Acts 2.1-21
May 15, 2016  Pentecost
"Signs and Wonders"
Cary G. Speaker, D.Min.

Pentecost is often called the birthday of the church. The chronological setting for Pentecost is that Jesus has ascended to heaven and then the Holy Spirit came to empower the disciples. The coming of the Holy Spirit is the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that the disciples would receive power from the Holy Spirit. A piece of that power is exhibited in the reading from Acts. When the Holy Spirit fills those who believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the church begins to take shape. The story makes it clear that it is the power of the Spirit that enables the disciples to proclaim the Gospel and witness to the ends of the earth.

Pentecost does not receive the same celebrity status as Christmas or Easter. The birthday of the church does not carry the same glad tidings or alleluias, or the secular popularity as C and E. Look around you. Today does not draw the Easter crowd. That may be just as well. As much as I love visitors in worship, the focus of Pentecost is on the church. The celebration of Pentecost is aimed at the community of disciples known as the church. The Pentecost story is retold every year to remind us of our beginning. It is similar to the Jewish celebration of the Passover. When the Jewish family gathers around the table for the traditional meal, the question, “Why do we do this?” is the cue to retell the story.

The signs and wonders that occur in Jerusalem stir awe and doubt, not only in those present on the first Pentecost, but also today in this place. This amazing and miraculous gifting of the Spirit can be a dispiriting story for the church to hear today. Let’s be honest and admit that the church today does not much resemble that early church. Even the most faithful will admit to the nagging feeling that too often the church today seems but a sorry shell of its awe-inspiring birth. The church has lost its thunder. We have lost our conviction. The splits, schisms and infighting have stripped the church of its unity and vitality. Even the hottest signs of spiritual growth, church renewal and, dare I say the word, evangelism seems tepid compared to the infectious energy of the first Pentecost.  

We could stage a Pentecost worship service with visitors from Korea, China, Uganda, Rwanda, Cuba and Haiti. We could have them all speak at the same time in their native languages. We could attempt to sing hymns in Korean or Dakota, or we could all pick a different Native American language, Kiowa, Creek, Choctaw, Cherokee or Navaho, all are in our hymnal, and sing Amazing Grace. See hymn # 280. We have the red paraments and some of you are wearing red. We could add red balloons. But is that really necessary?  Would it make a difference?   I am not convinced that there is a way to simulate the original Pentecost experience. I know that comparing the original Pentecost with today is not the point. Remembering the story of Pentecost is not meant to be the benchmark of the way the church should look today. Pentecost does remind us of how important the church is and how we are related to Christ. The story of Pentecost reminds us of who we are and what we proclaim.

When I say that I believe in Jesus, or that I have decided to follow Jesus, there is a sense in which I speak in the past, present and future tense. Our salvation, our faith, our discipleship is all the work of God. It was on the cross. Now it is our daily walk as disciples. It will be what God has for us in the future. The Holy Spirit initiates faith in us, nurtures that faith within us, and brings our faith to full maturity. The Holy Spirit perfects what God begins in us.

The creation story from Genesis is usually remembered as God creating the world from nothing. Another way to read that ancient Hebrew is that God created the world from chaos. We could interpret the story of Pentecost in a similar manner. God created the church out of nothing. God created the church out of the chaos of human beings. The church was not formed as other human institutions are formed, by the affinities of class, self-interest or economics. The Holy Spirit hovered over the dark waters of creation and brought forth a world.

The church is a human gathering that would not be here and certainly would not have survived without the work of the Holy Spirit. This church, right here this morning, is a human gathering that would not be here, and certainly would not have survived, without the creative convening of the Holy Spirit. Being here, listening to scripture and trying to get something out of it, wanting to be a better follower of Christ; we believe it is because the Holy Spirit put us here. You think you are here this morning because you really wanted to be here. Perhaps you sort of wanted to be here, but I believe you are here despite all of the perfectly good reasons you have for not being here, because the prodding wind of the Holy Spirit is breezing through your life. Perhaps that breeze blew you here this morning.

One of the things we know about the Holy Spirit is that we do not control it. Another thing we know is that it is the nature of the Spirit to bring change. The Bible most often describes that change as repentance. The word repentance means to turn around, to be transformed, to be changed from one type of life to another. To repent means that we are becoming more the person God created us to be. After hearing the preaching on the first Pentecost, the people responded with, “What must we do?”  The answer was and is, “Repent and be baptized.”  The process of repentance, or turning from ourselves and turning to God, takes a lifetime.

The church is supposed to be the community whose work is so risky, whose mission is so bold, and whose success is so unimaginable that the church will fail utterly unless the Holy Spirit empowers it to be that which God calls the church to be. My observation of the church, the institutional church of which this one is part, is that we have meetings, we build buildings, and we make great long lists of rules in what must be our desperate attempt to be the church without dependence on the Holy Spirit to be the church.

The Caldwell Memorial Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC was organized in 1912. As many churches did, the Caldwell church grew and grew until it peaked in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. In 2002 the pastor, Charlie McDonald, said that the church was tired of trying to rebuild. The advent of the suburbs had bleed off the downtown church members. In 2006 the Caldwell church average worship attendance was 17.

On Easter Sunday of 2005 Tovi and Kevin Martin first visited Caldwell. Their visit was similar to what happens in most churches today when a young couple visits. They were warmly welcomed. After visiting regularly and being welcomed into the life of the church, one Saturday night Kevin decided that the next day, Sunday, he would join the church. On that Sunday, the day Kevin was to join, the pastor announced that the session had met and decided to request the presbytery to dissolve the church. They were tired of trying to rebuild. It was time to close.

Kevin was disappointed. His hopes were high because he had found a church that he loved and he believed that the church loved him. That week he called his friends and invited them to come to church with him. He told them about what he had discovered at the church; a place where he was loved and accepted. Several of his friends visited that Sunday. The next Sunday, the Sunday after the pastor announced that the church would close, the visitors kept coming. Five years later the church membership was up to 250 and it remains at that level today. Obviously, the session changed its mind about closing the church. The first thing some people would say to that story is the church should change its name to the Kevin Martin Memorial Church. We know better. That church knows better. The motto of the Caldwell Presbyterian Church is, “God invites. We welcome all.”  This is not a story about what one person can do. This is the story of what the Holy Spirit can do.

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