What is Pentecost For?
I’ve got to be honest with all of you this morning. I love Pentecost. But it has never felt less like Pentecost to me. And I have never felt like I needed it more. This is the day when I had been hoping everything would be “back to normal.” Back to church, doing things like we used to do them. Back to what is familiar and comfortable and meaningful for me. But that’s not to be. And I think the message of Pentecost for me this year is that there’s no such thing as going back to normal because really there’s no such thing as going back. We can only ever go forward. And as uncomfortable as that makes me, it’s a good thing. We can only grow by going forward. Forward into the unknown. Forward into something new.
We are going to spend some time this summer in the book of Acts, exploring what life was like for the early church as they went forward into the unknown, forward into something new. It starts with Pentecost. As Sam always reminds me, Pentecost is where the rubber meets the road for the followers of Jesus. He has ascended into heaven, they have been prayerfully waiting for the promised Holy Spirit. And Pentecost is where the Spirit shows up. It’s a powerful religious experience, a kick-off for the church.
It’s not a one-time event because the religious experience described at Pentecost happens over and over throughout the book of Acts. But the challenge of Pentecost is for us to resist the temptation to be caught up in our religious experiences. Because what we see throughout the book of Acts that what happens during our religious experiences is not the main point. The point is what happens AFTER our religious experiences. I’d like you to keep that in mind as we hear again the story of Pentecost, not only what happened during the religious experience but what happened after it. Let us listen now for the word and wisdom of God in Acts chapter 2:
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd:
“Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by 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 men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.’
“Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.
“God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.
“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Friends, what shall we do?”
“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them. Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
So often on Pentecost what gets our attention are the tongues of fire and the other languages. And then we get in denominational arguments about whether speaking in tongues is still a gift that’s in effect for the church today and what value it has and whether and how we should go about seeking that gift. And before you know it we are once again in the tall weeds of disagreement. If you’re curious about what happened during the religious experience, I’d encourage you to go back and listen to any of my podcasts from Pentecost for the past two years. Because this year I don’t want us to focus so much on what happened during the religious experience. I want us to focus on what happened after the religious experience.
The result of a Pentecost experience is always boldness and new community. We will see this over and over again throughout the book of Acts. What happened after the tongues of fire was truth-telling and breaking down barriers, and that’s the main point. Let me walk you through it.
After this powerful religious experience, Peter gets up to speak. Because it’s in the Bible, we think that what he says is just another sermon. Just another altar call. Blah blah blah. But think about it. This is Peter, who only very recently was denying and running away from Jesus when Jesus needed him most. Peter the deserter. Peter the coward. Yet here he is standing up and speaking publicly. Not just preaching a sermon, but saying things that he was afraid to say before. Speaking truth that he wasn’t willing to speak a few weeks ago.
He claims allegiance to Jesus. He says he is a witness to the resurrection. And using examples from the Jews’ own history, he makes the case that Jesus is the Messiah but that the Jews missed it and crucified him. Those are some pretty gutsy things to say to your own people.
In this week when we have seen yet more horrifying examples of the racial injustice that continues to plague our country, I’ve been thinking a lot about saying gutsy things to my own people. Because my dear white friends and family, what is happening right now is our responsibility. This is not just a problem with a few “bad cops.” It is a deeply systemic issue that shapes the minds of all white people. Rabbi Abraham Heschel said that some are guilty but all are responsible. And that means that even if I’m not kneeling on the neck of a black man, I am still responsible for the way that white privilege is perpetuated in this culture. White people have to do our own work. And it’s hard. It’s hard to speak truth to our own people. But that’s what Peter is able to do after he has this profound religious experience.
And notice please that Peter doesn’t speak this truth in a hateful accusatory way. In fact, what he says is so compelling that people respond with repentance. The story says that his listeners were cut to the heart and asked, “What should we do?” Please God, I wish I knew how to talk like that to my white friends! I wish I had the words to say that would be simultaneously so gracious and so convicting that people would be cut to the heart and ask, “Beth, what should I do about my biases and my white fragility?” That’s what I pray for. And that’s what happens for Peter once he has experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit. He has the boldness and the wisdom to say things that he couldn’t say before. And people are changed.
Friends what else could Pentecost possibly be for if it’s not for this? If it’s just about getting some spiritual experience badge for my vest, or making me feel better than other people because I speak in tongues, that’s worthless. That doesn’t change anything, it doesn’t fix anything. In fact it just exacerbates the problem that already exists, which is that some people think they are better than other people. It just provides a different category in which I can be better than you. But if the religious experience of Pentecost results in my actually having the boldness and wisdom to speak compassionate truth in the situations that are most terrifying but most important, then bring it on. I’m in. I want that! I NEED that!
