— A Sermon by Gary L. Bagley —
~~~ Pentecost Sunday ~~~
John 7:37-39; Acts 2:1-21
Rivers have fascinating characteristics about them. In addition to food and drink, they have been sources of transportation, fertility, hydro-electric power, recreation, civilizations, vacation spots… In its early years, Steinway manufacturing company floated Sitka spruce, hard rock maple, birch and other woods down the Hudson River for the production of their high-quality pianos. It dawned on me a couple of months after moving to Skylake that throughout my life I’ve had a relationship to the waters of the Sautee Creek, Dukes Creek, the Chattahoochee River, and the Apalachicola River. Growing up in Buford, the hydro-electric dam was built on the Chattahoochee River, forming Lake Lanier, that eventually empties into the Gulf at St. George Island near Apalachicola where we have vacationed often.
Referring to the Spirit, Jesus spoke poetically in our gospel reading saying, “out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”
Today is Pentecost. Pentecost Sunday is celebrated in a variety of creative ways, if churches celebrate it at all. Red is the liturgical color. Some pastors I know have asked their congregants to wear something with red in it. Liturgical dance is sometimes used. Balloons filled with helium have been released by some on Pentecost. (They float back down within a week or two while causing environmentalists all kinds of angst.) I’ve seen the Acts passage read in four or five different languages, all at the same time as well as the Lord’s Prayer offered in different languages in the same manner.
A retired professional Manhattan clothes designer who offered to design custom paraments for a church in Virginia, did so as a gift to the church (as well as going beyond sound theology and boundaries set by the Worship Committee). To say the least, this person’s designs were a bit over the top. The special Pentecost paraments (Communion Table covering) included tassels that draped over the front of the communion table. A small fan, purchased solely for that one day, sitting beneath the table, quietly blowing and rotating and tickling the tassels throughout the entire service. Quite a novelty; quite a sensation (and a show of one’s ego)! Bet you can’t guess who the pastor was!
The story of Pentecost in the New Testament book of Acts, had its beginning in the Feast of Weeks, Shavuot. It occurs fifty days after the Jewish Passover. While Passover celebrates the freeing of the Hebrew people from their Egyptian slavery, the Feast of Weeks celebrates their being given the Torah (the law, especially the Ten Commandments) by Moses from Mount Sinai in the desert. Literally, Pentecost means “fiftieth day.” Today is the fiftieth day or seventh Sunday after Easter, a day celebrating the Spirit descending on the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem, Mount Zion.
It takes more than a birthday cake to make for a real birthday party, just as it takes more than whistles, balloons, speaking in tongues, and a custom-designed Communion Table cloth with tassels being blown by a fan throughout the service to make for a real Pentecost celebration, and Pentecost had nothing to do with “speaking in tongues” or glossolalia, the Greek word for “speaking in tongues,” the ecstatic Spirit-mumbling associated with certain Pauline letters, and which may well be associated at times with deep emotional connections to the Spirit.
That’s the reason John’s gospel reading is often connected to the Pentecost story in Acts, even though the Gospel of John’s story occurred on the last day of the Festival of Tabernacles—Sukkot. Both events have their roots in the subject of the Spirit and water. From the Gospel of John’s passage we read:
On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me,38and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart* shall flow rivers of living water. (John 7:37-78 NRSV)
This invitation seems at first to be addressed to everyone everywhere. Who among us is not thirsty? Thirsty for meaning, thirsty for knowledge, for intimacy, possessions, importance, power, money, rest…. To be human is to be thirsty for something more than we have. Advertisers know this well and have learned to talk like Jesus. Their pitch always goes something like this: “Let anyone who is thirsty come here.” For diets, it’s ”Lose the weight you want, eating the foods you love.” Cars…? “Don’t let it pass you by.” For aging…? “Correct wrinkles and fine lines before it’s too late.” Motorcycles? “They’re all built to do one thing—get you there first.”
Jennifer’s newest, favorite commercial is E-Trade’s “Bow Wow Wow” with a bouncy song in the background depicting dogs getting blow-dried after a bath, wearing a bowtie, fine-dining at a gourmet restaurant, finely ending with a sailboat-load of white poodles on a yacht. The caption that follows says, “Some dogs have it better than you,” with the enticement to start e-trading!
