All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit. . . .” Acts 2:4
Pentecost – June 9, 2019
Happy birthday, church! Today is Pentecost, that day almost two thousand years ago when, as we heard in our first lesson from Acts, the Church was born through the gift of the Holy Spirit. The apostles are gathered together in Jerusalem, unsure of what the future holds now that the risen Christ has left them for the last time. And then, suddenly, out of nowhere, there comes a sound like the rush of a violent wind. And just like that, the Holy Spirit descends upon Peter and the other followers of Jesus, uniting them as a new community. Notwithstanding their differences in backgrounds and languages, the Spirit inspires those gathered with a sense of God’s continuing presence. The Spirit literally breathes new life into the crowd and gives them the confidence and hope and direction to push forward to spread the goods news of God’s love for the world in Christ. And so today, we break out the celebratory color of red to mark this great anniversary of the Church’s creation.
Today is also one of those liturgical “hinge days,” when we transition from one season to another: from the season of Easter, which we have been celebrating for the past 50 days, to the season of the Holy Spirit working in and through the Church, which we call the season of Pentecost, and which lasts throughout the summer and fall.
So, apart from being a birthday party for the Church, what exactly is the theological significance of Pentecost? Christmas is easy enough to understand: God comes into the world to share our humanity and redeem us through the birth of Jesus Christ. Easter, too, has a clear message: Through the mighty act of Christ’s resurrection, God assures us of the triumph of love over hate, goodness over evil, life over death, and of our own salvation in Christ’s new life. But what of Pentecost? What is the message of this holy day?
We are so accustomed in church to hearing about the Holy Spirit that we sometimes forget what a dramatic shift the Day of Pentecost marked in the first Christians’ understanding of how God works in the world. In the Hebrew tradition, God’s presence was understood to be limited to certain places – most notably, the Temple in Jerusalem. And God’s Spirit would rest only upon certain individuals – such as the prophets, or certain kings of Israel – and then only for limited times and specific purposes. The notion that God’s Spirit could be poured out so liberally as it was on the Day of Pentecost, was a profound change in how people experienced God’s presence in their lives. It was an astonishing unleashing of God’s holiness upon all believers willing to open their hearts to God’s presence.
One way to think about Pentecost, then, is that it is the day when God the Father and God the Son hand the mantle of Kingdom-building over to the Church through the gift of the Holy Spirit. There were many in the early Church who believed that with Christ’s Resurrection, the end of the ages was near, and that the Kingdom of Heaven was just around the corner. God, however, had a different plan. It turns out that Jesus Christ was the beginning of a movement, the author of a new story about humanity, the number one draft choice for a whole team of people that God was and is recruiting to remake this broken world of ours. And that holy team is what we call the Church, the Body of Christ on earth.
Now, here is where things get interesting and frankly a little bizarre. If, God help us, I were named captain of God’s team and invited to assemble a holy group of Kingdom-builders, personally my next draft picks after Jesus would have been the smartest philosophers on the planet, the cleverest scientists and engineers, some good doctors, a few creative artists, the strongest and bravest warriors, and the most morally virtuous men and women I could find. In short, I would have turned to Rome and Athens, whose civilizations together exemplified the very best the world had to offer.
What does God do? Who does he draft for his team, his new Church? God gathers a few hundred poor folk in Jerusalem, most of them uneducated and unemployed, who up until this moment have had remarkably undistinguished lives, to put it mildly. They include down-and-out fishermen, prostitutes, tax collectors, the lame, the blind, the destitute and other social misfits. And whom does God put in charge of this motley crew? None other than this fellow Simon Peter. And while we all know that Peter later became the saintly bishop of Rome, at this time in his career he had little to commend him as a leader. As of the Day of Pentecost, his most memorable accomplishment had been one of the greatest acts of cowardice in human history, having abandoned and denied his closest friend and Savior in the Garden of Gethsemane, not once, not twice, but three times. So much for the starting line-up of God’s team to re-make the world.
