Content and Context
A Pentecost sermon on Acts, chapter 2
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Last Monday evening we concluded our discussion group on the short stories of Hans Christian Andersen. In discussing last week’s story, someone in the group made a comment that stuck with me. They mentioned that effective communication is not only about content, but also about context. In other words, content needs to be considerate of context in order to be impactful. Effective communicators know their audience. We never speak into a vacuum. We speak into context; into people’s lives – their ideas, experiences and values. I was still thinking about that comment when I met someone Tuesday morning for coffee and the topic of evangelism came up; specifically, how we evangelize in ways that are respectful of others and not judgmental or manipulative. We recognize we’re now living in a culture where people do a lot of talking at people and not much dialoguing with people. We recognize that as feeling disrespectful and even oppressive and objectifying.
Today is Pentecost. Coming fifty days after Easter, Pentecost commemorates the day when the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus’ disciples, filling them with power, and bestowing them with the gift of speaking in tongues and delivering the gospel message of Jesus so effectively that 3,000 new members were added to the church on one day.
Now, we often refer to Pentecost as the birthday of the church. Some churches may even serve red velvet cake after worship on Pentecost Sunday; a kind of “happy birthday to us.” But is that all Pentecost is – a kind of birthday party, a commemorative event? What does Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit mean for us today, millennia later? And, my question for us this morning: what does Pentecost have to teach us about evangelism… because here’s the thing: the Church in America was in pretty swift decline even pre-COVID. And a global pandemic has only hastened that decline. The majority of churches in America have not bounced back from this pandemic and pundits and theologians alike are beginning to question if we will. So Pentecost is a good time to ask ourselves, if Church matters to us, if we find value in the experience of Christian community – what will we do about it? We need to do more than cross our fingers and hope for the best. Avoiding thinking or talking about the topic of evangelism is a bit like putting a nail in our own coffin. So, what does Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit mean for us today? And what does that first Pentecost have to teach us about evangelism?
Well, let me first say, there’s quite a lot that precedes this story that we shouldn’t ignore. Although I’m not going to unpack it all this morning, before Pentecost happened, there were three things already in place. The disciples of Jesus were already all in for Christian community, the teachings of Jesus and prayer. They did life together – doing their best to live according to what Jesus had taught them and immersing themselves in prayer. One thing for sure, we can’t sell others what we haven’t bought into. The bottom line is: if a church is going to grow, there needs to be recognition of the value of Christian community and of living out our faith together. Without that, this story from Acts really is just a birthday party and commemorative event.
So, with that being said, back to Pentecost day…
Pentecost, my friends, is the Spirit-breathed, synergistic coming together of content and context in a remarkably powerful way that provides us with a critical and timeless lesson in evangelism. Let me say that again, Pentecost really is this perfect example of content and context coming together in a powerful way.
First, notice that, when the disciples received the Holy Spirit, they began to proclaim the message of Jesus in a bunch of different languages.
Now, why did that happen? What was that about, you might wonder? Well, it was about the fact that Pentecost was a Jewish religious pilgrimage festival. Over the centuries, Jews had been displaced and migrated into other areas of the ancient eastern world where they didn’t speak Aramaic, the language of Palestine, the language of Jesus and his disciples. Now, living in those different nations, those Jews, obviously, learned the language of the people where they were living. So, when the Spirit fills Peter and the disciples, the languages they speak are those spoken by the people on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Talk about context. They spoke in a language people could understand. Now, we might want to think about that because many of us, born and raised in the Church, use a religious language, “church-speak,” that is a foreign language to un-churched people. So, we’re not really communicating with people if the words we are using are foreign to them. This Jewish festival, this religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the first century was a multi-lingual context. So the first Christian Pentecost was a multi-lingual event. The message was delivered in multiple languages because it was a multi-lingual context. The good news of Jesus needed to be spoken in a language people could understand.
In addition, those pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem shared a common longing, a common hope and expectation; they longed for the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy. And Peter’s sermon speaks directly to those hopes and longings. I mean, of course he is quoting scripture. But what he quotes is directly related to their hopes and longings as spiritual people. So friends, do we do the same? When we speak to people about church or anything religious, do our words relate to their hopes and longings? And do we know our cultural context well enough to even know the hopes and longings of those around us?
One of my favorite restaurants is Core Life. At Core Life, you can build your own bowl. I love that idea. That way I get to eat what I really enjoy and what’s good for me. Even better, if I choose a bowl off the menu, they usually let me make changes to it without an up-charge. This past Wednesday, I went in to get dinner for me and Britt. The bowl I ordered did not come with a fried egg, but I love fried eggs. They asked if I wanted a fried egg on top my bowl. I asked, “Does it come with it?” “No,” they said, “but we’ll just give you one.” No up-charge. I just got my egg. Many of us have had a similar experience, right? We go back to restaurants that are willing to go the extra step to respond to what we want, to adapt the menu to kind of scratch our distinctive culinary itch. We ought to at least be able to do the same when we share the good news of Jesus, don’t you think. Not try to offer people something pre-packaged; but to take the time to learn about people’s hopes and longings; to listen to their questions; to scratch their distinctive spiritual itch. And the Spirit will help us do that. Because the disciples had spent time together in Christian community, praying and waiting, the Spirit was able to take hold of their tongues and speak through them. God’s Spirit gave them the right words for the context of that day so their words, appropriate to the context, had a huge impact.
Friends: Pentecost needs to be more than a “happy birthday to us.” Pentecost is about celebrating the reality that the Spirit of the risen Christ continues to come among us today and that, like that day so long ago, God’s Spirit equips us to effectively bring the life-saving content of the gospel into the context of our lives, here and now.
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