"What a Wacky Way to Start a Church"
A Pentecost sermon based upon the 2nd Chapter of ACTS
(Acts of the Apostles 1:3-9 and 2:1-42)
The day of "Pentecost" (a Jewish harvest festival) came fifty days after Passover (or, as Christians like to say, fifty days after Easter). The disciples and other followers of Jesus were hiding out together, not sure of what to do, where to go, whom to trust... Waiting, just waiting, in Jerusalem.
Waiting was (after all) what Jesus had told them to do (in Luke 24:49): "Wait for the Holy Spirit to come upon you. Wait until you are clothed with power from on high..."
They didn't know what that actually meant. They didn't know who, or what, the Holy Spirit was -- but they knew that they weren't supposed to head for home until the time was right. So, they waited... probably thinking "this is not the way I would start a church!"
Easter was already seven weeks behind them. The amazing experiences that they had had of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection were powerful, memorable; but how to keep the momentum of his ministry going was a different story!
Should they elect officers? … do "Bible studies"? Should they come up with some doctrines? Should they start a school… and call disciples of their own, like Jesus did? Or, should they just start telling the story... the stories of Jesus?
But if they did that, who out there would listen to them, this common lot of Galileans!? Moreover, who would believe it?
Eleven of the original 12 disciples were there. Only Judas was missing (for he had killed himself). Among the others gathered in the Upper Room were the faithful women (such as Mary and Martha, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and her sister). And Jesus' brothers are most likely there… certainly his brother James; probably Lazarus, too, who had been raised from the dead -- and formerly-blind Bartimaeus. And there are others named by Luke, who are otherwise unknown to us: such as Matthias & Joseph-Justus, who (we are told) had followed Jesus from the time he was baptized in the Jordan... to the end, when Jesus died on the Cross. (!) Of course, by now, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea have both come out publicly as followers of Jesus, inasmuch as those two Sanhedrin rulers had helped to bury Jesus’ corpse.
This morning’s readings from the bulletin insert introduced us again to Nicodemus – the man to whom Jesus said that the Holy Spirit is like the wind: you can feel it, you can hear it, and you can see its effects as it passes… but you don’t know where it comes from, nor where it is going to, and you certainly cannot control it! The Holy Spirit moves at its own direction, in its own time, utterly invisible… except for the turbulence it leaves behind.
At Pentecost, Nicodemus experienced what Jesus had been talking about. The Holy Spirit comes like a mighty wind -- like a rushing Ruah, the breath of God, the breathing of Life… At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit poured down to fill the lives of the 120 believers in that house. The Holy Spirit had been "let loose" in the world. The Holy Spirit of God filled the sails of those early Christians and moved the Church up & out and into the streets!
Altogether (according to Acts 1:15) the company of persons in that Upper Room numbered 120. That's ten times the number of Jesus’ initial Apostles -- significant growth from the original 12 disciples, wouldn’t you say? -- and 120 is only about two dozen fewer people than our current membership roster in this Church. (!) The 120 of them would fit perfectly in our sanctuary -- with 100 seats still open! First Congregational has the space to grow.
When that blast of wind burst into town -- and blew right into that upstairs room! -- and all those weird noises started coming from the house where Jesus’ Church was gathered, it got the attention of the passers by! (What a way to start the day!)
Beth Petty, using the bulletin insert as our guide, led us through the highlights of the day. But here’s the way Luke tells it, in Acts Chapter 2, verses 1-18 (page 948 if you’d like to read along):
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind! And it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues, as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them! And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit… and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Now, there were dwelling in Jerusalem, Jews… devout men [and women] from every nation under heaven. And at this sound, the multitude came together. And they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language! And they were amazed, and wondered, saying, "Are not all of these Galileans? So, how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?" Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia; Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphilia, Egypt and the parts of Lybia belonging to Cyrene; and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes; Cretans and Arabians… we hear them telling in our own toungues the mighty works of God!"
And all were amazed, and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" But others, mocking, said, "They are filled with new wine!"
But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: "Men of Judea, and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day! But this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall 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. Yea, and on my men-servants and my maid-servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy!’
There you have it, from the horse’s mouth: Pentecost! The "Birthday" of the Church! The day that God got Jesus’ followers all "revved up" and running! It was the heaven-sent party that gave birth to the Church. And what a turbulent, noisy, wild day it was! (The art poster up here shows the disciples in a circle with little flames above each head – as though they themselves were the candlesticks on the birthday cake!)
Did you notice that (according to Luke) the Pentecost-Day crowd on the streets of Jerusalem were a really mixed bag of races, creeds, & national origins? People came from all parts of the Roman Empire for "shavuoth" (the feast of Weeks) -- a Jewish festival celebrating the springtime harvest of "first fruits" of the field, which were just then being brought into the Temple for dedication.
As I mentioned at the start of this sermon, Christians have renamed shavouth "Pentecost" (which means "50 days") and have claimed it for a different purpose: namely, to mark the birth of the Church. In much the same way that we celebrate Christ-mas in remembrance of the birth of the Christ Child, Jesus, the Church uses Pentecost to mark the re-birth of Jesus’ disciples as they come together to be the "Body of Christ" filled with God’s Spirit. Happy Birthday, Church! I guess we could say: the Pentecost Event is when First Congregational first congregated!
Back in Jesus’ day, the population within the walled city of Jerusalem (an area about one square mile) was 50,000 residents -- but it swelled at Pentecost to nearly 250,000 celebrants...
In other words, there were five times as many strangers -- foreigners, pilgrims, tourists -- milling about in the streets of the Holy City than there were regular hometown inhabitants.
These Galileans, for example -- the followers of Jesus, who had come down from the North to celebrate Passover -- were not residents of the city. They were visitors, tourists; out-of-towners.
With only 120 disciples inside the building, and so huge a crowd outside... it is really remarkable that anyone would have even noticed (or heard) the disciples. (It may be that they had someone like Leigh Copeland on guitar, or Kat Tomaszewski and our choir leading the singing! "He, he, is the Rock!") It was a happy, hand-clapping, wild & wacky way to start the church (if you ask me)! The sound of a roaring windstorm, the flashes of lightning sparking on each person: male & female, young & old!
I can only imagine the cacophony of voices as everyone was speaking in a different language -- Wow! Like the Tower of Babel all over again, except this time the foreign languages were clearly understood.