Sermon for Sunday, June 5, 2022  Day of Pentecost “Travel as a Spiritual Act”

Rev. Dr. Rolf Svanoe

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church    Decorah, Iowa

Acts 2:1-21 

Last week we began our travel series through the book of Acts with the story of Jesus’ Ascension. The disciples were looking up into heaven and wondering what was going to happen next. Jesus had promised them the Holy Spirit and told them that the Spirit would give them power to witness to the new things God was doing. One thing was for sure. The disciples were not in charge. All they could do was wait. 

The formal title to the book of Acts is, “The Acts of the Apostles.” That title gives the impression the Apostles were in charge, that they had a plan, laid out some strategic goals and pursued those goals until their mission was accomplished. But that is not at all what happened. The book should really be called, “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit was in charge. The Spirit gave power and direction, and throughout the book of Acts the followers of Jesus were often struggling to catch up to the Spirit. That’s what happened in the Pentecost story as the Spirit overwhelmed the followers of Jesus, and they began to speak in other languages.

Have you ever tried to learn a new language? It’s not easy. Right now, I’m trying to learn some Norwegian before our trip to Norway in July. It can be exhausting trying to learn and speak a different language. It made me wish for one of those gadgets they have on Star Trek, a badge you wear on your shirt that functions as a Universal Translator. Now, today we have Google Translate on our smartphones, or a translate button on our Facebook wall. These are all ways to help foster connection and understanding between people.

In our Pentecost story, the Spirit functions as a Universal Translator. People from all over the Roman Empire heard the disciples in their own native languages. It was an amazing miracle that left many confused and bewildered. “What does this mean?” they asked. Do you remember the story of the Tower of Babel from the book of Genesis? That story is meant to explain the origin of different languages. When people can’t understand each other, distrust and conflict can quickly develop, which can lead nations to go to war. Jump now to the book of Acts and the day of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is given to help eliminate the barriers of language that divide us and bring people together. 

But there is another miracle in the story of Pentecost. Peter was struggling to make sense of what was happening, and he found inspiration in the Old Testament prophet Joel. “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.” God is not stingy. God doesn’t have favorites. God is generous and pours out the Spirit on everyone. The Spirit creates a new community where everyone is included, young and old, rich and poor, both men and women. God blows past all our human categories of who is in and who is out, who is loved and who is rejected, who is deserving and who is not. Everyone is given the Spirit. The Spirit is poured out on us so that we would know the love of God that brings us all together. The Spirit points us to Christ and the good news that on the cross we are forgiven and made new. This is the work of the Spirit bringing us together across oceans and cultures, across races and gender and age, and making us one. That’s what the church is called to be, a community where the things that divide us are overcome, and all are welcomed and valued. 

Good Shepherd’s Racial Justice Statement points us in that direction. In a day when too many Christians buy into the heresy of White Christian Nationalism, the church needs to speak a loud and clear, “No!” This is not why God gave us the Holy Spirit. God wants us to see the world the way God sees it. God so loved the world – all of it. God wants us to develop a global perspective that sees everyone living on this planet as someone created in God’s image and loved by God. And one of the best ways for the church to develop that perspective is to travel. The Spirit led the early church to travel, and it changed the church and the world. 

Last week I mentioned Rick Steves, the popular travel show host on PBS. I quoted from a show he produced during the pandemic called “Why We Travel.” Here is some of what he said. “Whether religious or not, travelers can learn from the holy books of the great monotheistic faiths, each the story of refugees and nomads, of pilgrims and travelers. In the [Hebrew Bible], the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness. In the [New Testament], Jesus’ disciples left home and set out to share the Good News. In the Koran, Mohammed said, ‘Don’t tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you’ve traveled.’ These holy scriptures are the stories of travelers … People traveled to find something bigger. Pilgrims trek today, some to get close to God, others to better understand themselves … Why do I see humanity as one? Because I’ve traveled. Why am I curious? Because I’ve traveled. In spite of my privilege, why do I care? Be- cause I’ve traveled. Why am I grateful and why do I want to contribute? Because I’ve traveled … By traveling thoughtfully, we connect … Travelers connect with different cultures, different people … Travel forces us to bend and to flex, it makes us more tolerant and inspires us to celebrate diversity.” For Rick, travel is much more than entertainment. When done thoughtfully, travel can be a spiritual act that can connect us to God and to others in deeper ways. 

It is not surprising that the Holy Spirit led the early church to travel. The book of Acts is full of travel stories with Paul’s three missionary journeys. The early church traveled not only to different places on the map, but also to different places culturally and spiritually. Travel opened them up to new experiences and new understandings of who God was and how God was working in the world, breaking down barriers that separate people from each other. As we continue our journey through the book of Acts, we are going to see that happen again and again.  

All kinds of barriers exist in this world, most of them of our human making. God continues to give us the Spirit to help break down those barriers and come together in mutual under- standing and love. What barriers is the Spirit encouraging you to break down this week?