My latest stint in the pulpit at Dover-Foxcroft (ME) United Methodist Church was almost derailed Sunday. My bout with an allergy/cold/cellulitis had pretty much zapped my spirit but not my Spirit. When I realized what was causing the pain, I was sure it was cellulitis. I was faced with heading to the ER Saturday afternoon, knowing full well it would mean a Sunday stay in the hospital rather than the pulpit. Satan wins.
I wouldn’t let that happen and instead made arrangements to preside from a seated position eye level with the congregation. We broke in our new wireless mic and I opened the service with the admonition if I keeled over, have one of the congregants step over me and pick up from the script. I went from sanctuary to hospital. Spirit wins.
I didn’t keel over although there were moments when I had to take a deep breath and re-focus. These are the words I shared.
May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Do you feel it.
Do you FEEL it.
Do YOU feel it.
We’re celebrating the anniversary of one of the most important dates in the church. Although liturgically it was last week, today, we celebrate Pentecost. Today we celebrate fulfillment of what Jesus came to do. Today we introduce the third member of the Trinity.
In my mind, John sets the stage and Acts starts the action, so let’s set the stage with John.
It’s the evening of the first day of the week immediately following Christ’s death. Earlier in the day, all four gospel writers acknowledged the empty tomb and three of the four — Luke doesn’t — tell the tale of the appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene. Fast forward through the day. It is now night time, maybe 12 hours later than the discovery of the empty tomb. What are our fearless disciples doing?
They’re cowering in fear. The doors are locked in fear of the Jewish leaders. I suspect they are trying to figure out the events, not only of the day, but of the past few days. Some, perhaps, couldn’t understand the significance of the empty tomb. Some, perhaps, may have still been thinking Jesus’ body was stolen. I can hear them arguing with each other … okay, not arguing but certainly debating and challenging each other.
In other words, they were clueless. They witnessed the greatest miracle of all time — the resurrection of the Lord — and they didn’t know what to make of it. They didn’t know what they were going to do next. They weren’t thinking expansion. They were paralyzed by fear. Perhaps they were talking about going back to their ships and families and old jobs and trying to figure out what they were going to say to their friends back home. When their Jesus died, their hopes died with Him. They believed in Him. They still believed in Him. But they just couldn’t fit the puzzle pieces together. And they couldn’t figure out this empty tomb thing. What did that mean?
All of a sudden, Jesus is in their midst. The Scriptures don’t say Jesus walked through the door or floated down. He just appeared. He stood among them.
Can you imagine this crew of characters’ reaction when Jesus “stood among them”? They had to be bewildered. Mary, at least, had a previous encounter with Jesus at the tomb. The others did not. They just saw the empty tomb, the wrapped linen, the stone rolled away.
I suspect they had more questions than are recorded in Scripture, but the key point is what Jesus did. First, He wished them Peace to reassure them. Just as we extend the hand of friendship during worship as a gesture showing we care for each other, Jesus says Peace be with you. Shalom. I’m still here with you, He says. I … am … still … here … with … you. It was a statement of comfort. It was reassurance.
Next, He verifies who He is. He shows the disciples His hands and side. It’s at this point, John tells us the disciples were overjoyed. This is a fulfillment of Jesus’ words at the Last Discourse (16:20-22). They would have sorrow while the world rejoiced, but their sorrow would be turned to lasting joy when they saw Him again.
Then, He commissions them — As the Father has sent Me, I am sending you. — and breathes on them.
That’s kind of a strange thing to report, but it’s theologically significant. Let’s go waaay back — to Genesis. God breathed life into Adam. God formed man out of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And so, here, Jesus is breathing life into the disciples. He is giving of the Spirit who produces life. It’s different from the reading in Acts, but we’ll get to that difference in a minute or so.
Jesus continues, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” This “power” is consistent with the idea the disciples were to carry on the ministry of Jesus after He departed from the world and returned to the Father. It was also a theme of the Last Discourse — “You also are to testify because you have been with Me since the beginning (John 15:27).”
So, what do we glean from the Gospel. First, nothing can shut out Christ’s presence. When He manifests His love to believers by the comforts of His Spirit, He assures us because He lives, we shall live also. We learn every word of Christ received in the heart is by faith and comes accompanied by this Divine breathing. Without this there is neither light nor life. Nothing is seen, known, discerned or felt of God, but through this Divine breathing.
And we learn one other lesson, although it is not directly in today’s reading. It follows. Thomas, you might note, was absent from this appearance and the Twin was certainly skeptical. He was not breathed upon. He was still confused. He wanted tangible proof. He wanted to put his finger in the nail holes and his hand in Jesus’ side. And he makes that statement even after the disciples gave their account. He wanted more.
That’s the lesson. When we assemble in Christ’s name — like right here, right now — He meets us and speaks peace to us. It becomes our job to share this good news with our fellow believers who may be absent, and making known what we have experienced to the skeptics. They may want more proof, like Thomas. We have it. The proof is in our actions … the rest of Sunday, on Monday, on Tuesday, on Wednesday, on Thursday, on Friday, on Saturday, in our home, at work, in the community. It’s our job not to preach the Gospel, but to live the Gospel so the skeptics come to the Cross on their own, put their fingers in Christ’s nail holes and their hands in Christ’s side.
Now let’s fast forward to Acts. Remember, I said there was a difference in the readings. John’s Gospel was the giving of the Spirit that produces life. Here, we are shown the giving of the Spirit that produces power — the power to witness and carry out the mission the disciples had been given.
