When I was in high school, there were two girls in our classes who always wore long skirts. Their hair was very long—it seemed like they never cut it, but either wore it tied back, or fastened in a bun of some kind. They never wore makeup, and everyone knew (or my friends, at least knew) that Lisa and Lori were from a Pentecostal family. For a while, I thought that these two girls and their families were what Pentecostal looked like. Until I became friends with Rachel.
Rachel’s father was a Pentecostal minister, but Rachel wore makeup, was a cheerleader at high school, and her whole family seemed like most other people, except that their church was a called a Church of God, and their belief was that one is baptized by water, but one is also baptized by the Holy Spirit, and that second baptism causes one to speak in tongues. Others are given the gift of interpreting tongues. And so, knowing Rachel and her family, who were very modern but also spoke in tongues—I thought they were what Pentecostals looked like.
That word, Pentecostal, has to do with the Day of Pentecost, the day we celebrate today. The “pente” of Pentecost is just like the “pente” of Pentagon. It means five. And Pentecost is the day that is fifty days after Easter. Originally, this coincided with the Jewish feast of weeks, or Shavuot. As we heard in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, that fiftieth day after Easter was when the Holy Spirit appeared to the disciples in a strange and dramatic way. They were overcome by something, and they were changed.
The Acts passage says that the apostles received a gift of tongues, that each one could hear others speaking in a language that made sense to each. And while that is no small thing, there are other places in scripture that talk about the gifts of the spirit. The spiritual gifts go far beyond the ability to speak in tongues or understand another’s tongue. Pentecostalism is the religious movement that highlights the gifts of the Spirit, but especially the gift of tongues, and arose especially in the late 19th century, as a movement of evangelical revival in Great Britain and in the United States. Pentecostals are the people who participate in this movement, like my friends I mentioned in the beginning of this sermon.
But there are other spiritual gifts. In his First letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul describes a fuller picture. There are varieties of gifts [ Paul says] but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.
As I’ve grown in my own faith, and especially as I’ve grown in my own experience of the Church and Christians who populate the Church, I’ve changed my mind about what a Pentecostal looks like.
As I reflect on MY experience of the Holy Spirit in the Church, I see what Paul is talking about. There are those with gifts of tongues, but I have been witness to that gift being manifest through languages that others don’t understand. Instead, I think of the teacher I know who is able to put complex thought into simple language, so that it can be understood. I think of the person who always has just the right word of grace to speak—which brings peace, brings healing, and brings hope. I think of the person who can speak the truth in the midst of cloudy gibberish, like the Word of God we hear about in scripture “Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
When I hear Paul’s description of spiritual gifts, I think of those who work for the “common good,” as Paul puts it. And there are those who participate in miracles—not just miracles of healing (and they do happen– sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly). Yesterday as I watched the huge group in the Pride Parade known as PFLAG march down streets in Washington, I saw miracles. PFLAG stands for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays—and of course, they have grown beyond their acronym to include the families and friends of transgender persons, bisexuals, and any one else who dares to come out as being different from the norm. These people represent families that have come through surprise, sometimes alarm, sometimes disappointment that their child is different from what they first imagined—these families have continued to be based on love, and encouragement, and strength. That’s what “being Pentecostal” looks like to me.
Being Pentecostal is why All Souls marches in the Pride Parade and why we have a booth at the Pride Festival today—it’s to witness to these gifts of the Holy Spirit that come not to the perfect, not to the holy, not to the elect, not to the professionally religious (the clergy), not to the poor, not to the rich, not to the straight, and not to the gay, but TO ALL GOD’S CHILDREN.
Being Pentecostal is why this church is named All Souls. It’s why we welcome and encourage everyone. It’s why refuse to give easy answers about the big questions of the day, why we live by simple faith in the midst of baffling complexity. It’s why we look into the face of death and proclaim LIFE.
On this day, we celebrate the coming of God’s Holy Spirit in surprising and startling ways. The spirit stirs and sings. The spirit crashes and calms. The spirit tears down what is old, or broken, or dead in order to make room for new life:for energy, hope, and resurrection. Let us be open to God’s Holy Spirit and let us be faithful Pentecostals.