A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 8, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Acts 2:1-21
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Every year, we come to this story.  Every year, 50 days after Easter, we read from Acts 2 and we hear the story of the birth of the church.

The last chapters of the gospels and the first chapter of Acts tells us about the disciples having palpable experiences of the presence of Jesus even though he was dead.  They had experiences that were so concrete it was like he was physically present, even though they were locked away in rooms.  They had experiences that were so profound they were sure they were getting directions from him even though they knew the Roman government had killed him.

But then those experiences we call “resurrection experiences” stopped.  The sense of the presence of Jesus was no longer like he was physically present to them.  It was as if he had disappeared into the presence of God and since, given the cosmology of that time, God was in the heavens and the heavens are “up,” they talked about Jesus ascending into the heavens.

Last week, Pastor Brenda preached about what happened after this “ascension.”  She told us about how the disciples discerned a mission, a purpose.  They discerned that Jesus was calling them to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”[1]  The line from Pastor Brenda’s sermon that stuck with me all week is that, after discerning this calling, the disciples (and I’m not just talking about the 12; this was a sizable group of men and women) formed a community, not a committee.  They devoted themselves to praying together and they selected an additional leader, someone to take the place of Judas Iscariot, and the community formed.

It was on one of those days, on Pentecost, the Jewish festival of new harvest, when this new community was gathered together in their upper room, praying together, that God acted.  The Holy Spirit blew through the community and they started sharing the good news.  Apparently they were speaking loudly enough that people outside, people from all around the Mediterranean world, could hear them – and not only hear them, but understand them.

“On a Jewish feast that celebrated new life and new crops by offering a gift of first fruits in gratitude and praise,… these Jewish ‘ignorant, backwater folks’ (a stereotype conveyed by the term ‘Galileans,’ but lost to us today as we read the text) become impassioned, eloquent spokespersons for the gift of new life, the beginning of a brand new era in which God is fulfilling promises and salvation is drawing near.”[2]

“According to Marcus Borg, the Spirit on this Pentecost undoes what happened on the Tower of Babel (in Genesis 11) as it brings back together the broken and divided community of humankind.”[3]  You’ll remember that the story of the Tower of Babel tells about the people taking advantage of all speaking one language and trying to “make a name for themselves” by building a tower to the heavens, to the thrown of God.  God dealt with this hubris by confusing the languages of the people, thus making communication impossible and scattering the people throughout the earth.  Pentecost reverses this, making people from across the earth understand each other.

Bringing back together the broken and divided community of the Tri-Cities is a big part of our vision for our church.  We proclaim that we are united – united – in God’s love for everyone’s journey … no exceptions.  We are and are becoming a place of healing and wholeness for all God’s people, reaching in and reaching out with the gifts that we have to make manifest the radically inclusive love and extravagant welcome of God.  We do this in many ways – to name a few, we do it by creating a place of spiritual nurture in our worship service; by nurturing the faith journey of our children and adults; by creating a center for worship and mission (where it can take place and out of which it can take place); and by bringing the church to our members who can no longer come to church themselves.

That’s what we’re celebrating today.  Focusing on just a handful of the ministries of our church and letting them represent all the ministries of the church, we are showing how, together we build the house of God.  When I first started thinking about this sermon, I thought about how the Spirit is alive in our church.  Our ministries do show how the Spirit is blowing through our congregation, empowering our ability to live out the good news.  And as I thought more about the scripture reading, I realized the church is also alive in the Spirit.  It really is a both/and thing.  The Spirit empowers our ability to minister and our ministry is alive in the Spirit.  The importance of the story isn’t only, “Wow! Look at what the Spirit is doing in that church!”  It is also, “Wow! Look at what that church is doing in the Spirit!”

When the disciples gathered in the safety of the upper room, the Spirit came and the story moved forward.  Once again, God reignited the work of God’s people, gathering in God’s people in love and blessing.  In the mystery of fire and wind, language and understanding, the fearful disciples were converted to the work that God has always been doing:  loving, gathering and uniting, forgiving and raising up.  “The community gathered in that room could articulate every kind of reason not to go – lacking the right words or training or free time or money.  Yet they [were] suddenly and miraculously inspired, despite themselves, to act just like Jesus.  The Spirit embodied in Jesus now fill[ed] their bodies – the body of Christ.

“Today, our shifting cultural landscape creates fear about our future.  We might not be gathered in an upper room, but there is a lot of fear in [sanctuaries and social halls of the churches].  We wonder if our towers and our treasured belief[s] will survive the winds of this century.”[4]  We can let our fear keep us sheltered away or we can let the Spirit continue to blow through our lives and continue to find new ways to gather in God’s people in love and blessing.

We say that Pentecost is the church’s birthday, but it’s not the founding of an institution.  It’s the inauguration of a movement of people “who speak blessing and take back curses.”[5]

I read about “a Pentecost children’s sermon in which the pastor asked the children how many candles should be on the church’s birthday cake.  Eventually, one kid guessed the year – but she added that ‘you can’t blow out that many candles.’”[6]  Think about that.  “You can’t blow out that many candles.”  Whenever I fear about the future of the church, I remind myself that it is God’s church, that the Spirit is empowering the church and human beings can’t blow it out.

“Again and again, God promises to set us on fire with a promise that cannot be extinguished.  From the pinnacle of Pentecost, we hear that God is already at work filling the whole creation with blessing.…  If we’re [lucky and if we allow ourselves to be not too] careful, it’s going to carry us away, too – to the ends of the earth, or at least out the door and into the wideness of creation.”[7]

Amen.

__________________

[1] Acts 1:8

[2]  Matthew L. Skinner in New Proclamation Year B 2006, cited by Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/june-8-2014.html (5 June 2014).

[3] Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, cited by Huey, ibid.

[4] Bradley E. Schmeling, “Living by the Word,” Christian Century, 28 May 2014, p 21.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

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