John 14:8-17, (25-27)
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
We have three passages of Scripture today that are all related to Pentecost. As I prayed these passages this week, I came to understand that in different ways the people in all three stories were afraid. But in these passages of Scripture, God both comforts God’s people and shows them what God’s will is for them. And maybe this is the key to our celebration today—we might be afraid, but God is with us, comforting us, giving us tools and guidance and showing us what we are called to do and who we are called to be.
Let’s dig in. In the Gospel of John we hear a conversation between Philip and Jesus. Philip is the one who is afraid. He is afraid that without the person of Jesus to guide him, he will not know God. Maybe he is afraid that he and he other apostles won’t know what to do after Jesus is gone. It seems like a natural fear. Philip is wondering how Jesus’ followers will continue without their leader. So he asks Jesus to show him the Father. And Jesus, who knows at this point that he is going to die, tells Philip that he will not see the Father but that he will have the Spirit of truth who will be with him always, teaching him, reminding him of Jesus’ teachings and bringing him the Peace of God. I hear Jesus sort of reprimanding Philip. He says, you know the Father already—because you have known me, and the Father abides in me. Don’t be insecure, you have been with me, you know me. Because you believe in me, you have the presence of the Father. But if everything you’ve already experienced isn’t enough—I’ll ask the Father to send the Spirit of truth to you. You’ll have the Spirit in you, showing you the way, leading you as you follow my commandments.
I think it’s important that Jesus connects the comfort of the Spirit, with the call to follow Jesus. Jesus promises Philip to leave him Peace, but he also calls Philip out to follow and do great works. “[T]he one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these. . .” Jesus tells Philip and the other apostles, “do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
In our passage from Genesis, we hear that at the beginning all of God’s people spoke one language, and came together and built one City out of strong bricks. While there are different interpretations about why the people built this City and this tower, it seems to me logical that they built the City because they were afraid that if they didn’t stay together, they might get lost or they might be vulnerable. The felt stronger together. They came as one people of God and built a secure place where they would all speak the same language.
I think about the desire to wall off the United States. I hear some people calling for “English-only” in the schools and other public institutions. It seems natural that people would want to be with other people who are like them, who speak their same language. This idea of creating a safe place where you could keep yourselves in and others out may be a natural response to fear and insecurity. But God comes down and notices that God’s people can do amazing things. And instead of leaving God’s people to their human protections of bricks and isolation as a people, God confused their language; and scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. God created Babel, saying see, nothing that they want to do will be impossible for them, and then sending them out all over the earth.
We’re left wondering why God didn’t just protect them in the City. At other points in the Bible, God offers God’s people protections, but in this story God confuses their language and sends them out. It seems to me that God’s attitude is the attitude of any good parent. God sees that God’s children are capable, but afraid and God pushes the people to do more, be more. Maybe God is encouraging them to believe in God do God’s will even when they don’t have the support of their friends in Babel. God is pushing the people to go into the world, to every corner and care for God’s creation. But God is not sending them out without tools—God has given them the gift of many languages, so that they can spread across the globe and do God’s work in every corner.
And then in the Acts of the Apostles, we have the story of the Spirit descending with tongues of fire and the sound of a rush of violent wind. The Spirit gave each of the apostles the ability to speak in different languages, and those who heard them were amazed because the Apostles were all Gallileans, but they could be understood by the gathered people from all corners of the earth. In this story, the apostles and all the people with them must have been afraid when they heard the rush of the wind. They must have been petrified when they saw that they were surrounded by tongues of fire. And when they began speaking in different tongues, the gathered people were perplexed and afraid.
But God’s comfort comes—this time with the gift of speaking in different languages and the ability to prophesy. This great act fulfills Joel’s prophesy—“Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.' " We see that the portents of God—the signs of God’s power (like the wind and the flames)—these came to the people so that they could proclaim God’s saving power to every corner of the earth.
In these three stories, we have Philip expressing his fear that the Apostles will be lost without Jesus their leader. We have Genesis and the City of Babel where the people are afraid that if they don’t wall themselves off from the rest of society that they might be tainted or their faith would be challenged. And then in Acts, we have the people afraid of God’s signs, but God gives them the power to prophesy in every language so that everyone might know God’s saving power.
I wonder what our fears are today? Maybe our fears are like Philip’s. We might be afraid that we don’t know what to do without a charismatic leader like Jesus. Maybe we are looking for a political leader or a church leader to follow. We want someone to show us the way. Maybe our fears are like the people of Babel—we are afraid that if we don’t protect ourselves by separating from the others, our faith will be challenged or if we get scattered, we might not be strong enough to carry God’s message. Or maybe our fears are like the people gathered from every nation—the people who are afraid that if God is speaking, they might not understand, or afraid that if they are listening to people who claim to carry God’s message that these are charletons—people who are just drunk on new wine. Or maybe we are afraid like the Apostles in Acts that we don’t have the tools we need to prophesy.
But the Pentecost message is that we have everything we need. Collectively, in this community of God’s people, we have been given the gift of the Spirit of truth and we have been given prophetic voices. Instead of trying to protect ourselves, we can trust in God. God the Spirit has come upon us. Like a mighty wind or tongues of fire, we have been baptized with water and the Spirit. When, in a few minutes we’ll repeat our Baptismal Vows, we’ll remember that the Spirit abides in us. God is constantly since before creation and into the Kingdom of Heaven in us, moving and guiding, teaching and leading.
We don’t need a human leader to show us the way—we have the Spirit of truth and Jesus’ commandments. We don’t need to build walls and separate ourselves from one another, we have prophets among us in every language and nation. And we have the ability to hear and understand the truth.
When we feel afraid and insecure, we have Jesus’ promise—Peace I give to you, my peace I leave with you. As Jesus abides in the Father and the Father abides in him, so Jesus is with us and in us as believers. The Spirit brings us peace.
All of these things are cause for celebration—balloons are just right, our fancy red clothes, our cake and our family choir. God has come among us and given us great gifts—this is a great reason for a party today.
But while we celebrate these gifts, I want us to hear the core message of these passages. The fears of God’s people are banished when we hear God’s call to go out into the world and live the Gospel. God didn’t comfort God’s people once and then leave them alone. No God works in God’s people by sending them out into the world to prophesy, to share in Jesus’ work. This is where the real comfort comes from. When we leave this place and go out to share the Good News, when we speak in language that our neighbors will understand. When we go out to every corner of the earth—to Honduras, to Bosnia, to Germany, to China, to the Korean comfort women, to the wives and sisters and mothers of prisoners in our Kairos Outside ministry, to the teens who have been expelled from the school system, to the home bound and lonely who are members of our congregation. When we reach out through our ministries with the power of the Spirit moving in us—this is when we overcome fear and feel God’s Peace. This is when we know the Spirit of Truth and feel God’s love.
Our celebration today must empower us, strengthen us and remind us. We are God’s people, we have the gifts that God gave us. We are with God when we love one another as God loves us.