Acts 2: 1-4, 22-39
Today is Pentecost Sunday. And normally the reading for Pentecost is the story of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit when the tongues of fire come out to all the disciples, and the disciples, inspired by the Spirit, go forth and speak in tongues and in different languages that the people understand. But it’s just as much Pentecost when Peter stands up right after that and starts speaking in one language, and everyone still understands. So today I wanted to focus on what Peter says in this sermon as a way of interpreting, in his mind, what was happening on that day. What does this event mean?
Our story begins with Jesus. He has received power from God in the form of the Holy Spirit, and his promise is that that spirit, that power, would be poured out upon the disciples. This act shows that he has fulfilled the promise of sending the Spirit, but it also shows that he canfulfill the promise. This same power that Jesus has had it is now poured out upon the disciples. It’s poured out upon the church and the disciples working with in that church; working in tandem with Jesus. Now they have the power of God, and nothing is impossible when they’re doing God’s work.
It’s worth going on the tangent to note that you have to be doing God’s work for the Spirit’s power to play a part. This does not mean that you get to do anything that you want, but with God’s help when you are helping God, nothing is impossible. That is a distinction forgotten from time to time.
But this pouring out of the spirit is also meant to prove that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. Messiah was the anointed one, it was the one who is going to take David’s throne forever, as promised by God to David. One of the things a Messiah was supposed to do was overthrow the oppression of God‘s people, which they believed to be the Romans and not sin. But something has to be done to prove that Jesus is the Messiah, and one of the things that has to be done is he’s got to take the throne of David. And so this act, which can only be done from the right hand of God in the throne room of God, where David’s throne would theoretically be, is there to prove that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. This person, who the people of this city had rejected just 50 days earlier, was indeed the Messiah. This act is meant to prove that to you, Peter says, and this is to give you a second chance to listen to him; to give you a second chance to follow the Messiah. There may not be a third chance.
And to some extent it works. There’s a massive recruitment of new people; people who had not been convinced before if they have been in town 50 days earlier. 50 days earlier they hadn’t followed the disciples. They weren’t there in Galilee 10 days ago to see the ascension. 3000 people newly convinced. That’s pretty massive. That’s pretty successful. I have not seen very many events in Christianity that get 3000 new converts. This act seems to have worked, not for everyone, but certainly for quite a few. And so 3000 people come to Peter and ask “what do we have to do?” In other words, “how do we respond to this act of God that we’ve seen?”
First thing Peter says to do is to repent. The word repent means simply to turn around and head in a different direction. But of course that does imply a few things. First off it implies recognizing the way you been going is wrong; that you need to turn to a different direction. What Peter is saying here also implies a commitment that, not only are you going to try to face a different direction, but you will actually go in a different direction. You’re not going to look another direction and then start this sidestepping in the direction you were already going.
For these people what they needed to do was to stop ignoring God. 50 days ago many of these individuals had sat and listened to Jesus himself talk and ignored it. They had not followed Jesus back then. They weren’t part of the group that had gone up to listen to Jesus. They had not followed Jesus back then, and now they needed to repent of that and turn to actually follow Jesus. For some of you that may be what you need to do. For many of us I suspect that’s not it. But all of us are struggling with something. There’s always something that we are doing in the wrong direction that we need to repent of, that we need to turn back to God. Maybe for you it’s too much pride in your own self, lust, greed, gluttony, adultery, lying, coveting, or idolatry. I don’t know what it is for you, but I know there something that you are doing that you need to repent of. Peter calls up on you first today to do that in response to what God has done in the world.
Next Peter says be baptized. Now for all 3000 people that came to Peter on that day they had not been baptized as the church had just been born. But for many of us, we have been baptized. We do not practice the second, or third, or fourth baptism here. But the idea behind baptism is still necessary: you must commit to join. This is a movement. What is shown throughout history is that you cannot do it on your own. You can try and do it on your own; you might do well for a time, but eventually the evil one will attack and you need support from someone there with you. You need community. There is a reason Jesus chose to do this with community. Peter says that you must be baptized, you must commit not only to going in a new direction but commit to joining us on this journey as a church. This is second thing.
Third, and it is worth noting this is only after these people have committed to joining the movement, God commits to them through the sending of the Holy Spirit. In order to receive the spirit you have to accept that you need a savior, accept the help of that Savior and you have to commit to following the savior. I think that sometimes the hardest step in all of this is accepting you need a savior. We like to be independent. We like to be in charge of things. We definitely don’t like to be in debt to anyone or anything. To accept that we need a savior means that we cannot do this on our own; we need help, and we will be indebted. And so it’s as if we are sitting in a well and Jesus has extended a rope ladder down to us, but we’re sitting there trying to brace ourselves against the sides saying, “I can make it up on my own.” So Peter says that we must admit that we need that savior, that we cannot get out of the well on our own, and that we must grab the rope ladder and allow Jesus to lift us up. To commit to climbing the ladder, whatever it may mean in your situation, that is the way to get out of the well.
