I have been thinking lately about magic.
How plenty of people who refuse to entertain the existence of a God who is love, a God who is alive and active in our lives and in the world, nevertheless believe wholeheartedly in random acts of magic, things that seem to just happen for no identifiable reason.
How plenty of people who do profess a faith in the God who is love, the God who is the ground and source of all that is, the God who chooses to live among us and walk with us, nevertheless treat certain aspects of the spiritual life as some kind of magic and think of God as a spiritual Santa Claus or a very powerful magician.
I don’t mean to be critical. Nor do I seek to avoid responsibility. To whatever extent some people choose magic over a Holy One who longs to be in relationship with us, to whatever extent other people choose prayer as some kind of magical wish list over prayer as an invitation to explore union with the Divine, I’m sure religious people like us are at least partly to blame.
But that doesn’t mean we need to settle for a watered-down spirituality that looks a lot like magic. It doesn’t mean we can’t reimagine and reframe our sacred stories in the hopes of discovering and sharing something closer to the gospel truth.
Which brings us, of course, to Pentecost Sunday and one of the more seemingly dramatic magic tricks in our scriptures: the sound of rushing wind; the sight of divided tongues, as of fire; the sound of Palestinian peasants speaking languages not their own; the hearing of God’s deeds of power; the repentance and baptism of some 3,000 people; what we think of as the birthday of the church.
But was it magic? I don’t think so.
Did the pouring out of the Holy Spirit come out of nowhere? I don’t think so.
Let’s back up a bit and consider how those early Jesus followers got to Pentecost and how we at First Church Amherst, by extension, might arrive at a new experience of Spirit power.
By the time the Jewish festival of Pentecost, or Shavuot, arrives in the Acts of the Apostles, it had been 50 days since the Risen Christ appeared to Mary Magdalene in the garden, to Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus, and to 10 of the remaining 11 disciples behind locked doors. Jesus stayed with them for 40 days before he left them again, telling them to wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Spirit.
So what happened during those 10 days between Jesus’ ascension and Pentecost?
If we go back to the first chapter of Acts, we find that the disciples, Jesus’ mother, Mary, his brothers, and certain other women were constantly devoting themselves to prayer. And at least some of the time the group of Jesus followers who gathered together to care for one another, share meals, and pray without ceasing was as large as 120 people.
Now I’m pretty sure they didn’t know exactly when the Spirit of God would come upon them. I’m pretty sure they didn’t know how she would come.
But they believed she would come.
To paraphrase my favorite line from the writer Annie Dillard: They couldn’t make the Spirit come. They couldn’t conjure her power with some kind of magic trick. The most they could do was to stay together and put themselves in the way of the Spirit. The most they could do was stay together, wait, and open their hearts. The most they could do was stay together, wait, open their hearts, and trust that she would come.
I want to stop here for minute and consider the fact that this community of regular folks—searching people who had left their lives to follow Jesus and learn his ways, broken people who loved Jesus and nevertheless denied and deserted him, grieving people who believed he had been raised from the dead, humble people who accepted his charge to take the love of God to all the world—came together and stayed together, praying and waiting, praising God and watching, loving one another and looking for the Spirit.
I want to consider the fact that they stayed together—and not just because we, for the second Pentecost in a row, are not together in person. But mostly because they chose to gather together—just as we have chosen to be here together in this way this morning. I’m sure they had plenty of other things to do—soccer games to attend, the Jerusalem Times to read, errands to run, sleep to catch up on, friends to get together with for brunch—but they seemed to know that the Risen Christ was more present among them when they gathered together. They remembered what Jesus had said at that last supper when he broke the bread and passed the cup and told them to remember him when they came together.
Now I want to be clear: I am not at all saying that the Holy Spirit cannot speak to us when we’re alone. I am not at all forgetting about God’s amazing grace and how it so often shows up even when we have not put ourselves in the path of the Spirit Light, even when we are running the other direction as fast as we can, even when we have closed our hearts and thrown away the key. So extravagant is God’s love, so relentless is her mercy, so powerful is her longing for our healing and wholeness that She just can’t help herself sometimes.
All I’m saying is that when we take the time to notice our hunger for meaning, our longing for life, our hardwired need for connection, there is something we can do.
We can show up whenever and however the community is gathered. We can open our hearts. We can share our needs, our doubts, our wounds, our questions, our experiences of the Holy, our dreams of the realm of God. We can praise and pray together. And together we can watch and wait for the Spirit. Together we can practice our spiritual gifts and grow in love for God, one another, and our neighbors. Together we can listen for the word of the Lord.
Acts, chapter 2, verse 1: When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.
They were together!
They were all together, waiting on the Spirit.
And she did not disappoint. Oh, she might have taken a little longer than some of them would have liked, but she was just waiting for an opening, waiting until they were all together, waiting until they were ready to receive her.
She came right on time and with such power and glory that even those who had not gathered in one place could not deny that what had happened was of God. And so their hearts were opened, and they began gathering together—breaking bread and praising God and sharing all they had with those in need and conspiring together to take God’s love to all the world.
And none of it was magic. It was the power of God’s Spirit, the power of God’s love made manifest in regular people come together with bold faith, open hearts, listening ears, and willing spirits. When that happens, anything is possible! When that happens, the lives of those gathered and the life of the world are never the same.
Beloveds, on this Pentecost Sunday, we have come together—online—to worship, to pray, to gather round Christ’s table, to love another another. And after this service has ended, we will come together again—on Zoom—to open our hearts, to listen and watch and wait, to attend to the Spirit, and to consider together how God’s Spirit wants to lead us now.
Please join us.
No, we cannot promise a rushing wind or tongues like fire. It is unlikely that we will work any magic. But we can guarantee you that the Holy Spirit will be among us—and so we’re also not going to promise that there won’t be a rushing wind, or an outbreak of love, or a Holy Spirit conspiracy. Because when the people of God come together, you just never know what amazing things will happen. That is the promise of Pentecost.
So we will, together, put ourselves in Spirit’s path and see what happens. We will pray that we as a church might come newly alive with purpose.
And we will pray that we, our church, and the world will never be the same.