a sermon based upon Acts 2:1-18 & 36-42, and John 14:15-29
Today is “Pentecost! The Birthday of the Church!” The day the Holy Spirit filled the Upper Room (with the rush of a mighty wind and tongues of fire), filling the eleven disciples (and the rest of the 120 followers of Jesus) who were gathered there. It was the day that God’s Holy Spirit got everybody "revved up" and running! From the way it is described in the second chapter of the Book of Acts, it was a turbulent, noisy, way to start a church.
In contrast, the mood of today’s worship service is quite quiet! For a birthday party, this self-isolating stay-at-home tone is unsettling. We should be getting up and getting out and getting on with things! (Right?) But then, we realize that a whole lot of families have missed celebrating birthday parties since the quarantine was imposed last March. We miss cheering for our graduates; we missed the Memorial Day parade. We’ve been cooped-up, closed-down, holed-up and hunkered-down in hiding for long enough! (Don’t you think?) I’m sure the disciples were getting stir-crazy themselves after 7 long weeks!
The day of “Pentecost” was fifty days after the Passover (or, as we Christians 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, or even who to trust... Waiting, just waiting, in Jerusalem.
We’ve talked about this for the past ten weeks… as we, too, have been staying-at-home to stay safe -- anxious to avoid the COVID19 virus.
We’ve been wearing masks when we go out into public, like so many bandits keeping our faces hidden; staying physically distant from others; not knowing who is contagious, who is a carrier (maybe us!).
We’ve been waiting… waiting for something to change. Waiting for some promised power. Waiting for the “all clear” signal to sound…
Waiting is hard, but it was (after all) what Jesus told them to do: "Wait for the Holy Spirit to come upon you. Wait until you are clothed with power from on high..."
The problem is: they didn't know what that actually meant. They didn't know who, or what, the Holy Spirit was -- but they knew 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!" This movement is not moving, Jesus! We’ve stalled out. We’re afraid.
Easter was already seven weeks behind them. The amazing experiences they had had of Jesus' life, death, & resurrection were powerful, memorable; but how to keep the momentum of his ministry going was a different story! … Should they do "Bible studies"? (Is that how they’ve been spending their time – searching the Scriptures for some clue as to what was going on?) Should they come up with some doctrines? (Last week we saw how Peter jumped the gun and started electing officers and setting up an organizational structure.) Should they start a school… and call disciples of their own, like Jesus did? (Who knows? This is all so brand new!) Or, should they just start telling the story...? Telling the stories of Jesus; telling what they knew to be true first-hand; telling about their own experiences!
But if they did that, who would listen to them, this common lot of Galileans!? A bunch of out-of-towners! Moreover, who would believe it? They had no special credentials. They were just ordinary folks, like us. In fact, they were more of a “mixed-bag” than we are!
Who was there? … First of all, of course, eleven of the original 12 disciples were there. Only Judas was missing (because he had killed himself !). How’s that for a leadership team?(!) Four fishermen, a couple of tax-collectors, a Zealot or two… nothing remarkable about those eleven guys… except that they got along in the first place!
Among the others gathered in the Upper Room, there were several faithful women (such as the sisters Mary & Martha, and Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and Mary’s sister & Salome)… And we are told that Jesus' brothers were there; probably Lazarus, too, who had been raised from the dead by Jesus… And the formerly-blind Bartimaeus, who followed Jesus from Jericho…
And there were others, such as Matthias & Joseph-Justus, who (as we talked about last Sunday) had followed Jesus from the time he was baptized in the Jordan... to the end, when Jesus died on the Cross. One of them was chosen to take Judas’s seat as the 12th Apostle. Furthermore, by now, those two secret followers of Jesus Nicodemus & Joseph of Arimathea have “come out” publicly as believers in Jesus’ Way. We know that because those two Sanhedrin rulers helped to bury Jesus’ body! (John 19:38-40)
Altogether (as we’ve said) the company of persons numbered 120 (Acts 1:15). That's about two dozen fewer people than the current membership roster of First Congregational UCC. They'd fit perfectly in our sanctuary! (According to the Fire Dept’s occupancy code we can seat 220 – but with physical distancing, we must cut it down by half). So, even with our masks and six-foot separation, they would fit here!
