When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?… In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. – Acts 2:1-8, 11b-18
Well, last Sunday we had little green cards, and this Sunday we have big red… well, big red everything, because it’s Pentecost Sunday. We know what Pentecost is all about for us Christians; what’s going on in that passage from Acts that I told to the kids; right? The story takes place after Jesus has ascended, and now his followers are gathered in Jerusalem to observe the Jewish festival of Pentecost, that was always fifty days after Passover. It was both a thanksgiving for the grain harvest, as well as a celebration of the covenant that God made with Moses at Mount Sinai. And while they’re gathered together, they’ve finished their morning devotions, maybe they’re sitting around having some breakfast, scanning the paper, checking Facebook while they have a cup of coffee, this amazing thing happens. This incredible, indescribable thing that Luke and his sources can only describe as something like a roaring wind. Today, any time the roaring wind of a tornado rolls through somewhere and tears everything to bits, the news crews show up in the aftermath and it seems like every time, there’s always somebody who tells them “It sounded just like a freight train!” But since they didn’t have freight trains in first-century Jerusalem, Luke was stuck for a simile and just had to settle for “it was like the rush of a violent wind,” and let it go at that.
And then, according to the story, things get really weird.
Something like tongues of fire hover over all their heads, and they ran out of the house and into the street and started speaking in different languages that the religious pilgrims visiting from many different countries were able to understand as they stood there watching the scene unfold.
Thinking about this story, it’s pretty easy to see why Pentecost is sometimes called the “birthday of the church.” A bunch of people were sitting around minding their own business, when all of a sudden God lights a fire under them – well, technically, over them – to get them out of the house and out into the street, and to start sharing God’s good news with others in a way that they can understand it, and all the while them not really understanding exactly how it was all happening. I mean, think about it – other than a potluck and a committee meeting or two, that’s a pretty good description of what the church is all about, or at least what it should be all about.
The Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of God, comes to dwell within them and empowers them, energizes them in ways they’d never imagined possible. And this story continues within us, too. That same Spirit is active in our lives, and in the current church, too. Most of the time, when we think about the Holy Spirit, we tend to think about the Spirit as being a Comforter for us, and that’s certainly true. But this story is about another aspect of the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s the “get off your hands, get out of your comfort zone, and follow me into something new” aspect of the Holy Spirit that we get in this story. That always-stirring-the-pot work of the Spirit that’s always been behind the changes and advances of the church throughout its history. I think it’s safe to say that when a church congregation dies, more often than not it was because it wanted to stick with familiarity more than it was willing to hear and accept where God’s Spirit was calling them into new things. It wasn’t because people weren’t interested in God, faith spirituality Studies show over and over again that people’s desire for spirituality, and longing for an authentic connection with God and a community of faith, really has remained constant even if they aren’t interested in the same, traditional way the church is offering it. That’s exactly what the latest Pew Research poll shows – that the percentage of the U.S. population identifying as Christian has dropped by eight percent in the past seven years, while their longing for that kind of spiritual connection has actually stayed about the same.
I believe that, as many people have suggested, we’re in the midst of a period of church history that only comes around every 500 years or so, a period where the Holy Spirit is calling us, the church, to rethink almost everything in order to reconnect with people – to share the good news of God’s love and to be a real, well-rounded, connected community of faith in new ways that make sense to people today – people whose way of understanding God, humanity, and the universe is as different from the way we understood them in the 1960s as the way we understood them in the 60s was different from the days when Luke wrote the Book of Acts. Is it possible that that the findings of this latest Pew study are a sign that the Holy Spirit is telling us to get out of our house, and learn a new language, as it were, just as those disciples did? Is it possible that, if all this red fabric is supposed to symbolize fire, the most appropriate place to put it would be on our pew cushions?
I think one of the ways that the Holy Spirit can be seen teaching the church new languages today is in the PCUSA’s “1001 New Worshiping Communities” initiative, which has started more than 250 non-traditional worshiping communities in just the past couple of years – more worshiping communities, I might add, than the total number of congregations that have left the denomination in the same timeframe. These new communities are exhibiting ways of being church that many of us might hardly even recognize as “church,” but they’re proclaiming the gospel in new ways – in new languages – and they’re being heard by more and more people, and they’re growing.
As just one example of their reimagining what church could be like, a number of them meet weekly, but their gatherings would only look anything like what we’d think of as a standard Sunday worship service maybe once a month. The rest of the times, they’ll get together – sometimes, all together, other times in smaller subgroups – and they’ll have a short devotional and prayer, and then they’ll participate in some mission work – volunteering at a food pantry, or a homeless shelter, or visiting people in nursing homes, even people they don’t even know. Or they’ll have a common meal, or a picnic, or a bowling trip or a softball game; whatever. These communities have learned two things: first, that while people crave this kind of spiritual connection and sense of authentic community, contemporary schedules are just ridiculously tight, and not out of not caring about spiritual matters, but out of financial and family necessity. Whether anyone likes it or not, most people don’t have the amount of time available each week to devote to a community of faith in the traditional ways that its activities have been programmed and scheduled. It isn’t that people don’t want to participate; the way things exist, they just can’t. Second, these new worshiping communities have realized that done properly, all of these kinds of gatherings are actually valid and meaningful forms of worship just as much as a traditional Sunday service – and in some cases, maybe more so. They’ve realized that there is really no division or distinction between worship, mission, fellowship. It’s all worship; it’s all mission; it’s all fellowship.
That’s just one new language the Holy Spirit is teaching the church. It’s obviously a very different one from the one we’ve traditionally been speaking. But whatever the specifics, I promise you that in this time of major transition in the history of the church, God is trying to push us out into the street and to teach us a new language too, just like those disciples in Jerusalem. Yes, that can be scary. But they were scared, too, and the Spirit still guided them and empowered them and equipped them for the task God was calling them to. And God has promised to do the exact same for us.
So this week, I guess I invite you to think and pray about what new language God might be calling you to learn. Think about that on a congregational level, yes, but also on a personal level, too. Is God trying to lead you into some new way of living out and sharing your faith with others? If so, what might it be? If you can discern what it is, grab onto it and don’t let go. Learning that new language, and being willing to follow God where the Spirit is leading you, drawing you, will be an amazing thing – even if all the while, it will be something scary, and loud, and earth-shaking and unsettling, and you don’t really know where it’s going – just like a freight train.
Thanks be to God.