Happy Birthday to Us
Scripture: Acts 2:1-21; John 3:1-8
Of all of the ad campaigns in our post-modern age, few were as effective as the campaign Verizon wireless paraded across the air-waves for nearly nine years from 2002-2011. Shout it out if you remember it…
It consumed the life of the actor, Paul Marcarelli. When he signed on with Verizon, apparently he had to agree not to take on any other roles for the duration of his contract. In an interview he later gave, Marcarelli noted that in 2011, at his grandmother’s funeral service, he heard someone whisper behind him, “Can you hear me now?”[i]
Nevertheless, it was an enormously effective ad campaign. Now I’m not an advertising professional but I think its success went even deeper than the technology it represented. Sure, back in ’02, those of us who had cell phones were frustrated by all those patchy areas that still existed where we couldn’t get a signal or where calls would be dropped mid-sentence. But, beyond the technology, I doubt many things consume us as deeply as our desire to communicate. A dropped call represented more than a dropped signal. A dropped call represented a breakdown in communication. We all want to be heard and understood. Effective communication goes beyond transmitting information. Effective communication builds a connection between people; and it elicits a response from the one with whom we are communicating.
That is what happened on that Pentecost Day long ago. Today we celebrate Pentecost as the birthday of the Church. So, happy birthday to us!
The gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts are a two-volume work. The ending of the gospel and the beginning of Acts overlap as we read that Jesus instructs his disciples to remain in Jerusalem while they await a power that will come upon them from on high. Acts identifies that power as the Holy Spirit; a power that will equip them to communicate the good news of Jesus from Jerusalem, the geographical center of their faith, all the way to the ends of the earth. Like Marcarelli’s Verizon character walking across our nation through farm fields, in swampy bayous, the desert southwest, lonely stretches of highway and big city boardrooms, the power of the Spirit would ensure that the good news of Jesus Christ would be heard by all. And, that is the mission Jesus lays upon his disciples from the first century to the 21st; a mission we cannot afford to neglect for Christ’s sake and for ours. That Spirit-driven message must be spoken in “languages” that everyone can comprehend.
Now sometimes, as Christians, we tend to think the Holy Spirit hadn’t really done much prior to Pentecost, as if the Spirit were hanging out backstage, waiting to make his big debut. But, when we realize that in both Hebrew and Greek, one word can be translated as wind, breath or Spirit; then we recognize that God’s life-giving Holy Spirit has been active since the dawn of time. Genesis 1, verse 2, tells us that the stirring of the wind, the movement of God’s Holy Spirit, was the launch of creation. The life-giving power of the Spirit is affirmed by the Psalmist as we sang in our opening to worship this morning. Psalm 104:30: “When you, [O Lord,] send forth your Spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the earth.” It is of great significance that, within our Old Testament prophetic tradition, God’s Spirit and Word are intricately connected. Though the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel’s proclamation of God’s Word turned a valley of dry bones into human bodies, they had no life until God’s Spirit breathed into them.[ii] Life – true life, eternal life – comes at the intersection of God’s Word and God’s Spirit. It is as Peter proclaimed on that Pentecost day long ago as he stood up to preach using the prophet Joel as his text. The Spirit would be poured out and God would be heard; a clear and unmistakable divine communication, but one delivered through human vessels – like Peter and John, like you and me.
Now, one might wonder at such a powerful force moving through this motley crew of once cowardly, spineless disciples; common fishermen for the most part; hardly on par with the great Roman orators of their time. Once so frightened he denied even knowing Jesus, on that Pentecost Day Peter stands to deliver a sermon to a congregation numbering more than 3,000.[iii] What he does is amazing and spectacular. But he doesn’t do it under his own power; he is under the power of God’s Holy Spirit. And when he speaks, the people hear and comprehend and, therefore, respond to Peter’s promise of salvation – life in fellowship with God – through embracing and trusting in Jesus as the giver of that salvation.
