How Did You Two Meet? – Pentecost Sermon on Acts 2.1-13

Acts 2.1-13

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And 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. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pntus and Asia, Phyrgia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Acts 2:1-4. When the day of Pentecost came. Pastel & pen. 26 May 2012.

I had spent an entire week with countless young Christians from all over the world at a monastery in Burgundy, France. For most weeks during the summer, Taize attracts upwards of 5,000 young Christians dedicated to exploring their faith through prayer, service, and singing. Waking up in a tent every morning, I would trudge across the dew filled grass passing neon tents filled with 20-somethings snoring away as the sun came up over the horizon. Each little campsite held clues as to the nationality of the residents: the occasional German flag, a water bottle covered in French writing, an abandoned tee-shirt with a hispanic wrestler flexing on the front, I even saw a cricket bat one morning. As the crowds made their way to the sanctuary, it was impossible to eavesdrop or understand what anyone was talking about because no one was speaking English.

Just past the interior door to the incredibly large sanctuary, there were buckets filled with hymnals organized by language. On our first morning I was surprised to discover that there were more “English” hymnals left in the buckets than any others, because Americans were part of the minority of the gathered body.

Taize Altar

Taize Altar

We sat on the floor surrounded by other young people who were still half asleep fumbling through our hymnals before the service began. Suddenly, up at the front of the massive building, a simply lit sign displayed three numbers “312” and as if we were being controlled by a single operator we all flipped our pages to the corresponding hymn. Without any musical accompaniment, without any choral direction, the hymn began. I, of course, sang the hymn in English as the words were displayed on the page, but when I made my way to the end of the song, everyone continued singing. We were not told how many times to repeat the hymn, but it went on and on until in ended naturally at the same moment. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced. When I had finally caught on to the rhythm of our singing, I closed my eyes and began to hear all of the other voices singing faithfully in their native tongue. Without a doubt, that moment as I sat on the floor of a enormous sanctuary in France, was the closest I have ever been to experiencing the day of Pentecost in my own life.

 

The community of faith had recently witnessed Jesus’ ascension into heaven and then retreated to the upper room in Jerusalem to devote themselves to patience and prayer. For ten days they waited, as they had been told to do, waiting for something to happen. We are given very little in Acts about what they did those ten days but we do know that rather than taking matters into their own hands, instead of getting organized and venturing forth with pamphlets about “what God can do for YOU”, they waited for God to make the next move.

The day of Pentecost, what we celebrate and remember today here in church, was the first big thing to happen to the disciples after Jesus had left them. Like the start of any life or story, the beginning has major ramifications for how the rest will turn out. Just as with Jesus’ birth in the manger in Bethlehem to a virgin, so too the details surrounding the birth of the church would come to define the rest of the story for Jesus’ followers.

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As the morning broke, while the disciples were all together in one place, an eruption of sounds and a wind from heaven filled the entire house. Things were coming loose and breaking open, new realities were taking shape, and the life of discipleship was changed forever. The wind swirled around the gathered people, the same wind which on the very first morning swept across the dark waters and brought order out of chaos. The wind of Genesis was again bringing something new to life.

Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them and each of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. What a strange and profound moment this must have been! After days of waiting in prayer God had showed up and quickly put things into action. Though the Spirit brought order out of chaos in Genesis, this must have felt like the opposite. I imagine the disciples running about within the house exclaiming great things in languages they themselves had never heard before. Something this incredible and inexplicable could not be contained to one house alone, and a crowd quickly gathered and was bewildered by the indescribable moment.

Jews from all over had gathered in Jerusalem when this took place and they began to hear these nobody disciples speaking in the native languages of all the people. Amazed by this, they questioned how it was possible, and quickly decided to blame it on an excessive use of alcohol.

The crowd’s demand for an answer was a cue for one of the disciples to stand and speak. And who, among the disciples, could have imagined that Peter would have been the one to do so? Peter is the first, the very first to lift up his voice and proclaim proudly and faithfully the word that he was unable to when Jesus had been arrested. The man who had been so quick to deny Christ three times, is the one who stepped forward to share the glory of God’s kingdom with all who questioned this miracle.

Peter preached a sermon, he shared the story of God in Christ, all by the power of the Spirit: “listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, winds, and signs that God did through him among you, and you yourselves know — this man, who was handed over to be crucified and killed, was raised by God, having been freed from death because it was impossible for him to be held in its power…” Peter told the story that he had witnessed and thus helped give birth to the church that we now participate in today.

