Pentecost, 2018

The Christian movement found itself at a strange place before it was clear that it has any future at all. Jesus was dead. Although there had been wonderful and miraculous experiences with the resurrected Christ, the community was struggling with leadership and purpose. They didn’t know what they were supposed to do. Jesus had spoken to them about not being afraid and allowing God to show them what to do. Jesus had promised that there would be guidance when it was needed. Still, things were disorganized and unclear.

They knew that they did not aspire to become a religious institution. After all, Jesus had taught them to be wary of all of the trappings of institutionalization. Expensive buildings, a priestly class that had to be supported, the possibility of scandal and corruption - these were all pitfalls into which they had seen religious groups and religious leaders fall. This wasn’t the kind of community that they desired. They had felt an incredible closeness when Jesus was still alive and with them. They had sensed that closeness again when the resurrected Christ appeared in their midst, but the feeling was fleeting. It was hard to recapture that sense of mission and calling. They weren’t even confident that they had the ability to go on.

Jesus had tried to prepare them for precisely this time. He had spoken to them about his death. He had promised that they would not be left alone. He had sent them out in pairs to teach and heal and spread the good news. But everything was different now. They didn’t have Jesus to return to after trying to imitate his ministries. They didn’t have him to answer their questions.

They did have a prayer that he had taught them to pray. They did have each other. They did have a story to tell.

It was at this point that the first Pentecost occurred. 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection they came together and they invited others and they prepared for some kind of event, though they knew not what. The event has become known as the birthday of the church. It is reported in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. And we read that story every year on Pentecost and try to imagine the events from which the story grew. You can tell, simply by reading the words of the story that what happened was beyond the power of words to describe. The writer resorts to analogy because words fail to convey the power of the moment. The sound was “like the rush of a mighty wind.” It is an analogy. It doesn’t sound that the sound was that of a mighty wind, but like. The word “like” is a sign of the metaphor. The author has struggled to find the words and needs to point beyond the power of words. “There appeared to them tongues as of fire.” In that metaphor, the key word is “as.” It doesn’t say that tongues of fire appeared, but rather “tongues as of fire.”

And the story doesn’t end there, for what is next is as powerful as the sound and the tongues as of fire. Those who were gathered gained the ability to reach out in ways that they could never have done before. They began to speak in many different languages. It wasn’t just that they were making sounds. It wasn’t another analogy. They spoke and they were understood. They began to tell the story of Jesus and of his resurrection in words that could be understood by the many different people who were visiting the multi-cultural city.

The birth of the church was a multilingual, multicultural event at which every visitor was welcomed and greeted with words that could be understood. The report in the book of Acts names their countries of origin. It speaks of their cultures and languages. The report even records that some who witnessed this explosion of communication as believing that they must be drunk. They were not.

Peter addressed the crowd by quoting the prophet Joel. and then King David. And he told the story of Jesus and those who were gathered round heard the story in language that they could understand.

It is critical for the contemporary church to hear these words of our beginning every year. It is crucial that we hear these words over and over and over again. Because we have become the kind of religious institution that the first disciples feared. We have become the custodians of buildings and archives and records and traditions. We have formed structures and ways of governing ourselves and rules and special clothing and even have a few secretes that have been hidden. We have become an institution with all of the failings and foibles of institutions. And sometimes we forget the community from which we have grown.

I’ve heard faithful Christians complain about singing one verse of a song in a language that is unfamiliar to them. I’ve heard faithful Christians asking, “What are they doing here?” I’ve experienced the church as a place that is less than welcoming to those who are different. I’ve hard Christians complain about the noise and the mess.

It seems that we all to easily forget our roots.

The first Pentecost was noisy and messy and loud enough that the neighbors thought the gathered church was a group of drunks. We don’t behave like that much anymore. We prefer to be seen as respectable and quiet and even though our bell may occasionally annoy our neighbors, we are careful to keep the noise down most of the time.

Some people, looking at us from the outside, don’t see a place where everyone is welcome. They don’t see a place where it is acceptable to speak your own language and think in your own way. They expect us to be regimented and ordered and about as far away from chaotic as we can get. We see ourselves that way as well.

Pentecost was a gift of God. So is the story. It has much to teach us still.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!