The Gifts of the Spirit (April 26, 2020)
Acts 1: 1-11; 2: 1-13
“The Gifts of The Spirit”
We are going to continue our look at the story of the Bible through the growth of the early church. A couple weeks ago on Facebook I went through all of the Easter stories, the stories of the resurrection from the tomb all the way through to the Ascension. I will list the scripture I read in the description of this video if you missed those for whatever reason. You might want to go back to look at those as they kind of encompass the story of Jesus‘s resurrection: what he did after the resurrection. Now, Pentecost is 50 days after Easter. And that’s important for us this year, because usually the church celebrates it 50 days after Easter. Which makes sense. We are likely going to do something on Pentecost Sunday when it rolls around just to mark the day that everyone else is celebrating Pentecost, but for our story I wanted to get on into the church and the growth of the church. So we are going to celebrate Pentecost today, or at least mark Pentecost today in our story, and then continue on through the growth of the early church over the next few months.
In order to truly understand what is happening in the story here in Pentecost, you have to go back to Acts chapter 1 and these first versus I read surrounding the Ascension of Jesus. When I last spoke to you in sermon form, we were at the tomb. And the angel, or the angelic man in Mark, was telling the women to tell the disciples to go to Galilee, and that Jesus was going ahead of them to Galilee. But here we find the disciples in Jerusalem, all together in a locked room. If we don’t step back a moment and go back 10 days to the Ascension, we won’t really understand why the disciples are where they are.
Eventually they all get up to Galilee and he teaches them in Galilee. The resurrected Jesus teaches them in Galilee for 40 days, a nice good biblical number of preparation; and that is what they are doing: Jesus is preparing them to understand what just happened, and to go forward and to be the church, and to grow the church into what it is today. And the last thing that Jesus does is to instruct his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the Promise of the Father, which is later further defined as being the giving of the Holy Spirit or the coming of the Holy Spirit to be with them. And after Jesus said these things, if you go to the Gospel of Matthew he says that he’ll be with them even to the end of the age, we finally see that Jesus ascended into heaven. This happens, depending on your tradition, either in Galilee or back in Jerusalem on top of the Mount of Olives. And then a couple of angels show up and ask the people why they’re staring up into the sky, and the disciples rush back to Jerusalem, into this room, and they begin to fill the command to wait for the promise of the father.
And so this is where we find our disciples: we find them waiting in a room in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit. And then we finally see that promise fulfilled. This is the day of Pentecost. As I said earlier, Pentecost means 50th day, and this is a Jewish celebration of harvest that happens 50 days after Passover. So we know exactly when this was. And because the Ascension happened 40 days after the resurrection. That means that there were about ten days, maybe about seven days, between the Ascension and this moment when the Holy Spirit falls upon the disciples.
And as the Spirit falls upon the disciples, it gives it to them a gift. In this moment, the gift that was given was the speaking of many languages, all the languages that all the people from all around spoke. Now remember, because this is a big feast day and a celebration of worship to God, there would’ve been faithful Jews from all around who would’ve come to Jerusalem to celebrate. And so we see this in the story: we see that the faithful come from all these places around. The geography of the places that Luke mentions, because Luke wrote Acts as well, the geography the places that Luke mentions here is basically one gigantic circle around Jerusalem, from modern-day Iran to Turkey to Egypt to Arabia. This massive circle of people from all this area have come to Jerusalem, and they’re hearing the gospel being spoken to them in their native language because of the gift of the Spirit of the speaking of languages.
However I want you to realize that this is not required. All of these people, by virtue of being here for this event, know a common language. All of them understand Peter when he gets up to preach here in just a moment. All of them understood some uniting language, be it Hebrew, or Aramaic, which was the language spoken in the area at the time, or maybe Greek, which was the language of the Roman Empire; whatever it was they all understood something. So the Spirit doesn’t have to translate to have them understand. But what I think it does is send a message to the disciples and all of those who would join on that first day. The speaking of the languages serves to tell the people that they were welcome as they were ,they were welcome as Persians and Greeks and Egyptians, that they were not just welcome as Jews but as they were. This is the first indication that the Gospel message is for more than just the Jews; that the Gospel message is for the people back home where they are from. The Gospel message is for Gentiles as well as Jew. It will take a few more things for them to fully understand that, but I think this is the first attempt by the Spirit to tell them to open up their doors, to open up their hearts, and to open up their minds to what God might be sending them to do.
And then the disciples leave, and go out into the streets. And this is important because everything up until now had been inside; at least inside their group. The women go out to the tomb, and they find it empty, and they come back to this room. Peter and John go to the tomb, they find it empty, they come back to this room. Two disciples go to Emmaus, and they recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread, and then they went back to this room. Jesus appears to the disciples in this room. After the Ascension, after the teaching in Galilee, they come back to this room! Everything was inside. But the moment the Spirit comes, and the promise of God is filled in their life, they immediately go out into the world and begin proclaiming the message they have. There’s a big difference that is inspired by the work of the Spirit. Being a disciple of God it is about being filled with the Holy Spirit and moving into the world. It’s not about sitting in one place and waiting for people to show up. It’s about going out and doing the work of God. That’s more difficult in a time of social distancing. But I’m telling you it’s still possible. The Spirit is driving you to a way of ministering to people. Listen for the Spirit to speak to you, and the Spirit will tell you what to do in your life and your situation. Listen and follow.
