreak of the Holy Spirit was occurring across the ocean in the Welsh town of New Quay in the United Kingdom. There, in 1904, a Methodist preacher by the name of Joseph Jenkins began a Sunday and mid-week preaching series focused on the need for a deepened commitment to Christ. For reasons known only to God, the people of New Quay and neighboring communities were caught up in a passionate experience of the nearness of God, and a Pentecostal revival was begun that received worldwide attention.

By 1905 there were reports of Pentecostal revivals in North Carolina, Texas, Minnesota (if you can believe it!), and even as far west as Los Angeles. There a young African-American preacher by the name of William Seymour, the 34 year-old son of former slaves, began to lead bible studies and prayer meetings asking for a new baptism by the Holy Spirit. From the beginning these gatherings were multicultural, with Black and White families gathering for prayer. After about five weeks of gathering daily, members of the tiny prayer group began to speak in tongues and news of their experience spread throughout the city. Soon Hispanics, Blacks and Whites were all meeting together to pray for an experience of the nearness of God through baptism with the Holy Spirit. When the front porch of the house where they’d been meeting collapsed under the weight of the gathered assembly they moved to an African Methodist Episcopal church on Azusa Street (from which the revival got its name – the “Azusa Street Revivial”) in a poor, Black neighborhood.

Within three months the daily attendance at Azusa Street was estimated to be between 300 and 1,500 people. The daily assembly was male and female; rich and poor; Black, White, Asian and Hispanic; young and old. It was as though the prophet Joel’s vision, remembered by the apostle Peter on that first Pentecost, had finally come true:

In the last days it will be, 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.

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)

People from across the United States poured into Los Angeles, the city of angels, to see what was happening. Sure, there were folk from the Holiness traditions, the precursors to the Assemblies of God and modern Pentecostal movement; but also Baptists, Mennonites, Quakers and even Presbyterians! Frank Bartleman, an early convert of the revival, wrote that the “color line was washed away by the blood,” referring to the atoning work of Jesus Christ in the lives of individual believers and the assembly as a whole.

The phenomenon of the Azusa Street revival continued for nearly a decade. Eventually its energy dissipated and was redistributed into a set of new Pentecostal communities and channeled back into the Protestant and Evangelical denominations that were most prevalent across the country at that time. A century later there are more than 500 million Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians around the world, second in numbers only to the Roman Catholic Church. Members of that movement point back to the Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles as the birth of their fellowship.

For many Lutherans, and plenty of others in the mainline Protestant traditions, the story of the Azusa Street revival is forgotten history we’d prefer to leave in the past. We’ve been generally suspicious of Pentecostalism. It’s so exuberant. It’s so democratic. Anyone might just stand up and say something. Someone might sing a song that’s on their heart that kicks off an hour of congregational singing. They bring their bibles to church, and they read them during the week, and they move their bodies during worship, and they never get to brunch on time.

SOF DuBois ImageStill, one hundred years after the birth of the modern Pentecostal movement, it has moved from the margins to the center. This church, called together by the Holy Spirit, looking like the prophet Joel’s vision of the end times, has gone from a disreputable fringe of enthusiasts in a Black neighborhood on the West Coast to the center of the halls of power in the White House in Washington, DC where Joshua DuBois, a 26 year-old Pentecostal preacher has been picked by President Obama to serve as the Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

“and your young men shall see visions…”

In that role Joshua DuBois is responsible for leading the Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, made up of religious leaders from a wide range of religious traditions, political persuasions and social backgrounds. Together they are tasked with helping churches, synagogues, mosques, ashrams, temples and secular community organizations like our own Logan Square Neighborhood Association work together to reduce poverty, support vulnerable women and children, encourage responsible fatherhood, and foster interfaith dialogue as a bridge to violence reduction and next step in promoting a wider culture of peace-making.

