I ran into a fellow pastor from my denomination the other day. We were both in the hospital parking lot, bearing prayer shawls, and both of us confessed that we were preaching on Pentecost. I told him that I was considering the Romans passage this year: "for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words....", and he considered that he may never have preached on Acts 2 on the Day of Pentecost.
Well, it is an odd story, isn't it? Instead of Jesus, reaching out with healing hands, reaching out with feeding hands, we have a mighty wind, and tongues of flame dancing on the apostles' heads. There's a sense of ecstasy in this passage that we might be uncomfortable with (after all, why else would some of the people accuse the apostles of being drunk?). There's an exuberance that doesn't fit well with our well-controlled church services.
Though I'm cautioned not to confuse the word "Pentecost" with the Pentecostal Revival at the beginning of the last century, I can't help remembering a little of what I learned about Azusa Street: the poor and working class men and women who gathered in the store-front -- the scandal their emotional outbursts caused among more socially-upscale believers -- the other scandal of black and white people gathered to worship together in the same place. (Sadly, this phenomenon would not last; in about 20 years black and white Pentecostals would be segregated into separate denominations.) There's something dangerous about the reading from Acts 2. There's something dangerous about the spirit.
(Aside: there's something dangerous about Jesus, too, but we forget....)
One of the dangers of preaching on Acts 2, of course, is that we might forget the source of the mighty wind and the tongues of flame and the exuberance: the crucified and resurrected Jesus. We can get caught up in the power, and forget that ultimately, the power displayed that day is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, the same power that helped Jesus as he set his face toward Jerusalem, and toward the cross. It's the exuberance of forgiveness, the mighty wind of love, the passionate flame of healing and justice.
(Aside: and that power continues to be resisted... with great force and might, and even by us.)
As a girl, I remember a recurring conversation between my father and one of his boyhood friends. "Which is the most important church festival?" they would ask one another. "Easter is the most important," my dad's friend would say, because Jesus rose from the dead. "But without Christmas, there wouldn't be an Easter to celebrate," my dad would reply, thinking he had won. And his friend would say, finally, trumping them both, "But without Pentecost, there wouldn't be a church."
There I am, back at Azusa Street, although it is not part of my tradition, not at all, where the Holy Spirit broke down barriers to gather people together who would not otherwise come together. The Holy Spirit gathers the church -- the Holy Spirit gathers the church in order to embody, in words and actions, the love, the forgiveness, and the justice that God in Christ has accomplished.
And in the midst of all this, still, the word that comes to mind, when I think of Pentecost and the power of the Spirit, is: "speak."
"For we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words."