A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Pentecost ~ Acts 2:1-18
Pentecost is one of those church days that comes around every year, and every year we in the mainline protestant churches struggle with it – because it pokes us in places we don’t really want to be poked. In one short reading we get an uncontrollable Spirit that propels people out of their comfy pews and into the streets, speaking in tongues, acting like they’re drunk, and prophesying and evangelizing – all standard United Church things!
I mean really – an uncontrollable Spirit. We don’t like to be out of control for one minute. To admit that there’s an uncontrollable Spirit and that it might actually burrow its way into (or out of, depending on your theology) the core of your being and transform you from how you’ve been into a new Way and impel, or compel, or propel you into motion is almost unthinkable for us. We thrive on being in total control – yet the Holy Spirit would completely undermine that.
Add to that speaking in tongues, being intoxicated by spiritual feelings, and sharing that experience with people who may have no clue what you’re on about and you’ve got a recipe for melting nice church folks’ brains! Well, let’s get melting!
(I’m using The Message translation here.) Acts 2:1 When the Feast of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.
Jews call this the Feast of Weeks or Shavuot. It commemorates the giving of the Law 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 who made the journey to mark this religious feast day. It happened seven weeks plus one day after Passover.
Pentecost is a Greek word meaning ‘fiftieth’ as in the fiftieth day after Passover. Verse 1 says “they were all together in one place.” Who ‘they’ are is debatable. It was at least the 11 remaining disciples, but it could well have been more. And why they were all together is debatable too. It could have been simply to celebrate Shavuot – remember, the first followers were all Jewish. Or it could have been that they were still in disarray and hiding out after the events of Jesus’ death and their experiences of him following that.
Now it gets interesting! Acts 2:2 “Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force – no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building.” It was a sound, not a wind – although we certainly love the “Spirit blowing” imagery. A sound, a vibration, maybe music, something about it filled the house and penetrated the hearts and souls of all those gathered in it.
Isn’t that what we strive for every week here? Don’t we pray for the Spirit to fill us too?
Verses 3 and 4: “Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them.” It spread like a wildfire. Wild, out of control, awesome, and then these pesky tongue-thingies.
The scripture continues: “There were many Jews staying in Jerusalem just then, devout pilgrims from all over the world (pilgrimage festival, remember). When they heard the sound, they came on the run. (Interesting that the sound of the Spirit was heard beyond the room!) Then when they heard, one after another, their own mother tongues being spoken, they were thunderstruck. They couldn’t for the life of them figure out what was going on, and kept saying, “Aren’t these all Galileans? How come we’re hearing them talk in our various mother tongues? They’re speaking our languages, describing God’s mighty works!” (Acts 2:5-8, 11)
Ok, now the big stuff. Why do we need this speaking in tongues stuff? Think about it – even though they’re from many different parts of the world these are all Jews. They shared a common language – Hebrew. Peter and the disciples didn’t have to speak in many languages to communicate with them; they could’ve just spoken Hebrew. So why do we need the languages?
I think it’s because what’s being communicated is not information but experience – not facts but feelings – not text book stuff but song book stuff. I think this expression “speaking in tongues” or “speaking our languages” means that the disciples were filled and inspired by the Holy Spirit, and as they spoke their words penetrated the hearts of the people outside. For me, it wasn’t necessarily that they were speaking our equivalent of a mother-tongue like Spanish or Italian, but that they were speaking straight to the heart. It was heart-language.
I bet just about every one of you has experienced the same thing here in this place – maybe when I’m preaching and some turn of phrase just seems to hit you right between the eyes and stirs your soul, or maybe when the choir is singing and the music reverberates in your heart and you’re moved, or maybe in prayer times when you can tangibly feel the Spirit flowing and you feel a flush of emotion or compassion.
To speak in tongues isn’t supposed to be a parlour trick that impresses the socks off of newbies and demonstrates someone’s spiritual cred – it’s meant for the purpose of communicating an experience of God in such a way that it penetrates the hearer’s heart. Every time I stand here I’m praying that I am speaking in tongues – that as the words leave my mouth the Spirit who gave them to me in the first place will carry them and transform them into armour piercing ammunition that can be heard in your heart language.
Do I have the gift of tongues? I hope so.
Do YOU have the gift of tongues? I hope so!
This reading from Acts 2 is about the birth of the church. The followers of Jesus were gathered but dispirited. Then an awesome, indescribable, shared mystical experience of the Holy Spirit happened and what did they do? They ALL instantly were propelled out of their gathering place and found people to share their experience with.
They didn’t need to go off to theology school, they didn’t need to pass two years of catechism and commit certain scripture passages to memory, they just had a profound spiritual experience and it so moved and transformed them that they couldn’t help themselves but to engage in conversations with people and share their heart experience in such a way that it reached the heart of the other person.
