Riding Roller Coasters
Years ago, while preparing to preach about Pentecost, a holiday that at the time I knew nothing about, I discovered that one of my Unitarian Universalist colleagues had once been a Pentecostal minister. Pentecost and Pentecostal must be related, I figured, so I asked him to explain what this holiday was.
He didn’t answer directly. Instead, he told me about an amusement park in the town where he grew up. The park was famous for its roller coasters. When he’d been a boy, they had this old wooden one. The train would chug along, inching up the slope, painfully cresting the hill, and then dash down the other side with the momentum of gravity. It had been fun, but it wasn’t anything like what they have these days.
Now the roller coasters are sturdy, steel structures that tower above the midway. Built with technological savvy, the tracks catapult the train up the hill with great force, whoosing it over the top, and freeing it to descend down the other side in a breathtaking roar. You feel, the minister told me, as if your body is being snatched away and might hurtle into space. Your senses vibrate, your mind numbs, and a cry erupts from your throat. You cannot contain your shout of terror and joy. You have lost control. It is as if you are watching the bush burn in the wilderness or the sea part or as if you are feeling the Holy Spirit settle onto your shoulders, spread into your heart, and fill your mind with awe.
Or so my colleague told me.
What Is Pentecost?
I wondered what to make of this. From my research, I learned that the Greek word Pentecost means “fiftieth,” so Pentecost falls fifty days after Passover. Known by Jews as Shavuot, the festival commemorates the day that God gave the Hebrew people both the Ten Commandments and the Torah. Observant Jews refrain from working on this day. They read to one another from the book of Ruth, study the Torah, and feast on foods made from milk and cheese.
Pentecost is also a Christian holiday. As such, it celebrates the birth of the Church. What happened was that shortly after Christ died, Jews from around the empire gathered in Jerusalem to observe Shavuot. While they milled around together, they heard a noise like a rushing wind, and tongues of fire danced on each of the disciples.
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? (Acts 2:4-8, NRSV)
Pentecost and the Tower of Babel
This is the Pentecostal experience, that intense, out-of-control moment when the Holy Spirit takes charge of our heart and mind, and we speak only what God has for us to say. Is it a scream of gleeful fear, as if we rode a roller coaster? Or is it words that seem like gibberish to us, yet can be understood by our neighbor?
According to some religious leaders, this moment of understanding reverses the division that occurred when the Tower of Babel was erected and destroyed. Misunderstandings disappears, and we become as one.
Aaron J. Kuecker takes a different approach to this. Rather than creating homogeneity from variety, he believes Pentecost amplifies our ethnic and religious identities. When touched by the redeeming love of the Holy Spirit, we can reconcile our differences without giving them up. Instead of the Melting Pot, Pentecost gives us Multiculturalism.
Multicultural communities are not easy to sustain, at least not if they are going to be hospitable and forgiving. Although it’s helpful to name and honor our individual and group identities, unless we can do so without making that identity primary, Kuecker says, “the community becomes dysfunctional and perpetuates injustice.” 
So how do we keep from over-identifying with our peer group? According to Luke, the author of Acts, we must let the Holy Spirit guide us. We can’t do it on our own.
I don’t know if that’s true, and I can’t tell you how you’d know if the Holy Spirit or God were working on and through you. Yet clearly, we need something to help us. Today, violence, rage, and fear overwhelm our communities. Can we come together, recognizing and appreciating our otherness, while at the same time loving and caring for one another? What common mission do we share that might focus our hearts? What common goal might help us recognize our oneness?
Guided by the Holy Spirit
Perhaps we need to start by giving up a little control. Personally, it’s easier for me to “let go and let God” than fly through the air on a roller coaster. My life is roller coaster enough without that.
Yet can I let go enough to let God fill my heart and speak through me? Can I reflect what Keucher calls God’s “outward-looking love” even on my enemies? If so, Keucher believes, I will be able to perform “remarkable acts of reconciliation.” 
This sounds great. I would love to see peace descend on our world. But for me, and probably for all of us, reconciling with the “other” may be harder than we think. After all, I have trouble being friends with people whose styles and values aren’t like mine, and these are nice people I’m talking about. They help their neighbors and donate money and volunteer in soup kitchens. I like them. But while we might have polite conversation on the bus or at work, we don’t socialize and we don’t worship together.
Getting Along with Others
How much harder, then, to get along with people we hate, those who stand for things we abhor and make us nervous or angry. Sure, they don’t want to get along with us either, so if we can’t reconcile our differences, we can always blame them. Luke’s scripture tells us, though, that with the fire of the Holy Spirit, with the redemptive love of God, is is possible to reconcile even with our enemies.
This, apparently, is what God wants us to do. According to the biblical story, the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples because God had a plan. God wanted them to create a Church whose mission was to love the stranger and reconcile differences.
Notice that God isn’t building the Church. We, the people, are. As it has been said before, we are God’s hands.
A story is going around the internet that tells of a statue of Jesus with no hands. He lost them in a war, or perhaps vandals lopped them of. Either way, some people suggested they replace the hands. The religious leader of the community, however, declined. Better, he said, that we should see Christ without His hands, for that will remind us that God has no hands but ours.
Being God’s Hands
On Pentecost, the gathered Jews were anointed by God to be God’s hands. They, and we, their descendants, are called to perform God’s mission of bringing the nations together in peace. In effect, the Spirit said: “You are the new Church. You will spread the message of a just and loving God. Fired up by the Holy Spirit, you will tell stories of God’s wonders; will speak truth to the peoples of a thousand nations; spread the message of love, hope, and eternal salvation through acts of charity and kindness; and build the beloved community that reconciles differences and promotes peace.”
This is what I imagine the Holy Spirit said to the disciples on that long-ago day. As on that first Pentecost, so on this one. Over and over, the Holy Spirit anoints us to speak the truth as best we can, to reconcile even with our enemies, and to let ourselves be used by God and the good. Our loving and just God has charged us to bind up the broken, liberate the slave, support the poor, release the prisoner, and heal souls and free minds.
Of course, we’re Unitarian Universalists. We don’t have to accept a charge given to those long ago disciples. Yet Christianity is part of our heritage, so why not accept it? Perhaps because it’s scary, just as it is to hurtle over the crest of a roller coaster. Yet it is also joyful. I don’t know how you think of “god,” nor of being God’s Hands, yet to be called to this wondrous work is a blessing. In this way, we are all blessed.
In faith and fondness,
- Kuecker, Aaron J., “The Spirit’s Gift and Witness: Communities of Reconciled Difference,” “Reflection,” ed. Robert B. Kruschwitz, The Institute for Faith and Learning, Waco, TX: Baylor University, 2015, 11-20, http://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/244168.pdf, June 2, 2017, 17.
- Ibid 18.
Photo by Aaron Burden, from Unsplash.