I also want to mention what God is doing here. About 500 years before this there was an event called the Diaspora, and what this was was when the Babylonians came they conquered Judah and they sent the Jews into exile. And some Jews came back, some Jews did not. Other Jews left the Holy Land for other places in the Babylonian empire. When the Persians took over, the Jews continued to spread out. We see in the book of Esther just how widespread they were: there were pockets of a Jewish community in almost every town in the Persian empire, which spanned from almost into Greece all the way down into Egypt and all the way over to India. And there were these pockets of Jewish settlements. That continued when Rome took over. And so these pockets of of Jews would migrate to these places, but they’d stay together in community. This was called the Diaspora, and it was considered to be a tragedy by the Jewish people, at least of that day. They longed for the day that they had an independent kingdom that everyone could come back to. They longed for the day that the Diaspora would end.
And yet what God is doing here is he’s using this feast day, when everyone comes back to Jerusalem, as a time to convert a bunch of people, and specifically to convert these people who are then going to go back home in the Diaspora. Part of the reason that the church grew so large so quickly was because Peter converted people here on this day who lived in Turkey, and Egypt, and Persia, and Rome; and then they went back home with this fervent message and the fire of the Spirit inside them as well. And those churches were already ripe for the growing when people like Paul, or Peter, or Andrew, or Thomas arrived. God was using something that was considered to be a tragedy to further his own work and his own goals. That doesn’t mean that God caused the tragedy, but that God was able to use it for good.
Now, that’s all well and good, and that’s what the story was 2000 years ago, but what does it mean for us today? Pentecost is one of the most important stories for the church. This is the birthday of the church if you will. And for us it is a description of what the Spirit can do in the world in that moment. When the Spirit fell upon the followers of Jesus, it gave each of them a gift. In that moment it was the speaking of languages, or as many people would say, the speaking of tongues. There are denominations, that are not United Methodist, that believe the only way you can prove you have the Spirit is if you speak in tongues, because that’s what everyone did that day. I don’t believe that. I think that’s what the Spirit gave those people on that day because that’s what they needed on that day in order to grow the church. But the Spirit gives gifts for the church in our moment. Later in the passage we see Peter having received a gift of preaching and teaching, and converts 3000 people. Later in the Scriptures, in a collection from four different places, Paul gives us a list of gifts of the Spirit: “Encouragement, giving, leadership, mercy, prophecy, service, teaching, administration, discernment, healing, languages, interpretation of languages, wisdom, apostle, faith, evangelist.” And I believe that this list is long because it’s not exhaustive. The Spirit gave what was needed in Paul’s time to Paul’s churches, and the Spirit continues to give what is needed in our time to our churches.
So in our times we have people who are gifted by the Spirit in providing empathy. People who are gifted by the Spirit in being able to speak over a phone, and in a time of social distancing still convey the same level of concern and empathy that you would in person. People who are gifted by the Spirit in technology. And then, like we have people who are gifted in the speaking of tongues and then the interpretation of tongues, we have people who are gifted in technology and then we have people who are gifted in teaching technology to other people, and those might not be the same people. But we have these gifts of the Spirit that are needed for our time for our church. Not to mention the gifts of healing and wisdom that are displayed by doctors and nurses and scientists currently.
The Spirit has given you a gift. That is simply a Scriptural fact. By virtue of receiving the Holy Spirit into your life, you have received a spiritual gift. It’s up to you to find it and use it. The parable of the talents tells us that when you receive a gift, God expects you to use it and multiply it in the production of fruit, not to bury it and give it back unharmed but also unused.
Usually it is others who best can see our gifts, others who see where we are producing fruit. But if you cannot ask others, one way to find your gift might be to examine the places where your efforts seem to have borne fruit; things where you have accomplished what you set out to do, perhaps with relative ease, or perhaps in ways that you can’t quite explain. Maybe you look at where people come to you for advice, and they seem to think that you are successful (maybe gifted even) in that place. Maybe you have a gift for crafts that would bless others. Maybe you have a gift for listening or for empathy and people come to you when they have problems. Maybe you have a gift for teaching others. Maybe God is giving you a thought right now that I’m not even mentioning because I can’t possibly mention all of them for all of you.
Another way to find your gift might be to remember that the people thought that the disciples were drunk. The gift of the Spirit is one that floods our very souls and our beings. So your gift that you have received is probably something you’re very passionate about. Is there a way you can use your passions for the Lord? Prayerfully examine these places that you might be gifted by the Spirit. Pray about how you might use those gifts to be a blessing to your neighbors during this time, and all times. Use your gifts, church, for you have been gifted. Amen.