Pentecost: an Expansive Church is Born

Acts 2 and Galatians 3

Pentecost is one of my favorite church holidays. Maybe even my very favorite. Christmas and Easter are great, but they feel cultural as much as spiritual. But nobody except Christians care about Pentecost. Pentecost is when the church is born, when the followers of Jesus become a force to be reckoned with in the world. This morning I want us to hear that story again and then I want to share with you what I think it means for us now. Here is the story from the book of Acts chapter 2.

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”

Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
    Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
    Your young will see visions.
    Your elders will dream dreams.
    Even upon my servants, men and women,
        I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
        and they will prophesy.
I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.
The sun will be changed into darkness,
    and the moon will be changed into blood,
        before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.
And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

Peter then goes on to explain how the crucified and risen Jesus is the liberating Messiah that the Jewish people had been waiting for, even though he didn’t liberate them in the way they were expecting. Let’s pick back up in verse 37.

When the crowd heard this, they were deeply troubled. They said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”

Peter replied, “Change your hearts and lives. Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away—as many as the Lord our God invites.” With many other words he testified to them and encouraged them, saying, “Let yourselves be saved from this perverse generation.” Those who accepted Peter’s message were baptized. God brought about three thousand people into the community on that day.

The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.

this is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

Visions of tongues of fire, a fiery sermon, 3,000 new people on fire for Jesus, and some lit church parties. That’s a good day.

But what does it mean? Why does it matter? Why do we bother to keep celebrating it thousands of years later? Pentecost matters because the church was born to be expansive. And we must be reminded of that. Left to our own devices we get insular, we turn inward, we form communities of people who look and think and talk and eat and buy like we do. But that is not what we are created for. We are created to be an expansive community.

I like that word, “expansive.” It’s different than “inclusive.” Semantics, maybe, but go with me for a minute. To include is to allow someone in if they come to us. To expand is to deliberately make room, to expect growth and to plan for it. Including can mean absorbing someone into what we are already doing. Expanding can mean changing what we do. We are called to be inclusive, most definitely. Exclusive church is ugly. Most of us have been to an exclusive church at some point. So yes, include. But perhaps even better, expand. 

This goes along with what we see in the story. When the Bible says people are “filled” with the Holy Spirit, we might think of water filling a cup. Inclusion. But the word there is meant to convey not water filling a cup, but wind filling a sail. The sail expands, I mean, it doesn’t actually get bigger, but you see the image, right? The sail is filled with wind and is then able to do what sails are supposed to do. The infilling of the Holy Spirit expands the church, moving us out of our safe harbors and into a restless sea full of people in need of boats. We are called to be an expansive church.

When we include, we allow people inside our boundary. When we expand, we go past our boundaries. We knock down our boundaries. We spill over into new territory. Outdoor worship is a picture of this. We can include people inside our four walls, which is good and right. We should do that. Or we can go outside our walls to make more room. Here it’s hard to tell where the boundaries are. Our neighbors could sit on their front porches and be in worship with us. We have moved beyond the boundaries. We are called to be an expansive church. 

But this raises the question of what to do about the real differences between us. If we go beyond inclusion, which assumes there is a norm, to expansion which assumes that no one group takes precedence, then what holds us together? If we don’t require everyone to conform to the standards of one group of people, where do we find common ground?

The apostle Paul tells us in Galatians chapter 3. This is an extended treatise on why non-Jewish people, or Gentiles, that is us, do not have to keep the Jewish law. In this situation there were some Jews who were willing to include Gentiles if they kept the Jewish law. But Paul says that’s not necessary for them. Their common ground, their unity, their foundation, their starting place for expansion is something else. Listen to what he says in Galatians 3 verses 26 through 29. This is their common ground: “You are all God’s children through faith in Christ Jesus. All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Our foundation for expansion is our oneness in Christ Jesus. Unity is not the same as uniformity. We are one, but we are not the same. We don’t cease to be our genders. We don’t say we are colorblind. We don’t ignore the things about people that make them who they are. In fact, especially when people have been marginalized in other places in the world, we must be more sensitive to that and more affirming in the church. So we don’t say everyone is the same, but we do say that no one matters more than anyone else. People with fully abled bodies are not more valuable to our expansive community than people with disabilities. A man is not automatically the leader. We try hard to remember that the experiences of white people are not the experiences of all people. This idea that “all are one” doesn’t mean that differences are ignored; it means that differences are submitted to our greater desire for unity. We model God’s diversity not when when we include others, but when we recognize that we have all already been included. We are one, not because we are the same, but because we are together in Christ Jesus.

Pentecost is when the church begins to expand. And the significance of speaking in tongues is that it was proof that the welcome of God was expanding beyond expected boundaries. Every time throughout the book of Acts that a group of people is described as speaking in tongues, it is proof to the rest of the church that those people are also welcome. They are also one in Christ. 

As more and more people are welcomed, the church grows and grows and grows. It expands beyond the city of Jerusalem into the region of Judea; beyond Judea into the region of Samaria where the dreaded Samaritans lived; beyond Samaria to the ends of the earth. And as the church grows, the world changes. People are still being healed. And even if they aren’t healed, they are fed, and loved. People receive the gospel, the good news; they are encouraged. God’s wholeness spreads. The followers of Jesus insist that the way the world is is not the way the world has to be. And they live differently. They do not accept the status quo, but create new life-giving countercultural communities right where they are. They live in God’s Kingdom right in the middle of the Roman Empire. Individually they are expanded by the power of the Holy Spirit and together they expand to fill the space around them. 

In the past, militant imagery has been used by the church in ways that we now realize are not healthy. That’s because we’ve used that battle imagery against other people, and that’s not scriptural. The book of Ephesians which we studied together last summer says that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers. This means our struggle, our battle is not against other humans but against the evil that is built into our institutions, systems, ideologies, corporations, bureaucracies, and structures. That is what we fight. And the fight is very real. For that fight, we need the infilling power of the Holy Spirit to sustain us and motivate us, to give us creativity and courage.

As the Kingdom of God expands, we want it to expand into the territory currently held by by principalities and powers, by evil. The Old Testament prophets poetically declare this dream: that the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. As God’s people who have been blessed in order to be a blessing, as followers of Jesus who laid his life on the line and rose again to prove that love wins, as an expansive church filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, we will not accept anything less. Not to conquer people, not to assimilate people, but to liberate people. To proclaim God’s freedom to all people. To bear witness to our faith in the world. This is our calling. This is the meaning of Pentecost. Amen!

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