"Pentecost: What Really Happened?"
It's that Sunday when it's time to reflect on another one of the remarkable days remembered by the church and provided a special day on the Christian calendar. A few years ago I began one such sermons with a brief synopsis about that particular local church's history because it had been some time since it was brought to the minds and hearts of the congregation. It's something every local church should do once in awhile - to remember, not to worship the past.
Some people were concerned that there wasn’t any church between the northern limits of Columbus (then Glenmont Avenue) and the southern boundary of the village of Worthington. Because of this, they contacted the heirs of Roswell Cooke and convinced them to deed the old school property to the trustees of Como Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church (the current North Broadway UMC when they still ministered out of the Como Avenue UMC site). On December 31, 1920 the Como Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church’s Board of Trustees deeded the property to the trustees of the newly organized Maple Grove Methodist Episcopal Church. "The rest is history,” as they say. (1)
Now, there’s really much more to the story than this thumbnail sketch; but, it’s not a particular local church’s birth I want to consider. Rather, it’s the events around a certain Jewish holiday, Pentecost, almost 2,000 years ago on which I want to focus. For, it's what happened that day that has caused it to be referred to on the Christian calendar as “the birthday of the church.”
The first part of the book of Acts has Jesus instructing his disciples to stay put – to stay in Jerusalem – to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit. The disciples asked Jesus if he was going to give the Kingdom back to Israel when he left and he told them to quit worrying about that. He told them that only God knew when that would happen. He also told them that when the Holy Spirit came upon them, they would be full of power and would be witnesses for him throughout the world.
The rest of the 1st chapter described Jesus’ ascension, the disciples journey back to Jerusalem, their persevering in prayer along with certain women followers, and the selection of Matthias as Judas’ replacement. That brings us to the account of the Day of Pentecost.
Because Pentecost was one of the three Jewish holy days when all male Jews living within twenty miles of Jerusalem were legally bound to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and that it was late in the spring, a very large international crowd was present that day in Jerusalem. The streets were especially crowded.
The faithful followers of Jesus were staying in the same house together waiting as Jesus had told them to. Suddenly, there was this loud noise – a noise similar to that made when a strong wind passes by. Not a corner of the house in which they were staying missed hearing it. And then they noticed what appeared to be “tongues of fire” landing on everyone. And then, what Jesus had told them would happen, happened – they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to.
The sound was heard by people on the outside of the house as well. As a result, a crowd of curiosity seekers gathered around the house in which the followers were staying. When the disciples went out, everyone got excited because they could understand what the disciples were saying in their own languages.
They began to talk about their experience. They were astonished – they questioned – they wondered what was going on – what to make of it. Some thought the disciples were drunk and mocked them. Most knew that something unusual was taking place and they gathered around hoping that someone would explain it.
Not surprisingly, Peter got up and began to address the crowd. Yes, this is the same Peter who just a few days before had denied even knowing Jesus - the same Peter who had hid behind locked doors after Jesus’ death, afraid for his very life. Peter was a new man – a new person. No longer was he afraid for his life. No longer did he have any doubts about who he was to follow. It no longer mattered who heard him say it – who saw him acknowledge his being a follower of Christ. Peter was being led by a new spirit – a new attitude – a new confidence – a new power.
What happened at Pentecost was much more than a mighty windstorm or some strange vision of some things that looked like tongues of fire. What really happened was that the disciples finally got it – finally understood – that what Jesus had been saying and doing was now, theirs to share and do. They got it – that God desires what Jesus had been saying and doing to be shared – to be communicated – to be understood – to be made intelligible.
The disciples were given the power, the ability, to speak in other languages so that everyone could understand it. The gift of communication wasn’t given to impress fellow Christians – it wasn’t given in order for us to measure who is the most committed and most devoted – it wasn’t intended to be used to determine in whom the spirit was. One of the primary results of Pentecost is the burning desire on the part of followers of Jesus Christ to communicate the story of God’s activity to others. It’s what makes us look at ourselves in the local church and who is around us and seek to discover how we can better live out – communicate – the gospel to those around us.
