It turns out that human beings love barriers. Most institutions and organizations—even ones that intentionally try not to, erect and enforce barriers to access their privileges and rights thereunto. We love barriers so we can control who is in and who is out—especially when we are the ones who are in.
The church has been in the business of erecting barriers for millennia: women couldn’t be in leadership, LGBTQ+ people weren’t welcome, you had to give a certain amount of offering, or go to confession, or affirm this doctrine, or to join this congregation you had to live within a geographic boundary, or be from a certain ethnic group, or speak a specific language. The church I served in St. Louis was the first English-speaking congregation west of the Mississippi in that region. It has taken a long time to undue these barriers.
Often in organizations, even if it’s not official policy, enforce barriers and norms with which we are most comfortable with stares and cliques, with gossip and unspoken expectations around who should be in leadership, what race or gender are included, what people should wear, how they should talk, how old they should be—old enough, but not too old, and how tolerant—not welcoming—but tolerant we will be of those who are outliers from our comfort zone.
We live in a time when there are efforts toward erecting even more barriers to access things like healthcare for women, for trans teens, access to voting. We already have an epidemic of loneliness in our country, so regardless of your views on these issues, I am concerned as a pastor that those affected by additional barriers experience even more isolation, loneliness, disconnection, and lack of value in our shared community life. We as human beings have a very difficult time not erecting barriers around what makes us feel comfortable and in control.
Pentecost, however, is not about erecting barriers, it is about obliterating them. Pentecost is about breaking down barriers so that no one is blocked from receiving God’s love and power, and being in relationship in Christian community.
We do not normally think of a violent wind and flames of fire as good news—but on Pentecost day in the marvelous cacophony of Acts that we just heard, when so many Jews are gathered in Jerusalem, a dramatic entry is required for such a barrier-breaking message. People from all over the Mediterranean world made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Festival of Shavuot. This festival commemorates the giving of the Law to Moses at Mt. Sinai 50 days after Passover. People also brought the offering of their first fruits from their spring harvest to the Temple, so it is a time of abundance and gratitude and celebration.
As the rush of a mighty wind swoops in, everyone recalls the parting of the Red Sea where God removes the barrier of the water and leads the people of Israel from slavery to freedom. As flames appear above the disciple’s heads, the disciples recall the burning bush that announced God’s presence and call to Moses; the tongues of fire recall the pillar of fire that led the Israelites through the wilderness –both experiences removing the barrier that God was far-off, only at a distance.
On Pentecost, we see this barrier-breaking God already had Jewish believers in diaspora all over the Mediterranean world speaking a diversity of languages and living in a multiplicity of cultures—some living in Jerusalem, some having arrived after a pilgrimage for the festival. God’s been working on diversity and inclusion for as long as humans have been putting up barriers! As the Spirit blows and the tongues of fire give the disciples power to speak in all the languages present, our barrier-breaking God, completes the vision that there will be nothing to block anyone’s access God, to experiencing love, to knowing hope, to feeling God’s deeds of power in your life. Every culture is embraced and God’s love and presence is heard and experienced by every person and language present!
Peter preaches the full vision which has been given long ago by the prophet Joel—which is that there are no barriers—the old and young alike shall receive the visions and dreams of God; men and women--all genders shall prophecy; people of every class—whether you are upper crust or on the bottom –slaves or free—they shall all receive the Spirit of God. The Spirit makes no distinction—all barriers are removed with the Spirit at Pentecost –the mission is full inclusion across every spectrum. I shall pour out my Spirit on ALL FLESH- no exceptions, no barriers, no exclusions. The Spirit makes no distinction.
The Spirit’s mission is to break down every barrier to God’s love and salvation in Jesus Christ—and the Christian community is called to embody this! But we are not totally there yet, are we? This story with these words has been in the Scripture for centuries, and in 2023, Christians, say nothing about this country, are still splitting up and fighting about who is in and who is out. Which makes our mission, here at St. Luke’s – to love serve, and welcome all in order to fulfill our vision to be inclusive community where spirits come alive as disciples of Jesus all the more important. Because we do not have to think about who is in or out. Everyone is in. We may need to make some accommodations—we do not worship in diverse languages every week, for example (there is technology for this though!), but we are committed to finding a way for everyone to be included.
We do not have to understand or agree with someone or even like them in order to love them as Christ loves us. Yes, that is hard spiritual work. But, following the Pentecost Spirit is to believe everyone belongs to God no matter what—and then to break down the barriers so they can experience inclusion, Jesus’ love, and forgiveness for them at this table, in this community.
When I first experienced God calling me to pastoral ministry through a campus pastor, I had never even seen a woman in the pulpit. I never did hear a woman preach until I got seminary. About 40% of my seminary classmates were women—but they were pretty different from me. I had a much more “out there” personality—I’ve mellowed a lot over the years, if you can believe that. I wore big earrings, I had bigger 80’s hair, I loved to dance, I had a smart mouth and a brassy personality. And I thought God was making a big mistake calling me to be a pastor. We worked in local churches, called “teaching parishes” and it was time for me to preach my 2nd sermon there. I was trying to write it and I just felt sick to my stomach. Preaching once was fun, but a second time meant I was doing this for my future. I was really questioning why God would want somebody like me as a pastor. I was nothing like any pastor I had ever met, and I was certainly not as sweet and demure as some of the women in my class. I remember closing my eyes and trying to calm my roiling stomach and I asked God what he was thinking—is this real—are you sure you want me to be a pastor? This was the first time I ever had the experience of the Spirit speaking to me, and this is what I heard: “You show a different face of God to the world, people need it, more will feel included.” My stomachache went away, I finished writing my sermon, and I didn’t look back. I got it. Just my presence in the church would help break barriers for other people who needed to see someone like them, or simply someone different.
When the Spirit blew in on Pentecost, the disciples each became the face and voice of God for someone different-- for a particular people in their own language—breaking the barrier for them to receive God’s love in Jesus Christ. And the same is true for you—you present a different face of God, and your presence will help break barriers for others who need to see someone like you to feel included. Your personality, your story, your invitation to this community will help others feel welcome and remove a barrier to being seen and loved by God. You work and live and go to school, and hang out, and talk with people where I do not, and most pastors never will. So, you are the face of God for people around you—you are the one who is there. When people learn you are part of an inclusive church, that will help break down the barrier for them to come and join you. People experiencing increased barriers in other parts of life need to know there’s an inclusive community here.
We are all priests by nature of our baptism—all anointed with the Spirit of Pentecost and given a unique face of God that gives another hope—to remove barriers to believe God loves them. Since God loves you, then God also loves them. Because Jesus forgives you, Jesus also forgives them. Because this community loves you, we can certainly love your friend, your neighbor, your co-worker, your cousin. We saw a wonderful example of this last week with Crystal and Bryan’s testimony—how many barriers have come down for people who heard their story in person or on-line who now feel God can forgive and transform their life?
What face of God do you show to the world? Who in our community will feel included and touched by God’s love and Jesus’ forgiveness when they get to know the face of God that is you? This week I invite you to pray about with whom in your circle of influence, can you share the God’s love. Is this someone you can invite to the playground dedication next week and the potluck luncheon after church? Continue to ask God’s blessings as you shine your unique face of inclusive love to the world, inviting people into this community where everyone is welcome and spirits come alive as followers of Jesus!