The Magic of Pentecost

Sermon on Acts 2:1-21 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

imgresIn July of 1997, Bloomsbury, the British publishing house, released a new young adult novel. The previously unknown author was a single mom from Scotland who wrote the manuscript on a typewriter in a coffee shop while her baby slept in a nearby stroller. That little novel and its protagonist eventually became an international sensation. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and its six sequels have been translated into 67 languages, inspired eight blockbuster movies, and made J.K. Rowling, that single mom, a billionaire.

Despite its immense popularity, the Harry Potter series is not terribly groundbreaking. It is essentially an incarnation of the archetypal hero’s journey: Harry Potter is a young orphan who lives with relatives who, predictably, mistreat him in the most cartoonish way imaginable. On his eleventh birthday, Harry discovers that he is, in fact, a wizard when he receives an invitation to attend the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There he learns that his parents, who were also wizards, did not die in a car accident as he was told, but were killed by a powerful dark wizard named Voldemort. As you can probably guess, the series builds to a final showdown between Harry and Voldemort, the results of which I will not spoil for you this morning. Part of the reason that the Harry Potter series was so compelling is that it matured with its audience. The first books were definitely geared toward younger readers. They spent much of their energy describing the wizarding world, exploring what daily life would look like if magic were part of the routine. harry potter hermione ron warner bros.To be honest, it wasn’t all that interesting. The students at Hogwarts learn how to transform mice into water goblets and make household objects float through the air with their wands. Neither of these magical skills seem particularly useful. As the series continues, however, the magic fades into the background as the characters begin to wrestle with life and death questions. In the later Harry Potter books, in fact, the villains rely on magic far more than the heroes. Ultimately, magic is not the point of the Harry Potter series; it is instead the means by which the characters tell their stories.

Today is the Day of Pentecost, the day in the Church year when we remember and celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit. In the popular imagination, the Holy Spirit is the Christian equivalent of magic. Even in our own liturgical language, the invocations of the Holy Spirit could be seen as a kind of spiritual alchemy: we call upon the Holy Spirit to bless the waters of baptism or transform the bread and wine of the Eucharist into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Moreover, in the biblical witness, the Holy Spirit does seem to empower God’s people to do things they would otherwise be unable to do. The Acts of the Apostles provides numerous examples of this phenomenon, and of course none are more famous than the incident we heard about this morning.

After he is raised from the dead and ascends into heaven in Luke’s gospel, Jesus instructs his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they have been “clothed with power from on high.” Ten days later, the wait is over: Peter and the other disciples receive the Holy Spirit and imgresimmediately begin speaking in multiple languages. Some assume that they are drunk, but most are amazed at what is unfolding. No matter where they had come from, everyone who had gathered in Jerusalem was able to understand what these Galileans were saying. Those of us who are native English speakers have trouble understanding what a relief it is to hear one’s own language in a foreign land, since we generally assume that everyone speaks English. Yet thanks to the disciples, these pilgrims to Jerusalem who had come from the very ends of the earth felt a little less like strangers and a little more like they had come home. Needless to say, it was a memorable moment; indeed, it was almost magical. These ordinary men harnessed the power of God and accomplished something impossible.

That is generally where we end this story. For many of us, the point of Pentecost is simply to remember this polyglot miracle. On Pentecost, in fact, many churches will invite parishioners to read this passage from Acts in multiple languages at once, as if to capture what it might have felt like to listen to the disciples. It’s a liturgical opportunity to experience the magic of Pentecost. Now, leaving aside the fact that in Acts people actually understood what the disciples were saying, dwelling on the magic misses the point. The ability to speak in many tongues was a sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence, but not its purpose. The disciples were not empowered to speak multiple languages so that they could beef up their resumes; it was so that they could reveal the story of God’s salvation to anyone who would listen. Indeed, as soon as the crowd turns its attention to Peter, he quotes from one of the prophet Joel: “In those days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” For Joel and for Peter, the presence of the Holy Spirit is an eschatological sign that God’s purpose for us is being worked out. The Holy Spirit is God’s signal that the whole creation is being redeemed. The Holy Spirit is a gift that empowers us to see the work of God in all things.

We invoke the Holy Spirit regularly in the Church. In our sacramental life, in our pastoral interactions, even in our committee meetings, part of being in the Church is inviting the Holy Spirit to be present to us. For some, this is probably pro forma; there’s a sense that a church experience only counts if we mention the Holy Spirit in prayer. For others, there is a magical quality to this practice; by invoking the Holy Spirit, we are guaranteeing God’s approval. The Church’s language about the Holy Spirit, however, is far more than some magical incantation. It enables us to see God working in all things. When we use the language about the Holy Spirit in the Church we are affirming that everything we do, whether it is baptizing someone into the Body of Christ, or being with someone who is sick, or simply meeting about church finances has the power to tell God’s story of salvation.

In a few moments, Emily will be baptized into Christ’s one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. She is, obviously, an adult who comes to us from another tradition. As we welcome her into the household of God today, it is not as if she will suddenly and magically receive God’s favor. Indeed, God was at work in her long before she visited The Redeemer. Instead, as Emily is baptized today, she will become for us and for the world an icon of God’s promise to redeem all of creation. As we invite the Holy Spirit to seal Emily in baptism, we are recognizing that her life has the power to tell God’s story of salvation. On this Day of Pentecost, this day when we embrace the gift of the Holy Spirit, we too are called to tell this story of salvation, revealing to the whole creation that God is at work in all things.