The Holy Spirit came to Jesus’ first followers on Pentecost, empowering the frightened pack of disciples to become a brazen bunch of evangelists. The curse of the Tower of Babel was reversed in one amazing outburst. At Babel, people were divided. Former fishermen and other followers of Jesus became interpreters par excellence. In this Babel scene played backward, the devout Jews from Elam, Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, Pontus, Pamphylia and the like now hear the Good News of what God has done through Jesus each in their own native language.
The gospel is spoken not in confusing babble but with a crystal clarity that leaves the hearers cut to the quick. Before this amazing day is over, 3,000 devout Jews will be baptized as followers of Jesus, the Christ. The result of Pentecost was to take a diverse group of people and to bring them together into a common understanding of what God’s deeds of power meant to their lives.
Yet not everyone understood what was happening in their midst. The account of that day in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells us that some onlookers took the excitement for a drunken mob. Certainly, it feels safe to reduce the disciples’ behavior as coming from heavy drinking. It might also be comforting to relegate Pentecost to an outbreak of religious hysteria. But the Pentecost experience was not due to alcohol and is not so easily reduce to nothing more than hysteria.
This is an ongoing tendency about lots of phenomenon for which we have no ready understanding. The physicist turned Anglican priest, John Polkinghorne, said in his book “Quarks, Chaos and Christianity,” some people are “nothing butters” when it comes to the world we live in. Reductionists see a thing is “nothing but” its physical explanation. They need only look at the most elemental form of a thing to explain everything.
For someone with a “nothing butter” way of making sense of the world, the compositions of Bach and Beethoven are nothing but vibrations that interact with our eardrums to create the effect we call music. The Mona Lisa is nothing but flecks of paint that we experience as differing colors. Baptism is nothing but water poured over someone’s head as a part of a ritual observance, and the Pentecost experience was nothing but religious hysteria.
Yes, Bach and Beethoven’s greatest works do reach our ears as nothing but vibrations against our eardrums, for that is how the beauty of the composers’ work is transmitted. But you can’t reduce their music to mere vibrations hitting your eardrum.
Of course, the Mona Lisa is just flecks of matter we call “paint” put on matter we call “canvas” in ways that we experience as an interplay of colors. But her enigmatic smile cannot be reduced to the physical matter that forms the art. In these works of art, the notes of music and the paint on the canvas convey so much more, that reducing them to the essential physical phenomena misses the point.
So also, the Pentecost experience of the Holy Spirit coming to Jesus’ disciples on that fiftieth day after the Passover, would have created some emotionalism akin to religious hysteria. Yet whatever caused some in the crowd that day to wonder whether the disciples had been drinking, was not all there was to the event.
We know that there was something more because of the immediate and the lasting impact of that day. The immediate effect was to begin sharing the Good News of Jesus with those who were far off as well as with those who were near to the Jewish faith. The centuries-long change is that the way of Jesus became a light to the gentiles. It is in this change, which began in these earliest days of Christianity, and which expanded through the ministry of both Peter and Paul to invite everyone into the Reign of God, that we see something more than an emotional event is taking place.
The Pentecost event defied any “it was nothing but” explanation. We can’t reduce Pentecost to “It was nothing but emotionalism,” or “It was nothing but mass hysteria,” or even “It was nothing but a long-ago event we can no longer explain.” The closest we can get is “Pentecost was nothing less than the presence of God.”
That day, the Jesus Movement was transformed not by human will, but by an act of the Holy Spirit. The main aspect of Christianity that was transformed in that first Pentecost was that the gospel moved beyond Israel and Judaism and became a unifying event. Pentecost showed that what unites us is God’s spirit and that is more important than what divides us.
Pentecost is a time to remember that God’s spirit is still present in a mighty way. That’s why our worship can’t be reduced to “nothing but” music, readings and a sermon. The Eucharist can never be described as “nothing but” bread and wine, any more than baptism is “nothing but” water and words. That is far too limiting.
Beyond this, we know that today we cannot limit who is in and who is out of the reach of the Reign of God any more than it could be limited to Israel.
For when we encounter nothing less than the presence of God, we come to know that we cannot limit who God is and how God acts, no matter how we might try. We who follow Jesus now are called to act on our love of God as much as those first disciples were called to share God’s love. We are to share the love of God freely, without limiting who God might love.
We are to take this Good News that God loves us, and share that gospel in our deeds as well as our words with everyone we meet, as we leave worship, going in peace to love and serve the Lord. We are empowered to do this by nothing less than the power and presence of the God we experience this day in our worship.