A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Pentecost Sunday ~ Acts 2:1-21
Today is one of the high points in the Christian year for me. It’s called Pentecost Sunday. It was the birth of the church! Pentecost is a Greek word meaning ‘fiftieth’ as in the fiftieth day after Passover. The feast of Pentecost was actually a Jewish feast. Jews call this the Feast of Weeks or Shavuot. It commemorates the giving of the Law/Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Back in biblical times this was one of the major pilgrimage festivals so just like at Passover Jerusalem would have been flooded with Jews from all over the world who made the journey to mark this religious feast day.
Here’s an aha I had this week. It had never occurred to me before, but during a festival where Jews celebrate receiving the Law – which became their foundational theological concept and root – the disciples receive the Spirit.
Maybe we’re supposed to connect that and understand that the Holy Spirit residing within us is our foundational root?
Perhaps the great innovation of Christianity is that our core is not an external law, but an internal Spirit!
I trust you all know the basic story. Jesus’ disciples had more or less been hidden away since the tumultuous events of Easter and they weren’t sure what to do. They were too afraid to go forward but they knew they couldn’t just give up. And while they were gathered in an upper room – probably the same one they shared that Last Supper with Jesus in – and probably the same upper room where they experienced his risen presence on Easter Sunday and in the days afterward – while they were there together, feeling lost and dispirited, something amazingly wonderful, powerful, and awe-full happened.
A thunderous sound like the rush of wind filled the place, and something like tongues of fire rested on each person, and they were each flooded with the Holy Spirit such that they had the ability to communicate God’s very presence to people who shouldn’t have been able to understand them.
(Please don’t get hung up on what sounds like a parlour trick of suddenly learning another language – it’s just a colourful way to say that they could communicate with people at levels far deeper than mere languages.)
People passing by were amazed and wondered how it could be. At first they thought these followers of Jesus were all drunk – but Peter jumped up and assured them that that wasn’t the case because it was just 9:00 in the morning. It wasn’t spirits but THE SPIRIT that they were intoxicated on.
And then he explained exactly what happened. And this is the part we’re going to focus on today. Peter was explaining this to a group of Jews, so naturally he began with something that would have authority for them – a quote from the Hebrew Scriptures from the prophet Joel:
2:17-18 In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
The passage ends with a promise that on that day – on the day that people receive the Spirit that God constantly pours out – all those who call out, or appeal, or open their hand to God would be saved, or healed, or restored.
So the ultimate benefit is wholeness and communion with God for those who receive Spirit, and when that Spirit pours out amazing things happen. Things like prophecies, visions, and dreams! Oh my! [ala Oz]
Your sons AND daughters shall prophesy!
Young men shall see visions.
Elders shall dream dreams.
(Just as an aside: It says “old men” but a truer translation would be “elders” which in Greek can mean both male and female, and the actual Greek word is presbuteros from which we take our word presbytery.)
And even the slaves – both men and women – will receive the Spirit and prophesy.
So there’s two main things I want us to really hear in these verses. The first is that the prophesying, visioning, and dreaming is work for everyone – men, women, slave, free, young, old, and everything in-between. And second, I want you to notice that none of it, no prophecies, no visioning, and no dreaming happens without the outpouring and receiving of Spirit.
And while I profoundly believe that God’s Spirit is constantly being poured out, I know that we are not always tuned in and present and open enough to receive it. And we’re usually closed when we’re stressed. And we always seem to be stressed when we’re worrying about the future of the Church – just like the disciples. And so, when faced with the need to be prophetic, to be visionary, and to dream of a better future, we tend to close off the very source of those prophecies, visions, and dreams. Oh my!
This week will be the 92nd anniversary of the United Church of Canada. Currently we’re holding our breath waiting for the final votes to come in to determine if we’re going to dramatically restructure the way we’ve operated since day 1. If the vote (called a remit) is successful, we will no longer have pastoral charges, presbyteries, conferences, and a general council. Instead we’ll have communities of faith, regions, and a denominational council (whose name is still undecided). Many church members hear that and just shrug. Others of us ponder this change and wonder if it will fundamentally change us, and maybe not for the better.
Just like on that first Pentecost, this really is a tumultuous time for the Church. Many congregations – both rural and urban – are facing really difficult times. People are so worried about their buildings and our structures that we’re in danger of forgetting why the buildings and structures are there! We desperately need our sons and daughters to be prophesying, for our young people to cast visions, and for our elders to dream dreams.
But my great fear is that at this critical time we’re making a grave error.
We’re trying to push the river.
We do this all the time.
In this metaphor the river is the flowing Spirit, our life of faith, our life in God’s presence, our journey as followers of Jesus. So the river is exactly the right place to be. But because we feel like it’s our responsibility to do something – to keep up the churches that our forefathers and mothers built – to carry on the legacy of faith we’ve inherited – to restore the church to its former prominence and status – we stand in that river, we dig in our heels, and we try to push it into the places we think it needs to go.
But you can’t push a river.
All you’ll do is wear yourself out.
Instead, the obvious thing to do is to stop digging in our heels, turn ourselves around, and instead of pushing the river we should go with the flow.
The river is of God.
The river is Jesus’ Way.
The river is Spirit.
Anything other than letting it flow and going with it is astoundingly foolish.
But here’s the catch. Going with the flow means letting go.
It means we’re not in control – and we hate that.
It means letting the river take us to places where we might not choose to go on our own.
It means trusting that the river knows better than us.
The prophecies come, the visions come, the dreams come when we allow them in – when we allow the flow of the river to pour over us, and refresh us, and renew us, and yes, resurrect us!
Just like the disciples did on the day of Pentecost in that upper room. Instead of trying to solve the church’s problems on their own they allowed themselves to be swept away by the powerful flowing Spirit.
And when they did everything changed. They were empowered. They were inspired. They rose from death to new life.
Prophecies erupted. Visions exploded. Dreams burst forth. Oh my!
And the flowing Spirit carried them out of their safe little closed off upper room and out into the street where they could encounter “the other” and share the Spirit with them. That, of course, created a whole new set of challenges and problems for them – but they were the best kind of problems to have.
I don’t know what the future of the United Church holds.
I don’t know how the remits will turn out, and I don’t know how many churches will be left standing in 10 or 20 years.
But I do know this.
I know that no matter how hard we try we cannot do it on our own.
I know that it’s not supposed to be up to our own imaginations, but to our inspiration!
I know that no matter how many structures we change, or bylaws we rewrite, or social justice causes we tackle, we will only be pushing the river until we pause, take a deep breath, let the Spirit pour over us, into us, and through us, and then let go of our plans and schemes and go with the flow.
And when we do we will most certainly find that we can suddenly communicate with people who haven’t previously spoken our language – and I don’t mean English, I mean spirituality!
And instead of trying to save the church we would start to really be the church, to be the body of Christ alive and moving in this place and this time.
And our sons and daughters will prophesy.
And our young people will catch the vision.
And our elders will dream dreams.
And instead of a church filled with stress, and worry, and despair, and loss we would become a church filled with prayer, and praise, and awareness, and passion, and Spirit.
Such a movement of Spirit would surely shake the foundations of our churches and propel us into depth and action.
What a day that would be – will be! – is?
If we can open ourselves, and risk letting it happen. Just like the disciples did.
What is the future of the church?
Prophecies, visions, and dreams! Oh my!