I got to hear Joshua DuBois speak earlier this month while I was in Washington, DC talking with Illinois’ senators and representatives about hate crimes and employment non-discrimination legislation and marriage equality. I was impressed with his intelligence and ability to convey both a sense of cool rationality and warm regard for a room full of strangers. Here was a Pentecostal preacher passionate about his faith, unashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ, rooted in his particular ethnic and religious identity, and talking to a room full of LGBT activists of many faiths about hot button issues. It occurred to me that this is what Pentecost was all about.

Often on Pentecost we emphasize the tongues of fire and the many languages spoken by those who heard the apostles’ proclamation in their native tongue. We talk about the diversity of the Pentecost church as though it was at that moment that the church went from being a homogenous Jewish sect to a multicultural mix. What the story tells us though is that already that day there were Jews gathered in Jerusalem from throughout the known world, Jews from every nation of the ancient near east who had come to Jerusalem for the Festival of Weeks, who spoke a variety of languages and practiced their faith in a variety of ways. Pentecost did not create diversity among God’s people – it allowed the existing diversity of God’s creation to come into fuller communication with itself across lines of difference. In light of that miracle of listening and understanding, placed at the beginning of the book
of Acts, the following stories of Gentiles and outsiders of all kinds being brought into the family of faith make more sense. God’s Spirit is indeed poured out on all flesh.

As a congregation born around the same time as the great Pentecostal revival of the twentieth century was taking place, and which is undergoing a bit of a revival all its own at the present moment, we stand to benefit from the experiences of these two Pentecostal moments. Among the lessons we might learn are the following:

  1. We should come to worship, to the study of scripture, to our personal experiences of prayer with the hope and the expectation that something may actually happen. That we might encounter the living God who is transforming the world with love. Paul writes to the Romans, “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom 8:24-25).
  2. We should be prepared that what we wait for patiently when we come to worship, to the study of scripture, to prayer, may not be what we expected. Reports from the Azusa Street revival were not only that people were caught up in a spirit of exuberance and joy, but also an awareness of their own sin and a sudden need for repentance and renewal. The things they were sure of – racial segregation, class differentiation, male superiority, blind patriotism – were called into question. Old certainties crumbled before the power of the Holy Spirit to make all things new. Jesus said, “I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, [it] will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:12-13). When we are washed in the power of the Holy Spirit we are called to testify to truths we once found unbearable.
  3. When we are called to speak, to testify to God’s reconciling love for all people, in all lands, we are empowered to do it in ways that can be heard and understood by those we are communicating with. The Holy Spirit at Pentecost did not call the Jews gathered in Jerusalem into the temple to show them how to worship aright. It sent the apostles out into the street to make holy fools of themselves, and it made their speech understandable to those who were very, very different from them. The creative power of God that created the world in the phenomenal biodiversity we sing praises to in Psalm 104 (“How manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures…”) is not interested in reducing us to a single experience or expression of faith or life. This requires us to constantly negotiate the tension between self and other as we move, in the words of Henri Nouwen, from hostility to hospitality. We must know ourselves and value our gifts even as we seek to know those others God has placed us in community with and appreciate their gifts. This takes place on every level – as we welcome new members into our congregation, as we will this morning; as we reach out to new families and individuals moving into our neighborhood; as we build bridges of mutual respect and understanding with people of different faiths and no faith at all.

Today the Holy Spirit is poured out on you, as it is every day, empowering you to leave this place and make holy fools of yourselves, as you witness to the people in your family, in your schools, at your places of work, on the tennis and volleyball courts, by the lake that God’s spirit has been poured out on all flesh. That we have been claimed by a spirit of adoption (Rom 8:23). That we have been made family together, part of a human family that creates unity by respecting diversity, that makes peace by building understanding. Today we are reminded that God is determined to prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:8), and that God needs voices like ours to stand up in public places and announce that good news in ways people can understand. That is not work we can accomplish on our own – but we can choose to pray that God will once again pour out God’s Holy Spirit on us. Who knows what kind of revival might result?

Come Holy Spirit! Come!


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