Acts 1:14; 2:1-18, 40-41
I think the Holy Spirit gets short shrift in the church, perhaps especially among Presbyterians! For instance, look at the church calendar. The Holy Spirit gets one day – Pentecost. That is the one day of the year we get to put up our red liturgical cloths. It is the one day we hang the flaming banners. One day! For Advent, Epiphany, or Easter, we get a whole season – four to seven weeks. But Pentecost is one day, then we launch into that nondescript season of “Ordinary Time,” or the Season after Pentecost, it is sometimes called. It seems to have no identity – just ordinary. And this season marches from Pentecost to the first Sunday of Advent, 23 to 28 Sundays, depending on the date of Easter. It is long.
The color for this long season is green, for growth in Christ. Green is a beautiful color, though the liturgical green is often pretty drab and innocuous. I have never been able to figure that out! And we spend more than half of the year decked out in drab green. It reminds me of camouflage, a color designed not to catch your eye, to blend into the surroundings.
But why do we get bright, flaming red for the coming of the Holy Spirit?
Red is a powerful color. It’s the color of Cupid and the Devil, the color of love and hate. It brings to mind hot-blooded anger and Scarlet Letter shame. It means luck in China, where bridal wear is red…. Some of the hue’s significance has a biological basis. Many humans get red in the face from increased blood flow when they are angry. A similar process activates a flush of embarrassment or a more flirtatious blush. Red regularly sways behavior…. For instance, in a blind study athletes were given red and blue uniforms. The athletes in red won more often. Another study on women’s cosmetics – women in red lipstick were approached by men more often than those with pink or no lipstick. [The Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-color-red-influences-our-behavior/]
So why has the Holy Spirit been identified with this alluring, powerful color? For one thing, the Spirit appeared among the disciples on the day of Pentecost as flame. Red. Fiery hot. Powerful. Life changing. And out of control. Peter had to get up and explain to the on-lookers that these people were not drunk – so they must have been acting pretty much out of control.
Peter went on to remind the crowd that this behavior had long been known among the prophets. When Samuel anointed Saul to be the first kind of Israel, he said: “The Spirit of the LORD will come powerfully upon you, and you will prophesy with them; and you will be changed into a different person” (1 Samuel 10:6). In the next breath we see Saul stripping off his outer garments and dancing and prophesying! People were shocked! When Elisha did this, people thought he was crazy. Same thing on the day of Pentecost. The prophet Joel said it would happen again in the last days.
The Pentecostal movement of our time takes its name from the day of Pentecost. It was born on Azusa Street in 1906 and has always been marked by ecstatic spiritual experiences, from miracles and healings to visions to speaking in tongues. One observer is recorded as saying, “No instruments of music are used. None are needed. No choir- the angels have been heard by some in the spirit. No collections are taken. No bills have been posted to advertise the meetings. No church organization is back of it. All who are in touch with God realize as soon as they enter the meetings that the Holy Ghost is the leader.” [Newmann, Richard; Tinney, James S. (1978). Black Apostles: Afro-American Clergy Confront the Twentieth Century. G. K. Hall & Co. ISBN 0-8161-8137-3]
Others were much more cynical about the phenomenon, like this from the Los Angeles Times, “the devotees of the weird doctrine practice the most fanatical rites, preach the wildest theories and work themselves into a state of mad excitement in their peculiar zeal.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Azusa_Street_Revival#cite_note-charismaticcentury-5] Cynical or enamored, observers would agree that it was quite out of control – at least out of human control.
But why might the Holy Spirit choose to be so seen?
Presbyterians are known as “decently and in order” people. The name “presbyterian” means “of the elders.” We are led by and respect those who have been long in the faith, who carry elder wisdom. We appreciate careful, processed discernment. I am reminded of Molly Baskette’s comment in Real Good Church: “A parishioner at the first church I served as an ordained minister gave me a Beanie Baby snail, symbolic of how slow the church moves when it has decisions to make” (page 11). She warns, instead, that we as church leaders need to create a sense of urgency around renewal and change.
The good news of Pentecost, and Azusa Street, is that God’s work will never die. And the good news is that it is God’s work, not ours. That is why it can look and feel so out of control. Because it is! It is God’s work. This is what Peter was trying to explain to the crowd.
God is present with us as Spirit to bring change. That is sometimes a scary word. But if God was going to make the world look more like God intended it to be, for people to live at peace with each other in the abundance of what God has created – well, that was going to take a lot of change. And the so-far-pretty-wimpy disciples were not going to be able to do it on their own. Yes, they had been changed. But they were not ready to change the world. Jesus knew that, so he told them to go and wait for God. Good advice!
But how do we wait? The times we live in seem more out of control than the Jesus people on the day of Pentecost!
What can we do the fan the flame of the Spirit?
Face the Fear. As I went to sleep last night praying for the Spirit to come again, I admit to feeling some fear. I have no idea what the Spirit will bring with her. But I choose not to turn inward, to put up defenses, or to run away. I choose to listen and remain open as best I can, in the company of those who also choose this praying-waiting that Jesus instructed.
Season of Pentecost. This year, we will alter the liturgical calendar and add a season of Pentecost. Six weeks to focus on the Holy Spirit, the one we know least, but is with us in everything and in every way. July 9, the last day of our new Pentecost season, we will celebrate what God has called us to do during this season. I wonder now what that will be!
Pray. After Jesus’ ascension, the disciples devoted themselves to prayer. They gathered – it sounds like they were together almost continuously in unified prayer (Acts 1:14). It is in the place of prayer, in the posture of prayer that God comes. What is the posture of prayer? It is the posture of the humble, the one who has given up on his or her own resources and comes with openness to how God will act. The one who sent the Holy Spirit and gathered multitudes on that one day, is not dead, different or less passionate.
So, we must learn to pray. That sounds strange, perhaps. Learn to pray. Everyone prays in fox holes, so it is said. We all pray. At some point in our lives, we reach out to what is beyond us. But I have found that we do not pray easily with each other. I grew up with prayer meetings. We all prayed, out loud and silently, sometimes more than once. We entered a spirit of prayer and stayed there until we were led to move on. I remember some very powerful prayer meetings in my youth. I meet with a group of pastors who pray together once a month and have done for 15 years or so. Do you have a group of people you pray with? Yes, we have the prayer chain, and some wonderful pray-ers are part of that. But in preparation for Pentecost, the disciples prayed together, they were of one heart and mind in prayer.
This is no rudimentary task. It is the most important thing we can ever learn to do. Some of us may have been part of a church forever, and we still don’t think we know how to pray, or haven’t made prayer a characteristic of our lives. Let’s change that! Let’s learn to pray together as the disciples did. Let’s make Pentecost our season for praying together.
Come on Wednesday mornings to pray with Josh – 7 a.m.
Lets meet on Sundays between the services in the Library. I will be there.
Come to Night Prayer for the season. This has been a life-changing place of prayer
Pray with a partner. I know of one church that does this during the season of Lent. And praying together means person to person, using our voices, usually in person, but sometimes over the phone.
This season, we will learn about prayer and learn to pray. We will attempt to get to know the little known Holy Spirit, to begin to recognize her presence. And the Spirit will make us one in heart and mind, and maybe a little out of control. Let the adventure begin.