Pentecost Power by Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Acts 2:1-12
Preached @ Trinity UMC, Lafayette on June 4, 2017
Popular preacher and professor, Fred Craddock, tells this story about his experience as a guest lecturer at a West Coast seminary.[i] Just before the first lecture, one of the students stood up and said, "Before you speak, I need to know if you are Pentecostal."
The room grew silent. I was taken aback, [Craddock writes] so I said, "Do you mean to ask if I belong to the Pentecostal Church?"
He said, "No, I mean are you Pentecostal?"
I said, "Are you asking if I am charismatic?"
He said, "I am asking if you are a Pentecostal."
I said, "Do you want to know if I speak in tongues?"
He said, "I want to know if you are Pentecostal."
I said, "I don't know what your question is."
He said, "Obviously, you are not Pentecostal." And he left.
Pentecostal is an interesting adjective. But, just what do we mean when we say that a person or a church is Pentecostal? Is it the name of a denomination? Is it a description for a particular worship style?
Well, Pentecostal is one of those church words often misconstrued. I would rank it with – what I call – the "holy trinity" of misconstrued churchy words. (The other two, by the way, are "saint" and "charismatic.") You see, the adjective "Pentecostal" is inaccurately applied when it is used to describe a denomination or worship style because it is, in fact, descriptive of all churches. A church cannot be a church without being Pentecostal because to understand ourselves as Pentecostal simply means that we link our identity with the event of Pentecost, that day long ago when the Holy Spirit birthed the Church into existence. On Pentecost day, the Holy Spirit breathed life into those first apostles and the Church was born. The Spirit, God’s breath, is always the origin of life. Life is in the breath. When a baby is born, what is that great moment of suspense in the birthing room: it is that moment just before the newborn baby cries. Months down the road, when the parents are wakened in the night – night after night – they will pray that cry to cease. But at the moment of birth, it is music to their ears because the cry is the audible signal of respiration. Life is in the breath.
In each of our biblical creation stories, life begins with God’s breath. In Genesis, chapter 1, life begins when God’s breathe blows over the watery stew of chaos.[ii] In Genesis, chapter 2,[iii] God shapes the man from clay and breathes into his nostrils like some primordial, divine CPR. Life is in the breath; the breath of God’s Spirit.
So again, on Pentecost, that day when the Church will be birthed, God's breath, God's Spirit, blows through the house where the followers of Jesus had huddled together to wait and pray.
It is a packed house, according to Acts. Some 120 people, chapter 1 tells us.[iv] Now the actual historical probability that the early disciples, generally peasants, would have had the resources to rent a piece of real estate large enough to hold 120 people gathered for days doing nothing but waiting and praying is suspect. There is likely some exaggeration here. But the point comes through clearly: those early disciples took seriously their admonishment from the resurrected Jesus that they prepare for the arrival of the Spirit in a very particular way: by being together and being in prayer. Certainly there must have been some coming and going as followers fulfilled other necessary daily duties. But this central location, where prayers were poured out continuously and life was lived together, drew them like a magnet and let me just say, it would have been a bummer to be the dude responsible for the doughnut run who missed out on the action that morning when the long-awaited Spirit showed up with an intensity of cosmic proportions.
Now, before Pentecost became the Church’s birthday, it was a Jewish holiday, the Festival of Weeks. It required faithful Jews to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Even at this point in history, Jews were widely dispersed, having settled in places where Hebrew and Aramaic were not the everyday languages. And that is why the Holy Spirit falls upon these disciples causing them to speak in a myriad of languages. It must have been quite a cacophony.
I didn’t grow in tornado territory so, I confess, I still love a mighty wind. Years ago when Britt and I were going through a challenging time in ministry, friends offered us a few days at their cottage at Lakeside, Ohio on Lake Erie. We spent time resting and praying and discerning and our final morning there, the winds were extreme. I went and stood at the shoreline and closed my eyes and listened and felt the power of that wind. I literally opened my mouth and felt as if God was pouring into me.
Gale force wind grabs our attention as it did for those Jerusalem pilgrims on that morning long ago. People stopped and stared and listened to this mighty wind and a bunch of Galilean peasants proclaiming the word of God in a multitude of languages simultaneously. I mean, who wouldn’t stop to check that out? But then the murmurs and mutterings begin to run through the crowd as well: “Who are these people and what’s behind this commotion? Is something wrong with them; are they drunk?” Now captivated by this assortment of languages; it’s a curious crowd and a reversal of Babel. Do you recall that story? Another old story from Genesis.[v] Near the dawn of time when those ancient humans God created decided to see if they could climb up into heaven, a presumptuous plan. So God confused their speech, creating a myriad of languages that caused them all to disperse, to go their separate ways. After all, it’s unsettling when we can’t understand what people are saying around us. Perhaps you’ve had that experience of being on public transit. A group of people are speaking another language. One of them glances your way; someone says something and the others laugh. And you become nervous, paranoid. Are they laughing at you? You slouch down in your seat and pretend to read the paper or something on your smart phone.
