Sermon for Pentecost Sunday 2018
Some churches will go to great lengths to try and capture, or recapture or portray the experience of the Apostles on that first Pentecost Sunday. Now first let me say that I am not here this morning to shake my finger at other churches or to make fun of the way that other people worship Jesus. It would be easy for me to do, because I am one of those people that sometimes has the audacity to think that there is a right way and a wrong way (or maybe I will try to be even nicer and say a right way and a less-right way) of doing things. I admit that I do have opinions about how things should be done. I am a great believer in tradition and I know that whenever I am trying to weigh in the balance doing one thing or the other, that tradition always has its thumb on the scale and I am totally ok with that. But as much as I love old worship traditions in particular, I also love worship in general, and I have worshipped in enough different churches and in enough different traditions and in enough different ways to know that even when things aren’t done exactly the way I like, or I the way that think they should be done, that God is still at work, Jesus is still being praised and that people can still be having legitimate experiences of the Holy Spirit. Anyways, I’m not sure that any souls were ever won for Jesus by being smug and self-righteous, and I know, as I am sure many of you know, just how it feels to have someone dismiss experiences of worship that I find deeply meaningful as being unspiritual, unscriptural or just plain wrong. So I’m not going to do that to others. I am going to endeavor this morning, to not pick on how other churches celebrate the feast of Pentecost or how they worship on any other Sunday for that matter.
But what I am going to say this morning is that I think very often when the church (and I mean the whole church, not just this church, but churches or Christians throughout the world) when the church talks about the experience of the Apostles on that Pentecost Sunday that we heard about in our scripture from the Book of Acts, and when we try to remember it in our liturgy, that we often have a tendency to focus on the wrong things.
The first thing we want to focus on is the mysterious experience that the disciples had in the upper room. It is fifty days after Jesus rose from the grave. Ten days earlier they saw his resurrected body ascend into heaven, and before he disappeared Jesus told them to stay in Jerusalem and wait until they received the Holy Spirit. And that is what they were doing: they were praying and they were waiting…and then things get weird: the sound of a rush of violent wind; this presence that seemed to fill the room, and then weirder still, these little flames or tongues of fire that seem to rest on each one of them. Now that is some weird stuff, and I know some churches have a lot of fun trying to recreate this story in symbol. Some churches may hang red balloons around the sanctuary to represent the little tongues of fire over the disciples; other churches may process in, waving red streamers over the congregation or they may have the children carry around paper doves flying on the end of a stick. Now don’t worry, I don’t plan to start doing any of those things here, not because I think they are necessarily wrong (although balloons in church is just asking for trouble), but mostly I don’t want to do it because I’m not sure that trying to recreate the mystical experience of little tongues of fire is where we should be focusing our energy this morning.
So then it must be about the languages right? After they received the Holy Spirit, they each discovered that they had the power to speak in different languages, and as they walk out of that upper room and out into the crowded streets of Jerusalem, they discover that they can speak to all of these other Jews from other countries and everyone can understand in their own language and it is a miracle. So some churches want to try and recreate that moment. The scriptures will be read in English and in Spanish, maybe French, Korean or Arabic. Some other churches will interpret this passage to be about the disciples having an ecstatic religious experience wherein the Spirit didn’t just give them the power to speak in known languages, but also in unknown languages (speaking in tongues, which is also known as glossolalia). Incidentally this is where the Pentecostal Church and the Pentecostal movement gets its name from. Now don’t get me wrong, I am all for celebrating other cultures and languages and the fact that Christians are a diverse group, and I am all for having and celebrating religious (spiritual) experiences, but is that really what this passage is about?
Was it a miracle that these simple Galileans could all of a sudden speak in other languages? You bet. But is that the most amazing part of this story? Not at All! It was a miracle sure, but it was a small miracle as miracles go. For one thing, it was not all that uncommon in the ancient world for people to speak more than one language. Yes, the spirit was giving them this ability to speak Parthian or Elamite instantly (so it was a small miracle), but with a little time and effort they could have learned on their own. You don’t need the Holy Spirit to speak Spanish or any other language today; you need a Berlitz course. I even saw advertised this week a new electronic device; it’s a stick that you speak into that can instantly translate into about 30 different languages. So if the Holy Spirit is just a trick God uses to make us multilingual, I guess we don’t need him anymore. Or could it be that we might be getting just a little bit too distracted by the other languages in this passage and are missing what the spirit is really up to?