Secondly, what happens after the Pentecost experience is that barriers come down and people create new community. The story says that all the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold their possessions to provide for people in need. They spent time in each others homes, eating together, praying together and learning together. They began to live differently. They weren’t doing church. They were becoming the Church (capital C). They were creating an alternate community, living in God’s empire right in the middle of the Roman empire. The ancient world was just as divided as ours is today by race and class and nationality. And yet, after people are filled with the Spirit, after they repent and are saved, the barriers between people begin to crumble. This is not charity. This is community. The Pentecost experience results in a generosity that compels people to radically share not only their possessions but their lives. They stop believing the lies that keep us apart and they stop following the cultural rules that keep us separate. They start doing what Jesus talked about: feeding the hungry and the thirsty, caring for the sick, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, and visiting the prisoner.
This morning we are kicking off a new ministry focused on that last category. In the past year we have been experimenting with different ways to extend Christ’s love to the men and women in Delaware County Jail and we have another opportunity. Before we sign off this morning, Sam is going to tell you about our goal to send a letter of encouragement to every man and every woman in Delaware County Jail. I’ll let him talk about the nuts and bolts. But let me tell you how this fits in with Pentecost. In this season of physical distancing, inmates are the most isolated of anyone. These facilities are totally locked down, even more than retirement communities. These are men and women who are already marked by society. They’ve been arrested. And although our justice system is supposed to be built on the premise of innocent until proven guilty, we often treat people as if they opposite were true. We treat them like they are guilty until proven innocent. But Jesus didn’t ask us to only visit the innocent ones, the nice ones, the white collar criminals, the ones whose alleged crimes don’t offend us too much.
The power of the Holy Spirit in our lives empowers us to be Christ’s witnesses, to tell our stories of what God has done in our lives. And to do that in a way that is encouraging and inviting for other people. So we are going to do that with letters. I want to encourage each of you to write at least one letter. Some of you will write several. But especially if this seems hard for you, I want you to pray about it. As God for Pentecost boldness and compassion, for a vision of what a new community would be like, and then write at least one letter. Click here for details!
The Pentecost experience is real and it is as relevant for today as it ever was. This week it has been so clear to me how much we need boldness and new communities. How much I need boldness and new communities. Next week I’m going to tell you about our worship plans for the summer, but we see throughout the book of Acts that new forms of worship are the result of boldness and new communities. Boldness and new communities shape worship, not the other way around. So if we want to figure out how to do worship in this new season when we can’t do it the way we used to, we have to start with Pentecost. We need Pentecost. We need a deeply powerful authentic religious experience. Not for the sake of the experience itself, but because of what will happen after it.
I want to end this morning with a testimony, with a witness, with someone speaking her truth and telling her story. Last week Chris Brewer sent me a message about an experience of the Holy Spirit that she had while she was washing the van, because God comes to us in unexpected moments. I want you to hear the story in her own words, but let me give you just a little bit of background. As many of you know Chris is a retired nurse and so she has been feeling the pain of this pandemic on several levels. Not only fear for herself and her loved ones, but also seeing what doctors and nurses are doing, even sacrificing themselves to care for sick people when they don’t have personal protective equipment. Chris and Phyllis are still down in Florida, which has not imposed the same kind of restrictions we’ve seen here. And every time, Chris saw or heard the President on television or saw her neighbors at the beach or at the bar, she was just filled with anger and hatred because in her mind those people are murderers. She believes they have caused thousands of deaths and that by their actions they will cause thousands more. That’s the depth of emotion that she has been feeling. Whether you agree with her or not isn’t the point, because I know that all of you have at one time been absolutely furious at someone else. Furious to the extent that you don’t know what to do about it. It feels overwhelming to you. And for Chris it all came to head one afternoon about 10 days ago. She had driven by a bar full of people and was just beside herself with rage. Her plan for the afternoon was to go outside and wash her van and here’s what happened …
It’s because of Jesus that we can be free from hate. If the Holy Spirit can change Chris, the Holy Spirit can change anyone. Friends, the Holy Spirit is at work in us and among us. The Pentecost experience still happens for people. And we need it. Whether it comes with speaking in tongues or not, you will know it has happened for you when you feel a new boldness and a desire to build God’s new community right in the middle of the old one. Amen.