A Sermon on Acts 2:1-21 with allusions to Joshua 6:1-5
On Pentecost morning the congregation of Jesus was gathered together in a house. They had moved beyond the fear of the earliest days after the crucifixion, those days when they locked the doors, they were so afraid. They had moved into the wonder of the resurrection. But they still hadn’t moved out into mission. They hadn’t taken their story public yet. The early church worked on internal matters, like choosing someone to replace Judas Iscariot in the central group of twelve. It wasn’t that they didn’t have anything to say; they did. What they needed was an opening, some way to start. And they needed the power to do it.
On Easter evening, Jesus had breathed his Spirit onto and into his church in a most gentle way. Perhaps it was because his objective then was to begin to heal their wounds and fill them with peace. The Spirit came as gentle breath.
But not on the day of Pentecost. That day the Spirit came as a great, noisy blast, a gale force wind. His presence rested on each and every one like a tongue of fire. And that set their tongues on fire. They couldn’t keep their mouths shut. They were so full of Spirit that the good news of Jesus spilled out. And it spilled out in all the languages of the known world: Parthian, Median, Egyptian and more.
Suddenly the church was talking with people from all around the known world. The noise had drawn a crowd. Somehow the church wasn’t inside any more. It was outside.
Most pictures of Pentecost that I’ve seen picture the disciples still inside, a tongue of fire resting on each one, and they’re talking to each other. But wouldn’t it be better to picture the disciples outside, talking with folks from all over the world? The action is outside!
An artist named Leonard Freeman created a painting that he titled “Lord, Build This House.” Freeman intended to show the pieces of the church coming down from heaven and being put together by God. That’s not what I thought of when I first saw this painting, though. I think it looks more like the church is being blown open, and there are the people with their arms outstretched to the whole world. At the blast of the Holy Spirit, the walls fall. (See the cover of The Practicing Congregation by Diana Butler Bass, Alban, 2004. The print is also available online from many outlets. You can view it here.)
Luke doesn’t tell us just when or how the disciples got outside. If the walls of the house didn’t fall away literally, they certainly fell away figuratively. Walls became irrelevant. The barriers between those inside and those outside had fallen away. Most obviously that particular day, language barriers had fallen away. Notice: the Spirit didn’t make the outsiders able to speak and understand the language of the church, and then bring them to the church. The Spirit empowered the insiders to speak the native languages of the outsiders, and took the church out to them.
Jesus’ disciples were out of the box. They went public. Their presence—and that of God’s Spirit—was heard and seen. It was unmistakable. Their presence, and God’s presence in them, couldn’t be ignored.
Sometimes I wonder how well the presence of this congregation of Jesus’ disciples can be seen and heard. I wonder. This church house is quiet most of the week. If we park around the back, people passing might not notice it when we are here. The new construction on this end of the building is completely hidden. Folks can’t see this new development.
Last month when I went to that seminar on discerning God’s call to the congregation, each participant was asked to draw a map of the community surrounding our church, and then we used that map to describe the community to other participants. I noted on my map, for example, that many farm fields around here are now covered with houses. The aspect of the map that struck me the most, though, was how long it took to draw all the churches on it. I knew we had lots of churches in our community, but I had never sat down and counted them before. I counted over twenty churches within three to five miles of this church. Eight of them were either started here or moved here since I moved here in 1990. Our congregational style—that is our ways of worshiping and doing things—our style is different from the style of most of our neighboring congregations. It’s distinctive. It has its own loveliness. I felt kind of lost in a crowd as I looked at the map. How much do sheer numbers of churches make it easy not to notice this little brown church in the dale? Is our voice being heard?
For this congregation of disciples has so very much to say! Christ Jesus has done and is doing wonders among us, and we are grateful! The stories we can tell of how he has healed us and sustained us; of how he gives us a purpose that is a lot bigger than we are; of how evil isn’t the winner, God is; of how death isn’t the last word with God; resurrection is! We are privileged to participate in what God is doing, and to live as citizens of his kingdom now. We see Christ at work. He has given this congregation so many gifts to cherish and use in his service, and we are grateful. We do want to share! This is life abundant!
Yes, we have the message of life. And yes, there are some very real barriers out there. Like those who scoffed at the disciples on Pentecost, there are a lot of skeptical folks out there. Late last year the Barna Group, a Christian research organization, published its findings from a three-year study of how young people ages 16-29 view Christianity, both those inside and those outside the church. ( See David Kinnaman, UnChristian, Baker Books, 2007.) The Barna team interviewed many hundreds of young people and hundreds of pastors and church leaders. As of 2007, there were about 24 million young Americans outside the church. Three out of ten of the young outsiders reported negative experiences with Christians and with churches that led them to view Christians as arrogant, judgmental, hypocritical and a host of other negative and unloving characteristics. Views like the following were common: “Christians can’t live peacefully with anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe” (p. 26). And “Christians claim to love one another, but they chew one another up” (p. 210). And “Christians say they hate the sin but love the sinner. The reality is they hate the sin and they hate the sinner” (p. 189). And “Christians are living for themselves just like everyone else” (p. 46). What’s even worse is that many young people who are Christians share these negative perceptions. They’ve been hurt, and they’re disillusioned. As we try to share good news, fair or not: we are up against these kinds of perceptions. Perceptual walls.
