John 14:8-17, 25-27
Wilderness Inquiry is a non-profit that leads wilderness trips for mixed groups of able-bodied and disabled people. While I lived in Minneapolis I did some volunteer work for them and have also participated in several of their trips.
Also while I lived there I attended Church of the Epiphany in Plymouth, where I met a woman who was a paraplegic. Evelyn had a truly horrible story. She was in a car accident when her children were still in school that left her paralyzed from the waist down. While she was in the hospital, her husband not only divorced her, he also sold all her clothes.
I did not hear this from her, but from others. She had a sunny disposition and did not seem to dwell on her troubles. She was living alone in an apartment with part time helpers, but seemed to manage very well. Only later did I hear from her that she had taken a Wilderness Inquiry trip.
“And what did you think of it,” I asked. “Oh, Lynn, it was life-changing,” she replied. “I realized that if I could drag myself across portages and survive in the north woods, I could handle anything.”
As I tried to imagine what Pentecost was like for the followers of Jesus, this is the story that came to mind. I suspect that they would have felt the same way Evelyn did. Not so much from a survival sense, but in the sense that the experience of Pentecost gave them the confidence and courage to go forth and do as Jesus had done before them.
There they were huddled together in a house in Jerusalem, probably still wondering what they were supposed to do, perhaps gathered for worship, but the estimate I saw was that it was no more than 120 people. How could this small group of mostly Galileans hope to walk in their Master’s footsteps?
They were probably gathered to celebrate the third great festival of Judaism, the Festival of Weeks, when the first fruits of the harvest are given to God. It also celebrates the giving of the Torah, especially the Ten Commandments. So as this festival marks the birth of the Jews as the people of God during the Exodus, so this event marks the birth of the church. For without Pentecost, the church might not have become a reality.
When the wind came and filled the house the spirit filled all of them, not just the disciples. They were all able to speak in a foreign language and all spoke of God’s deeds of power. On every head there rested a tongue, as of fire.
The use of tongues, as of fire, reminds me of the passage in Isaiah 6:6 describing a vision he had. “Then one of the seraphs flew to me holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ and I said, ‘here am I; send me!’”
I see these tongues, as of fire, as marks of refining fire that burns away sin. The real point is that each of these people can see that they don’t have to be perfect to carry on the Lord’s work. Being suddenly able to speak in a foreign language has shown them that God is with them and will help in their efforts to communicate the Gospel to others, no matter what their native tongue is.
The resurrection and the ascension may have amazed the followers of Jesus, but the experience of Pentecost empowered them. It gave them confidence that they could carry on. It showed them that they had gifts they had not realized and that with the Holy Spirit, all things may be possible. Speaking a foreign language is a metaphor for all that they can do which logic or their own assumptions holds them back from attempting.
For example, how would you respond if given the chance to travel in a non-English speaking foreign country? Might it make you nervous? Would you go anyway or stay home? I learned on my first trip abroad that a little confidence and a willingness to improvise can conquer almost any language barrier.
We were staying with a family in the burbs of Rotterdam and it was COLD. So, of course, I caught a cold and needed some meds. I walked to a nearby pharmacy, but no one there could speak English. So I said, “I have a cold in my nose, and I’d like some nose drops” while using my hands and exaggerating how plugged up I was with my voice. Worked like a charm and we all had a good laugh. I held out some money and she took what she needed and gave me change.
In John’s lesson today, taken from the farewell speech of Jesus to his disciples, Jesus says this. “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and in fact will do greater works than these.” The disciples heard these words before Pentecost, but the experience of Pentecost gave them the confidence to actually believe what Jesus said.
Confidence is a subset of courage, it seems to me, and the opposite of courage is fear. Cowardice is what happens when fear wins out over courage. As a result of Pentecost the disciples and other followers of Jesus had the courage to continue his work, they had the courage to speak the Good News and to carry it to the ends of the earth.
I’m sure I’ve told you before about the Native grandfather who explained to his grandson that there were both good and evil spirits within each of us. When the grandson asks, “Grandfather, which one will win?” the grandfather responds, “The one you feed.”
The same is true for courage and fear. They are often at odds with one another, even though fear is a survival tool that God gave us to help keep us safe. If we let it run our lives, we are feeding it too much, and we will find that our courage has faded into the background. Courage is strengthened by using it, by trying new things, and by stepping out and risking failure. Failure is not a problem; it’s how we learn about the world, about what works and what doesn’t, about what we’re good at and what we’re not.
If we trust in Jesus we will do the kind of works he did, as we are able, honing the gifts we have to the work at hand, screwing up our courage to speak the Good News or to be the Good News to others. That is how the disciples spread the Kingdom and so can we. AMEN