by Daniel Harrell
For his last Sunday with us, Mark Stover requested a sermon from Leviticus. As providence would have it, Leviticus coincides perfectly with Pentecost. Leviticus, and not the book of Acts, is where Pentecost began. Pentecost is the occasion of that dramatic descent of the Holy Spirit with tongues of fire in Acts, but Pentecost started way back with Moses. Also known as the Feast of Weeks, it is among the oldest Jewish holidays. Pentecost means fiftieth, marking the fiftieth day after Passover, a Feast of Unleavened Bread. If you remember the Exodus story, you’ll recall how God commanded the Israelites, on their way out of slavery in Egypt, to leave out the leaven from their bread because it was time to run with no time to rise. But once safely settled in their new Promised Land, there was no need to hurry. Nobody had to eat and run anymore.
The reason for fifty days had to do in part with the importance of the number seven in Scripture. Seven hearkens back to creation, very good in God’s eyes. But seven also points forward to new creation and perfection, a new day when God’s will is finally done on earth as it is in heaven. Seven also signals Sabbath rest, the kind of satisfied rest that comes with a job well done. Sabbath keeps to the sacred rhythm of creation, keeps work from becoming identity and vocation from getting confused with vacation. Sabbath is designed as a foretaste of heaven. Though generally applied to the seventh day of the week, Sabbath was specially applied to other festival days, like Pentecost, to remind God’s people that this world is not all that there is.
Fifty days is seven weeks plus one day. Seven weeks makes seven Sabbaths, perfect perfection, with an intentional eighth day tacked on. This eighth day, the fiftieth day, was THE day in Jewish reckoning representing heaven itself: Kingdom come, Jubilee, a home glory-land in glory land that outshines the sun, the farthest shore, a time when time will no longer matter and our lives get caught up in joy and gladness and fulness beyond any capacity we have to cook up for ourselves.
Pentecost coincided with the wheat harvest and Jews from all over the world traveled to Jerusalem with the first fruits of their harvest in hand as offerings of gratitude to God for their bread and their life. Wheat provides almost twenty per cent of the world’s calories and more nourishment than any other source of food. Easy to grow and good to eat, wheat has sustained humanity for thousands of years. With plenty of wheat and plenty of time, Pentecost was a feast of leavened bread. Jesus called himself the bread of life and compared the kingdom of heaven to leaven—just a little yeast changes everything. In the book of Acts, the wild yeast of the Spirit infused a small batch of believers and leavened them into a loaf large enough to feed the world. In Leviticus, celebrating Pentecost including leaving harvest grain for the poor and the immigrant to gather. This practice made sure everybody had enough, a practice we see in Acts where the first church sold possessions and everyone shared all that they had so no one had need.
Pentecost is the birthday of the church, but Happy Pentecost! doesn’t quite carry the same ring as Merry Christmas or He is Risen! And yet Pentecost was a high holy day for Christians long before Christmas ever made the rotation. It’s Pentecost, not Christmas, that gets the red vestments. Easter would have been a one-and-done deal were it not for the Spirit. The third person of the Trinity has always seems to suffer a kind of second-class treatment. This may have something to with the way the Spirit makes her entrance in Acts—blowing in unannounced, setting fire to your head, talking in tongues you never knew you knew. Virgin births and resurrections are just as miraculous, but for some reason they don’t seem so weird.
The Bible does offer other, less dramatic, images of the Holy Spirit, most famously a dove who alights on Jesus’ head at his baptism, a tip of the hat back to Noah and the ark. In the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit landed on Peter, the same Peter who’d denied ever knowing Jesus when Jesus needed him most. This same Peter, new and improved and on fire, lit into the Pentecost crowd and proclaimed,“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved,” and Peter would know.
Yesterday, the blazing Bishop Michael Curry lit into the royal wedding crowd, preaching a scorcher about love as fire and how Jesus “sacrificed his life for the good of others, for the well-being of the world, for us.” And how “The way of unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love changes lives. And it can change this world.” “When love is the way, poverty would become history. When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way, we will lay our swords and shields down by the riverside to study war no more. When love is the way, there’s plenty of room for all of God’s children. When love is the way, we actually treat each other, well, like we are actually family. When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all, and we are brothers and sisters and children of God. Brothers and sisters — that’s a new heaven, a new earth, a new world, a new human family.” I couldn’t tell if the Queen liked it. Everybody else did. (I would just like to note Brother Curry is from North Carolina and used an iPad.)
At Pentecost in Acts, the congregation did not have to translate Aramaic or Hebrew or the King’s English to understand Peter’s sermon. The Spirit spoke their language. To become fluent in another language means getting into another’s skin—knowing their culture and passions and thoughts and heart. To speak another language is to love a people as yourself.
Of course, even with all the various languages gathered together at Pentecost, everybody present was still Jewish. It won’t be until Acts chapter 10 that Peter understands the gospel is meant for everybody. And it would take a truckload of unclean animals dropped on his head to convince him. What Peter thought to be righteousness turned out to be wrong. Those whom Peter thought unclean and excluded turned out to be welcomed and embraced by God.