 

I have been here at St. John’s for almost a year. The last twelve months have been filled with changes, excitement, new life, and joy. I give glory to God for sending me to a place with such faithful people who have helped me to see God in new and wonderful ways, while also allowing me to do the same. 

I knew that, upon arrival, one of the most important things I could do would be to learn the collective story of the church. I have met with many of you to learn about your lives and your stories in such a way that I could learn about our community that gathers here for worship. When I meet with couples I almost always ask the same question: How did you two meet? I ask this question because how two people met says a considerable amount about their relationship, and most people love to tell that particular story.

I can tell you with joy this morning, that many of you met in wonderful and joyful ways. I have had the privilege to hear about a couple who met on a Greyhound bus traveling to Radford, VA over 65 years ago. We have a couple who met at a brewery when the young woman complimented the young man on his beard. Or there’s the couple who met in a spousal grief group after having both been divorced. We even have a couple who met here in church and the boy asked his brother to the get the number of the girl so he could ask her out later.

I love asking how a couple met because people can tell the story with all the important details. They can remember the outfits they were wearing, the weather outside, and the other people who were present. They can describe with vivid clarity that first smile they saw, or the way their fingers felt when they wove them together for the first time. And frankly, I love asking the question because it is hilarious to watch men and women argue about the details of a meeting from their own perspectives.

(Photo Credit: Jill Nicole Photography)

(Photo Credit: Jill Nicole Photography)

But sometimes I think about the gospel story and I wonder how that connects us. I freely admit that when I ask couples about how they met I am not expecting anyone to start talking about Moses or Abraham or the Holy Spirit. But the Gospel story is one that we should know just as well. Many of you have been attending church for your whole lives, and even those of you who have recently started to attend, have heard the story of God in Christ week in and week out. The story that we find in scripture is inescapable because it is ours. 

I ask people about who they met because it teaches me about whom they are. It helps to reveal parts and aspects of personality that would otherwise remain hidden, it sheds light on what brings people joy and how they connect with others. But in the same way, the Gospel is who we are. It is as much a part of our personalities and joy and interconnected as the story about how we met our spouses.

When Peter stood in front of the crowd on the day of Pentecost he told the story of God in the world through Jesus, his friend and Lord. With confidence and bravery he proclaimed the same story that we tell here in church every week. We should know the story that Peter shared, we should be able to tell it with the same clarity and detail and faithfulness. Imagine how powerful the gospel story would be, if you knew it and believed it and experienced it in the same way you met your spouse.

The gospel is something worth sharing. I don’t mean in the sense that you should start knocking on people’s doors to ask: “Have you heard about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?” But I want to question our willingness to keep telling this wonderful and life-giving story.

After all, how would anyone know whether or not you’re a Christian?

Maybe you wear a cross around your neck, or you pray before your meals at restaurants, or you tell people about what fun activities are going on at your church… But seriously, how would anyone know if you’re a Christian?

We can tell the story of God’s interaction in the world through ways that are both faithful and fruitful. Like those first disciples the Holy Spirit has been poured on to us in such a way that we are now filled with the Spirit and have been given gifts. The disciples were given the power to speak in numerous languages in order to convey the gospel to the multitudes. Today we have been given the power to meet people where they are in order to be Christ’s body for the world.

Imagine the next time someone started to tell you about a recent tragedy, you responded by asking to pray for them. Or the next time you hear about a family thats having a difficult time adjusting to a new life in Staunton, you invite them over for dinner out of kindness rather than expectation. Or the next time you believe that someone has been treated unjustly, you speak up for them rather than expect someone else to do it. And when you’re asked why you have done these things, answer truthfully and confidently: “I am a disciple of Jesus.”

The Spirit that empowered those disciples still empowers us. Like the cacophony of languages that were all singing to the Lord at Taize, we are called to raise our voices, to go public with the good news. As we see with the way Peter proclaimed the story on behalf of the church, we also have something to say, we need only the courage to stand up, open our mouths, and begin.

Amen.

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Questions: The Old and the New – Sermon on Genesis 11.1-9 & Acts 2.1-4

Genesis 11.1-9

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Acts 2.1-4

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the 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. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

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Today we continue with our sermon series on “Questions.” After requesting responses from all of you regarding your questions about God, Faith, and the Church, we have, again, come to the time when I attempt to faithful respond to those questions. Last week we looked at what it means to be saved and how we can come to understand it in our own lives. Today we are talking about the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, how can we reconcile the vengefully destructive God of the Old Testament with the loving merciful God of the New.

