June 12, 2011 (Pentecost, Baptism)
Pentecost is often called the birthday of the church. The Pentecost story tells of the day those first followers of Jesus–about 120 of them–received the Holy Spirit in a dramatic way. The Spirit blew in as a violent wind and rested on them as tongues of fire.
We understand that this was an exciting, miraculous event for the early believers. We may not always consider how this one moment–the coming of the Holy Spirit–changed the lives of Jesus’ followers forever.
These 120 believers had been on a wild ride already. Many of them had left home and family to follow the itinerant rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’ words and actions challenged their beliefs, altered their understanding of God, and got them into plenty of trouble with religious and political authorities.
And then Jesus was executed, and his followers figured their great adventure was over. But just as they were packing their bags to head home, Mary and Joanna and that other Mary came running up, all out of breath: “He’s not in the tomb. He is risen!”
So they unpack again, and sure enough, Jesus shows up–the risen Christ. He eats with them and talks with them. And then he tells them to wait for the Holy Spirit. And up Jesus goes into the sky. And the 120 stay in Jerusalem and wait. And wait. And wait.
I wonder how long they would have waited. At what point would they pull the suitcases out again, pack their travel souvenirs, and head back to their boats, their husbands, their high-paying government jobs, their market stalls?
But once the Spirit comes–once the Spirit comes, the suitcases, along with the travel souvenirs, are donated to Goodwill. The beckoning of their homes, families, jobs, is drowned out forever by the violent rush of wind. Visions of going happily back to their former lives are pushed aside by the blinding light of the tongues resting on each of them.
It is the day the church is born. And it is the day that about three thousand people are reborn through hearing the Word and receiving baptism.
And this is no mere “Jesus is in my heart isn’t life great” kind of rebirth. These three thousand people are born again into a new community; into an alternative family. They devote, devote themselves to being together, eating together, learning together, praying together. And–we didn’t go quite this far in the reading–they sell their possessions and distribute the money to whoever has need.
The fire of the Spirit energizes and warms–and it can also burn.
The waters of baptism can be deep and dangerous.
Our first births are a shock to the system–from darkness into light, water into air, solitude into family. Our new births are no less terrifying, no less joyful, no less of a miracle. Thanks be to God.