On the Day of Pentecost, the disciples were all gathered together in one place, too afraid to face the outside world. But the coming of the Holy Spirit emboldened them to engage with others and to share God’s love with those beyond their in-group. How does the Holy Spirit give us the courage to fearlessly live our faith in word and action in this day and age?
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
Imagine with me Pentecost as the first disciples of Jesus would have experienced it. A lot has happened in these last fifty days, that’s what Pentecost means, “pentekonta,” fifty. The Pentecost we read about in Acts was on the same day as the Jewish harvest festival Shavuot that took place each year fifty days after Passover.
So, fifty days ago, the disciples share a Passover meal with Jesus. That night, he is arrested, tried, and then executed on the cross. Disciples deny him, go in hiding, grieve their loss, and fear for their own lives.
Three days later, on a Sunday morning, a group of women bear witness to Jesus’ resurrection, and eventually Jesus shows himself to the men, too. After rising from the dead, Jesus is with his disciples on earth for the next forty days. Then, Jesus ascends, leaving earth. (We heard that scripture last week.) And he leaves the disciples with some instructions on what to do, and he leaves them with the promise of the Holy Spirit.
A week later, on the fiftieth day since all this began, we find the disciples “all in one place,” much like they were all in one place, gathered together, hunkering down for fear after the death of Jesus (Acts 2:1).
I imagine for some of the disciples, Jesus’ ascension didn’t feel like a celebration but instead felt like losing him all over again. And, so, they seek comfort in one another, in this small band of believers who were there from the beginning, who got it and understood one another’s plight. The Book of Acts tells us there were 120 of them total. I think that’s about the median size of a Presbyterian congregation these days.
Now, Acts is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke, same author. And Luke is the only gospel writer, that we know about, who thinks the story of Jesus cannot end with the ascension, but must also include the coming of the Holy Spirit, the birth of the church, and the acts of the apostles.
Now, in the gospel of Luke, these people are referred to as “disciples,” meaning those who follow and are students of Jesus, they are in a learning posture. But in Acts, they are called the apostles meaning those who are sent out.
In the beginning of Acts, however, here they are, after Jesus ascends, together, in one place, awaiting the Holy Spirit with others who knew and followed Jesus; with others who had the same, shared experience; with like-minded people who held the same faith and shared the same history, and knew the same story.
And I don’t blame them. Because I think it’s human nature to gravitate to those who are like us, who understand us, who are “one of us,” especially in times of uncertainty. Especially in times of transition and change, we seek comfort.
And oftentimes we find it in those who are most like us. Difference is often avoided or downplayed. And there is a certain tribalism to the way we function.
Tribalism helped our very first ancestors survive, so our inclination towards this inward-facing mentality is understandable.
We want to protect our own; we more readily trust those whom we already know. These are all good instincts; instincts that helped us survive, so it’s understandable that that’s how we are wired.
It’s understandable, but it’s not biblical, not according to this passage any way.
You see while these followers of Jesus are all together in one place, there is a festival, Shavuot, going on out in the streets of Jerusalem, and it is a party.
Some have even traveled long distances for this party. And it is a multicultural, multiethnic, multilingual party. Natives of Jerusalem, immigrants living in Jerusalem, and even some visitors are there.
But as Melissa Bane Sevier points out, “…the Jesus people are in a room praying. They can hear the voices rising from the street, smell the food getting started on griddles, and there they are praying. Waiting.” And who knows how long they would’ve just sat there, secluded away from what is happening outside their doors when the Holy Spirit shows up.
Margaret Aymer Oget, Professor of New Testament at Austin Theological Seminary reminds us that, “This is no gentle inbreaking. The spirit comes suddenly (aphno), even violently (biaias) upon the gathered.”
And what happens? This fearful, inward-looking band of Jesus people who were all in one place, spill out into the streets. They cannot contain the Spirit nor can they contain themselves to one place any longer.
Now, it’s important to note that divisions and differences don’t just disappear. Rather, God honors the differences and meets the people in their own language, in the way they might best understand and hear the good news. These disciples are suddenly able to speak the languages of people from every tongue and nation, able to reach out far beyond their comfort zones, and what’s more, others are able to hear.
This, my friends, is the first event in the life of the church.
“Yes, it started indoors, but it moved outdoors…
If we take this as a metaphor for today’s church, we can’t help but see the beauty of it. The spirit gives the gathered community the courage and gifts to be the scattered community.
