Text: Acts 2:1-18
Happy Birthday! Today is Pentecost, the birthday of the church. You heard the story not only in English, but just as those present in Jerusalem on that Pentecost might have experienced it: a cacophony of languages. The first Pentecost came on a traditional Jewish holy day, the Festival of Weeks. It was a harvest festival celebrated fifty days after the second day of Passover. That’s why so many Jews were in town. To mark the day, they would bring the first fruits of the recent harvest into the Temple. For a long time, scholars believed these faithful Jews were commemorating the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Now it’s not clear if that was Luke’s context when he wrote the book of Acts or if this connection between Pentecost and the Torah developed later. But whenever it happened, celebrating the Festival of Weeks came to include a remembrance of Moses receiving laws for the faithful to live by.
It’s probably not a coincidence that the birthday of the church is linked to a set of rules to guide the behavior of God’s people. Lord knows, we need some guidelines. Humans have always struggled with how to function in groups and the church is no exception. On the progressive end of the spectrum, we can be a bit loosy-goosy when it comes to boundaries and deciding how to navigate in times when individual needs come up against the needs of the church as a whole.
On the other end of the continuum, many draw their lines sharply, being very clear about who is in and who is out. One big city church was notorious for its exclusiveness. Then Amos, a homeless man, took a fancy to the church, and promptly told the minister that he wished to join. The pastor sought to evade the issue by suggesting to Amos that he reflect more carefully on the matter, and make it the subject of prayers for guidance. The following day, Amos returned to see the minister. “I’ve done my praying, sir,” he declared, beaming, “and God sent me an answer last night.” “And what was it?” queried the clergyman, somewhat at a loss. ”What did the Lord say?” “Well, sir, God asked me what church I wanted to join, and I said it was yours. And God said, ’Oh, so it’s that church. You can’t get in there. I know you can’t—because for years I tried to get into that church myself and never made it!’” Somewhere between loosy-goosy and boundaries so tight they keep the Holy One out is probably where we ought to be.
Today the Pentecost story would be a box office hit because it is full of special effects. We have the Spirit’s arrival in a violent wind appearing like tongues of fire. There are people speaking in different languages but understanding each other. This use of fire as a symbol of the Spirit was a common metaphor in Greco-Roman writings about prophecy. Luke’s symbolism here not only signifies the power of Peter to speak the word of God effectively, but also to think about God in fresh and inspired ways. Yet in spite of the dramatic and prophetic nature of this ancient scene, I think a significant element of the story comes before the wind and the fire ever arrive. So what I want to talk about today is in the very first verse of Acts 2: “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”
We live in a technological age so fast-moving that it’s almost overwhelming. We have information about every subject imaginable available to us through a one-click connection to the internet. From our homes and offices, in our cars and on the street we can communicate with people on the other side of the world. Cell phones don’t just make and receive calls. They can organize our lives, give us ready access to limitless information, take photos and videos, record sounds, set our security systems, pay our bills, and do just about everything else but cook dinner. And if we don’t want to cook, it will find dinner for us. We can see and talk with a business colleague in Tokyo through conferencing technology or a college student doing a semester abroad in Chile through Skype. We can tweet a brief message to a limitless group of friends (or enemies) and take real-time photos of storms and accidents and crimes that formerly required weeks or months to reconstruct. Technology can be wonderful. If we can keep up with it, we can truly be empowered by all that it can do for us.
But there is a downside – more than one actually, but I’ll focus on one. If we let it, technology can get in the way of our being together in one place. Since I can hear or even see a Sunday sermon at any time on the church website, why do I need to get up, get dressed, and go to church? If our councils and committees can communicate effectively via email or Google Docs, why have meetings? If I can send a message to a grieving friend via the funeral home’s website, why go to the memorial service? This conversation is where we stumble into the thicket of generational differences that I’ll not address today. But I am quite sure of one thing. We are not the church if we are never together in one place. I can’t use twitter to give you a hug. I can’t see the tears behind your eyes through an email. And I can’t even count on a clear enough picture on Skype to look into the eyes of one I love and judge how she or he is really doing today.
One of the gifts of my life has been on a number of occasions to sit around a table with a group of concerned people and talk about how to solve a community problem. In the past, that’s how just about every charitable organization got started. People would come together to share their concern about a community problem and figure out a way to solve it. Two weeks ago at its Raising Hope dinner, our Hope Center raised more than $50,000 for its work with chronically homeless adults and foster youth. How did the Hope Center get started? More than six years ago, the Missions and Outreach Council sat around a table and talked about how to expand Pullen’s support for our community’s most vulnerable in ways that wouldn’t be limited by our church’s financial resources. The idea of creating a nonprofit organization affiliated with the church was the product of those conversations. Five years ago yesterday Pullen people were together in a congregational meeting in the old Finlator Hall when we voted to create The Hope Center at Pullen. Since then, several hundred thousand dollars has been raised and used to improve the lives of people in our community who need some extra help to thrive. I’m guessing maybe three quarters of those funds came from outside of Pullen. Could we have conceived of the idea and approved it via email or on Facebook? I don’t think so. We needed the heart-to-heart communication that happens when we are together in one place.
An important thing to note about the arrival of the Spirit when the people were together on Pentecost is this: a holy presence was given to everyone who was there, not just to a few. In the 12 chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul lists the gifts of the Spirit. They include the ability to speak in tongues and the ability to interpret this unusual speech. Now we Pullenites haven’t given much attention to this spiritual gift. As a matter of fact, most traditional Baptists haven’t either. But the gifts of tongues and interpretation of tongues are there in the bible as our Pentecostal cousins would remind us.
