Twenty-three years ago, two brothers and some friends had an idea they wanted to try out. During a local festival in Denmark, they would set up a “human library.” The books were not to be actual books; the books would be people with stories. And the library patrons could check out these human books for a time to ask questions and learn more about that person’s experience. From the success of that initial experiment, the Human Library was formed, and it has now spread to 85 countries and 6 continents, although the organization is still primarily housed in Copenhagen. The idea is a simple one- people tend to get to know people with whom they share a lot of similarities. So, if people want to understand more about others, they must get out of their “bubble” (their cocoon you might say) and spend time learning about someone they wouldn’t otherwise interact with.
People apply to be human books and the “reading room” is a structured and safe environment to ensure that all participants can have a positive experience. Organizers select “books,” that is people, “drawn from the groups in society that are stigmatized, stereotyped, marginalized, mistreated, or misunderstood…by engaging in personal conversations and fostering dialogue, [they] strive to challenge stigma and stereotypes.” Their catchphrase is “unjudge someone,” in the hope that conversation can foster understanding, and understanding can lead to compassion. “Books” featured on their website right now include a woman living with bipolar disorder, a person who has heavily modified his body with tattoos and piercings, an unhoused man, a refugee, a sexual abuse survivor, and a young woman who grew up in foster care. Human books, human readers, hearing someone’s story and allowing it to change them.
I was reminded of the Human Library this week as I was thinking about the day of Pentecost, which you just heard about in our scripture reading. Acts tells us that Jews from “every nation under heaven” were gathered there. People from every country they knew of, people who spoke every language they’d never heard were all there together. But suddenly, with the presence of the Holy Spirit sparking all around them, each person could understand the words of the others- all in their own language. The miracle was not that everyone suddenly spoke the same language, the miracle is that everyone could understand one another. Everyone, no matter where they came from, what they looked like, or how they spoke, could be united by the Holy Spirit, bound up by this gift from God. Human books, human readers, hearing someone’s story and allowing it to change them. New Testament professor and theologian Richard Swanson describes it as “a miracle of understanding,” a miracle that we could surely use again right now.
It’s no accident that these Jews were gathered together in this way. Pentecost is another name for the Jewish holy day called Shavuot. It happens 50 days after Passover, and for Christians, Pentecost comes 50 days after Easter- today. Shavuot was a festival in which the people celebrated the gift of the law of Moses, and everyone brought the first fruits of their wheat harvest to the temple as a sacrifice as they sought blessings on the rest of the year’s harvest. So, all of these Jews who were gathered together were there to worship God, to give thanks for the law and for God’s continuing care for them.
Peter stands before the assembled crowd and speaks to them, explaining what was happening. He quotes the 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. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Peter preaches to them confidently, explaining to them what was happening, about Jesus, and he welcomes them into the church through baptism.
Peter, the same goofy, bumbling Peter we talked about a few weeks ago, the Peter whose confession of faith led Jesus to say, “upon this rock I will build my church,” this Peter has stepped up, empowered, emboldened, unleashed by the Holy Spirit. In the following chapters the early church continues to form. They make a life for themselves, carve out a new way of being. They appoint leaders, begin serving others, and of course quickly get themselves in trouble. Peter’s ministry in particular continues to expand and grow. He is informed that a devoted follower named Tabitha died, and Peter goes to her and raises her from the dead. Peter, who once climbed out of a boat to walk across water to get to Jesus but stumbled when his faith failed, is now healing and teaching, developing disciples, working miracles.
Of course, with the church coming together, all kinds of questions are emerging. How do we do this? Who is in charge? Who’s this Paul guy and why is he acting like he knows stuff? And one critical question is constantly in front of the assembly- must Gentiles, that is non-Jews, convert to Judaism in order to follow Christ? Of course, there are all different kinds of opinions, and the book of Acts tells many of those stories, including how the question is ultimately answered (spoiler alert: you do not have to be a Jew to follow Christ). But before the question is settled, in Acts 10 we meet Cornelius, a Gentile who serves in the Roman army as a noncommissioned officer who led a troop of 100 Roman soldiers. Cornelius is what they called “a God fearer” meaning a Christian Gentile. He receives an angel who tells him to bring Peter into his house.
