Happy birthday, Church (sermon)

Pentecost, Year A
June 8, 2014
Acts 2:1-21, John 7:37-39

Here it comes—the Holy Spirit.  Are you ready?  You should be ready.  The readings for these past few weeks have been trying to get you ready.  A few weeks ago we heard Jesus promise that he would not leave his disciples orphaned: a Paraclete, an Advocate, a Helper, would come to them. And last week, when we were celebrating the Ascension, Jesus once again promised the disciples that they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit.

The disciples were probably looking forward to that.  After all, they’d seen Jesus baptized by John in the Jordan River, and they saw the Holy Spirit descending on him in the form of a dove.  A nice, gentle, sweet white dove.  A peaceful, pastoral sign to everyone that God was on Jesus’ side.

The post-ascension disciples probably thought that would be an awfully nice thing to have about then.  Fifty days before they’d seen Jesus nailed to a Roman instrument of torture—a deterrent to proclaiming the gospel if ever there was one.  Now they were clustered together in an upper room in Jerusalem.

And by “they” I don’t just mean the apostles, but everyone who’d be following Jesus from the beginning, including his mother and his brothers and other women and men.  And the text tells us that they were continually devoting themselves to prayer, but for what?  This was a group of people who loved Jesus, and believed that he had been raised—but beyond that, they weren’t really sure who they were, or what God wanted them to do.

And in the midst of that kind of uncertainty, the promise of the Holy Spirit must have sounded really nice.  Especially if what you picture when you think about the Holy Spirit as a nice white dove, gently cooing assurance that God is on your side.

I point this out because what actually happens when the Holy Spirit comes to that upper room…what actually happens is terrifying.

Imagine that you’re a disciple of Jesus.  A month and a half ago, you watched him get nailed to a cross.  You watched him die.  You watched as the political system and the priests of your religion conspired to make that happen.

You were there when Jesus started appearing on the third day.  You touched his hands and side.  You ate breakfast with him on the beach.  You watched him ascend into heaven.  In the past fifty days, you have both scraped the bottom of the barrel of despair, and ridden to the tops of the heights of joy.

And now you’re in the city for Pentecost, a major Jewish festival requiring everyone who’s able to come to the city for worship.  The last time this happened, the authorities used the circumstances as an excuse to arrest your Messiah and put him to death.  A storm is brewing.  You don’t want to draw attention to yourselves.

And suddenly, the storm is breaking in the very room you’re in!  There’s a sound like the rush of violent wind, in your room, all over the house, the sound breaking out into the streets and drawing a crowd, and then there’s fire, tongues of fire everywhere, but they don’t seem to be hurting anyone.

And as people of the street being to stop and stare, and you try to deal with the fact that you seem to be on fire, the thought crosses your mind: This whole “not drawing attention to ourselves” plan is going really well.

So you raise your voice and speak, trying to reassure the crowds that everything’s fine, really, just ignore the flames, and you notice that the members of the crowd are looking at you really strangely.  Then you remember that it’s Pentecost, so there’s people in the city from every point of the compass, from every corner of the known world.  So you open your mouth to try a few words of Greek, but before you can, one of the people in the crowd says, “Aren’t you Galilean?”  You stammer yes, and they say, “How did you learn Parthian?”

“Parthian?!” says the guy standing next to him.  “He’s speaking the language of Crete!”

And you look at the disciple standing next to you, and see the same confused look on her face.  And then you both shrug: If you’re standing on quicksand, you might as well try tap-dancing.

So you start to speak about God’s works of power.

Some laugh.  Some listen. Some sneer.  Some ask where they can get ahold of the wine you’ve been drinking.

And then, Peter starts to speak.

We nickname Pentecost “the birthday of the church,” but why?  Why shouldn’t Easter or Christmas be the birthday of the Church?  If being a Christian is about following Christ, then why is the birthday of the Church a day when Jesus is pointedly not there?

And it’s not like it’s the Holy Spirit’s birthday, either.  The Holy Spirit is as old as God, as old as Jesus—it was there in the beginning, with the Word, God’s breath moving over the waters.

So when is it?  When is the moment that the Church is born in today’s reading?

I believe that the answer is: during Peter’s sermon.  It’s his first sermon, you know.  It’s the first time since Jesus ascended that he stands up and proclaims the good news publicly: Jesus of Nazareth lived and died and was raised, and he is the Messiah.

This is what the Holy Spirit did that day in Jerusalem: she took a bunch of men and women locked in an upper room, and she turned them from a huddled mass into a movement.  On that day in Jerusalem, the disciples changed their M.O. from reacting to acting.  They started going out.  They started living like they weren’t afraid anymore about what Rome or the Jewish authorities or anyone else might do to them.  They started drawing attention to themselves.  They started living victoriously.

The disciples in the upper room might have been waiting for that sweet white dove, cooing assurances that God was on their side.  But the Holy Spirit is nothing if not unexpected.  So she came in wind and tongues of flame, and declared not that God was on their side, but that, in fact, they were on God’s side.  And to make sure they took note of the difference, she sent them out, for the sake of the world.

That’s what it means to be on God’s side.  That’s what it means to be the Church. It doesn’t mean that we get God’s stamp of approval on everything we think and do.

It means that God will transform us to think and do—at least a little bit—like God does.

It means that we look at our brothers and sisters with compassion instead of with judgment.

It means that we change from looking at our neighbor’s plate to see whether they got more than us, to looking at our neighbor’s plate to make sure they got enough.

It means that we stop focusing on our own stories in order to start  telling God’s story—we notice and proclaim how God is moving and shaking this world until everyone starts seeing how God’s kingdom has come.

That’s what the Holy Spirit does: she turns us out, so that we live for others, and not only for ourselves.  She is the power that enables us to love others as Jesus loved us.  That’s what happened in Jerusalem on that Pentecost: Peter stopped worrying about what would happen to him if people knew who he was and what he believed, and started worrying about what would happen to them if he didn’t.

I’m not even convinced that he was worried that they would go to Hell.  He was more concerned that they would have to live the rest of their lives without knowing what God had done for them: without knowing that God had come to earth and walked among them, and loved them and wept with them and died for them, and then rose again in order to break the power of death to pieces, so that we can have abundant life, life as sweet and satisfying as streams of water in the wildness.  That happened.  How could Peter not tell that story?

How can we not?

That’s the moment when the Church was born, when the Holy Spirit changed the direction of the disciples hearts: from pointing in, to pointing out.  That’s the Church you were made a part of, when you were baptized with water and the Spirit.  You and I, we were baptized not just for the assurance of salvation, but for the sake of the world.  For the sake of loving, of being compassionate, of proclaiming this marvelous story in word and in deed.

And when you were baptized in water and Holy Spirit, you were given a candle, and told to let your light shine before others, so that others may see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven.  You were born to burn brightly with the light of the Holy Spirit, topping the birthday cake of this marvelous community of saints and sinners.

Happy Birthday, Church.  Happy birthday to you.


Photo by Will Clayton. Flickr–CC Attribution.


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