This Sunday is Pentecost. It’s often called the birthday of the church. I have served several churches where we brought out a cake and sang happy birthday to the church. Which is good. But singing the Happy Birthday song in unison wouldn’t sound much like that first Pentecost. The first Pentecost was a raucous, chaotic, unsettling kind of event. The imagery in this week’s passage from Acts 2 evokes images of tornadoes, fire and drunkards.
To set the stage, it’s fifty days after Easter. It was originally a Jewish holiday remembering the giving of the Jewish Law. In Luke’s gospel, it’s not about the giving of the law, but the coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus had ascended ten days earlier. And before left, he told his disciples to wait until they were clothed with power from on high. Then the power came in the form of the Holy Spirit. Luke describes it this way:
And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.
The wind was violent, which is a bit surprising at first. A few weeks ago, I was in Kansas City. True to form, we had a tornado warning. We could hear the howling of wind. Later, we’d see the devastation of homes on television. In John’s depiction of the giving of the Holy Spirit, we find a much calmer spirit. It’s not like wind, but breath. Jesus breathed upon the disciples and gave them confidence and peace during an unsettling time (John 20:22). But in both cases the Holy Spirit commissioned them for the work of God. In John’s gospel, Jesus gave them the confidence through the Spirit to forgive sins. In Acts, the gift was different. It was the gift of speech! Maybe that’s where the violence comes in. I don’t like to think of speech as violent, but speech, like violence, has a way of creating chaos and confusion. A few moments on Twitter will verify the violence and chaos that speech can enact. When the disciples began to speak a bit of chaos and confusion ensued.
If we look at the creation story, we see how language, chaos and creation work together. A wind swept over a chaotic, formless void. God spoke and life came into being. The act of speech gave birth to life. Pentecost is like a second creation story. Wind swept through this house and speech poured forth from the disciples. A church was born.
The Holy Spirit catches fire and lands on their tongues. They won’t be quiet. Our God is an amazingly strategic God in fulfilling his plans to reach the nations. That’s the purpose of Acts to show how the Holy Spirit to spread the gospel through the ends of the earth. But instead of the disciples be sent to the ends of the earth initially, God uses Pentecost as a special occasion. Jews from all parts of the world were there to celebrate Pentecost. They would soon be returning to their homelands. And so God lights the tongues of the disciples on fire and they began to proclaim the message of salvation to those gathered. It’s a clever way to get the word scattered quickly.
The first gift to the church is the gift of speech. It’s the gift of proclamation. It’s not soft proclamation. It’s bold, prophetic speech. Does it incite a little chaos? Yes. The religious leaders were whipped into a frenzy over these Christians who kept talking about this Jesus they thought they put to death. But that same speech also birthed the church. These were the same disciples who hid after Jesus was crucified. Now that the Holy Spirit has come they are emboldened. It’s a noisy affair. Again, language can be unsettling. At first, the people accuse the disciples of being drunk. They think it’s slurred speech, liquid courage. But this power is not of alcohol, but of the Holy Spirit.
A few weeks ago, I was speaking with some of our children. I asked them if they have any questions about worship. They said, “Why do we say the same words when we say the Apostles’ Creed? We say it every week. Could we say something new?” (I love the honesty of children). I explained each part of the creed. To their credit, they recited back the creed to me, which means they’re picking up the foundational beliefs of the church. But I did understand their sentiment.
A writer in The Christian Century told about a congregation who had formatted all its services on computer. When a funeral services was to be held, they ran the same liturgy they had used for the last funeral, substituting only the name of the newly deceased (Edna) where the name of the previous woman (Mary) had been. On one occasion, everything proceeded smoothly until they came to the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, during which the people changed together their belief in Jesus, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Edna…”
At times, we can get on cruise control in our faith. We need an intrusive new word from God to shake us up!
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement cautioned the people called Methodist when said,
‘I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.’ (Thoughts Upon Methodism 1786).
The most important gift from the Spirit for the spreading of the gospel is one of prophetic, bold, evangelical speech. The spirit finds release through speaking. The apostles speak when they’re told to be quiet. That’s the power of speech. It can get you arrested.
I remember a kid attending a summer camp in the mountains. As a 10 year old camper, I remember the worst part about the whole day. It happened after lunch. They had us return to our cabins and lay down in our beds. Our cabin leader would utter those awful words. ‘It’s rest hour. No talking.” I despised rest hour. I pretended to write letters to my parents. But after a while, my fellow campers and I couldn’t hold our tongues. We’d whisper jokes and burst out in laughter. The leader would holler, “Hush. No talking.” Do you think it worked? We weren’t about to nap and ten year olds can’t keep quiet for an hour. Were their threats from our leader? Of course. “If one more person talks, I’m taking you all out onto the athletic field and we’re running the rest of rest hour.” Do you think it worked? We chirped like birds. We knew how to irritate our captor, I mean leader. Persistent speech has a way of disrupting and irritating the people in charge. It’s a way to birth something new.
In Acts 4, Peter and John get themselves arrested. Why? They can’t keep quiet about Jesus. They keep speaking up even when the authorities tried to silence them. When ordered not to speak, Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; 20 for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” The disciples couldn’t keep quiet. Nor should we.
What is the most courageous thing you’ve ever said? I had a friend who used to say ad nauseam, “Speak up even if your voice shakes.” As terrifying as it can be, speaking the truth can liberate us. Whether it’s women speaking up in the “Me Too” movement or a child telling their parent about being bullied at school, courageous speech can change the world.
As Methodist, we believe in a social and evangelical gospel. We can speak the truth about the social concerns of our day and we can boldly proclaim the good news of Jesus to those who have not accepted him into their life. That’s the power of the Holy Spirit.
For any one reading this right now, I’m telling you the truth. Jesus Christ is alive. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus has come to save you. God is capable of doing more than just a little redecorating of your life. This God has come to renovate you. By the power of the Holy Spirit and the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven of your sins. I can’t keep quiet about this Jesus.
And if this word is of God it will be a disruptive word to you at first. It may mean you have to take serious look at putting down the bottle or take a hard look at how you treat your spouse. It may mean you have to acknowledge you can’t fix yourself but are in need of the grace of God. Jesus is alive and can give you the life that is the real life. I can’t keep quiet about him! He is my savior and my God. He can be yours too.