Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
May 24, 2015
Pentecost Sunday: Acts 2:1-16
When I was in seminary, Ken, a fellow student from Japan, found America’s “alternative newspapers” worthy of his attention. I am speaking of the papers found next to the grocery store checkouts—stellar pieces of journalistic excellence such as the National Inquirer. If there was something in an issue he felt we should know, he would inform us. One such article was about a pastor who spontaneously combusted in the pulpit. As we were studying to become preachers, this was something worth noting and became a big joke among those of us who lived on the 3rd Floor of Fisher Hall.
It was during this time that I somehow obtained the honor of being the first student of our class to preach at chapel. The morning of chapel, a fellow student went into the hall and “borrowed” fire extinguishers from the walls by the doors and placed one on each side of the pulpit, just in case. This was done with no explanation and most people didn’t notice until I was half way through the sermon… On about the fourth pew back sat my fellow classmates from 3rd Floor Fisher. I notice one of them pointing to the fire extinguishers and poking the guy beside him and this continued down the line.
As I waxed eloquently about some deep theological point of eternal significance, and much of the audience struggled to stay awake, this one row began to laugh uncontrollably. I buried my head in my notes, knowing that I ever looked up it would be over. Most of those present that morning never got the joke, they just wondered what the fire extinguishers were doing by the pulpit and assumed everyone from 3rd Floor Fisher was rude.
Another story. When I lived in Whiteville, North Carolina, a few miles out of town was a little white church down by the intersection of two rural roads. There were never more than a half-dozen cars in its parking lot on Sunday mornings when I passed it heading to church. I never stopped. I wish I had, but there was something about its name that made me reluctant, yet curious… The name, painted in red on an old board and nailed to a pine tree out by the road went something like this: “Fire-baptized Fundamentalist, Primitive Free-will Baptist Church.”
What is it about fire that both incites our imagination and also causes fear? Fire is used in worship—from the candles on our table to Israel’s sacrifices. It is also a sign of God’s presence from the burning bush to the cloud leading Israel across the desert, on to Elijah’s triumph over the prophets of Baal and the visions of Isaiah and John of God’s throne with the flaming altars. And then there is Pentecost, and God pouring out his Spirit as with tongues of fire… Fire is the perfect metaphor for the Spirit, because it is hard to control and dangerous, but desperately needed. Doesn’t that sound like God’s Spirit? Today, as we continue working our way through Acts, let us listen to what happened on this day… Read Acts 2:1-16
What a difference a day makes? Think about how one day can seemingly change the world. September 11th: we’ll never forget it. November 22nd: the day Kennedy was shot. December 7th: the Day of Infamy. October 29th: the crash of the stock market. August 4th: the beginning of World War I. All these are days in which the world seemed to stand still for a moment and, once passed, we found ourselves in a new era.
Included right up there with Easter, the day of resurrection; Good Friday, the Day of Atonement for Christians; and Christmas, the day we celebrate the birth of our Savior, the day of Pentecost is such a defining moment for the church. On this day the church was given a jump-start; on this day the church became a living and growing entity. Pentecost is our birthday although in a way it is just the last major event that began with the crucifixion. In a way, the Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost are all a part of the same movement. God is at work undoing the powers of sin and establishing an eternal reign.
This morning, let’s consider three truths of Pentecost. First: God is the primary actor. God takes the initiative and without whom, our efforts are in vain. Second, there is a link between the Old and New Covenants. The festival represents the giving of the law, and on Pentecost, the Spirit comes writing the law into the hearts of men and women, fulfilling Jeremiah’s prophecy. Finally, God’s action on Pentecost reminds us the true nature of the church is multicultural. The separation of people that occurred after the Tower of Babel has been undone. God has called us all back together with a common language, the language of grace, and with a common focus, Jesus Christ.
First, let’s start with the story and consider the role God plays. As dawn broke on this day in question, there were a handful of believers, 120 or so. From this small beginning, the Christian faith now claims approximately 1/3 of the world’s population.
As most of you know, this past year I went through training to become a firefighter. One of the many videos that was recommended we watched showed the development of a fire. Silent Night was playing in the background. What started as a small spark with a frayed electrical cord in the tree had, before the song ended, consumed the entire room. At first, it was just a spark, then it smoldered as it built up gases that filled the room and soon combusted and, in less than 3 minutes, everything was blazing. Fire can be unpredictable and can builds exponentially. Fire can destroy and purify.
