JUNE 4, 2017 Pentecost Sunday. Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved
TEXTS: Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23
The whole “First Pentecost” event has been rather confusing for me for many years. I grew up the kind of child that always wanted to know how things worked. In fact my wife has noted to me on many occasions that I have an “engineer’s mind”. I always have always taken great delight figuring things out. So it took a good bit to get myself to the place where I could read the story of the first Pentecost and just let the story happen, let the wonder and awe seep through and not worry about whether there was really a great wind just the sound of a great wind, and what sort of natural phenomena could have caused something that looked like flames dancing on people’s heads or whether the disciples were able to actually speak other languages or simply spoke in such a way as to be understood by people of many languages.
One conclusion that I have come to rather recently is that the disciples probably weren’t shuttered up in the “upper room” when the Spirit of God came upon them so powerfully. Even though Luke proclaims that sound of a great wind filled the entire house where they were, I don’t think that lots and lots of people could have gathered together in one room to hear Peter address them.
So if the disciples were not in the “upper room” or inside a house at all, then where were they? What other kind of “house” could it be possible for them to be in? Where could Peter have spoken in such a way that 3,000 people could have been converted on the spot? I actually took a cue from a passing remark toward the end of chapter two, a part of the chapter that few bother to read. Acts chapter 2, verse 46 reads, “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.” (emphasis added) I thought to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it make much more sense that the first Pentecost event took place on the Temple Mount; especially if the disciples spent much time, day by day, in the temple in prayer and celebration?’ If the disciples were indeed somewhere in temple complex, the whole idea that “devout Jews from every nation under heaven were living in Jerusalem” and would be present to hear the ruckus and gather to witness the disciples speaking in the native language of each, for I am sure that many Jews were indeed gathered in Jerusalem at that time for the feast of Shavuot, one of the great pilgrimage festivals for Jews at that time. It would also explain why Luke, who devotes a great part of the book of Acts to Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, makes no mention of Gentiles here at all. You see, Gentiles had no place on the Temple Mount; in fact they were prohibited from even entering certain areas of the temple complex.
Well, no matter where event took place it seems that the obvious message of that “Day of Pentecost” event was that the good news of Jesus Christ was a universal message. The Spirit of God didn’t empower the disciples to proclaim the gospel only to each other or only to their closest friends and allies, or only to some select group chosen by God, or even to the greater masses of those who had met and experienced Jesus during his lifetime. The Spirit gave the disciples the ability to speak in such a way (however that way may have been accomplished) that people from, as Luke puts it, “every nation under heaven” was able to hear and understand them.
As the book of Acts unfolds we do see the gospel spreading far beyond Jerusalem, far beyond even the people of Israel; spreading to the Gentiles of many nations, spreading like wildfire among people of all ethnicities and nationalities and races, all societal and economic strata, all backgrounds. The gospel message, according to Luke, was received by the wealthy and by the poor, by the landed and by the nomadic, by those who understood the history of the people that Christ came to, the children of Abraham, and by those who had no concept that there ever was a people of Abraham.
Of course that whole concept got me wondering what has happened to the Gospel of Jesus Christ over centuries and over the millennia. The gospel has definitely had its highs and lows through time; spreading rapidly first few centuries until people throughout nearly all Europe, northern Africa, western Asia and even as far as what is now India could boast Christian communities and churches in their midst. Then came a time when the Church began to mix politics and evangelism (and mixed them badly), a time when the spread of Christianity, at least what spread there was, came more through conquest and force than through the glad sharing of the Gospel story. These were times then Rome aligned itself with certain kings and when the king being Christian meant that all the kings subjects were Christian, whether they wanted to be or not. This was a good part of what Martin Luther and other reformers battled against in their day, wanting faith to be of one’s own free will rather than being forced upon the person by a sovereign lord. This is why it was so important in the mind of Luther that the Holy Scriptures be published in the native language of the people rather than the select language of the church leaders and possibly a few nobles who took the time to study Latin.
Sadly it is my belief that for many the word of God has once again become entrenched in the church, at least to some extent. I believe that the Holy Spirit is often suppressed and that congregations often seem to be more like private clubs than raucous and joyous sharers of the good news. We strive dearly to pass our faith down to the generations that follow us, to our children and grandchildren, but cringe at the thought that we could be called upon to actually share that same good news with our neighbors in such a way that they might understand it.
You know, I give a lot of credit to those intrepid evangelists (although I believe their efforts a bit misguided) who buy tickets to baseball games in seats that position them right behind home plate and then hold up a sign emblazoned with ”John 3:16”. I have assume that this is their attempt to evangelize those who watch the ball game, as the sign appears whenever the camera shows the batter preparing for a pitch. I am a bit mystified at how those who not Christian, those who have no real knowledge of the Bible are supposed to understand what “John 3:16” means. My own thoughts on the matter are that it would be much better for them to hold up a sign that simply reads “God loves you” or “Jesus loves you”. Whatever the message, I do applaud their efforts and their diligence in the matter, for even though I am not a big watcher of baseball games on TV, most of the times that I have caught a bit of a game, one of those placard carrying folks is there!
Now I’m not necessarily saying that all of us should go out and buy tickets to a ball game and start holding up placards. What I am saying is that all of us should be concerned with the spread of the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ beyond our innermost circles. And this is not something that we can cede locally to the church pastor or regionally to some special program of our Synod or nationally and internationally to missionaries of the ELCA or any other body within the national church. This is something that we should definitely celebrate at mass events such the ELCA Youth Gathering coming up next year down in Texas, an event which I understand is absolutely seething with the power of the Holy Spirit of Christ. I also believe though that we can by no means limit ourselves to a national gathering once every three years. You can lose a lot of momentum in three years.
Ashley and John, I want to say very clearly that this evangelism stuff not specifically your job to do as you become full members of the church. You are not being brought into full membership in this congregation so that you and you alone can proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to the surrounding area or to the world. What I will say though is that I invite you to consider being a part of it. And by “it” I mean the whole idea of sharing your faith with others and being open to the power of the Holy Spirit that resides within you. Both of you have within you, whether you know it or not, gifts of the Spirit of God; gifts which have the power to change your lives and the lives of those around you and maybe even the lives of people that you have never met. You have gifts that, when offered in love, can transform things that you touch, that can transform world. They are powerful gifts, so it’s sort of like you have the ability to be a superhero (maybe without a mask or cape. You have the power to touch others who will, in turn, touch still others with love that can truly spread like wildfire.
Friends, we all have these powers, these gifts of the Spirit. This is not a club and certainly not an exclusive club. What we about here is a message of love and grace that is for all God’s people. By the grace of God let us all work to share that good news, in word and in deed, so that God’s kingdom may be realized in our midst.