Carter Sample took our Confirmation Class to a mosque last month, the Al-Amaan Center in Minnetonka. While conversations happened in English, our kids still spoke their host’s language. Muslim etiquette was honored. Girls donned their headscarves and all removed their shoes. Opposite genders did not shake hands out of respect. This allowed ears to hear as our students shared favorite Bible verses and times in their lives they felt close to God. The give and take was an honest bearing witness to faith and to Jesus. Congregations whose theology trends to our left would have downplayed their Christianity so not to come off as offensive, given Christianity’s colonial past and current political alignments. Congregations whose theology trends to our right would have never gone to a mosque in the first place. What I loved about our Confirmands and their parents going what how they went faith in hand, eager to speak and to listen, to show love and receive it, to treat as clean what many might regard as unclean. As we grieve from Texas yet another horrific shooting of kids by a kid—a horror quickly turning into a norm—we’re desperate for the Holy Spirit to blow in and make peace the new normal instead.
Death does not get the last word. Peter indicted his congregation as those “who betrayed and killed Jesus. But God raised him up, having freed Jesus from death, because it was impossible for death to hold him down.” Buried like wheat in the ground, Jesus rose to become bread of life. The risen bread elevated and waved as part of Pentecost worship took on new meaning. Leviticus instructs “two loaves of bread, each made with choice flour, baked with leaven, be elevated and offered as first fruits to the LORD.” I have my two loaves here. The Bible identifies Jesus as bread of life and the first fruit of new creation. He said, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Peter’s Pentecost congregation would made the connection.
Doves of peace, winds of power and fire that refines are all Biblical images of the Spirit, but I’m going to go with another this morning. In line with Leviticus, I’m going with leaven: the Holy Spirit as yeast—only not the kind that comes in those little packets you buy in the store. The yeast used to leaven ancient bread for Pentecost would have been wild. Wild yeast floats all around us, unseen and alive. You can soak wild yeast in from the air with just a stir of flour and water, and unleash its power. Given the right mix of moisture, sweetness and warmth, wild yeast will explode overnight tenfold. The Hebrew word for this mix is seor or “sour,” we know it as sourdough starter. Just a little bit leavens a lot, and once it’s started, it can go on forever. For six dollars you can buy a sourdough starter from Missouri that’s been growing since 1847.
I made a sourdough starter. Jesus said the Kingdom of God is like this. Mine’s only been alive a few weeks. I had one I’d started in January, but mold found its way inside somehow. There’s an analogy there too. Leviticus calls for a sin offering, and Peter says ““Repent, and be baptized in the name of Jesus so your sins may be forgiven.”
More than 3000 did so that first day, and from there we read about how, “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Starter is only a start. It is alive and will grow, but you have to feed it with flour and water and time. It takes time to coach dough into something beautiful and delicious. We have to slow down and breathe deeply and trust the process. The Spirit will do her job, silently teasing out complex and nuanced flavors far beyond any so-called wonder bread you can buy off a supermarket shelf.
My two loaves of sourdough bread took three days to rise—a tip of the baker’s hat to Easter. It’s a lifeless lump until you bury it in the oven, but then it springs to life. (I know, me and my food analogies.) I baked my bread this morning so we could wave it for Pentecost. It’s a recipe I got from the Brick Oven Bakery in Northfield, Mark and Julie Stover’s favorite. Add to the bread the Levitical offering of drink and a side of beef and two rams over fire, and you had the makings of an awesome Pentecost barbecue. People forget that Old Testament sacrifices were mostly grilled to be eaten. Worship that atones is meant to nourish as well as delight. We read of the first Christians in Acts, how they “believed were together and had all things in common;” how they “would sell possessions and distribute the proceeds to whoever had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Not a bad vision for church.
Its a reality we tasted on Wednesday as the chorale said their goodbyes to Mark and Julie. We call it choir practice but it was church practice too. The evening was full of joy and generosity, glad hearts and good will. Just like that first church, proceeds were given to those who had need (in this case the Stovers), prayers were prayed and God got praised with glorious song—and there was plenty of delectable dessert. Former conductors Tim Sawyer and Henry Charles Smith showed up—a cloud of witnesses you might say— along with the surprise visit from our beloved and longtime organist Charles Forsberg, flying in with fire from Arizona. We celebrated Mark and Julie’s gifts to us, and prayed blessings on their new journey with tears. But several members of the chorale also remarked, with a twinkle in their eyes, how excited they were for what God will bring next.
The Holy Spirit as starter is always starting something. The wind blew and blazing tongues set fire in other languages—but the Holy Spirit as starter was still just getting started. Those listening in Acts stood perplexed. And they asked the right question: “What does this mean?” Peter replied how God was filling ancient prophecy by doing a new thing. “I will pour out my spirit on all people,” said the Lord. “Your sons and your daughters will prophesy. Your slaves will prophesy too, men and women.” Everybody has a voice in the choir. To prophesy is to bear witness to a future so certain that it’s as if it has happened already, a hope that will not disappoint: A new heaven, a new earth, new creation, new people, a new church. “I am making everything new,” says the Lord. The Holy Spirit as starter is always starting over, and over and over and over again. So elevate your grain and wave your praise! Soak in the Spirit. Let resurrection power rise in your heart. Savor the grace and goodness of God, a deliciousness that gets better every time we taste it. Jesus is the bread of life. There’s more than enough food for everybody.