Meanwhile Peter is receiving his own vision related to Jewish laws when he is interrupted by Cornelius’ men who request that he comes to Caesarea with them and stay with Cornelius. Such an act was unlawful; a Jew could not stay in the home of a Gentile. But Peter’s recent vision had prepared him for this. He understood- “what God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Perhaps Peter understood what he himself said when he quoted the prophet Joel- “all who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Cornelius and Peter talk, they share their stories and experiences. Human books, human readers, hearing someone’s story and allowing it to change them. Cornelius invites Peter to preach, and when he does, Peter says “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Who’s in? Because of God’s grace, God’s character, everyone who wants to be in.
The arc of Peter’s story tells us a lesson that we must hear over and over. Transformation is possible and necessary. The person Peter was, standing at the shore casting his net into the sea when Jesus first invited him to come and follow him is not the same person who proclaims to the assembling church that God welcomes and loves all people. He has grown, changed. Jesus’ presence, teachings, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, Jesus’ forgiveness for Peter’s denial, and Jesus’ call for Peter to “feed his sheep,” -all of it has changed Peter.
We too must be continually allowing God to transform us into who we are being called by God to be. This is the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives today. The earliest recorded English poet was a cowherder called Caedmon. According to the historian Bede, Caedmon was terribly shy and wouldn’t sing or speak in public, even when others would, and since he lived at a monastery, there was a lot of singing and speaking. According to Bede’s history, one night, while sleeping in the cowshed, Caedmon had a vision. In his vision, Caedmon sang a beautiful song, a song of poetry. He believed he was divinely called, and after that he wrote poetry and music and performed for the monastery, eventually becoming a monk. The only remaining work from Caedmon is a hymn of praise for creation.
The modern poet Denise Levertov notes the way God’s vision to Caedmon transformed him in her poem called “Caedmon.” She writes:
All others talked as if talk were a dance. Clodhopper I, with clumsy feet would break the gliding ring. Early I learned to hunch myself close by the door: then when the talk began I’d wipe my mouth and wend unnoticed back to the barn to be with the warm beasts, dumb among body sounds of the simple ones. I’d see by a twist of lit rush the motes of gold moving from shadow to shadow slow in the wake of deep untroubled sighs. The cows munched or stirred or were still. I was at home and lonely, both in good measure. Until the sudden angel affrighted me — light effacing my feeble beam, a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying: but the cows as before were calm, and nothing was burning, nothing but I, as that hand of fire touched my lips and scorched my tongue and pulled my voice into the ring of the dance.
If a painfully shy seventh century shepherd can be transformed, why not you? Why not you? Why can’t you trust that God is working the slow, holy work of transformation in you, in your life right now? Why shouldn’t you delight in the fact that you are not who you once were, and you are not who you will be one day? Friends, a life with God is a life of becoming, of growing and changing, of letting the holy wind and fire of God’s Spirit blow new understanding, new ways of being, new life into you over and over again. Perhaps “that hand of fire” can pull you “into the ring of the dance” of worship, of a life with God.
The story of Peter, the story of Pentecost is this- the Holy Spirit is moving, wild, alive, vibrant, blowing and burning, transforming and present even now. God is not finished with you and God is not finished with us. Traditionally, one of the symbols for the Holy Spirit is fire, of course. We have been talking about metamorphosis and transformation throughout the Eastertide season. Fire transforms too, though. Fire blazes through and changes the landscape. It destroys, but it also makes space for new life, new growth.
With Pentecost, the season of Easter ends. But it is not the end of our transformation, of our newness. The resurrection life is continually dedicating ourselves to becoming more and more like the people we’ve been created to be. We move beyond our comfort zones, we listen, we learn, we change our minds, our wisdom keeps us soft and pliable- clay for the potter’s hands. And we pray for a “miracle of understanding” like that at Pentecost. And we seek Human books, human readers, to hear someone’s story and allow it to change us. We believe in the resurrection power, and so we allow ourselves to be resurrected over and over again, over and over we are “raised to walk in the newness of life” as Romans 6:4 says. And we trust that the Holy Spirit will put fire in our bones, words in our mouths, a song in our hearts. We pray that the Spirit of the Living God will fall afresh on us. We trust that the Holy Spirit is among us, unleashing us to go into the world, sharing the good news of God’s love for all. Amen.