So, here we go…

I saw the two representatives walking up and down the street, knocking on the doors of all my neighbors. Sitting at my kitchen counter, I was at home on break from JMU working on a paper for my class called “Jesus and the Moral Life.” As I sat there, Bible and computer spread before me, I eagerly awaited any distraction.

I wondered what organization or church the two men represented. It was clear that whatever they were trying to sell was not working out for them because they were moving quickly between the houses on the other side of the street. I remember trying to focus on my assignment, but my mind wandered regarding the the possibilities of the speech the pair were giving to my neighbors.

When the doorbell finally rang, I sprinted to the front door with my bible in tow.

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“Good afternoon sir,” they chimed simultaneously with seemingly forced smiles that almost hurt to witness. “Have you heard about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?” I mumbled something in response about being a Christian, but they continued as if I wasn’t really standing there.

“Are you aware of God’s impending destruction of the earth? We have failed to be obedient, and God is surely going to rain down his wrath upon all of us. There will be earthquakes, floods, and famines. Nothing can stop God’s judgement, but we can save you.”

“Tell me more,” I replied.

“Well, Satan and his demons were cast down to earth in 1914 which initiated the End Times. Over the years he has begun to take over human governments in order to create evil on earth. God will come to destroy Satan, and this entire earth with him, but if you join us, God will protect you from his armageddon.”

Now, before I continue, I urge you to remember that I was a young and foolish biblical studies student, convinced that I knew everything there was to know about God, faith, and scripture.

And so, it came to pass that after listening to these two men describe for me the fall of Satan having occurred at the beginning of the 20th century, and their ability to save me from God’s impending destruction, I could no longer contain myself…

“Where does it say that in the Bible?”

“Well, if you look at our pamphlet, it clearly outlines…”

“Where does it say that in the Bible?”

“These charts will show how natural disasters are connected to Satan…”

“Where does it say that in the Bible? I’ve got one right here, and I would love for you to show me where your facts come from.”

At that point they slowly started to step away from the door, thanked me for my time, and continued their evangelistic work to the rest of the neighborhood.

Thinking back upon that interaction, I regret the poor Christian hospitality I showed those two men. I had a predetermined commitment to scripture that blinded me from hearing them out and kindly responding to their interpretive theology. However, I believe the interaction does point to a faulty mode of reading God’s Word that has plagued the church from the beginning.

Marcion was a Christian bishop during the first century. Like many Christians, he saw discrepancies between the actions of God in the Old Testament and during the time of the New Testament. And after wrestling with the differences, Marcion proposed completely rejecting the existence of the God described in the Jewish scriptures, and also argued for omitting the sections of the New Testament that were connected with the Old. Central for Marcion’s edited bible was the idea that the teachings of Jesus were incompatible with the actions of God as found in the Hebrew Scriptures.

After numerous debates, fights, and even scandals Marcion was declared a heretic by the early church fathers and was removed from the church.

Like the two men who came knocking on my door, Marcion (and many others) had a very tunnel-visioned understanding of scripture. If it did not agree with their beliefs, they omitted it, they ignored it, and they taught in spite of it.

Without a doubt, if you read through the stories of the Old and New Testaments you will discover a number of difficulties regarding the actions of God throughout time. Wrestling with these changes has been a part of the church’s history from the very beginning and still takes place today. To fully address these differences it would take numerous sermons series and bible studies, and certainly cannot be fully proclaimed in one sermon. If this is something that you really wrestle with we can talk about doing something in greater detail down the road, but for today’s purposes we can only accomplish so much.

One of the major problems with the inconsistency of scripture is that we tend to view chapters and narratives in isolation. We take one verse from the Old Testament and compare it to one verse in the New. I am thankful for the numbering of chapters and verses for organization, but I believe they have also stratified our understanding of scripture into tiny bits that can be reorganized for our understanding. The Bible is one thing, it is the single story of God with God’s people; it may be divided into two testaments, with numerous chapters and verses regarding a plethora of people and places, but it is nevertheless one unified collection of the living Word for God’s people.

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Rather than reading in isolation, we are called to understand and experience God’s word canonically, which is to say we have to understand each individual narrative in light of the entire saga of scripture. Reading, preaching, and teaching canonically opens our eyes to the many ways that God runs through both testaments like a river; the water may change with the seasons, but the water always moves.

In Genesis 10 we find the story of the tower of Babel. Humanity had one language and had gathered in the plains of Shinar to settle down. There they decided to build a giant tower into the heavens in order to make a name for themselves. God witnessed the construction of this tower, recognized that this was but one domino leading inevitably to a belief that humanity did not need God, so God confused their language and scattered the people over the face of the earth.