Yes, the spirit comes, quite dramatically, to those who are praying and waiting. But just as dramatically, they are drawn [out] to the street. The church is given the ability to speak in ways in which people can understand…We move to the other side of our stained glass and engage, because we come to recognize that the spirit is already and also active there. We have much to give and much to learn if we don’t stay indoors [within the walls of the church]. We begin to have the vision and understanding to see tongues of fire resting on all the people we pass. We see them as sisters and brothers, as friends and family. This is the movement of the spirit today. From indoors companionship to outdoors openness. From prayer to action. From a small room to a world full of beauty and possibility. The church isn’t the church if it stays indoors.”
The Holy Spirit gives us a fearless and fiery faith, to boldly go out into the world and to be witnesses to the good news in every place and with every person with whom we encounter. And it won’t and can’t look like how it always has in the past.
In the past, perhaps it was good enough to invite people in. “Come to our church,” we’d say, “we’re doing this, that, and the other. Join us in here, within these hallowed halls and in this sacred space.”
Yes, surely God is in this place. But God is also out in the world, perhaps having run Bay to Breakers, perhaps celebrating now in the streets, and most definitely with all in this city who wonder where their next meal will come from and where they might sleep tonight.
So, we are being sent, sent out into the world, as apostles, to engage people where they are, to speak their language of faith and spirituality. And according to the first Pentecost, perhaps that’s the way God has always intended it to be any way.
It is not enough for us to simply invite people in, but we must be sent out.
Perhaps now more than ever, the world needs to hear the good news of the gospel, this message of grace, and hope, and love. Because ten families in Santa Fe, TX are burying their children and loved ones, because Palestinians are being killed as they protest injustice, because our own hope sometimes fails at the onslaught of the horrific news we read and watch day in and day out.
The Gospel message is hope for the hopeless and life for those who are dying. It is a counter-cultural, revolutionary thing to entrust our lives to God, to follow in the ways of Jesus, and to let the Spirit blow where she wills.
We must be sent, so that we can be witnesses to the transformative power of the gospel, for ourselves and for the world, so that we might know and live and embody the hope that things can indeed change, that we don’t have to accept this life and this world as it is; so that we might know that God is doing a new thing, the Holy Spirit is at work, and peace, justice, and love are not only possible but the only way true and lasting change will ever happen.
Last week, Rev Cal Chinn said in his sermon, and I quote, “As long as we see the future of our church only from the perspective of the past, as good as the past was, we will miss Pentecost! Instead of being opened and receptive to the wild and wondrous movement of the Holy Spirit, we will instead be preoccupied with trying to domesticate, to curbing and controlling the Spirit.”
Friends, the Spirit cannot be controlled. So let’s not even try our hand at this futile task. Instead, let us go where it leads.
Today, our children are downstairs making goodie bags for the Boys and Girls Club. Their act of service starts here, in this place within these walls, but goes far beyond these walls to impact children all over San Francisco. And that’s what church and Sunday morning worship should do, equip us to be sent out again and again into the world.
In our Book of Confessions, “A Brief Statement of Faith” says this about the Holy Spirit:
“In a broken and fearful world
the Spirit gives us courage
to pray without ceasing,
to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior,
to unmask idolatries in Church and culture,
to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,
and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.”
Friends, fear makes us look inward, but the Spirit calls us out. Fear keeps us in one place, but the Spirit keeps us on the move, scattering us into all the world.
Fear keeps us from “rocking the boat,” but the Spirit has us jumping out of the boat into the waters. Fear causes us to build walls, thinking they will keep us secure. But the Spirit of God cannot be contained, and we will miss her if we stay within these walls.
Rick Morley says, “At Pentecost the Church wasn’t given a mandate to stay-put, set up shop, and get comfy. At Pentecost the Church was given maps and itineraries, and they were sent on their way…We aren’t meant to get too settled. Too rooted. Too rigid… At the very least our spiritual lives are meant to be a pilgrimage, where the dangerous place is the place that gets too comfortable: stagnant. We are to be on the move, and our churches are meant to be on the move.”
Sisters and brothers, dear apostles of the Risen One, God’s Spirit is always on the move, and we are being sent out with her. We cannot catch or contain her, but we can move with her. So let’s get moving. Amen?