We grow uneasy and nervous when we can’t understand one another. Without a common language, how can there be a common life or a common cause... for a community called to live life together, life in common.
On that Pentecost day, those myriad of languages served to unite an enormously diverse crowd; a crowd of thousands, according to Acts.
Today in a world of mass communication, just one tap away from a world wide web of thoughts and ideas and opinions, we still struggle to connect with those down the street and around the world.
Those disciples had a message too important to be lost or misconstrued. So Peter stands before them and puts it into perspective. They are not drunk; they are inspired by a Spirit of a different sort. The Holy Spirit has been poured out on them just as the prophets foretold so that they might proclaim the message of salvation through Jesus of Nazareth, more than a man put to death on a cross; he was God’s Son, who God raised from the dead to be Savior and Lord.[vi]
Pentecost Day; the day the Church was born. God’s breath filled his people and they cried out the gospel proclamation. The breath of God’s Spirit rushed down from the heavens and filled those common peasants with an uncommon power: the power to connect, to proclaim, to forge community in the midst of diversity. Roberto Gomez writes:
By enabling the people present to speak different languages… the Holy Spirit breaks all kinds of barriers, indeed frees the gospel from a particular first-century Galilean rabbi to a universal message of hope and salvation for all people.[vii]
But, I wonder; how well we are doing today... Perhaps we need some fresh wind, some fresh power; that divine CPR so that the message of hope and salvation in Christ might reach others through us. Life is in the breath. So, breathe on us, breath of God. Pentecost was that day when God flooded the hearts and lungs of his people and they cried out giving voice to the gospel.
Rebekah Jordan Gienapp points out that the commonality of that Pentecost day wasn’t about eliminating diversity. She reminds us that: “The particularities of language and culture are preserved in this story, even while they cease to be barriers between peoples.”[viii]
I fear we American Christians insulate ourselves. We view our pluralistic world with trepidation. We retreat into our “Church world” where we “practice our faith” by attending lots of church meetings, fretting and wringing our hands over the church’s budget and expenses, evaluating our buildings in light of our own comfort-ability and traditions, and serving the needy with latex-gloved hands.
If I were to ask you to name five friends – not acquaintances, but actual friends – who aren’t Christians, could you do it? According to research, many of us couldn’t. But what if we made some new friends; people who don’t speak our language, so to speak. Carey Nieuwhof writes that most of the interactions we have with non-Christians are “situational and observational rather than truly relational.”[ix] Friends, that Pentecost day long ago, the renewal movement of a Galilean rabbi became a multi-cultural Church through the power and intervention of God’s Spirit. Those disciples, who at the time of their Lord’s passion fled in fear, now become prophets and preachers. Peter who once couldn’t even admit to a servant girl that he was in any way affiliated with Jesus[x] will now stand before a crowd of thousands to preach and the Church is birthed; a Church that, according to the Acts, goes on to shatter one social-cultural barrier after another. A Church that systematically breaks through religious barriers, ethnic barriers, economic barriers, sexual barriers, gender barriers… you name it.[xi]
And it wasn’t easy and, according to Acts, that’s what most of their early Church meetings were about. But they didn’t give up and that’s why we’re all here this morning. And we are called, just as they were, to pray and to welcome the unsettling power of God’s Spirit to grow the Church through us: ordinary people through whom God’s Spirit can achieve extraordinary things. Remember; the life is in the breath. But will we do it? Will we welcome the breath of God’s Spirit pouring down upon us? Will we welcome the Spirit taking hold of our tongues? Will we accept that the Church is God’s gift for people who are very different from us? Will we be willing to “speak another language” and embrace other cultures? It’s not easy; but it is clearly God’s plan and it can be done. Life is in the breath; new life; so breathe on us, breath of God. My friends, take a deep breath, say a prayer, and get ready.
[ii] See Genesis 1:1-3
[iii] See Genesis 2:7
[iv] See Acts 1:14-15
[v] See Genesis, chapter 11
[vi] Peter’s Pentecost sermon is found in Acts 2:14-36
[x] See Luke 22:54-62
[xi] See, for example, Acts 4:32-37; Acts 6:1-6; Acts 8:4-39; and Acts, chapter 10.
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