FPC Sermon June 4, 2017 Pentecost Acts 2: 1-21
Wow! It’s Pentecost, such an awesome day in the church. Our birthday!! It’s a party.
Today is also graduation day for our seniors – that gives them other reasons to celebrate this weekend as well.
Pentecost is a dramatic event dominated by the Holy Spirit. God the Holy Spirit enters the lives of ordinary people. Tongues of fire light up the event.
These tongues of fire are present on our PCUSA symbol. Did you ever think about that? Why would Luke, the writer of Acts, mention divided tongues of fire?
Commentator Jana Childers, citing the work of scholar Herman Waetjen, has pointed out that Roman coins had “divided tongues of fire over the head of Caesar as a sign of royalty – even a sign of divinity.”[i] Luke, then, is using an image that would be well-understood by people in the Roman Empire. God is present.
But it’s broader than that. After all, the tongues are described as being divided. Divided as were the people of God when Moses went up the mountain and didn’t return right away. Divided as were the people of Babel, as described by Genesis. Those people who were confused. Divided, as many of us are today, preferring other gods in our world – whether individual power, country, money or property – preferring them to the one God who seeks to unite us.
These tongues alighted on each disciple, firing them up. We don’t know how many disciples were in that one place when the events of Pentecost happened. But, being fired up, they started speaking in many languages, languages they couldn’t possibly have known before.
Today, we may not have tongues of fire flying around our heads. So, what would signal to others that we trust in Jesus, the Lord of all, to lead us every day? Think about that for a moment.
As Luke described what happened on that long-ago Pentecost, we learn that people were very confused by what was going on, and we can’t blame them. Jews from every nation were there. They spoke different languages, languages from their nations of origin. Yet, each person heard and understood the words spoken by the disciples.
Moreover, these disciples weren’t part of an educated elite. They were “country bumpkins” from Galilee, a region not known for scholarly accomplishment. That’s why people in the crowds could hardly believe that they were actually hearing about God’s deeds of power in their own languages.
The feast of Pentecost is mentioned in several books of the Hebrew Bible: Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. Originally a Jewish harvest festival, which apparently was widely-celebrated, it had morphed into a festival centered around God’s covenant with the Jewish people. No wonder so many people were in Jerusalem to celebrate! 1 Corinthians and Acts 20 refer to it in the context of the Apostle Paul’s travel plans.
What does Pentecost mean for us? Why do we call it the birthday of the church?
Remember, Jesus’ disciples after his ascension found themselves waiting. Not just waiting but also hiding out.
Jesus had promised not to leave them alone. He had promised them an advocate, but where was this advocate? What were they going to do, alone and helpless?
It’s on Pentecost that God comes to empower God’s disciples. Amazing things happen when God empowers us. Suddenly, we find we have new capabilities. Through the Holy Spirit, God performs signs and wonders.
Threats and martyrdom will follow, but God never leaves God’s people.
At Pentecost, we learn that God’s people aren’t just a single group of mostly Aramaic-speaking Galileans. They’re not just Jews either. Rather, the message extends to non-Jews, the people we call Gentiles and that the Hebrew Bible refers to as “the nations.” Everyone is included when God’s Holy Spirit shows up.
David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta, notes that the early church is ready, just as you and I should be, to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit in matters ranging from where and how to worship, what should be said in worship, who should lead worship, who should lead the community and how, and how to relate to outsiders, among other things.[ii]
This creates a “Spirit-led freedom” in the church that we so desperately need today. God doesn’t expect us to be static in our faith. God doesn’t throw up barriers to spreading the Gospel. Rather, the Spirit entices us, as both individuals and as a church, to march boldly into the future.
This is clear in Peter’s adaptation of the scripture from the prophet Joel. In the last days, says Joel, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.” Sons and daughters, men and women. All are included in the visions of Joel and of Peter that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Because the disciples were faithful Jews. They were not propagating a new faith. They were merely reiterating God’s covenant faithfulness, as now revealed in God’s Holy Spirit.
These, my friends, are not just the words of some old, dead Prophet or some old, dead disciples of Jesus. These are God’s word speaking to us over the centuries in a world so desperately in need of hope and of healing.
Christ calls us out of our complacency, our attachment to “this is how things have always been done,” to a radical dynamism that really believes Jesus and his call to us. His call to make him known in our community and throughout the world.
Pentecost is not a birthday party that we celebrate today and forget about the other 364 days of the year. God did not stop giving gifts to the church on the original Pentecost.
God the Holy Spirit is not interested in our paying lip service to Jesus and then engaging in actions that contradict everything he has taught us about love and compassion. Instead, God the Holy Spirit seeks to lead us onward to a deeper faith, a confident faith that can withstand any challenge or storm.
Happy birthday, dear church. Happy commencement, dear graduates. Amen.
[i] Hermahn Waetjen, Lecture on Acts 2, given at San Francisco Theological Seminary, 1998, quoted in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), p. 19.
[ii] David Gushee in ibid., p. 16.