It’s too bad canonically, John interrupts Luke and Acts. It is presumed the same author or camp wrote both Luke and Acts. Tradition holds the texts were written by Luke the companion of Paul (named in Colossians 4:14), although many modern scholars question this view. Others believe authorship is by Luke the physician. Either way, Acts actually is a continuation of Luke. The Acts of the Apostles picks up where the Gospel of Luke leaves off. And this is significant to the story of Pentecost, because the first Christian Pentecost is deeply rooted in the Gospel of Luke. Luke began his Gospel with the story of Jesus’ birth. He begins the book of Acts with the story of the church’s birth. First came the Messiah; now comes the Holy Spirit.
The “fulfillment” language is important here. Jesus promised, “You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:5). Now His promise is fulfilled.
To give you some historical perspective, Pentecost is also known as the Feast of Weeks. Leviticus 23:15-21 requires Jews to observe the Feast of Weeks 50 days after the offering of the barley sheaf at the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Numbers 28:26-31 and Deuteronomy 16:9-12 provide details about offerings to be offered and persons to be included. So the Feast of Weeks was a big deal to the Jews of the time.
The word “Pentecost”, however, is Greek, meaning 50, reflecting the 50-day countdown. It is one of three great pilgrimage festivals (the others being Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles), which Jews living near Jerusalem are required to attend and to which Jews from other nations make pilgrimage as they are able.
And so, these followers of Christ — still Jews — were gathered in Jerusalem. There are 120 believers mentioned in Acts 1:15, although many had retreated into hiding after the crucifixion.
And it has been a long journey for Jesus’ followers. Lacking in their capacity to imagine the ways of God, they have repeatedly proven themselves incapable of making sense of Jesus’ message, sometimes even working at cross-purposes with Him. Their metamorphosis has now reached a critical juncture.
Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit…
And we hear the story of each one hearing in their own tongue, which begs the question, is Pentecost a miracle of speaking, hearing or both. Verses 4 and 6 suggest both are true. It’s sort of a reversal of the Babel story in Genesis where God confounded the language of all the earth.
Peter, of all people, becomes the star of the day. Without question, the Apostle Peter was a “duh”-ciple most of us can identify with. One minute he was walking on water by faith, and the next he was sinking in doubt. He was impulsive and emotional. Only seven weeks earlier, he denied Christ three times (Luke 22:56-62). But during those seven weeks, Peter and the other disciples were transformed by their encounters with the risen Christ. Now, in Jerusalem, Peter and the disciples are filled with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the power behind Peter’s sermon. The Spirit is responsible for the crowd’s overwhelming response.
Peter quotes Joel 2:28-32, where Joel prophesied God would pour out His Spirit “upon all flesh” (verse 17b). Peter reinterprets Joel’s words to point to the salvation that comes to everyone who calls on the name of the Lord. But remember, when he speaks these words, Peter is still a Jew addressing Jews, and his vision does not yet include Gentiles. Joel was also speaking to the Jews. It was the Holy Spirit who inspires Peter in chapter 2 to say words that open the door further than he understands. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved (verse 21) … including Gentiles. The fulfillment of this prophecy begins within the hour when 3,000 people call upon the name of the Lord and are saved (verse 41).
The disciples’ minds were opened by the Risen Lord to understand the Scriptures — the John account of events from Jesus’ death to Ascension — and now, as recipients of the Pentecostal Spirit, they are empowered by that Spirit both to understand the significance of the dramatic events that have transpired at this Feast and to communicate its significance in ways that draw those events into the ancient purpose of God. The text weaves together Pentecostal phenomena, the story of Jesus and the witness of Israel’s Scriptures. The result is a community generated by the Spirit, shaped by the proclaimed Word.
That will be just the beginning. These 3,000 are from every nation under heaven and the majority, probably 2,000, are pilgrims from other lands. They will return to their homes, forever changed by their Pentecost baptism. The spark they carry in their hearts will spread the Pentecost fire far and wide.
Ultimately, that spark found its way right here to this little church in little Dover-Foxcroft, ME. The question is, What are we going to do with that spark?
We — who know Christ and have that same power of God’s Spirit — often are not in enough meaningful contact with the people who need us most. We spend so much time in meetings with each other, doing programs for each other, having concerts with each other, serving on committees for each other and doing books and music for each other that we’re disconnected from the people who are dying without our Jesus.
This is our time to use God’s power to get out to where it’s needed. We need to dare to risk getting involved in places where lost people are; to look at the unbelieving people around us and start building some bridges into their lives; building intentional rescue relationships. God needs us to just move close to some people who are not His people.
Too many people are slipping away, falling, crashing because there is no one making a difference where they are. If you know Jesus, you have the same power He promised to His disciples — way back at Pentecost — to be where you are needed the most.
I’m going to leave you with two thoughts.
Debra Dean Murphy, in the 2012 Ekklesia Project, wrote, “In truth, Pentecost is not the complete reversal of Babel. We still can’t understand each other; we routinely miscommunicate; we gather and we gripe, betraying the unity Christ has called us to as His Body. But the good news of the Acts 2 story, the good news of all our gathering ‘together in one place,’ is not that the Church has a mission, but that God’s mission has a Church.”
And Russell Rathbun, in his chapter “The Narrowing of the Gospel,” in the 2011 resource, The Hardest Question, adds, “Our holy book contains different interpretations of the same stories from creation to the resurrection. There are four gospel voices but only one Acts of the Apostles in the canon.”
The Day of Pentecost. The time has come! The heavens roar! Fire burns! The Spirit of God fills! Disciples preach! Crowds wonder!
Do you feel the Spirit?
Do you FEEL His presence?
Do YOU feel His power?
And the faithful say, Thank You and Amen!
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER: Just because it hasn’t been done doesn’t mean you can’t do it.