Whatever you think about speaking in tongues, that’s not what this Pentecost story is about. We’re not talking here about a special talent given to a select few. On Pentecost, the gift of the Spirit’s presence descended on everyone in the group because this presence belongs to the people of God – all the people. Luke makes this point very clear by repetition: “they were all together” in a “whole house where all were sitting,” when the Spirit came to rest on “each of them” so that “all of them were filled.” All. All. Each. All. The message is unmistakable. This wasn’t an event focusing on individuals. It was about the whole group, and it happened when they were together in one place. God’s Spirit was poured out upon a community. Says scholar Robert Wall, “the Holy Spirit is not a ’personal’ gift from God that each believer privatizes…This same Spirit of one God ’appeared among them – on each of them’ as a distinguishing mark of a people belonging to God.”
Whatever you believe about the presence and activity of God in the world – what I’ve referred to as the “Spirit” of God, the universality of this presence is really important. So, too, is the way it came to reside with those present at the event we know as Pentecost. It came to the group. This doesn’t mean that I can’t feel a sense of God’s presence when I’m alone. Of course, I can and I do and hopefully you do as well. But there is something distinctive about this presence when we are together. It connects us. It stretches us to consider the needs of others in the group, and the group is stretched to consider the needs of those beyond itself. Our shared experience when we are together in one place is a tie that binds.
In a broader sense, our experience when we are together here prepares us to be better participants in the larger collections of humanity that are our community, our state, our nation, and our world. And I am convinced that what we do here together contributes to our formation as people who care about what is good for all. Church is a laboratory where we can learn how to look beyond ourselves. It’s a workshop on learning how to love if we are physically present enough to let it do this for us. And these days, do we ever need citizens for whom the common good is central. We are desperate for people who have learned through experience how to love broadly and deeply.
About ten days ago, some of us here at Pullen attended the North Carolina Justice Center’sDefenders of Justice award dinner. It’s a wonderful annual event where progressive people who are working on all kinds of justice issues are gathered in one place – and it’s inspiring. This year especially it was wonderful to be together in one room. Justice Center Executive Director Melinda Lawrence, who spoke here recently, introduced the evening’s program. She mourned the atmosphere in our state these days. Hear an excerpt from her remarks:
These are sobering times. We are seeing the dismantling of many of the things that made our state great – schools and universities, the environment, broad voter participation, roads, libraries, and other critical public infrastructure, and programs and services that provide compassionate support for our neighbors in hard times. Soon we will not recognize North Carolina.
Our current leaders aspire – not to be great leaders and to build a just and prosperous state, but rather ”to provide good customer service.” This represents a radical change in our relationship with our communities and our state. We are no longer encouraged to be citizens who are responsible for the policies and programs that we create together through the democratic process.
Instead we are customers (consumers) seeking to extract what we can for our personal, individual benefit – and for some, seeking to become ”preferred customers” through political contributions.
We are told that life is a zero sum game, where anything that benefits others must somehow mean a loss for us. Lost in this new vision is any value for “the common good.” Lost, too, is recognition of the well established fact that economic growth is greatest in communities, states and nations where prosperity is broad and equitably shared. In short, we all do better when eachof us prospers.
There they are again: all and each. Everyone is included. Being a customer – functioning as a consumer – is about me – whether at the grocery store or at DMV or in church. Being together in one place is about us.
Now I’m aware that this the last Sunday of our regular Sunday school, school is about to adjourn, and many of the Pullen flock are getting ready to take off for the summer. But I didn’t pick this topic as an attempt to coerce you to keep coming on Sundays in June, July, and August – although we’d all love it if you did. I chose this topic because our being together is challenged everywhere we look. We are not a neighborhood church and some of you drive long distances to get here. Many have aging parents or other important family or work obligations that take you away some Sundays. All of us are incredibly busy, meaning sometimes we just need to get away. And technology’s dangerous allure is that it easily convinces us that we can stay connected without being present. But we all know that physical and emotional presence is what any significant relationship requires. This applies to individuals and to groups like churches.
And one more thing – as the Pentecost story reveals, when the Spirit descends and moves a group, sometimes you’re going to be mocked. I don’t know if the critics of this church think we are filled with new wine, a very un-Baptist thing, or if they think we’re evil or crazy. I’m always amused when we host funerals that bring folks who wouldn’t step foot in here otherwise into our sanctuary. You can almost see their amazement that it looks and sounds like a somewhat regular church. Jesus is in the stained glass, we sit in pews, we sing hymns, and read scripture – and even pray. But some still mock us and probably always will. This is another reason why we need to stick together – why we need regular times to be all together in this place.
When the Spirit descended with the wind and fire at Pentecost, it was for the Jews a sign of divine faithfulness. For the followers of Jesus, it was a fulfillment of his promise that God would not leave them comfortless. The Pentecost story is a reminder that amazing things happen when we are together. We don’t get a magic formula for navigating the twists and turns of life as a community. We don’t get an engraved tablet that spells out how to respond every time we have conflict or struggle. What we do get is a Presence, a life-altering Spirit that blows wildly through our lives and into the world with a capacity for generating love whenever and wherever we will allow it. This Presence is given to all for the good of all. And it can be felt in an especially life-giving and life-changing way when we are all together in one place.