Of the 50 to 60 million inhabitants of the Roman Empire, a tiny elite, perhaps one-half of one percent, owned some 80 percent of the wealth. Nearly every scrap of writing that remains to us from those days, the novels, the poetry, the plays, the works of history and philosophy and rhetoric, was written by members of that elite. It was written for members of that elite. It speaks from their worldview. It addresses their concerns. We have a pretty good idea from the surviving literature about how the one-half of one percent lived, what they ate, how they spent their time. We know many of their names.
Contrast this with the peasants, the small shopkeepers, the artisans and laborers, the miners and sailors and soldiers and slaves who made up the remaining ninety-nine and one-half percent of the Empire’s population. They didn’t write books, and the people who did write them were not really interested in their lives. Their names aren’t carved on stones in the ruins of ancient cities. We know next to nothing about them, so that when a distinguished historian recently published a book describing what we can say about them from the available evidence, he gave it the title Invisible Romans.
But there is one work of ancient literature that is by members of the ninety-nine and one-half percent. This book, really a collection of books, is about ordinary people. Thanks to these writings we know some of their names, some details about how they lived, and what they cared about. We know about them because certain experiences that they had were so significant that they decided everyone should know about them. They organized themselves into resilient and mobile little groups, dedicated to giving testimony to what they had witnessed. Eventually these testimonies were written down, so that they could be carried from place to place and passed down through the years in something like their original form. Stories by ordinary people, about ordinary people, intended, by and large, for ordinary people, that by one of history’s great miracles have come down to us.
I am talking, of course, about the New Testament. And today, on this day of Pentecost, we whose very existence as a people called “Christians” is owed to those ordinary people, celebrate the miracle that gave us birth. This miracle has two parts. The first part is the way in which Jesus’ disciples discovered that they were now responsible for his mission. Not only responsible, but willing and able and empowered by God to carry it out. That is the transformation that we celebrate in the fifty days after Easter—that this little group of ordinary, invisible people made the journey from running away in fear on the night of Jesus’ arrest to bravely carrying on the work that he started.
The second part of the miracle is that when these people stood up to talk about God’s mighty acts of liberation, redeeming the whole world through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, people actually listened. Some of them actually got it—as improbable as this message was, as unlikely as the messengers were, it got through to them in a completely surprising way.
You’ve probably had the experience where you are trying to tell your spouse or a friend about something that happened to you earlier in the day that was particularly affecting, or hilariously funny, something that for whatever reason you really want to share with another person. So you try to describe it with all the significant details, and then you get to the climax, the moment that had the real emotional impact, and the person you’re talking to just kind of looks at you with a blank expression. Maybe they force a little laugh just to be nice, and say something like “wow—sounds pretty funny,” or “that must have been really cool,” but you know that they just didn’t “get it” in the way that you hoped you would. So you say “I guess you had to be there.”
Well the miraculous thing about Pentecost is that these ordinary people, Simon Peter, for instance, Son of Jonah, started talking about extraordinary things, amazing, mysterious, mystical experiences of what they had learned from Jesus and how he came to them after he died, and breathed his peace into them and sent them out on a mission of healing and forgiveness to the whole world; and you know, it turned out that you didn’t have to be there. You didn’t have to be there to believe that what these people were saying about Jesus was true. You didn’t have to be there to feel like this was the best news you’d heard in a long time, maybe ever, and that it was meant for you.
You didn’t have to be there to feel like someone was speaking to what you’d always secretly suspected about God and about yourself, but never dared to let yourself believe— that God loves you and everyone else in this world like a Father or a Mother, and that you aren’t an invisible person at all, but are heaven’s messenger, gifted with a high and noble purpose. And just because you hadn’t been there didn’t mean you were left out of that purpose—it was not too late to join, and everyone was welcome, no matter if you were an important person or not, no matter what background you came from, there was a place for you in the brother- and sister-hood of the Messiah Jesus.
The apostles looked at these miracles, the way they had come to accept the mission of Jesus for their own, and the way all different kinds of people were actually taken with their message, and they knew that only God could do this. That’s what God the Holy Spirit does, she communicates. She connects. She enters into the space between people and removes the barriers to love and trust and truth. That’s why we invoke the Holy Spirit whenever we perform a sacramental act. We know that only God can make the bread and wine really communicate the living body of the Lord to us. Only God can really make the baptismal water go all the way in, and cleanse us inside and out for new life in Christ. Only God can really make two people married, one flesh as Christ and the church are one. So we ask God the Holy Spirit to come, and the message of Pentecost that she is not ashamed to be here, no matter how ordinary the company. The church was created and is most alive today when it includes all kinds of people, and embraces all kinds of differences among them.
Take Brandon and Briana, and their baby Dallas, who are being baptized here today. They are ordinary people. Briana’s nineteen, and Brandon just graduated from High School last week. They are not married. It is not certain whether they ever will be. And yet they come here today, as they have been coming for the last year or so, seeking God’s blessing for their family and their lives. They could go a lot of places to hear people tell them where they’ve gone wrong or what they should be doing differently, but in the grace of the Holy Spirit we say to them here, “What an adorable baby!” They could go a lot of places to hear that they’d be welcome just as soon as they got married. In the grace of the H0ly Spirit we say, “You have to make your own decisions, but remember—with God nothing is impossible. What can we do to help?”
Mainly we’re just grateful that they’ve decided to throw their lot in with Jesus. They are exactly the kind of people he chose carry on his mission in the world. Just look at us! You didn’t have to be there. You don’t have to have it all together. You don’t have to be one of the one-half of one percent. You just need faith in the Holy Spirit within you, who called you into this work and is giving you the gifts to carry it out. And you need faith in the Holy Spirit outside you who is hidden in the world, ready, waiting, eager to respond to what you have to say.