You can imagine that it must have already been a somewhat terrifying moment. All the believers were together, numbering about a hundred and twenty (which, as a point of comparison, is about how many people we have here at St. Luke’s if everyone from both services were to show up at once), when some kind of divine event took place. “There came a sound like the rush of a violent wind,” is how it’s described, and it was audible not only to the crowd of believers gathered inside the house but to those outside their gathering place as well.
Rather than move away from the sound, a crowd begins to gather around the place where Jesus’ followers had been staying. This gathering crowd was already diverse, as the scripture reminds us that “there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” In other words, the Galilean disciples of Jesus were now surrounded by a mob of immigrants.
What was going on in this house church to attract and hold the attention of these foreigners? Following that first sound, the holy storm that blew through the house, came a second sound — the sound of all these Galileans suddenly speaking in tongues. Not in that holy and mysterious language of the Spirit that the apostle Paul called glossolalia, but in the actual languages native to the group of immigrants that had gathered in Jerusalem from across the known world, so that each of them heard these followers of Jesus telling the story of God’s acts of power in their own mother tongue.
Finally, in case all this wasn’t already odd enough, Peter stands up to address the growing crowd of native-born Judeans and foreign-born immigrants living in Jerusalem with words that are not entirely comforting, by quoting the Israelite prophet Joel — who himself spoke in the voice of God:
“In those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Acts 2:18b-21)
Everything about the scene is chaotic. The sudden rush of the Spirit is described in terms that make it sound as though a tornado broke loose in a house. A growing crowd of multinationals. A bizarre miracle of translation. A ancient prophesy of ecological horror. A promise of universal salvation.
Nothing in our waking lives could prepare us for such an event. If it were to happen here, now, that we all fell out in a mass act of Pentecostal testimony so disruptive it summoned all our neighbors to gather outside our door, it’s hard to imagine that the natural next step would be for one of us to get up and begin speaking about the end of the world as the prelude to a promise of salvation. The only relevant experience we have, or at least I have, for making sense of this story is the experience of dreaming.
In a dream we are prepared for images to come at us in ways that defy logic and order, for settings to shift suddenly, for the laws of physics to be disregarded. Yet somehow, within the world of the dream, these impossible things can be observed and even understood. Their stories can be remembered and brought back to the waking world as a kind of message from our subconscious, speaking to us with a symbolic language crafted from our daily lived experience.
What then might this bizarre scene, which some have come to describe as the “birth of the church,” reveal when handled like a dream?
The first thing we notice is that the story begins with two actions: one on the part of the people and one emanating from the heavens. The people assemble and the Spirit comes. Not that the one forces the other, that the people can summon the Spirit simply by coming together, but that the Spirit acts once the people have left their private homes and joined together in public.
The second thing we notice is that the Spirit immediately acts to disrupt the homogeneity of Jesus’ followers. Rather than acting on the crowd, equipping the immigrants to understand what the disciples were saying, the Spirit acts on the church, equipping it to share its story in ways none of those followers of Jesus had been raised to do. They were making new sounds, speaking new languages, telling the story of God’s power in a way that made that very power obvious to anyone listening.
The third thing we might notice is that Peter relates this miracle of communication and comprehension to a prophesy of destruction — as if to say that the new community coming into being will feel to some like the end of the world.
That feels particularly important to say this morning, as we are waking up to the details of yet another attack on the people of London, which killed six and wounded nearly fifty. In a week in which multiple attacks were carried out in Afghanistan that left a hundred people dead and another five hundred badly wounded. In a news cycle dominated globally by despair for the environment, and locally by disappointment and outrage at the city’s failure of nerve to reform our system of law enforcement.
In the dream logic of Pentecost, these signs of destruction in the heavens and on earth are the beginning of the end. But it is not the earth that is coming to an end, or human life upon the earth. It is our way of being, our destructive patterns of relating to one another, that are finally coming to an end.
I know it doesn’t feel like it. I know it seems like things are getting worse. In reality, however, it seems to me that part of what is happening is that ancient wounds, intergenerational traumas, barely-buried prejudices, cultural addictions to unsustainable consumption, are boiling over — being exposed to the light.
Pentecost is the culminating moment of the season of Easter. It is the moment when the power of Christ’s resurrection and ascension ripples out beyond the boundaries of any single life, or even any single community of believers, or nation of people. Pentecost is the memory of God’s promise to never again to destroy the world with water — it is the “fire next time.” (2 Pet. 3:7)
But what is destroyed in this fire is the pretense that any of us are better than any other, that any of us are more deserving than any other, that any people are more chosen than any other, that any nation is more favored than any other. What is burned away in this fire are the lines that divide us — and without those lines the world as it is cannot go on.
So this fire ends the world as we know it, and in its place something new is already growing up among us. That something new is God’s dream for the world. We are its dreamers. When we gather the Spirit gathers with us, giving us new sounds and new songs, new words to describe God’s power at work in us, and for us, and through us.
May the sound of our gathering draw others to us. May the Spirit at work in us change the way we think and speak. May God’s dream for the world become our dream as well. May the whole world be made new.