In Acts 2 we find the story of the disciples gathered together 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection. While they were all together a great wind came from heaven filling the entire house. All of the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages.

Babel and Pentecost, two stories, one from the Old Testament, one from the New. These stories are often used in church to make separate points about the identity of God and what it means to be a disciple; Babel demonstrates God’s punishment of humanity for sin and Pentecost shows God’s desire for the gospel to spread amongst all nations and languages. However, they cannot be fully understood without the other. They are not two separate stories describing two different Gods, but are instead part of the greater canonical narrative of how God is God.

Babel contains every bit of the human desire to remain self-reliant and focused on pride. Like the garden, Babel exhibits that same sense of sin whereby humanity believed it no longer needed God. Though the story clearly contains examples of God’s wrath, it also contains an abundance of grace.

In striving to build a city and a tower for themselves, humanity had lost sight of the unity under which they already enjoyed from God. The true sin evident in the story is the arrogance of thinking that humanity must take itself as one takes brick and mortar, and make themselves the lord of history. In violation of the original unity of creation, in humanity’s desire to control its own destiny, the people of Genesis 11 were no longer naturally organized under the great Shepherd, but instead were brought together by the selfish desire to live in ignorance of God’s created order.

God punishes the people gathered together by confusing their language and scattering them over the earth. His wrath is evident, but his grace also lies under the surface. God could have easily used an earthquake or another divine example of control to achieve the punishment. He could have destroyed the tower and everyone in it. But rather than destroying creation, as had been done with Noah and the flood, God merely divides humanity and confuses their language. Instead of raining down death and destruction, God limits the punishment to linguistics.

We discover God’s unyielding grace in the fact that God will continue to be our shepherd regardless of our self-righteousness. God will not abandon us to our own devices but will remain faithful even when we are not.

And remember, the story of Babel does not end in Genesis 10, it continues on throughout the Old Testament and finds reflection in the New. As Christians we are aware that God has more in store for his creation than one isolated story from the past would have us believe. In the person of Jesus Christ the previously divided world finally comes back together. It is in the story of Pentecost that we are reminded again of God’s desire for humanity to rest in unity, not division.

Pentecost tells us about the miracle of the Holy Spirit coming down to help reunite the world in order to fruitfully live into God’s kingdom. God did not abandon the people of Babel, just as God has not abandoned us while we continually act as if we can make through life on our own.

The same year I met the two men who knocked on my door, I took a group of college-age Christians to Taize, an ecumenical monastery in Burgundy, France. We camped for a week on the property, gathering together with 5,000 young Christians three times a day for prayer and reflective hymns. The Christians gathered together that week came from all over the globe, representing nearly every continent. In between the worship services, we met in small groups talking about faith, scripture, and discipleship. When the last day arrived, my group sat together and I asked us to end our week by standing in a circle to pray with each other. I asked everyone to pray the Lord’s prayer together in their native tongue, and then individually pray it so that we could hear what it sounded like. For perhaps the first time in my life, Pentecost became really for me while we prayed together in that field. Though all of us had been divided across the planet we were all brought together by Jesus Christ. Though we had been previously separated we were gathered in unity by the great “I AM.”

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Babel and Pentecost are intimately connected but I want to be clear that the relationship between the two testaments is not that God fixes the problems of the Old Testament with the revelations of the New. God did not change himself from wrathful to graceful. The New Testament is not the band-aid for the Old.

Yet, the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ changed everything. The Old Testament tells of God’s interaction with creation and the New Testament inaugurates the event where God came to dwell among us. Jesus Christ is the lens by which we are called to read scripture, both the Old and the New Testament. God’s love of creation is woven into the fabric of scripture, consistently revealed through people like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jesus, Mary, Peter, and Paul and places like Egypt, Galilee, Samaria, and Jerusalem.

This is one great cosmic story, a story that begins with God’s creation of all things declaring them good, a story that has no end because it still taking form right now.

So, how do we reconcile the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New Testament? We read scripture knowing that it does not happen in isolation, but can only be understood within the canon of both testaments. 

We read knowing that, like all great things, God is mystery unrevealed until its proper season. We read with faith knowing that God has not abandoned us, though we struggle to find meaning in the shadow of suffering, fear, and doubt, God’s plan for us is greater than we can possibly imagine. We read knowing that God does not choose us because we are good, but because he wants us to be good.

We read scripture in the light of Jesus Christ recognizing that where we find wrath, there is also grace; when we suffer we discover our hope; and when there is death there is also resurrection. Amen.