Happy Birthday and No, We’re Not Intoxicated
A Sermon by
Rev. Richard J. Koch
May 20, 2018
Trinity Presbyterian Church
The day of Pentecost. The birthday of the church. Happy birthday church! This day represents one of the “big three” of the church calendar year; meaning Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. Yet, over time and through cultural changes, this day has sort of been shoved to the side. Christmas, actually, really didn’t start rising to high status in the church and cultural popularity until just over a couple hundred years ago. Easter was always a big deal in the church and Pentecost was well observed from the beginning. In modern times, Pentecost has slipped to a place of obscurity, which is a shame, because it embodies the arrival of the Holy Spirit ready to give the church a voice proclaiming the good news unto the world. Maybe if we had a Pentecost tree, and Pentecost lights, and a Pentecost critter that would deliver surprise gifts. Yet, no, and maybe keeping crass commercialism out of the picture serves this season better. Nonetheless, this represents the birthday of the church and a celebration is in order.
Interestingly, Pentecost was not originally a Christian observance. The Jews observed Pentecost in antiquity as the feast of the barley harvest fifty days after the Passover celebration. Jewish tradition believed the Law was given to Moses on this day. Therefore, it may be likely that the disciples, who all gathered “… in one place …” were themselves preparing to celebrate the Jewish feast. The Law was a really big deal and so the city of Jerusalem would have been bustling with people ready to commemorate the anniversary of Moses bringing the tablets down from Mount Horeb.
Preceding and even immediately after the death of Jesus, scripture reveals how time and again the followers of Jesus had let him down. They fell asleep when he asked them to be vigilant in the Garden of Gethsemane. They all abandoned him through his trial and death on a cross. They struggled to believe in his resurrection from death to life. So, at least by this point of their less than stellar track record they got a couple of things right. In the first chapter of Acts, our living Lord was reported to have encountered the disciples over a forty-day periodandrepeatedly visited and encouraged them after his death and in resurrected bodily form. Jesus was actually eating with them when he gave them the instruction, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
The disciples, at this point, sort of remind me of the baseball movie “Bull Durham” when veteran catcher “Crash” Davis, played by Kevin Costner, is sent to the Durham Bulls to school up the hot pitching prospect “Nuke” Laloosh, played by Tim Robbins. Nuke thinks he knows all he needs to know about pitching, yet Crash tells him he has a “million-dollar arm and a ten-cent head.” On the mound, during one game, Nuke shakes off the sign given to him by Crash and so Crash tells the batter he’s giving him a gift by revealing the next pitch will be a sweet, hanging curve ball, which of course the batter slams out of the park. Well, Nuke began to learn his lesson and do whatever Crash told him to do. “Don’t think, just pitch.” At the point of Pentecost, one can almost imagine the disciples muttering to themselves, “Stay put, wait for the Father’s gift. Stay put, wait for the Father’s gift.” They each so many times had tried to pitch their own games rather than follow the desires of Jesus.
Well, the gift came and the church was born. This wasn’t just some quiet, private spiritual moment. This was extroverted. God made a scene. “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.” The coming of the Holy Spirit wasn’t some secret fraternity ritual. It was meant for the whole world. The sound of the wind was loud enough to attract a crowd around the house where the disciples were gathered. In effect, the sound God made that day was public and apparent to believers and non-believers alike. “They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.” One couldn’t be a closet disciple of Jesus at this moment in time. Each one of them was marked and identified by the baptizing flames of the Holy Spirit. It was public and pronounced. “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” God’s Holy Spirit clearly came to make a statement.
The Rev. Dr. Thomas Long put it this way, “The gift we get on Pentecost is the one gift we most desperately need and the world needs. Strangely enough, the gift of Pentecost is the gift of something to say, a Word to speak in the brokenness and tragedy of the world that is unlike any other word.Did you notice what happened to the church when the Spirit was given? It stood up and it spoke. It moved from silence to language. It talked and the whole world heard the good news in its own languages.” Pentecost, the birthday of the church, epitomizes the antithesis of the Tower of Babel. Where once God scattered humanity to the corners of the earth divided by the barriers of different languages to quench the fire of human pride, now God speaks to the world through gospel love. The birthday of the church embodies the Word of the Lord to bring healing upon a broken world.