Just try to imagine, if you will, what Pontius Pilate might be thinking as he stands there, gazing out from the terrace of his imperial palace in Jerusalem, spying upon this ragtag congregation, as they carry on in different languages, all insisting that this Jesus friend of theirs, whom Rome had executed weeks ago, was somehow still alive. What a pathetic joke, Pilate must have thought.
And yet, miracle of miracles, here we are today, some two thousand years later. The Holy Roman Empire is long gone. Athens is gone. Assyria is gone. Persia is gone. As are the hundreds of human dynasties and empires that followed them. And yet, the Church still stands. And much as we may bemoan the decline of the Church in the so-called secular West today, the empirical fact of the matter is that in 2019 more than two billion people around the globe identify as followers of Jesus, three times the number of global Christians there were just a century ago.
To be sure, there is much about the Church that is imperfect and messy, even positively awful. Clergy abuse. Cover-ups of wrongdoing. Financial corruption. Hypocrisy. Indifference to the needs of the poor. I could go on, as I know you could too. I get why many people are disappointed in the Church.
But here’s the thing. Despite these many warts, the heart of the Church remains holy, and it remains so not because of the people who occupy it, but despite them. Human beings for the last two thousand years have done their very best to abuse God’s Church one way or another, much like they mocked and murdered his Son on the Cross. And left to our own devices, we human beings would have destroyed the Church long ago. But we are not abandoned to our own sin, and God does not leave his Church rudderless.
For the good news is that God’s love and mercy is so relentless that He will not permit His Church to be undone through human ineptitude and evil, just like he refused to let his Son’s life end on the Cross. So long as we keep returning faithfully to this sacred place, surrendering ourselves to God’s grace, and acknowledging our mistakes and frailties, God working through the Spirit will make things right again, He will straighten our crooked ways, and He will redeem His Church and His people, just as He always has in the past. God will remain faithful to His Church.
Indeed, notwithstanding Pilate’s scoffing doubts about God’s recruiting strategy for His plan of salvation, God has a long and distinguished history of turning pig’s ears into silk purses. Abraham was a tired and sterile old man until God showed up and gave him the greatest family in human history; Moses was an inarticulate and indecisive orphan before God gave him a bold and prophetic voice to lead that new family into the Promised Land; David was an unfaithful and murderous adulterer before God led him into inspired leadership as Israel’s greatest king; and Mary and Joseph were homeless teenagers before God gave them a child who would change the world.
Why does God do this? Why does he seek out the last and the least to lead his team? Well, in part it is to show the world that there is no onebeyond the reach of God’s love and redemption, and that everyonehas a place in His Kingdom. And in part, it is to show the rest of us – who think we are well put together, and successful, and self-sufficient – that, well maybe, we aren’t as on top of things as we believe, and that perhaps we do need help after all.
Many people think that “church” is a beautifully pristine place for the respectable, well-behaved, beautiful and virtuous people to go on a Sunday morning. That is a bit of a self-deception, I’m afraid. In truth, the Church is much more like a hospital, a place for the weary, the sick, the broken-hearted, the lonely, for those people who know they are in need of healing and hope, and who know that they are not able to make it on their own. Far better to come to church on Sunday with the humble heart of a beggar, than with the haughty heart of someone looking for a pat on the back for all that he or she has accomplished.
All of which is to say: if this morning you are feeling either too sad, or too old, or too bruised, or too inadequate, to be of use to God, then all I can say is that you better look out, because you may well be God’s next draft pick for sainthood. For if the Bible teaches us anything it is that God loves the underdog, those whom the world casts aside and dismisses. And, speaking for myself at least, I am eternally grateful that I have found a church that is not only willing to welcome me as I am, but one that even encourages an old recovering lawyer like me to stand here in the pulpit and share God’s good news with a bunch of fellow sinners like you. Who would have figured?