Jesus’ invitation is far more than these shallow bar calls to a dry and thirsty generation. They’ve already tried everything the culture has offered, leaving them empty, burned out, and thirsty from hollow promises. Jesus instead summons people who have tried all the fizzy sweet sodas of the culture.
Lillian Daniel, senior pastor of First Congregational Church in Dubuque, Iowa, once told of being arrested during her pastoral years in New Haven, Connecticut. She and three other persons had been protesting unfair labor practices at the governor’s office on behalf of striking nursing home workers. They were singing “Amazing Grace” together just before being arrested. Sitting in the back of the paddy wagon, the young policemen assigned to guard her spoke to her through a narrow window, apologizing for the way she was being treated…being searched with rubber gloves, locked in this paddy wagon with trash and vomit, and for him having to be the one to enforce the rules.
“Why are you in this field, if you hate it so much?” Lillian asked.
“Just fell into it, I guess. After the military. So I retire in two years, and I’m young,” he said.
“What I wanted to say to you was something else,” he continued. “What I wanted to say to you was that back there, when you guys were singing ‘Amazing Grace,’ in the capitol building, I liked that. I liked the way your voices sounded when you sang those songs. So I wanted to let you know.”
“Thanks, again,” Lillian said.
“You’ll get out of here soon,” the officer said.
“You will, too,” Lillian responded.
Jesus is speaking to all the people, like that young policeman, who find themselves in a place that is unsatisfying, who are deeply thirsty for a life of meaning. And, Jesus is saying, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me….”
What we expect next in the verse is for Jesus to say something like, “I am the river of life, come to me and I will give you living water to drink.” What he says is actually far more radical. What Jesus actually promises is that if we come to him with our thirst, we ourselves will become the river. “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”
When thirsty people come to Jesus, he doesn’t just hand them a spiritual drink, giving momentary relief for their thirst. He gives them instead the living Spirit that changes their lives. That is why this passage has shown up with the story about Pentecost in Acts. Through the Spirit, believers participate in God’s ever-rolling river of life. Life in all of its fullness. The water of abundant life flows through them.
This promise of the Spirit means that Jesus—the Jesus of history, the Jesus who walked the dusty back-roads of Galilee, the Jesus who taught and healed, the Jesus who was tried by Pontius Pilate and executed on a Roman cross—this Jesus, for those who believe in him, is not just a memory or a sweet story or an idea, but a living and ever-flowing presence.
One way to put this is that through trusting and following the Way of Jesus we receive the Spirit, and in the power of this Spirit we have Jesus always in our hearts and minds…in our own spirit. That’s the reason that Pentecost is about far more than drama and sensationalism…far more than conjuring up a Spirit-story of tongues of fire, wind blowing through the room’s openings, and people speaking in foreign languages together, which is a reference to tearing down the Tower of Babel and living in true hospitality and unity. “The Holy Spirit is a gentleman,” an elder of a Pentecostal church once said. “He never forces his way in, and goes only where he is invited.”
So the real question is, “How thirsty are you?” Do you want to go for fluff…or the real stuff? Be warned ahead of time. It will change your life. You will become part of the river that flows with living water.
Living Spirit that flowed through Jesus, flow through the open hearts and minds of your Church here that we might be a great river that speaks to the thirsty hearts of everyone we encounter. Through Christ our Lord we pray. AMEN.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
37 On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me,38and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” ’ 39Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit,* because Jesus was not yet glorified.
1 Tom Long, “Homiletical Perspective” from David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3 (Louisville, KY, Westminster John Knox Press: 2011), 21.
2 Lillian Daniel, “Minute Fifty Four,” from What Is Good Ministry?” a collection of Portraits and Essays about Good Ministry, edited by Jackson W. Carroll and Carol E. Lytch, The Fund for Theological Education, Inc., Duke Divinity School’s Research on Pastoral Leadership, p. 6-7.
3 Jana Childers, “Homiletical Perspective,” from David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3 (Louisville, KY, Westminster John Knox Press: 2011), 15.