Bridges over a Divided World (a sermon for Pentecost)

God’s grace and peace be with all of you.

The world was a divided place. Certainly, the empire of Rome had united vast territory, from present-day Portugal and Spain to Turkey, and from the British Isles to northern Africa. But there were other world powers, too, such as the Kush and Aksumite Empires in Africa, and the Parthian Empire in present-day Iran. Even within Rome, there were deep divisions. Rome contained many groups of people, each with its own language, its own history, its own culture. The Jewish people, who worshipped only one God and who kept themselves apart with dietary restrictions and unique worship practices, were viewed with suspicion by their neighbors.
Within the Jewish community in the city of Jerusalem, there was another split developing. A traveling preacher from Galilee had caused such a stir that he had been executed by the Romans. Now, his closest followers claimed, God had raised him from the dead and taken him into heaven. To them, he was the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God.

The world was a divided place. Conflicts and differences could be found everywhere, and in a city like Jerusalem, many cultures collided. This was especially true during festivals, when masses of pilgrims came to Jerusalem. And so it was on one of these festivals, known as Pentecost in Greek or Shavuot in Hebrew, that people from throughout the Roman Empire and beyond came to Jerusalem. Imagine the smells of meat roasting and food from a dozen cultures cooking, the crush of the crowds, the sounds of Greek, Latin, Aramaic, and other languages all mixing together.
Somewhere in the midst of all of that, in a room in a house, something incredible is happening. A windstorm kicks up inside the house. Sparks and flames appear out of thin air. The fire hovers above the people in the house. The Holy Spirit has arrived.
The apostles, for it is the apostles to whom the Holy Spirit has come, are driven out of the house, out into the street, into the crowds and the noise and the clashing cultures. And they are speaking. This motley collection of former fishermen and tax collectors who come from out in the sticks, who were mostly illiterate, are speaking in languages they shouldn’t know. They are speaking every language of the world, Latin and Greek and Tamil and Parthian and Coptic and Celtic and and Nahuatl and Syriac and Chinese.

The world was a divided place. But suddenly, these twelve apostles have become bridges that can cross divisions of culture and language. Suddenly, they can proclaim the good news in every language. The crowds in Jerusalem are astonished: “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
All of these people, from every tribe and nation, hear a word about God in their own language. In this moment, the divisions of culture, language, citizenship, distance, are all closed. For at least a moment, the world is not a divided place. It is a place filled with and united by the Holy Spirit.
The world was a divided place on that first Pentecost. And the world is a divided place today. We live in a profoundly divided world. We are divided by language, culture, nationality, race, wealth, class, ability, gender, orientation, politics—and the gaps that divide us seem too deep to ever fill, too wide to ever bridge.
Our world is a divided place, much like the world of the apostles was back in the first century. And the story of Pentecost is a story of the Holy Spirit showing up in the most dramatic of arrivals, in a rushing wind and a burning fire and the cacophony of all the world’s languages being spoken at once. The Holy Spirit kicks off the Christian movement in unforgettable fashion.

When we read or hear the Pentecost story, one of my favorite details is how quickly Peter adapts to this new reality. For a fisherman turned disciple, Peter is a heck of a PR guy. In the middle of all this noise and chaos—a scene so chaotic, in fact, that people think a bunch of drunks have stumbled into the road—Peter steps up and starts preaching a sermon.
Peter raises his voice and addresses the crowds. Perhaps the other apostles started translating Peter’s words on the fly into all these languages they suddenly know how to speak. One way or another, Peter is able to preach a sermon to all these pilgrims, interpreting what they are seeing, the miracle that Peter himself is swept up in.

Peter quotes the prophet Joel. What has just happened, Peter realizes, is what God had promised: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”
The Holy Spirit has been poured out. The Spirit has been poured out like a tornado and a wildfire wrapped up together. And notice what God promised: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” All flesh. Not just on a prophet like Joel. Not just on Jesus the Christ. Not just on the twelve apostles. The Spirit is poured out on all flesh. It is poured out on everyone—on the twelve apostles first, and on all those crowds in Jerusalem, and on the whole world.

The world was a divided place, back then. The world is a divided place today. And yet God pours out God’s Spirit on all flesh. The Spirit comes to all of us:
To young and old, to giggling toddlers and to resting elders, to passionate teenagers and their worry-stricken parents.
To men and women, to cisgender and transgender people, to those who are gender fluid and nonbinary.
To parents and grandparents, children and grandchildren; to the childless by choice and the childless by circumstance; to families large and small.
To people in good health and to people who are sick, to people with disabilities and chronic illnesses and mental illness.
To rich and poor, comfortable and suffering; to the hungry and the over-full, to those of us who have more than we need and those who do not have enough.
To people who work in air-conditioned offices and people who work in factories and people who work in fields.
To people, like our graduating seniors, whose futures are bright and full of promise. And to those who can’t seem to find a light ahead of them.

You see, if the Holy Spirit could be poured out on a ragtag band of disciples from some backwater like Galilee—if the Holy Spirit could be poured out on the people who came to Jerusalem from all over the world—if the Holy Spirit could be poured out on sons and daughters, young and old, rich and poor—then surely God’s Holy Spirit is poured out on all of us. The Holy Spirit is a force to be reckoned with.
The Holy Spirit is poured out on all flesh, on all of creation. Our world may be divided, but the Holy Spirit unites us. The Holy Spirit makes us the bridges that close the divides.
The Holy Spirit arrived on that first Pentecost, but she hasn’t stopped moving since. The Spirit fills each of us, each of you, and the Spirit calls us to proclaim the good news to everyone in their own language. We are called to preach the good news so that everyone can hear it and understand it, not only in many languages but in many places and many cultures and many ways. Because the Spirit doesn’t erase our differences, but the Spirit does heal our divisions.
The Holy Spirit has arrived. The Spirit has rested on each of you, and you are being pushed, pulled, and called out into the world, to be bridges over the chasms that divide us. Amen.

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