“PENTECOST: The Day the Spirit of Jesus Returned”
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!