Pentecost: June 12, 2011
Have you ever had something amazing happen to you? There are no words to really explain these situations. When people are interviewed after a tornado they explain their experience in words similar to this: “it sounded like a freight train.” The words “like a” deem that this experience is something beyond our ability to explain. Romantic poems explain beauty in these terms as well: “her neck was like that of a swan” or she had skin like the purest snow. Beyond words. Love, tragedy, miracles, and many other situations leave us speechless. Yet we try to explain the best we can.
This is where the disciples are in Acts 2:1-21. They are sitting in a room together with really no idea about anything; they are sitting secluded from the community of the Jews. Even on this very important day of Shavuot, or the feast of weeks. This is one of the top three days in the Hebrew calendar. Passover, the first holy feast, is a complex religious holiday that also celebrates the beginning of grain harvest. Seven weeks later they would celebrate the end of grain harvest with this feast of [the seven] weeks. The third holiest grouping of days is the feast of booths, celebrates the fruit harvest and the closing of the harvest season. But there is more to this celebration than just the harvest. This celebration also celebrates the law of God and the giving of the Laws.
Since this day celebrated the giving of the law. So many of the devout religious observers would read the entire torah over the night. Many could probably speak it through memory but they found it to be a blessing to spend that amount of time with the written words. They were celebrating the covenant and the blessing. We celebrate a covenant too. Every year many adults celebrate a covenant made many years ago with their spouse. And in some traditions of the Jewish faith this day of Shavuot is like that celebrating the marriage between God and his children Israel. So the celebration was like that of a wedding feast. Even the prophets of the Old Testament make references to the relationship between Israel and God as that of a marriage. Some of the traditions would explain the giving of the law as a wedding and that as God gave Moses the commandments on Sinai, He held the summit of the mountain over the people as He spoke. Now we can’t prove that the mountain actually moved so in actuality this story probably evolved from the explanations given for the dense cloud representing God’s presence around the mountain. This idea is symbolized in the canopy held over the wedding party during even modern Jewish weddings. Many times this canopy is the actually prayer shawl of the groom. This practice signifies their desire to keep God and his commands covering their household.
The celebration was honored by people bringing the first fruits of the fields into the temple offering it as a kind of a dowry to the Lord, by filling a special vessel with the offering. After this they would eat and party because the 7-week harvest was now over. All night they would read the law together, and often read the book of Ruth too because it is a story of Shavuot. And then they would enjoy their family.
For the disciples they are sitting together trying to figure out what to do, how to justify this holy day with their recent experiences. Over the past fifty days they witnessed their friend, Jesus, crucified on a cross. They next found Him raised from the grave, spending forty days teaching them. They saw him miraculously taken into heaven and then they have for the last ten days been left to grasp what to do next. They attempted to move forward in some sense by installing Matthias as the replacement to the infamous Judas. Yet even in this they have yet been able to move out of the walls of their room. So they meet in confusion. Then something happens that will change everything. The Spirit surrounds them just as the cloud over shadowed their ancestors at the mountain of Sinai. They can’t put the experience into words so yet they are lead to speak to describe what has just happened. One thing we do know is literal fire did not rest on them and the violent rushing wind probably wasn’t actual wind since they use words “like a” to explain what was going on. But we do know some things; what ever happened caused something to attract attention.
As I consider this image I a reminded of the many times I am asked where the term Quaker originated. I’ve heard two stories concerning this, and both are very good. The first is that George Fox while on trial for his faith testified to the judge that he should quake in the presence of God out of fear and reverence. Meaning that the judge was in a position that should cause him great fear because justice is very important to God. The judge then called him a Quaker and those that followed Fox’s teaching were called Quakers. The second story I have heard is that while people visited Friends meetings for worship they would see people quaking or shaking as the Spirit moved them. Both stories are good stories but in both cases the term was intended to cause harm to the movement. But there was something telling about the name. Something that set the group apart from the others, something distinctive that was observable and spoken about, either through the power of speech or through physical movement. But no matter how the name came about it was an attempt to explain and handle something that was beyond words.
This is similar to what is going on in this story of scripture. The disciples don’t know how to explain what is going on so they use symbolism – describing the presence of God just as they read in the torah as they celebrated Shavuot. Outsiders were amazed too. Some embraced the mystery of God since what they heard was in their own language spoken by uneducated men of Galilee. Others tried to discount them in mockery by saying they were drunk. There was something amazing going on that was beyond words and everything changed.
From that time on the disciples left the seclusion of their room and boldly lived outside. They preached with burning tongues, tongues that spoke deeply to all people causing healing of the spirit or driving others to object. This all continues, just as it did with our own spiritual ancestors in the Friends Church. They were moved by God to speak and act. They were unable to stay where they were because they knew God was moving. Today is no different. In our early days as in the first century church growth was rapid. Growth happens when we are loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living Christ’s love with others. When our lives reflect God’s love we attract attention. When we seek, pursue and listen to the Spirit we are compelled to move, to speak, or to act. Which is living the love of Christ in our communities today.
What would happen if our lives were totally committed and submitted to God? What would happen if we were so intimate with the Spirit of God that we could have conversations and know what is on Its mind? And what if we were bold to act? People would be challenged to explain the unexplainable. They would be forced to try to explain what was going on or they would be compelled to embrace the mystery of God. As you consider this scripture and you own life, imagine the deep richness of being so close to god that the relationship could only be described as a marriage. Imagine also what our community would be like if we allowed the Spirit to move through us.