In our culture, we are currently between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day (next week!). So, let me ask you: for those who have given birth or witnessed a birth (whether you’re a parent or not), raise your hand if you’ve witnessed a clean, super neat and tidy birth.
Births are not clean, neat, and tidy. We try to make them that way, but they are not naturally that way. Even if you think about the birth of a new plant or art, birth/new creation is often messy.
So it was, too, with the birth of the church. That is what we are celebrating today - the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ’s followers and the early church was born. Happy Birthday!
The birth of the church wasn’t tidy either - it was a collection of people - from many different lands and backgrounds - witnessing people acting out of the ordinary, so much so that the onlookers accused them of being drunk!
And it continues to not be so tidy today - a church community is a collection of people with shared purpose or beliefs in following Christ’ teachings. But it’s still a collection of people - of human beings - so it’s not going to be perfectly neat and tidy, as much as we try.
I’ve wondered this week why Pentecost is celebrated as the birth of the church and not Easter or Christmas. Christmas is the actual birth of Jesus and Easter is Jesus’ death & resurrection, an event many would name as central to the faith! Pentecost, though, is the birth of the church, the birth of the community of faith.
Pentecost is when God’s Holy Spirit descends upon the people, upon children of God (as our Romans verses remind us). Pentecost, as we celebrate it today, is when we are reminded that we (all of us - all of us flawed, diverse children of God) are an active part of the story of Christianity.
As Kathryn Matthews states, Pentecost is when the Spirit of God rushes in “to empower many different kinds of people to do something astounding: communicate effectively with one another.” (ucc.org)
Through God’s Holy Spirit, they were all able to use their heritage, their language - yet, still understand one another. It’s a perfect overlap of diversity and unity.
Not only does Pentecost show clear understanding among diverse languages and peoples, it highlights effective use of Scripture as a means to communicate and inform us on our present day.
In the Acts selection, Peter uses a piece of Scripture from the book of Joel, a book in the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures. With one or two small tweaks, Peter uses holy scriptures to interpret what was happening in the present day - to communicate what was happening.
It is so important to point out that it isn’t vice versa - he did not use his present situation to interpret holy scriptures! He lets the words and wisdom of his divinely-inspired ancestors help inform him of what he sees happening around him. This is a form of communication called prophecy.
Prophecy is not, as it has come to be known, fortune telling or predicting the future. Prophecy is is leaning on godly wisdom for truth telling. I dare say that Pentecost was a rebirth of prophecy, as God’s Holy Spirit came upon the people. Telling the truth while being led by God’s Holy Spirit leads to effective communication - communication that can heal wounds, communication that can build bridges, communication that can spread the teachings of Jesus.
Matt Skinner (workingpreacher.org) states, “Peter insists that God's Spirit is poured out widely, across social boundaries. The Spirit empowers interpretation that happens corporately... Peter and other luminaries in Acts do not receive all the answers along with the Spirit. Throughout the narrative they must live into God's future, themselves susceptible to error and reliant on others to make sense of God's ways. This is the choppy work, the inspired work, of all God's people.” (workingpreacher.org) I’ll add the “messy” work of God’s people - in helping to birth God’s kingdom in this world.
Skinner’s remarks highlight how it is up to us to carry this on - to communicate effectively God’s love with others. And so, I’m curious: what will propel us to do this?
Matthews points out that we are not easily impressed... “in an age of technological wonders, we've come to expect regular improvements in the "stuff" of our lives.” What amazed us just 20 years ago in film (y’know...so long ago in 1999), now looks silly and we point out how dated it looks. If someone handed a teenager a cell phone from the year they were born, they probably wouldn’t know what to do with it. “What would it take then to astonish us? What loud noises and rushing wind do we require?” (Matthews, ucc.org)
Perhaps, actually, it’s the exact opposite for us now - perhaps our “loud noises and rushing wind” comes more in the form of unbelievably serene, quiet, or otherwise astounding moments.
In our Acts selection today, this experience of God’s Holy Spirit propels the early followers to tell others about God’s message through Jesus. What has propelled you to share God’s message?
Hearing personal experiences and stories tells us that, as the UCC motto goes, God is Still Speaking. God had not stopped speaking after the books of the Hebrew Scriptures were written; God had not stopped speaking at Pentecost as we read today; God has not stopped speaking today.
There is a piece of this Scripture that many of us recognize with a chuckle and don’t think too much further on - the fact that these early Christians were accused of having drank too much. However, if we think of Jesus’ words in Luke 5:37-38 (And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins).
Playing with the connection of wine, perhaps it serves us well to think of these Galileans as being the “new wine” of the Christ movement...and “new wine” cannot be contained in “old wineskins,” or the former ways of doing things. This group of people communicated rather effectively to the witnesses around them that a rebirth of God’s promise to always be with them had occurred. God was certainly still speaking.
Pentecost is the birthday of the church because it was the birth of truth telling communication and witness among all the people. Think of what we, as humans, could accomplish if we were able to effectively communicate across language barriers, personality differences, cultural divides, political stances, and our own self interest.
“The harvest festival of Pentecost...now marked the giving of new life and the gift of the church, a new way of living for those who would follow Jesus in every land and in every age. Not just some kinds of people, but all different kinds of people, in all different places, different languages and customs, different cultures and backgrounds and experiences, different abilities and gender and races and orientations, all different kinds of people, beloved of God and filled with God's Spirit, a new creation just as it could and ought to be.” (Matthews, ucc.org)
I pray that we live as Pentecost people - relying on God’s holy spirit so that can communicate effectively with each other and make God’s love known even further.
Scripture: Romans 8:14-17; Acts 2:1-21