Early in April, Caroline and I traveled to Baltimore to see our daughter Susan and to see the play that she was directing on Harriet Tubman, entitled “Harry and the Thief” by Sigrid Gilmer. It was a fine play, well acted, and of course, well directed! It reminded me of the words that Harriet Tubman remembered that she felt when she crossed the line into Pennsylvania to reach freedom on her initial escape: “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”
It must have been something akin to what the first women and men disciples felt when they came to believe that Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead. There was a powerful sense of hope and possibility, because the idea of the Resurrection was so fanciful that the men couldn’t believe the women disciples at first, and John’s Gospel has Mary Magdalene physically unable to recognize the risen Jesus standing in front of her, speaking to her. When they came to recognize the risen Jesus, it was an extraordinary gift!
Yet, it was not the end – there was more to come! The Gospels and Acts portray the disciples in a time of anxiety, waiting and anticipation – what is next? As we enter the month of May, we are in that same in-between period. Easter is five weeks past, and Pentecost arrives on May 15. Pentecost is the time when the church remembers its birth and its calling, when the Holy Spirit grabbed up those first women and men disciples and sent them out proclaiming the mighty acts of God, especially the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The initial outpouring on Pentecost broke the barriers of language and culture, and we must always remember that the church was born in a multi-cultural way – people from all over the known world of the Mediterranean basin were invited into the power of God in Jesus Christ. There was the miracle of speaking and of hearing. In our emphasis on preaching, we sometimes forget that the hearing of the people of different cultures was just as important. Both speaking and hearing are vital if the gospel of Jesus Christ is to be shared and lived.
Harriet Tubman could have gone on to freedom in Canada and stayed there. Yet she returned to the South multiple times to bring people out of slavery into freedom. She had her Resurrection moment, but she did not linger there. She went on into Pentecost because she knew that the vision needed to be shared and expanded. She kept on going, being a spy and a guide for freeing slaves even during the war. Indeed, she freed more slaves during the Civil War than before the Civil War. After the war was over, she kept on fighting for a vision of freedom and equality. She gathered her family and many others to her home in Auburn, New York, and led fights to take care of those in need.
The Biblical story shares this same kind of witness. After the stunning events of Pentecost, an even greater surprise awaits the disciples. “Pouring out my Spirit on all flesh,” as Peter quoted the prophet Joel on Pentecost, meant not only Jews of different cultures but also included the most unworthy and dirtiest people of all: the goyim, the Gentiles. Peter was not prepared to take the vision this far when he preached his powerful sermon on Pentecost. It was a vision that the first followers of Jesus Christ had trouble grasping, but it soon took off and blazed a new trail. It meant that all are welcome, even those we think are not worthy, those beyond all hope. As Eugene Peterson translates Thessalonians so well: “So, speak encouraging words to one another. Build up hope, so you’ll all be together in this. No one left out – no one left behind. I know you’re already doing this: Just keep on doing it.” (I Thessalonians 5:11). Let that vision be our mantra and our guide, as we get ready to enter Pentecost.