Of course, some witnessed the spectacle of the first Pentecost and pronounced the judgement that the disciples had had too much wine. The wonder of the phenomenon before their eyes surely characterized a drunken party. A party, perhaps, yet sober and serious. The Holy Spirit arrived and was ready to lead the new church with the Word of God and the good news of Christ. As Peter proclaimed, “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.’”
This is all well and good, but what does this have to do with the church today? Does the Holy Spirit speak to the church universal and Trinity Presbyterian in particular? Is it still birthday time for the church? Returning to Rev. Dr. Long who shares this precious story about a time when, as a new pastor in a small church he announced he was initiating a class on the basics of Christian faith for beginning believers, or even those veterans who wanted a refresher course. On the day of the class he was somewhat deflated to find only three grade school girls had showed up to learn. Nevertheless, he began teaching them and when the season of Pentecost came he asked “Do you girls know what Pentecost is?” They didn’t know. Picking up the story in Pastor Long’s own words, “’Well, Pentecost was when the church was seated in a circle and tongues of fire came down from heaven and landed on their heads and they spoke the gospel in all the languages of the world.’ Two of the little girls took that rather calmly, but one of them got her eyes as big as saucers. And when she could finally speak, she said, ‘Reverend Long, we must have been absent that Sunday!’ The beautiful thing about that is not that she misunderstood. The beautiful thing is that she thought it could have happened in our church, that God's Spirit could have come even to our little congregation and given us a word to speak that the world desperately needs to hear.”
We know the Spirit of God still works through this church. When the wind blew off some of our shingles a few weeks ago and a total stranger who happened to be visiting from out of state, and happened to be a roofer by trade, felt God call him to repair our roof at no cost, we know the Holy Spirit knows us and is watching us. We know the Spirit of God still works through this church when the people here are called to pray for one another, serve one another, reach out to the broken needs of our community, and be the many voices of God’s good news to a weary world.
The Holy Spirit transforms. The Spirit changes the heart hardened with hate, to one that loves. It converts people and communities from a restrictive pattern of dying, to the vibrancy of life. When I was in grade school, I did a report on a person from American history, and I chose George Washington Carver. One of the hallmarks of that incredible scientist was his stead fast faith. Here, in his words, is the description of his conversion to faith: “I was just a mere boy when converted, hardly ten years old. There isn't much of a story to it. God just came into my heart one afternoon while I was alone in the 'loft' of our big barn while I was shelling corn to carry to the mill to be ground into meal. A dear little white boy, one of our neighbors, about my age came by one Saturday morning, and in talking and playing he told me he was going to Sunday school tomorrow morning. I was eager to know what a Sunday school was. He said they sang hymns and prayed. I asked him what prayer was and what they said. I do not remember what he said; only remember that as soon as he left I climbed up into the 'loft,' knelt down by the barrel of corn and prayed as best I could. I do not remember what I said. I only recall that I felt so good that I prayed several times before I quit.My brother and myself were the only [black] children in that neighborhood and of course, we could not go to church or Sunday school, or school of any kind. That was my simple conversion, and I have tried to keep the faith.” What’s truly remarkable about his story of coming to faith is that as a child he didn’t attend a church. He didn’t have the advantage of Sunday School. He probably knew very little, if anything at all, about the bible and its stories. Yet, his young heart reached out to God and the extroverted, statement making, Holy Spirit responded in a way that changed his life forever.
I never tire of the Pentecost story from Acts. It represents the bold, unavoidable presence of God through the wild winds and fire of the Holy Spirit. It embodies, among many other things, the exuberant voice of God that says, “Let’s go!” And go it does. When you feel broken and vulnerable, isn’t it the Holy Spirit that shows up with a word, or act of hope? When someone needs love, isn’t it the Holy Spirit that moves us believers to love one another? When the church needs to stand up on its feet again and proclaim the good news to the world, isn’t it the Holy Spirit that crashes the party and renews our call to the gospel message? Holy Spirit, produce Your refreshing wind and breathe into us new life, and bring Your fiery love to burn in our hearts forever. Amen.