So if it’s not about tongues of fire or about speaking in other languages, then what are we really celebrating today? Well before our Lord Ascended into heaven his last words according to the Book of Acts were: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” That is what the Lord said the Spirit would do: he would give us the power to be his witnesses. He would give us these little miracles so that we could proclaim his big miracle. That is what the Holy Spirit gave them power to do: to be proclaimers of the great miracle. Those devout Jews who heard the disciples speaking in other languages, what did they hear the disciples talking about? The weather? Sister Martha’s crumbcake recipe? The latest scandal overheard in the parking lot or shared on Facebook? No. They were talking about God’s deeds of power. They said: “…in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” Speaking in our own languages is just the medium (it’s the little miracle), but it is the message of God’s power that is what is really important here (that’s the great miracle). The disciples were given power by God to proclaim the power of God. They didn’t have this mystical experience just so they could sit around in the upper room and feel special, nor did they have it just so they could show off to the rest of Jerusalem just how smart and sophisticated and multicultural they were. No. They were given power by God, to proclaim the power of God and to tell the world (anyone who would listen) what God has done in Jesus Christ.
We are here to witness to how God’s spirit can change us and use us to draw the world to himself. Let’s remember, the disciples had been huddled inside, unsure of themselves. They were in awe and amazement at what they had witnessed, they were waiting and they were blessing God, and they were praying, and they had joy, but they weren’t ready to talk about it just yet. They weren’t ready to tell anyone else about what they experienced, but then something changed in them. Others saw the change, and at first they thought “maybe these people have had a bit to drink.” These people seem to have a little more joy than they had before and a little less fear than they had before, so something must be up. And it was Peter who stood up and said to the crowd: this isn’t the fruit of the vine you see at work here; this is the fruit of the spirit. God has poured out his spirit on these people, not for their own glorification, but so that others will see and know the power of God. If you see a change, it is because God changed them, and if God can change the stubborn hearts of men and women, what can’t he do? He might even be able to turn death into life. A God that actually changes people…that is a powerful God. That is a God worth worshipping.
We live in New York and I don’t have to tell you that to walk down the street and to hear someone talking in a different language, that is no miracle. You know what is a miracle? Walking down the street and hearing someone talk about God or talking about God’s deeds of power. That is the miracle today. With all of our technology and all of the talking heads that fill our lives reminding us daily of our own power and propensity to destroy ourselves, it is a miracle when we encounter someone that is willing to testify to God’s power to save us; someone not only willing to testify with their lips to God’s deeds of power, but even more than that, that also able to show through their lives just what that power can do.
Today we are baptizing a new Christian. If this child is going to grow into a disciple of Jesus; if she is going to grow in this faith then she needs to hear people talk about God’s deeds of power. She needs to hear about who Jesus was, and what he did and what he said and she needs to hear it from someone other than just me and her Sunday School teacher. She needs to hear it from all of you. She needs to know what the Holy Spirit has done in your lives. She needs to know about the power of God and what God has done to save her…what God has done to save all of us. Everyone in here has probably experienced the power of God in some way and maybe you are just afraid to talk about it. Please get over it. The Holy Spirit will give you the power to overcome that fear, if you let it. But then don’t just tell her about God’s power, show her. Show her through your life that you have been changed. Don’t let her doubt for a minute the power that we come here week after week to worship. If you open your prayer books you will see that we ask in our morning prayer service everyday that we may show forth God’s praise “not only with our lips, but in our lives.” God has given us the grace and power to do that through the Holy Spirit, not for our own glorification, not to make us feel spiritual or special but for his honor and glory; to draw the world to him, because the world is watching and the world still needs to hear about God’s great miracle. The world knows that humans can kill, but does it know that God can save? We were given power by God to proclaim the power of God. That is what Pentecost is all about. That is what we need to focus on; That is what we are here to celebrate. That is what we as the whole church are all called to be about, no matter our style, our language or which side of the altar we stand on; whether we do it with balloons and streamers or candles and incense; high church or low church; English, Spanish or whatever: we are called to be people that know we worship a powerful God and that aren’t afraid to share that God with the world. If we really want to recreate the experience of Pentecost, all we really need to do is start talking about Jesus, because if we are proclaiming God’s deeds of power with our lips and with our lives, it doesn’t matter what language we say it in, or how we choose to say it, people will hear it.