And onward through the Book of Acts, Jesus’ followers continue to proclaim the good news of salvation because of the Spirit moving and stirring and inspiring. As prophesied by Joel, Peter sees a vision, a vision of unclean animals being lowered on a sheet from the heavens and God sends him to proclaim good news to an unclean Gentile named Cornelius.[iv] Onward through the Book of Acts, Jesus’ followers are caught up in the Spirit, like Philip who gets routed from place to place as the Spirit drives this geographical expansion of the Church.[v] Onward through the Book of Acts, disciples like Stephen (who I spoke of last week) see the heavens opened wide as he proclaims the gospel even unto death.[vi]
Under the power of God’s Holy Spirit, the message of Jesus cannot help but be heard by those who comprehend that it is, in fact, the mission entrusted to all who call upon his name for salvation. Can you hear me now? Good.
Several years ago, I spent a week in San Juan, Costa Rica at a Spanish immersion school. I did know some Spanish when I went but, the experience itself further reinforced the trouble we get ourselves into when we lack the capacity to communicate with those around us. If you’ve ever traveled in a foreign country you know that, under stress, the words of a foreign tongue just do not come to you. Now, I should add to this story that I am not very good at public transportation. I grew up in Appalachia and had never ridden a public bus until I went away to college in Pittsburgh. In Pittsburgh, I would sometimes take the bus from the campus of Duquesne into Oakland where the University of Pittsburgh is located. What lies between Duquesne’s downtown campus and Oakland is The Hill District, one of the cities that served to inspire the 1980’s police drama Hill Street Blues. So, when you took the bus between downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland, it could be stressful and you definitely did not want to get off at the wrong stop. But, back to Costa Rica where I learned, after my arrival that I would be getting from my host family’s home to the school via el autobus cada dia, that is, every day. Add to that the fact that it gets dark very early in the evening in Central America. On the first day after class, I peered through my bus window with great anxiety watching the darkness descend and anxious that I could miss my stop. I was unclear about whether or not the stops were set or determined by the pull of a cord in the aisle. But the cord was too high for me to reach so I prayed that would not be necessary. And then I saw my host home through the window. I jumped to my feet and ran toward the front of the bus with the weight of textbooks hanging from back. Now what I should have shouted was “detenga” from the verb detener, meaning “to stop.” But in my panic, all I could think of was what I’d seen on the San Juan stop signs and so I yelled “alto, alto” at which point my bus driver slammed his foot on the brake as he opened the bus door. (In hindsight I realize I might have given him the impression that he’d run a stop sign and his gut reaction was to slam on the brakes. Who knows?) Anyway, the sudden stop, accompanied by the excess weight of books on my back sent my small frame hurtling like a projectile down the aisle of the bus. I fell down the stairs and sprawled into the street. A neighbor just a couple of houses from my host family saw the whole thing. He came running toward the bus. By now I had picked myself up. The sleeve of my shirt was torn and both hands were scuffed. The neighbor was so upset. Looking at me he began to yell words at the bus driver I neither could, nor likely should, translate. The bus, filled with passengers hanging out the open windows aghast, sped off. I began to cry and run toward my host family’s home as the neighbor came running behind me, still upset. He followed me into my family’s home, dramatically telling the story of what he’d seen. My scuffed hands were just beginning to bleed and my host wanted to take care of me, but my Spanish brain had shut done completely. I was left with little to go on and so we regressed to what I label “puppy interactions” – those ones where a foreigner can accomplish nothing more than calling you to them with a single word and gesture and you helplessly follow their voice, aqui.
The moral of my story is, “you’ve got to know the language if you want to communicate effectively.” And friends, that’s why God miraculously poured out the gift of tongues on those apostles on that Pentecost day. God’s Holy Spirit equipped them to speak the gospel in a myriad of languages so they might communicate the good news of Jesus Christ; communication that built a connection; communication that called forth a response of faith. And as I’ve already mentioned, that is the mission Jesus lays upon his disciples from the first century to the 21st; a mission we cannot afford to neglect for Christ’s sake and for ours. That Spirit-driven message must be spoken in ways that everyone can comprehend. And sometimes that is a challenge. Our world, even here in greater Lafayette, is multi-cultural, multi-generational. So what do we do?
