"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.
Well, something got the attention of the people in the streets, because we are told that (after Peter's sermon) "those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about 3,000 souls!" What a day! What a way to start a church! HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Christianity! Kick it up a notch!
Apparently, all 120 of Jesus' followers must have burst out of the house and begun to tell the curious crowd of by-standers what Jesus' life and death had been all about! Telling them about the mighty works of God in their midst, in their day!
You know, we tend to fixate on the fact that these common Galilean women and men were able to communicate in all kinds of languages, which they had not learned in school. They were using foreign tongues to get their message out. "Glossalalia" was given to them as a spiritual gift to help spread the Gospel, so that each & every foreigner (stranger, visitor, tourist) could hear their testimony in words that meant something to them.
The whole thing is kind’a "wacky" when you think about it. (!) As some of you certainly know from your encounters with various charismatic Christians or members of other more "Pentecostal" denominations, a lot of wild things go on in the name of "Spirit." Some of it is great fun, especially "revival" settings. ("Every time I feel the Spirit moving in my heart, I will sing!" "Do, Lord! O, do, Lord! O, do remember me!") The emotionalism of Pentecostal worship, for example, can be a good thing if it clears out the clogged up stiffness & stuffiness of some of us main-line, mid-life, middle-class Americans – but it may be somewhat "un-Christian" if that emotionalism clouds the clarity of Jesus’ words and works. The "spiritual revival" had better be about Jesus’ Gospel, or it’s not really the church!
"Speaking in tongues" has become (for some) a litmus-paper-like "test" of a person’s spirituality. In other words, those churches whose members don’t speak in tongues (such as here at First Congregational) are looked down on by those more "charismatic" and "Pentecostal" Christians who do. Frankly, I think they are missing the point by making a spiritual "gift" into a presumed requirement, especially if the absence of that gift becomes a source for division and disrespect. Jesus’ Church must not become an "either/or" institution; there must always be room for "both/and".
To me, the much greater miracle (than the ability to speak in tongues) is the change that took place inside those 120 believers.
For the first time since the trauma of the Crucifixion, that small band of women & men who had followed Jesus finally GOT THE NERVE and the VISION to get out of themselves -- even if for just one day -- and they began to tell other people about the tremendous impact Jesus had made on their lives!
In the same kind of Spirit that Jesus had shown, and using Jesus' own name, those first-generation Christians encouraged others to open themselves to change (through repentance, forgiveness, and acceptance of grace) and to claim that same refreshing, amazing, higher-power God for themselves. What a way to start a church! What a vision… what a mission.
And there you have it, friends: the Pentecost birthday party upon which this (and every church) rests. That's the first day of the Church era... It's the day our story got started: as people began testifying... telling the stories of Jesus and praising the mighty works of God.
That first day was so cock-eyed crazy that, right away, some of the locals figured the disciples were drunk! Sipping too much of that "first fruit" new wine! "These men are not drunk as you suppose," said Peter, "since it is only the third hour of the day!" It was only 9 o’clock in the morning! (Of course, that left it open that perhaps they were drinkers in the evening...)
What was it that charged them up to a frenzy and unleashed them on the town? Was it some emotional power, or piety, of their own? Were these 120 folks really special people with extroverted temperaments and highly-emotional tendencies?
Definitely not! For Peter says (in a later sermon): "Why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we do these things? It is God, the author of life; and Jesus, the Holy and Righteous One, whom you killed and whom God raised from the dead; and by faith in his name, whose Spirit makes us strong..." (Acts 3: 12)
The very beginning of our Church -- "Pentecost" -- is an acknowledgement of (and reliance upon) the gift of God's Holy Spirit: the breath of God, the fire of God, the Word of God, as powerful as a storm-wind, and just as uncontrollable. Wow!!
What a way to start a church!
The power comes only as God sees fit in God's due time. As Jesus said to Nicodemus: "The wind blows where it wishes… So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." The best we can do is to prepare a place in us for God's Spirit to find a welcome -- so that we, too, may be used in our day (here in Northern Mich-igan), just as those first ten-dozen disciples were used on that "party-hearty" Pentecost day so far away and so long ago.
It was a wacky way to start the Church… totally unexpected! This dramatic "second coming" of Jesus -- in the form of the Holy Spirit -- ignited a fire in the hearts of his followers that has not been quenched for 2,000 years! Hallelujah! Praise God!
Now, before we end, let me remind you that Pentecost -- like every birthday party -- is not just about nostalgia: looking back on how many years have passed -- it’s a happy, forward-looking occasion. Each birthday marks the first day of the rest of your life! That’s why 3,000 new members joined the Church – for what lay ahead for them and for the world, not for what was over with and done, what was past and gone!
Just think: the world saw Jesus alive for thirty-three years (or so); but it hasn’t seen him for some 2,000 years since then! Where has he gone? Did he evaporate like a drop of water on a hot stone? No…
Jesus’ Spirit – his Way, his Truth, his teachings, his attitudes, his behaviors – have kept on coming; have kept on growing, and spreading, even in his physical absence! Perhaps even MORE SO since his absence. (!) Since Jesus is no longer "incarnate" (enfleshed, incorporated) in a single body, his Spirit has access to all. "Distributed" it says in today’s text, "resting upon each of them" like individual candle flames, alight & spreading "and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit." ALL, A.L.L. -- bar none.
On that day, the "Pentecost party" that gave birth to the Church included every kind of person, from every walk of life, regardless of who they were, where they were from, or where they were on their life’s journey. All divisions between nationalities and among social classes & races -- between male & female, old or young, servant or free -- were obliterated. (!) The early Church (empowered by the Holy Spirit) was free to include all comers, bar none. That’s still our calling, if we are to be the example of God’s heaven on earth.
I’ll admit that it takes some energy to throw a good party. It takes some nerve to go outside these walls and talk to people; it takes courage to make space available beside you to strangers; it takes an inclusive spirit to embrace people in God’s name… but that’s our job, if we want to call ourselves "Christian". Jesus rejected no one. Nor do we.
Jesus came back in a powerful way on that first Pentecost day! Jesus’ way of life and his views of God and humanity – that impulse to serve others and to glorify God that came into such clear focus during the lifetime of the Man from Nazareth – were passed on to his disciples at Pentecost. And then further passed on to their disciples for 80-90 generations now, even to us in Alpena today! The "power from on high" that Jesus promised to be with them is with us forever!
I’ll be the first to admit that it was a wild and wacky way to resurrect Jesus’ movement and send the Church out into the streets… but, thank God, it took! And we are here today, wearing our red ties and fancy hats under a flaming Pentecost banner, to say to God in Jesus’ name: "It took! It’s still happening… even today, even here. Hallelujah! Praise God."