And notice something that they weren’t randomly walking up to people and getting in their face forcing a spiritual experience on them. The people the disciples shared their “tongues” with were those who had ALSO HEARD THE SOUND and when they heard it THEY CAME ON THE RUN! These people had a spiritual experience of their own and were eager to hear more and have someone help them make sense of it.
The lesson of Pentecost is pretty clear. We struggle with it because we’d generally rather not own it.
Followers of Jesus open themselves to Spiritual experience and Spiritual transformation.
When it comes they can’t help themselves but to share it (kind of like Grandparents with pictures)! – and they share it with hungry, thirsty, curious, seeking, willing listeners.
And when they share their experience (not their opinions, or their theology, or some dogma, but their experience), if they speak of their passion, of the way Spirit has utterly transformed their being, then their words will communicate in the heart-language of the listener, and the Spirit can stir in them too.
And it all starts with openness to your own Pentecost experience. That, friends, is what this whole church thing is supposed to be about. That is the definition of spirituality – inner transformation FOR outer sharing.
If it’s so clear and simple why are we reluctant to own it? Because to do so is to take a great risk – we have to risk being thought a fool by folks who don’t get it, to be thought of as backward, or irrational, or quaint, or nuts. Acts 2:13 “Others joked, ‘They’re drunk on cheap wine!’”
People who haven’t had a spiritual experience that made them hungry or thirsty for more have always poo-poo’d the spiritually aware. And often they stereotype us and heap all kinds of inaccurate abuse on us. So what should we do when that happens? How about we take our cue from Peter in Acts 2:14-15?
“That’s when Peter stood up and, backed by the other eleven, spoke out with bold urgency: “Fellow Jews, all of you who are visiting Jerusalem, listen carefully and get this story straight. These people aren’t drunk as some of you suspect. They haven’t had time to get drunk – it’s only nine o’clock in the morning.”
With bold urgency he set the story straight. We could use some of that these days. There are too many misrepresentations out there about what it means to be a Christian, mostly because we’ve been too timid to stand up and offer an alternate explanation.
And then Peter drives it home, quoting the prophet Joel: Acts 2:17-18 God says, “I will pour out my Spirit on every kind of people: Your sons will prophesy, also your daughters; Your young will see visions, your old dream dreams. When the time comes, I’ll pour out my Spirit On those who serve me, men and women both, and they’ll prophesy.”
God is constantly pouring out Spirit on us all. And if we dare to breathe it in we will find ourselves just like those disciples on the day of Pentecost – transformed and out there sharing the experience. This word ‘prophesy’ doesn’t mean fortune-telling, it simply means to speak of and share something that was revealed to you through the Spirit. Prophesying is pretty much the same as evangelizing. Prophets experience God and then speak of their encounter – they share the message. That’s what happens to inspired, Spirit-filled people – they prophesy, they evangelize, they love.
I know that people have difficulty with the word ‘evangelism’. I guess too many people over the years have gotten mixed up, not followed scripture, and tried to evangelize reluctant people. That is simply wrong. Evangelism is sharing your spiritual experience with someone who’s hungry and thirsty to hear it. It should be as natural as breathing. If you only breathe in and don’t breathe out you’re going to explode, and if you breathe Spirit in you won’t be able to help yourself but to live Spirit out by sharing the experience with others.
The problem likely isn’t that you’re shy about your faith, or that you don’t know enough about the bible or theology, or that you’re struggling with baggage from somebody’s evangelistic excesses of the past – the problem is probably that you’re not allowing yourself to breathe deeply enough!
Followers of Jesus, like YOU, open yourselves to Spiritual experience and Spiritual transformation. That’s the point of this place!
When that spiritual experience comes you can’t help yourself but to share it; and you should share it with hungry, thirsty, curious, seeking, willing listeners.
And when you share your experience (not your opinions, or even your theology, but your experience), if you speak of your passion, of your heart strangely-warmed, of the way Spirit has inspired and energized you, and has utterly transformed your being, then you will be prophesying, and your words will communicate in the heart-language of the listener.
It’s simple – if you experience Spirit you become inspired. And like the disciples, you’ll find yourself in motion, in heart-to-heart conversations, sharing what inspired you. That movement of Spirit, that sense of motion, needs to be our defining characteristic if we’re going to continue to be a church. Jesus began a movement. We respond by building buildings – which by definition are stationary things. We need a culture shift.
Today is the start of a sermon series called ‘Con Moto’. Musicians will know that that means ‘with motion’. We’re going to look at how Jesus calls people into motion, and sends them into the world with loving purpose. Being in motion doesn’t mean you never pause, and pray, and worship, and recharge your batteries. It mostly means we ought to imagine places like this as less of a destination, and more of a pit stop. Today at our pit stop, we’re refilling our tank with the Holy Spirit. And then, inspired, con moto we go, prophesying, evangelizing, loving. Like Jesus. Amen.