But when you think about the people that Jesus welcomed into his movement – as we know them from the Gospel stories – many of them were the kinds of folks who had been “marginalized” by the dominant religious culture of that day. Just think of the Christmas story – dirty shepherds keeping night watch on the hills… Or his first disciples, four fishermen who probably smelled like fish and sweat!
Among his loudest cheerleaders were former lepers, who had been healed; tax collectors who had been invited into leadership positions; reformed prostitutes, and other women and children, who were valued by Jesus and his Way. No one with fancy finery and kosher purity -- no long linen robes nor long-winded prayers -- were among his followers. In fact, not even very careful washing of the hands was required! (That’s gonna be more of a problem in this hyper-hygienic post-coronavirus environment when we once again start to meet in person, face to face. “Wash your hands!”)
Jesus’ movement accepted sick people and sinners, embraced the poor and the exploited; yes, even “Samaritans” got a good vibe from the Jesus people. The very folks who were scrupulously avoided by the church-going people in his contemporary society – the destitute and the despised, the “huddled masses yearning” to be included – were included!
Jesus’ movement was the most un-religious of any religion in his day! The hallmark of the community that gathered around Jesus during his lifetime was the inclusion of people who had been otherwise rejected by the dominant culture of their day.
And so, when we imagine the 120 followers who still hung in there with Jesus after His Crucifixion -- after His death and burial, after His resurrection and Ascension, after seven weeks of hiding out at home and keeping out-of-sight of the authorities for fear -- let’s remember that they were a “mixed bag” of outcasts and invalids, the disrespected and the disadvantaged, who had been radically embraced and given leadership responsibilities in Jesus’ name.
Some churches in our day may put on airs, be a little “uppity” (as we used to say) – “choosey”, narrow-minded, and exclusive – but we wouldn’t be if we patterned ourselves after the earliest traditions of Jesus’ Way! We would have to be Open and Affirming of all kinds of people who differ from ourselves, who we may even find disagreeable.
Basically, those 120 charter members of the Church didn’t have much in common… except for the “meaning” that Jesus had given to their lives. (!) He had given them a new social order, as a new kind of community, based on God’s love for the world and forgiveness. Left to themselves (as we saw last Sunday as Peter began to assert his opinion), the social standards and traditional religious structures would reassert pressure to “conform to the norm”… and that “highly-unlikely blend” of 120 unique individuals would have split up.
Apparently, all 120 of Jesus' followers (filled with the Spirit) burst out of the house and began 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! And how it had changed the course of their lives!
Each and every one of those 120 people could point back and say: I once was lost, but now I’m found. I once was blind, but now I see! I once was self-centered and power-hungry, but now I know compassion and mercy and forgiveness and love… and I’ll never go back to the way I was, to the arrogance and the ignorance and the unadulterated narcissism of my past. I’ve been changed, thank God!
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!
With the same kind of bold Spirit that Jesus had shown, and using Jesus' own name, those first-generation Christians encouraged others to open themselves to change as well (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!
There you have it, friends: the Pentecost birthday tradition 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 they had personally experienced. And the fact that these testimonies were coming from such a wide and diverse group of individuals – rich young rulers and the limping lame, women & men & kids! – tax collectors and tax payers, and sinners of every sort! – made an impression on the multitude who heard them, one after another.
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!" (Of course, that left it open that perhaps they were drinkers in the evening hours...) But this is still early in the day!
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 really “special” people with extroverted temperaments and high-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. What a way to start a church!
It makes me think: the power of God’s Holy Spirit comes as God sees fit in God's due time. 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 Alpena, just as those first ten-dozen disciples were used on that famous Pentecost “party-hearty” day… so far away… and so long ago.