Sometimes the church deliberately puts barriers between itself and those on the outside, as did one church I read about that refused to admit certain kids to a free Christian concert for teens at their church for fear these outsiders would quote “infect” their youth group (UnChristian, p. 191). More often, though, the church unintentionally puts barriers between itself and those on the outside. In his book Reaching People under 40 while Keeping People over 60, Eddie Hammett who is a consultant for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina tells a story about this from his own family and church. At the tender age of 17 he accepted his own congregation’s call to “help our Sunday School grow.” (Hammett, Reaching People…, Chalice Press, 2007. Pp. 16-18).
Now this small mill village church was beginning to receive young families with babies, and was hoping for more. More space was needed for the infants, and a simple solution would be to switch rooms: have the ladies Bible class and the nursery switch places. The nursery was small and its population growing. The ladies Bible classroom was large, but there were only five in the class. Eddie was assigned to implement the change.
Take note: that room was very special to the class members. It was sacred space. It had been their room for twenty years. They decorated it themselves. The walls were lined with pictures of all the ladies who had gone before. Each member had a chair with a handmade cushion bearing her name. It was truly lovely.
It was also Eddie’s grandmother’s class and room. The change made sense to him, so he thought it would be simple. He went to the class one Sunday morning and said, “We’ve got a lot of new babies coming into our church. The nursery is packed, and your room is bigger than their room. We would like you to swap rooms.”
Eddie was completely bewildered by the class’s anger, and especially his grandmother’s anger. Didn’t they want more children in the church? Didn’t they like babies? Eddie’s grandmother told him not to come to Sunday dinner.
Over the next few painful months, Eddie gradually came to understand what the class and the space meant to the ladies, and why it hurt them to be told to move, and be told so casually.
He writes, “My grandmother and I loved each other so much that we covenanted to talk once a week, pray together…and study Scripture together…until we could find some sense of reconciliation in this broken relationship. It was very painful. I can’t tell you how painful it was for both of us.”
Months later, Eddie’s grandmother called him on the phone to come over. “When I got there,” he writes, “she sat me down in the same little place we used to sit when I was four and five years old, on the front stoop of the porch. She put her arm around me, and said, ‘You’ve told me about some mistakes you’ve made as a young and inexperienced minister of education. But I’ve been praying a lot and studying a lot, and have been talking to some of my class members. God has convicted me of my position in this matter. I have come to understand that my personal comfort is not as important as this church’s mission….I’m going to walk into class on Sunday morning, and I’m going to tell those ladies, not ask, that we need to move down the hall; and I want you to be with me.’”
“Eddie replied. ‘There’s no way I’m going back in that class. I love you, Grandma, but I’m not going back in there again.’
“She said, ‘Well, at least stand outside the door.’” Which is what Eddie did.
He heard his grandmother say, “’Ladies, I’ve come to understand that our personal comfort is not as important as this church’s mission and its future. I want us to move today to the class down the hall, and I want us to take a little money out of our kitty (which was large, Eddie adds), and I want us to fix up our new room. But I also want us to fix up this room that we are leaving for the new babies that are coming in. I want it to be nice, and I want us to start an adopt-a-grandchild ministry in this church for all these new families coming in that don’t have grandmas and grandpas locally. I want us to learn to love these babies. We need them as much as they need us, and I want us to be a part of the future of this church instead of the stumbling block to keep it where it is.’”
Then Eddie’s grandmother picked up her chair with its cushion and proceeded down the hall, and every one of the ladies followed her.
Eddie adds that his grandmother’s leadership then and later helped lead to a thriving children’s ministry. Later Alzheimer’s disease put Eddie’s grandmother in a nursing home. But the day before she died, she hugged him and whispered in his ear, “We got those old women to go on mission didn’t we?”
Eddie conducted her funeral, and he told this story there. Afterwards, five people said to him, “Son, we don’t know you, but we knew her. Your story today is going to help our churches because I’ve been a roadblock in my church, and I didn’t know it until today.”
The Holy Spirit of God and of Jesus Christ blows in and makes the walls fall. Walls fall, and God’s mission moves forward. Pentecost is just the beginning. There are falling walls all through Acts and through the New Testament. Fear falls away, and once frightened disciples like Peter boldly speak, even when the authorities try to hush them up with beatings and jail and worse. Barriers between women and men begin to fall away; women are church leaders, too. Walls between Jew and Gentile fall away, distinctions of clean and unclean fall away, barriers between races begin to fall away as Philip shares the gospel with a man from Ethiopia, and Christian faith goes to Africa. A huge wall falls, and Christianity’s best known and most ardent opponent, Paul, becomes an Apostle of Jesus Christ. The Spirit is on the move, and the walls are still falling.
Yes, this congregation of Jesus’ disciples does have something to say. We do have wonderful good news to share. How good God is! If the Holy Spirit fills this house, walls are going to fall. To move out in mission, walls have to fall, including the ones we ourselves have put in place.
Come, Holy Spirit. Teach us how to lift up our voice and speak your good news in a heartfelt way, a genuine way, a simple and gracious way, a gentle way that fits who we are, and the gifts you have given us.
Come, Holy Spirit. Blow down any obstacles we’re putting in your way.
Come, Holy Spirit. Take us out of our Christian box. Help us make contact with outsiders who need the Lord Jesus Christ. Teach us how to speak and to listen to those who know nothing of Scripture, for whom church talk is a foreign language. Come, Holy Spirit. Help us to reach out with healing to people who have been hurt by Christians and the church.
Come, Holy Spirit. Let the walls fall, that your people might be seen and heard. But even more: that Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior, might be seen and heard and embraced.