Another thing that happened as a result of the events on that Day of Pentecost is somewhat related to this first idea. Do you remember that Jesus chose all Jews as his first disciples and that he told them not to go to anyone other than fellow Israelites? Basically, this implies that prior to Pentecost, discipleship was racially exclusive. Mission and evangelism were narrowly understood, defined and carried out.
At Pentecost the message and mission field got a whole lot bigger. Prior to Pentecost the disciples saw Jesus as a Jewish political messiah who had come to restore the kingdom of Israel. That’s why they were disappointed at the crucifixion. After Pentecost people began to understand that his message was something available to everyone. Now, it was a slow evolution to be sure – one that’s still evolving - but it's roots were planted in the soil of that Pentecost almost 2,000 years ago.
One of the ways they began to discover this was that when they went outside and began to talk to passers-by they detected that persons were stopping and listening and understanding. They discovered that the Christian gospel was a message for which all people were waiting and that it was a message which made sense to people no matter where they came from or what language they spoke or the color of their skin. There are no barriers of race or language or color or culture over which the Good News of God’s grace and forgiveness cannot leap.
There’s one more thing that happened on that first Christian Pentecost I’d like to mention. It changed the disciples’ concept of themselves. They were no longer frightened, pessimistic, jobless individuals; but, rather a community - a community infused with the living presence of their Lord – the Holy Spirit. Thus, the new era began.
In becoming universal, Christianity was set free from those things which confined it. Religion was loosed from the temple and the synagogues and unleashed onto the streets and into homes. Believers went from house to house breaking bread and establishing a new and viable community – a kind of modern day progressive dinner. Religion was loosed from special social classes and found its place with ordinary folk. Religion broke loose from male domination and became the common experience of all people – male and female – bond and free – Jew and Gentile – old and young – conservative and radical – zealot and tax collector. The miracle of inclusion had occurred – gone was exclusion (sadly it took a long time for some of us to wake up to all this means and some denominations and individual Christians continue to try and box it in, but its roots were planted on the day of Pentecost).
The Christian faith is a communal faith. “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am also.” The purpose of the Pentecost event was not simply the saving of the individual souls, but the creation of a new community. The significance of Pentecost was not simply its rushing wind – its tongues of fire – its emotionalism. If that’s what we are looking for when we pray for another Pentecost, then we’re going to be grossly disappointed. The significance of Pentecost is that it transformed what was exclusively Jewish into the all-inclusive and universal and placed within Christ’s followers a burning desire to communicate it – to share the good news.
So, what’s the message of Pentecost for us in our day? Are we so on fire with the desire to communicate the story of God’s love that we’re willing to come clean about the barriers we’ve built around our religious experience and seek out ways to tear down the barriers to make the message accessible to those around us in need of hearing and experiencing it? Do we care for others enough not to let our prejudices stop us from helping them?
What really happened at Pentecost? Lots of things – 3,000 people were baptized – the Holy Spirit was recognized – the disciples spoke in other languages – everyone understood in their own language – the disciples gained new hope – a new community of faith was established – participants were given a mission to witness – the message became available to everyone. A new consciousness of our partnership with God was ushered in – barriers of sacred languages, cultures and races were broken – it ushered in a new understanding of compassion, nobodies became somebodies – a lot more, you see, than just a loud wind, tongues of fire and speaking in tongues.
Communication – inclusiveness – compassion – that’s what really happened at Pentecost and it needs to continue to happen through the people that make up the church today.
CLOSING PRAYER: O God, break through the images we have built up about the Holy Spirit and allow us to experience the new life possible through its activity in our lives. Free us from the temptation to share the Good News only with those “like us.” fill us with such compassion that the awareness that others are your children is all we can use to measure whether we should help. And so thank you, O God, for your living presence in that which we label and know as the Holy Spirit. In Christ’s name. Amen.
1 Richard C. Knopf, Maple Grove United Methodist Church: A Study in Faith, (Columbus, Ohio, 1980) p. 1.