Well first I want to ask you this morning, do you know how to share the good news of Jesus with someone else? Do you know how to talk to others about who Jesus is and who Jesus is to you? What does it mean to you to trust Jesus as your Savior and your Lord? How has following Jesus changed your life?
Let me tell you very briefly that this is a Sunday that the United Methodist Church in Indiana has encouraged pastors to tell the story of their call and here is a very small piece of mine. The summer after I graduated from Duquesne, I worked as a conference intern running an ecumenical children’s program in Johnstown, PA. It was no fancy program and it operated on a shoestring budget… which didn’t matter much because the kids in that community didn’t have very high expectations. There were two little boys in that program, brothers, who were always getting into trouble. They were rough kids. Their language was rough, their behavior was rough, their appearance was rough. They were very unpleasant children. One day just a couple of weeks into the program, one of them fell from a piece of playground equipment. They seemed fine. I told my supervisor I’d go to their home and inform their parents. Well, as I mounted the stairs to their 2nd floor apartment – it was an apartment chunked out of a big, old run-down house like you might find on a street near here – that apartment reeked of smoke and dirt, vermin scurried across the floors, it was dark and dreary, there were mattresses on the floor and an old TV set in a corner. That was the only furniture I saw. I began to speak with mom but her immediate gruff tone as she yelled expletives at and about those boys stopped me in my tracks. From that day on, my response to those boys changed. From as far back as I could remember, I’d never doubted that Jesus loved me and I was worth something. Oh sure, I got teased on the playground and cried my, “nobody likes me” alligator tears… which were a painful thing for a little kid. But nothing like what those boys must have endured because I was fortunate to be reminded every day that Jesus loved me and I was of value to him. And so I determined for the rest of that summer that I would do everything I could to communicate that good news to those little boys whose whole demeanors seemed to drip with loneliness, anger and despair. We all go through rough times, but I can’t imagine how I’d get through if I didn’t believe in Jesus’ love for me.
What difference has following Jesus made in your life? How has Jesus changed your life? You see, if you can’t answer those questions, then you don’t really have anything to communicate to others. But, if you can, and I certainly hope you can, our next question becomes “how can we cross the cultural divide to communicate that message to others?”
Well, if we believe that our mission is the same as that of the disciples so long ago, then we can begin by doing what they did to prepare: we can pray so we’re ready to go wherever and to whomever God directs us.
Brothers and sisters, I want to issue a challenge to each one of you here this morning. I want to ask you to covenant with me to begin each day with a prayer that God’s Spirit will ready you to proclaim the good news of Jesus to someone else in a language, in a style, that they can comprehend. Many times, our communication divide is cultural. For many of us – and I’m not pointing the finger at you cause I’m right there with you – for many of us our friends and family are churched and we speak “church” so well we’re not even aware that we’re speaking it. So we’re going to need some help from the Holy Spirit to learn the language of the culture around us. We’re going to need the help of the Holy Spirit to communicate effectively in ways that call forth a response. We’re going to need the help of the Spirit if others are to truly hear us now.
So, I hope you’ll join me. I’d just ask that for the next forty days – that’s an easy number to remember because Noah was on the ark for 40 days – for 40 days begin each day with a very simple prayer; something like this:
God, today I am ready and available to your Holy Spirit.
I am willing for your Spirit to come upon me
so that I might share the good news of salvation through Christ with someone else who does not know the story.
Help me, equip me, to speak the love of Christ in ways that can be heard. I ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.
I have copies of this very simple prayer printed on cards here at the communion rails. If you’re old school, you can pick one up and tape it to your bathroom mirror for in the morning. If you high-tech, you can go to my latest blog entry (traceyleslie.com) to get the prayer and you can set an alarm on your smart phone to pray each mor
[i] This information is taken from the website http://www.bustle.com/articles/40384-where-is-verizon-guy-paul-marcarelli-now-he-makes-his-own-movies
[ii] See Ezekiel 37:1-14
[iii] See Acts 2:37-42
[iv] See Acts, chapter 10
[v] See Acts 8:26-40
[vi] See Acts, chapter 7
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