Pentecost, like every birthday party, is not just about nostalgia (looking back on how many years have passed) -- it is a happy, forward-looking occasion. Your birthday is the first day of your life, and its annual anniversary is the first day of the rest of your life! That’s why 3,000 new members joined the Church – for what lay ahead, not for what was over and done, past and gone! It’s not the Jesus of history, but the Christ that is still alive! That’s who they got connected with on that Pentecost day. It is the new “Body of Christ” which has been birthed as Jesus’ Spirit returned and filled them with power, even as He had promised to do.
At the close of Peter's testimony on that first Pentecost Sunday, we read: When they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to the Apostles: "What shall we do?" And Peter said to them: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you, in the name of Jesus, for the forgiveness of your sins: and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off... every one whom the Lord our God calls."
That broad invitation -- addressed to all, near and far, young and old -- has never been rescinded! "The promise is to you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off... every one whom the Lord our God calls...(the promise of) the forgiveness of your sins, and the gift of the Holy Spirit" – in your life, in your mind, in your everyday behavior. That broad invitation from God is still the good news! That’s our message today, on this Pentecost Sunday, and every day!
It seems to me, the hallmark of the Holy Spirit is not so much its blustery wind and its prickly fire, nor even its uncanny ability to translate itself into every language and every lifestyle.
What makes it a Holy Spirit is its continuity with the Spirit of Jesus Christ. The Advocate/Comforter (that Jesus spoke about in today’s reading from the Gospel of John, Chapter 14) would be (he said) “sent in my name, to (A) teach you everything, and (B) remind you of all that I have said to you.”
So, the Holy Spirit teaches what Jesus taught. (!) There’s no new “spiritual” gospel waiting to be revealed from the Spirit apart from the Good News of Jesus Christ. No divergent truth; no secret “gnosis”; no cultic code. The Holy Spirit is “Holy” precisely because it mirrors Jesus’ attitudes and behaviors just as clearly as Jesus mirrors the true nature of God. In other words, there’s no disconnect; no new reality beginning. You don’t need to be “wary” of the coming of the Spirit, because it is the same old Jesus we already know!
The Holy Spirit is a teacher (says Jesus) – one who reminds us of truths that we already know. The Spirit dredges up from our memory those lessons our parents and Sunday School teachers so faithfully tried to instill (in years gone by). Lessons which -- with the rush of busy lives, the raging of hormones, and the call of the world in our ears -- we may have set aside for a time. But with the coming of the Spirit, we will boldly recall what we knew was true all along!
These 10 weeks of staying at home have given us a respite from the ordinary habitual busyness of our lives.
We have had time on our own -- time in solitude, maybe even some times of silence -- when we were not distracted by political folderol or business matters or consumer shopping. We had time to think, to get to know ourselves better, to check up on the health of our inner person, our Spirit, our soul.
On this Pentecost Sunday, I want you to know that the Holy Spirit (while invisible & unfathomable and uncontrollable!) is not a mystery. It’s a continuation – throughout time and space, unrestricted by bodily limitations and mortal finitude – of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, who is (in my opinion) our best visible expression of the true Spirit of the Living God. The Holy Spirit is simply God’s way of making sure that Jesus is always with us, informing us, empowering us.
The Holy Spirit will empower Jesus’ followers to the same ends as Jesus himself pointed. It will express the same values and attitudes, the same closeness with God and attitude of service to humanity, as Jesus did in his lifetime.
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 among social classes & races, ethnic nationalities, male & female, slave 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 a living example of God’s heaven being done on earth.
So, c’mon: Let’s party! Let’s let our light shine! Tell the story! Tell your story! And when we’re finally released to get out and about… let’s do what we can to enable the Spirit-led “party” that gave birth to the church two-thousand years ago continue to spread it’s joy to others, for God’s sake, in Jesus name.