Acts 2: 1-21
One conundrum for which I was completely unprepared as a campus minister was this: What is the liturgical color for a baccalaureate worship service?
As you may remember, the church’s liturgical seasons are each designated by a color and that color is reflected in the stole the pastor wears and the paraments on the altar table and pulpit. Purple for Advent and Lent, green for those large stretches of Ordinary time. Special feasts, like Christmas and All Saints and Easter all get white. So do the sacraments of baptism and Communion. Every once in a while there is a red in the mix.
Red, symbolizing the blood of Christ, is sometimes used during Holy Week leading up to Easter. But the main yearly red event is Pentecost. Fiery red for the Holy Spirit that shows up like tongues of fire. It’s a once a year celebration. Penetecost Sunday is red, then white for the following Sunday, Ascension, and then one of those long stretches of green on into the fall.
Tomorrow is Pentecost so it’s appropriate to wear red tonight on “Pentecost Eve.” But that’s not the only reason.
The only other yearly worship service when red is prominent is the ordination service during Annual Conference. The bishop lays hands on the head of the one to be ordained and asks God to send the Holy Spirit to inspire and guide the new pastor in his or her ministry.
This is the stole I was given during my ordination service.
You see, this sermon really began several years ago when I was about to preach at my first baccalaureate worship service. As I went to get my robe and the bulletins and walk over here to the sanctuary to prepare, I reached my arm out for a stole and then realized I had no idea which one to choose. What is the liturgical color for baccalaureate?
I actually thought it through. Feels like a feast day here at Wesley, so maybe white? No, graduation’s important but not really on a par with Easter. Definitely not ordinary green or penitential purple. I have a nice multi-colored stole that I never know when to wear and thought about taking the opportunity to pull that one out, but that seemed a little too easy – covering my bases with all colors. Then I remembered the red.
This is our annual celebration of the eternally fluid Wesley faith community, as some leave for other places and the rest of us grieve their absence while preparing to welcome new sisters and brothers in the fall. This is our annual time of blessing, when we give thanks for the lives and the gifts of our graduates, laying our hands on them as we offer thanksgiving and ask God’s blessing on each one. Sounds like Holy Spirit territory to me!
This year it’s doubly fitting here on the eve of Pentecost – which we rarely get to celebrate together as a community since it usually falls after graduation. What fun to pull out the red stole with visions of baccalaureate and Pentecost co-mingling in my mind!
It’s a serendipitous co-mingling of celebrations. Pentecost is often referred to as the birthday of the Church and in our yearly celebration it serves as a day of commissioning, a time for sending people out with new or renewed mission and ministry. Sounds a bit like a baccalaureate service, doesn’t it?
The way the Pentecost story is told in Acts is interesting. It begins with sound. Did you hear that when Paul read it? “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting” (Acts 2: 2). We use wind imagery to describe or depict the Holy Spirit and that seems fitting for the many wind-related accounts throughout the scriptures. But here it says that what came from heaven was a sound like wind and the sound filled the whole house. What would that be like? Deafening like a rock concert or something more like the feel-it-before-you-hear-it sound of a train?
Then the tongues of fire show up: “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them” (2: 3). Here’s the red, like fire. But, again, the text says the tongues are like fire. In what way? A tongue something like fire rested on each person. Do the people feel heat from the tongues? Do they see flickering light like a campfire?
Turns out it’s a bit difficult to describe the Holy Spirit with police witness type precision. You say a wind came in here? Well, officer, it was like a wind. You should have heard it.
At this point in the story a crowd gathers because they’ve heard the same sound. The tongues like fire inspire each person on which they rest to speak. And though this gathering in Jerusalem is like a Jewish Diaspora convention – people from all over the world are in town – each person in the room hears in his own language what the others are saying . What does this mean? Do you think they’re drunk? Couldn’t be – it’s only 9 in the morning. Then Peter stands up to announce that all of this is happening to fulfill the prophet Joel’s proclamations. Peter recites Joel’s words – “your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams…Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2: 12-21).
Two observations about what happens at Pentecost. First, “the language of the Spirit is the language of particular human groups” (The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol X, p. 58). God speaks to us not is some ethereal non-language but right in the midst of all of our tongues flapping, right through the cacophonous sound of all our native tongues being spoken at once. God doesn’t speak in spite of the loud jumble of national languages in that room. God speaks through each particular mother tongue.
The second observation is this: “the Spirit belongs to a people of God as their shared, permanent property” (NIB, Vol. X, p. 55). God does not show up in private to each of these people. God does not choose a select few who then have to interpret and translate for God. It is when the breadth of the community gathers, in all their particularity and incongruity that God’s Spirit is shared in and among them. It’s a communal gift.
The Wesley Foundation is a place where we have gathered and heard a strange sound, something like a wind. Turns out, God doesn’t just speak in the tongue of the Cappadocians and Mesopotamians, God speaks college, too. We showed up in this place from Maryland and North Carolina and Virginia and Singapore and Texas and South Carolina….We each showed up here speaking our own languages and heard in each other the voice of God. God speaks in the particularity of this community, in the language of exams and Rugby Road and relationship troubles and vocational discernment and Methodists with Muscles. God speaks ROTC and architecture.
And God has spoken here in a way that none of us would have heard on our own. God’s Spirit infuses this community of faith and is the gift that commissions us as we leave this place. It’s not a private gift to tuck away with your yearbook. It’s a gift we all share – even when we are speaking our languages out in new places around the world, in new communities of faith.
The good news is that God doesn’t stop speaking after college. And God knows other languages, too. God speaks Navy, living with my parents, this job isn’t what I thought it would be, newlywed. God’s the ultimate polyglot. You won’t find a language God can’t speak.
It might be hard to find a community where you can hear the wind and feel the warmth of the fire the way you have here. Know that God goes with you and God is ready to meet you in the new places and people and jobs and faith communities you find. The gift of the Spirit is one that is able to create families and Church out of strangers who don’t speak each other’s languages. It happened here and it can happen again beyond here. The gift of the Spirit is also one that continues to unite us as the Body of Christ, the family of faith, even when we are a far-flung Wesley Diaspora.
Thanks be to God!
© 2010 Deborah E. Lewis