That’s what happened to these “tongues of flames” that fell upon the small group of believers who’d gathered on Pentecost. Filled with God’s Spirit, they went out setting the world on fire. When the morning began, they sat around not knowing what to do. They had been given a mission, Jesus was pretty specific before his departure that they’re to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. But they are like a car with no gas. They have a purpose, but no energy. So they wait. They wait knowing Jesus has promised his Spirit. They wait not knowing what to expect. They wait in the morning calm, wondering…
This motley collection of men and women are not the type of people you’d think could change the world. And they don’t change the world. That’s part of the point of the story. God’s the primary actor here. Or, another way of looking at it, God is the playwright and the director. Without God’s intervention, nothing would have happened. And the same is true in our lives, when we encounter the gospel. God can use us all; we don’t have to be sophisticated or multi-talented. The primary skill needed is faithfulness and trust in the power of God. If God is for us, no one can stand against us. If God is against us, well, then we’re in trouble…
The second aspect of Pentecost I want us to consider is the linkage between the Old and New Covenant. Those who’d gathered on this morning, on the day of Pentecost, gathered to celebrate a Jewish holiday. The name Pentecost is derived from the festival being held on the fiftieth day following the Passover. The festival was also known as the Feasts of the Weeks, the Feast of the Harvest, or the Day of the First Fruits. Originally it was when the grain harvest was formally dedicated, but over time the festival had come to represent the giving of the law on Sinai, which, according to tradition, occurred fifty days after the Exodus from Egypt.
The two flames on our Presbyterian cross represent the two covenants—the Old and the New Testament. The flame of the Old Testament was the giving of the law on Sinai. The other flame represents the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, or the fulfillment of the prophecy from Jeremiah that God will write the law onto the hearts of believers.
To have the fullness of God’s word, to know God to the best of our limited human abilities, we must draw upon both the Old and the New Testaments. The two covenants remind us of the mysterious nature of our God. God is God; we are a part of God’s creation. What we know about God has been revealed to us by the Almighty, first in the Hebrew Scriptures and then, the final revelation, in the life of Jesus Christ. Again, God is the actor; God is the one engaging the world.
The final aspect of Pentecost I want us to consider is how this event serves as a model for God’s intention for the world. Consider the group who’d gathered on this morning. They were all Jews. Yet first century Judaism was more multi-cultural than they were. Most of the group were from Galilee, a territory to the north of Jerusalem. They gather, a homogeneous lot, without an idea as to what would happen. Soon a violent wind destroys the morning calm. Luke describes the coming of the Spirit as a gale blowing into the house where they’d gathered. Picture the curtains blowing, the dishes rattling in the cupboards. They are frightened, for the afternoon breezes are hours away. “What’s going on,” they wonder? Luke goes on to say that the wind was like tongues of fire; like a wildfire that gains momentum consuming all that’s around. And those who had gathered begin to speak, in all different kinds of languages.
In addition to celebrating the giving of the law, the Pentecost holiday was special for another reason. Passover was considered the “high holy day” for the first century Jewish faithful. But because it was such a long trip, many would stay through Pentecost and would have caught wind of what’s happening at this time. We need to remember that by the first century, Jewish settlements had been established throughout the Mediterranean region. This explains why there were so many different people in Jerusalem for this festival. They’d come to worship; they’d come with expectation. When most people make a religious pilgrimage, they expect something to happen. And here, as they’ve gathered in their ancestral homeland, people who were no longer fluent in Hebrew, begin to hear the gospel in their native languages.
Again, God is the one who is acting. The early disciples and believers who’d gathered weren’t sitting around scheming, trying to create a strategic plan of how the church would grow. And if they had been, you can bet they wouldn’t have even considered reaching such a diverse group of people as they did that day. After all, these people had a tradition of interacting only with those who looked and sounded and acted like they did. Again, God is doing the work here. God’s vision is much larger than they could imagine. God is calling all people to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. What is our vision of what God might do through us?
The story of Pentecost is really about the power of the gospel. God’s power is beyond anything we can ever imagine. God can create a community from a diverse group; God can bring together enemies, people who are culturally different; people who don’t even speak the same language. Pentecost is about the power of the gospel to heal rifts within society. Pentecost also reminds us of God’s true intention for his coming kingdom? Are we ready for such a world? Are we ready to experience God’s power? If so, pray for the Spirit to fill your lives and the life of our fellowship. And be ready! Amen.
 William H. Willimon, Acts: Intrepretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 28.
 Jeremiah 31:33.
 Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 74-75