Scripture: Acts 2:1-24; Philippians 2:1-11
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Happy birthday, everyone! Today is Pentecost, the day we commonly refer to as the birthday of the Church. And, I must say, for being nearly two thousand years old, you all look fabulous; remarkably well-preserved.
As Christians, we observe Pentecost by remembering and celebrating what is recorded in the 2nd chapter of the Book of Acts. Luke’s gospel closes with a loose thread; the story is unfinished; we know to expect a sequel. You see, after Jesus was crucified, he rose from the dead, and he appeared to his disciples to be sure they still understood the meaning of his life in light of his death and resurrection. Then, he charged them with the mission of preaching forgiveness of sins in his name throughout the world. That would be their life’s mission just as it had been his mission to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of God.
Now, it’s important for us to remember what repentance and forgiveness are all about in the gospel of Luke. It goes far beyond ideas like getting into heaven when we die or being declared “not guilty” for things we’ve done wrong. In the gospel of Luke, repentance and forgiveness of sin brings us into right relationship, a healed, renewed relationship, with God AND with one another. Forgiveness lays the foundation for true Christian community because repentance and forgiveness change the way we think about one another and, therefore, change the way we relate to one another. [repeat] The Greek word for repentance means “a changing of one’s mind.” When we repent, it changes our mindset – our thinking, our attitude – toward Christ and one another. We think, and therefore behave, differently with one another. So the disciples are charged with this life-long mission of proclaiming this repentance and forgiveness that will heal our relationships with God and each other and cultivate a true sense of community – Christian community; what we know today as The Church. That’s the disciples’ mission.
But, they need to hold on for just a bit because that is not an easy mission and, frankly, those disciples have not proven themselves up to the task. At Jesus’ arrest, they scattered in fear. But, the risen Jesus promises them, after he’s returned to heaven, they will receive a source of power and might that will equip and embolden them to carry out their mission.
So, the disciples gather together; they worship, they pray and they wait. And then, suddenly, 50 days later, on Pentecost day, that power comes and the timing couldn’t have been better because among the gifts that “Holy Spirit power” brings is the gift of communication (essential to the forming of community); they receive the spiritual gift of speaking in a variety of tongues on a day when the city of Jerusalem is bustling with religious pilgrims from a multitude of places. In the ancient Jewish world, there were three great religious pilgrimage festivals each year. One of those was Pentecost or the Festival of Weeks. On those festivals as many Jews as were able would travel to the Temple in Jerusalem. Although they were Jews, their primary, everyday language would have varied; it would have reflected the country or region where they lived. Now, in historic actuality, the everyday Jew couldn’t be making three pilgrimages to Jerusalem every year. Traveling was far too difficult and dangerous in the ancient world. That kind of traveling was beyond the ability of the average peasant. Nevertheless, a religious festival like this was the best opportunity to get the message of Jesus out to the greatest number of people in a way that would cause it to spread rapidly like something going viral on the internet today. And that is what occurs and that’s why we’re here today. So, happy birthday!
But, how is the old birthday girl doing? What kind of shape is she in after all these years? What is the condition of her mind/ her way of thinking and are there things she could be doing to be a little sharper and a little healthier. We all know if we’re going to stay healthy as we age, it takes work and commitment. Can I get an “amen” for that?
To that end, I’ve been preaching this sermon series entitled Built to Last: How the Church Can Thrive in Today’s Culture; so this morning I’m talking about the Church as community; a place where we share the same mind and the same love.
It’s an important topic because, along with God, community is what people say they are seeking the most when they check out church nowadays. And that’s really pretty exciting because the community people are seeking is integral to the identity of Church; so essential to what it is that defines Church as Church, according to scripture. We don’t have to make Church something new to make it something people are seeking today. Rather, we simply need to restore Church to its original intended purpose. And this story from Acts and the passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians that I shared this morning clarify the meaning of Christian community.
Now, to say that today we live in a small, small world would be an understatement. With the explosion of social media and other technology, our engagement with people is no longer limited by geography. We can be “with” anyone, anywhere in real time. And yet, as our number of human contacts grow, our sense of community seems to be diminishing… which would seem to imply that “community” has a deeper meaning, a more subtle distinction; one that I believe is revealed clearly in these two passages of scripture from this morning.
