Pentecost Sermon – Bryson City UMC
Two weeks ago I sat in the second pew on the right hand side and thoroughly enjoyed Rev. David Russell’s interpretation on the account of Paul’s preaching in Athens. As I listened to David skillfully weave through the narrative of Paul’s debate over the unknown God, I realized that I was getting distracted by David’s shirt [it was Casual Sunday] which read: “I am smiling because you all have finally driven me crazy!” As I stand before you now, two weeks later, I realize how true David’s shirt was. You all have finally driven him crazy enough to leave me here by myself after only being in Bryson City for two weeks.
In all seriousness, it has been a blessing getting to spend time with David the last two weeks and I have gleaned much from his experience as Pastor. Additionally I am eagerly looking forward to the transition between David and Wayner, as this is something that I will be experiencing on my own in two years from now. Bryson City is a remarkable place, and I am so happy knowing that I am here for another 8 weeks.
Would you all please pray with me:
“Gracious and Merciful God, grant us the strength to understand and discern the Holy Spirit in our lives, reform us into your image from which we were created. Bless us with you presence as we strive to live according to your will. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my rock and my redeemer”
“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” Acts 2:44-47
“Is this historically possible? I want to know who among you believes that this could have actually taken place. Anyone?!”
I found myself sitting in the middle of our lecture hall at Duke Divinity School, glancing around at my peers to see if anyone was brave enough to answer the question.
“Do you really believe that 3,000 Jews in ancient Palestine would sell their possessions and distribute the proceeds to all who had need?!?”
It was obvious from his tone that my Professor believed that it was impossible for this to have historically taken place, and he wanted to make sure that we all agreed with him.
But I didn’t.
As I raised my hand I knew that I was Daniel entering the lion’s den, I knew deep down that what I was about to say was right and true, I was just hoping that God would deliver me from the jaws of my New Testament Professor.
“Yes, you, what do you have to say?”
I took a long deep breath and said: “Well, I believe that this most assuredly took place. It seems like it would have been easy for the 3,000 to share everything because 5,000 had already shared the loaves and fishes when Jesus preached to them by the water. The Gospels make it clear that it was easy for the disciples and earliest apostles to walk away from their former lives to accept a new and radical reality. And to be perfectly honest I think this passage in Acts 2 explains how and why Christianity continued to exist and thrive throughout the first century.”
“Hmm… Good, but where your points are possible, my understanding and rendering of this narrative as being not historically possible is more probable. It is next-to-impossible for human-beings to exist in such an unselfish manner then and now.”
With two sentences my New Testament professor had waved off my claim and was ready to move on to the next subject. The scripture in question that afternoon in class was Acts 2:44-47. It details the account of what transpired after Peter’s sermon on Pentecost, which was partially read for us this morning. After Peter’s sermon 3,000 new converts were welcomed into the budding “Christian” community and continued to `live together devoting themselves to the apostles teaching, the breaking of bread, and prayer. Though my professor was eager to move on to another subject, I could not stop thinking about this passage from the day of Pentecost.
The question of the historical validity of the passage permeated my thoughts and I began to critically evaluate the actions of the first century church. The more I thought about the first century the more I felt like my professor might have been right. How could a group of people, after watching their friend and leader crucified, continue on in the way they were taught? Better yet, why would a group of people continue on after losing their friend and leader? Why would they knowingly engage in activities that would stratify them from the rest of the world, inevitably leading to persecution and death? Why would they institute their own suffering? I wrestled with these questions throughout the rest of the year; I stopped reading scripture like a story or book and tried to imagine the reality of these accounts taking place. After spending much time in books, prayer, and conversation I now realize that the answers to “how and why” are Pentecost and Jesus Christ.
Pentecost, the fiftieth day, was a Jewish celebration of the fiftieth day after Passover. For the disciples who are described in Acts 2, this would have been a common holiday celebrated every year as prescribed in the book of Leviticus. This particular year I believe the disciples had little to celebrate. Though they had previously spent 40 days with their Resurrected Lord, he had ascended into heaven leaving them to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit. I can imagine them gathering together in the upper room waiting and waiting, knowing what they need to do, but not how to do it. Jesus commanded them to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, only after receiving the power of the Holy Spirit. And then came Pentecost.
“Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like a rush of a violent wind and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them”
It was through the fire of the burning bush that God spoke to Moses, the prophet Isaiah’s lips were touched with a flaming coal giving him the ability to prophesy, eventually stating that God would return through fire. Fire, then, is a miraculous mechanism by which God manifests his divine presence.
So the violent wind and fire of God rested on each of the 12 disciples as they waited in the upper room. With the ability to speak in foreign tongues the disciples went out into Jerusalem amazing and perplexing those who lived in the city. They began to testify to the life of their Lord Jesus Christ culminating in Peter’s sermon to the crowd.
“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams…”
When the crowd heard his words they were cut to their hearts and asked the disciples what to do: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” [Acts 2:38]
Through the Holy Spirit the apostles were able to further the Christian movement, build their community, and exist for and with one another. Now that we have looked at “how” the 12 received the power of the Holy Spirit and began to witness in Jerusalem, we must turn to the question of “why.”
Why would the apostles give up their possessions for the betterment of the community? Why would they serve the Lord Jesus instead of Empire Rome? Why would they continue to witness when people were constantly arrested [Acts 5] persecuted, and martyred?
The answer, I believe, is that Jesus turned the world upside down.
Later in Acts we read about how the apostle Paul traveled to Thessalonica and preached in synagogues explaining and proving that is was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and raise from the dead. Paul witnessed to the life of Jesus Christ and proclaimed the Gospel. Those in the community who were jealous of Paul’s teaching went before the city authorities accusing them while shouting: “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, they are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.”
Though this held a negative connotation of disturbing the peace, insurrection, and revolution in the first century, I believe it is of fundamental importance for understanding the Good News.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus’ life, ethics, parables, Sermon on the Mount, healings, and actions all point to a paradigmatic shift whereby the values of the world are turned upside down. Jesus instituted radical changes in the way people perceived the world.
Through the story of the Prodigal Son Jesus showed how we could lose sight of the love of God and fall captive to the appeal of the world. We are called to rejoice in the lost being found.
The story of Zacchaeus demonstrates how no one, not even a snobby cheating tax collector, is beyond the reach of the Gospel. Jesus eats with the sinners and sinless alike, showing no partiality.
Jesus called for a world where the last will be first and the first will be last, where it is better to serve than to be served, where turning the other cheek isn’t a possibility but a profound commandment to love, where resurrection is possible, real, and tangible.
Imagine the Church described in Acts 2. Thousands of people, young and old, short and tall, sinful and righteous, unified around a common belief in the Messiah Jesus Christ. A community that was set aflame by the Holy Spirit, moved to live for one another, compelled by love rather than hate, genuine in their devotion towards their bothers and sisters in Christ.
Today, our modern culture’s emphasis on selfish individualism leads to destruction. The world has begun to fall back to the way before Pentecost. The irony is, that Jesus’ radical call for a shift in perception isn’t all that radical; He simply calls each of us to live by love.
Coming to Bryson City has provided me with an amazing glimpse of the kingdom of God. For as much as I enjoyed reading about Augustine, Aquinas, and Anselm at Duke Divinity School, I have begun to truly see the kingdom at work here in this community. I have been welcomed by so many already into their homes for meals and fellowship. I have learned about how the church co-exists with the social service department here in the town to bring about better opportunities for people. I have heard stories about how this church has celebrated the mountaintop of joy and come together in support of one another when in the valley of despair, pain, and grief. I was even invited to a lectionary reading on Monday morning with pastors of all the different denominations in the community. Can you imagine sitting with a Catholic priest, Presbyterian minister, Baptist preacher, and Methodist pastor all discussing what Pentecost means? Leaders of the church who work together because they care more about the community as a whole, rather than the individual theological differences that set us apart. I sat in this church the last two Sundays and experienced 15-minutes of passing of the peace of Christ! Never in my life have I experienced the body of Christ in such a profound way.
Worship, it seems, is not so much about what you do, but what you let God do in and for you.
So, I believe in what we are doing here.
But, I also believe that through the Holy Spirit the world has been transformed. As the body of Christ we are called to live by love and continue in this transformative process.
I believe in a world where the sick can be healed, the blind can see, the hungry can be fed, the naked can be clothed, and the lost can be found.
I believe in the world turned upside down.