Finally we see God committing in the midst of this to us by the sending of the Holy Spirit. This is a commitment by God to continue to mold us, to continue to shape us, to allow us to grow in knowledge of God and to grow in our knowledge of the world; to become more, and more, and more like the people we were supposed to be. We are being perfected in the power of the Spirit, through the help of the Spirit of God. That’s a promise of Pentecost.
So what does it mean for today? The first thing we see throughout this entire process is that Jesus has been granted the power of the Spirit. That Spirit sees Jesus now exulted at the right hand of God. Now, what does that mean? Well in the old days the King would sit on the throne. And the king had a signet ring. If there was a decree, the decree would be rolled up and sealed with wax, and the signet ring would be pressed into the wax while it was still hot to prove that this has not been tampered with since I left the king’s hand. Most people are right handed, which means that most kings had their ring on the right hand. So the person who sat at the King’s right hand would be the one who holds the decree; the most important person in the kingdom and the most powerful person in the kingdom. Maybe even the one to write the decree. And we’re told Jesus has been placed at the Father’s right hand here.
I do not believe that we truly can separate the crucifixion of Jesus from the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus rising from the dead is meaningless if it isn’t God dying in the first place. The fact that Jesus is the being who has died and then shown to have power over the grave, to raise from the grave on his own; all of that is together and important only together. But I don’t think any of that can be separated from the exultation of Jesus if you’re talking about the good news, because it is the fact that Jesus now sits at the right hand of the Father, and has given that same power that Jesus showed us, the power over the grave, to all of us in the church that is the entirety of the good news. This is not to be missed.
When this Spirit of God is given it promises that the impact of Jesus‘s resurrection and exultation continues in the present; namely that impact is that God no longer needs to be separated from the world, but now reigns within the world. For the church throughout the centuries, the presence of the Spirit was the sign of the presence and approval of God. It was the thing they looked for when new people claimed to be baptized in Samaria. It was the thing that they saw when God wanted them to accept Gentiles, which they believed to be anathema and something that would never be something God would want. It was God pouring the Holy Spirit upon them that made the church realize that: no, God was accepting them. The power and presence of the Spirit has been the sign of the presence and approval of God for the church throughout the centuries. It often remains so today.
The presence of the Holy Spirit takes on many forms. I think we think the presence of the Spirit nowadays looks mostly like what might be called Pentecostal churches: where the spirit takes the form of the fire, at least figuratively. So, like in our story here, the Spirit comes to them in a rush of spectacle. Or in the burning bush in story of Moses, where the spirit is taking on this kind of flashy big show kind of atmosphere. And that is certainly scriptural. But that was not the only way the Spirit appears in the world.
There’s a more quiet way that the Spirit shows immense power; like in the baptism of Jesus, where the heavens open, and the dove descends upon Jesus, and says, “this is my beloved with whom I am well pleased.” Or we see the Damascus Road event where the voice of God shows up on Paul. Powerful events that are smaller and more individual. Events that we would point to and say, “this is when things changed.” For me I think of the way the Spirit interacts with our Calvinist brothers and sisters in churches like Baptists, or many non-denominational churches.
In the Methodist Church, usually when the spirit is at work within us it is much more quiet. Our founder had his spirit working within his own heart. It wasn’t a big flashy thing, but it was still very present. Many of us experience the Spirit in this way in the Methodist Church; the way that Elijah did. We’re going to look at that a little more next week, but when Elijah was on the mountain of God, God wasn’t in the fire, God wasn’t in the massive wind, God wasn’t in the earthquake; rather God was in the silence, as if in the eye of the storm. The stillness, the quiet we hear, we sometimes experience God in this way. Maybe you’ve experienced God in that way. Maybe you feel inferior to all the stories you hear from the others because it’s not as flashy. Let me tell you it’s no less scriptural a way for the Spirit to work within us.
Lastly, I think of the Spirit moving through the halls of the Temple in the quiet of night, with nothing but the workers present and Samuel. The boy Samuel being there in the Temple, and the spirit reaching out to Samuel, and its voice echoing through the temple walls calling out to Samuel. When I think of the Spirit working in this way, I think of our Catholic brothers and sisters; not to say that their temples are empty, but that the spirit is working in the midst of the temple in the midst of the ritual and in the midst of the religion; in the midst of a ritualistic church, if you will. And I think it is wonderful and scriptural.
All of these are different forms of the spirit working in the world. And all of them are scriptural. And all them are valid. And all of them are signs of God’s presence and God’s approval. And all of them have one thing in common: an assurance, a comfort, a joy, a peace brought upon the recipient. A transformation when they experience God. May you recognize that you need this experience; that you needed something to come in and empower you, and to embolden you, and to save you. May you take hold of that rope ladder extended to you in the well and commit to climbing that ladder up to freedom, and to life, and life abundantly. And may God send the Spirit into our midst yet again, that we may be God’s church. Amen.