And so I want to suggest that “community” is about a commonality, a “sameness”; but not a “sameness” like that we often see modeled out in the world, in a “circle the wagons” sense. Sometimes we seek the wrong kind of “sameness.” “Sameness” of appearance and culture; economic and social standing… Well, that kind of “sameness” divides more than it unifies. Our sinful, fearful, human nature pushes us to seek people who are the same as us in appearance, political ideology, cultural biases, economic and educational status. But the “sameness” Church calls us to is a “sameness” of mind; a “sameness” in our mindset, a commonality in our way of thinking. Our minds are called to uniformity – sameness – because each of us must be striving to match the mind of Christ Jesus. We are called to a common way of thinking that reflects the attitudes of Jesus. The sameness we’re called to as the Church cultivates a unity that binds us to one another as we love and learn and serve and share. Our common mindset, our common attitude, is what allows us to love and learn and serve and share with one another, joined together in this diverse organism we call Church.
So Paul reminds the Christians in Philippi what that mindset of Jesus looks like. What is that commonality we should be striving for? Well, it is a common, Christ-like mindset of humility; of service and sacrifice for the good of others. It is a way of thinking – and therefore, acting – that places the needs and interests of others ahead of our own. It results in cooperation, not competition. It results in openness, not fear. It results in a generosity that does not stop to count the cost. It results in a joy that is overflowing.
The sermon that Peter preaches on that first Pentecost is quite a bit lengthier than what I shared with you this morning and, because Peter’s audience is Jewish, a great deal of his sermon is a digging in to how Jesus fulfilled Hebrew scripture. But if we go a little further on in chapter two, we read more of Peter’s sermon and the response he received:
Acts 2:32 This Jesus [Peter proclaims] God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. 33 Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear…
[and Peter closes with his final point]
Acts 2:36 Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified."
37 Now when [the people] heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, "Brothers, what should we do?" 38 Peter said to them, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
[Now remember, repentance and forgiveness have to do with changing our mind and Peter is proclaiming that these folks need to change their thinking about Jesus. He was not a rebel-rousing insurrectionist deserving of death. He was not just a prophet and he certainly was no fraud. He was – and is – both Lord and Messiah.]
39 [Peter continues…]
For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him." 40 [Peter] testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation." 41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added [to the Christian community].
That’s amazing, isn’t it? But here’s what’s even more important; that it wasn’t a flash in the pan. It wasn’t like a spiritual retreat someone attends and then goes home and life just goes back to the same old same old. No; this experience completely changed their lives. The Church was born that day and here is how it is described in Acts; here is the “portrait” of this new-born “baby Church” that we find described at the conclusion of chapter two:
Acts 2:42 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
This is the story of a newly formed community sharing a common way of thinking; they were loving and learning and serving and sharing together.
Now, incidentally, we get similar summary statements in other places in Acts so our author wants us to be clear that this is how Church began and this is what Church is supposed to be. Church is a place where our minds are transformed so that we no longer think in those divisive categories the world keeps track of. Instead, we come together to form an incredible community like nothing else this world can offer. Church is a place where people love and learn and serve and share together; where together, we incarnate or embody the mind of Jesus.
But here is what concerns me: I think that many Churches today experience Church as a place and not a community; as an organization and not a diverse, living organism. And, I think that we fall short on the humility that Paul calls us to because our understanding of humility is limited. Humility also involves vulnerability and openness. In the Church, we don’t generally have trouble with things like arrogance and bragging. Rather, we have trouble sharing our weakness and failures with one another. Can you imagine what it must have felt like in the early Church to share your life in such intimate ways as those described with people who were not your family, your biological kin. Those folks’ lives were an open book to another. They shared more than a mindset; they shared pretty much everything. And sadly, that level of vulnerability and humility is tough to find in churches in America today.
Friends, folks come to churches nowadays looking for community. They don’t just want friendly people; they want friends. They don’t just want good people; they want real people trying to be like Jesus. They don’t just want common courtesy; they want genuine support and encouragement. Church isn’t something that ends with the final notes of the organ postlude ‘cause it’s not a building or an event. It is people striving to share the mind of Christ; loving and learning and serving and sharing with one another. Amen.
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