The following is the sermon manuscript I used on June 18, 2017, the Second Sunday after Pentecost. It will vary in places from the actual sermon preached.
For more on this series, see our Introduction.
Sermon Text – Acts 2:1-47
There is no Christian life that is not life in the Spirit of God. There is no Christian proclamation, no Christian witness, that is not the proclamation of the Spirit of God about Jesus Christ. There is no Christian Church growth that is not done by the Spirit and the Spirit alone. There is no Christian fellowship that is not fellowship in the Spirit of God.
Of course, as Christians, I doubt any of us would think these words aren’t true. At least, I hope not. We talk about the need for the Spirit. We nod our heads. We read passages in Scripture about the work and the importance of the Spirit; we hear a sermon or are reminded in the liturgy about the movement of the Spirit. For a time, we are briefly moved. Then we go back to whatever it was we wanted to do in the first place.
Because if we’re honest with ourselves – and I’m no different than any of you in this respect – we live most of our lives with only a passing acknowledgment of God’s passionate intimacy with us through the Spirit. I say I have a Christian life, but so often it’s a life in and for myself – not a life in the Spirit. You say you have a Christian witness, but most often the central proclamation of your life is about yourself! We say that Church growth comes only by the working of the Spirit of God – then we go back to planning our strategies as if everything depended on us. We say we have Christian fellowship, but little do we recognize that much of our fellowship doesn’t look all that different from any generic community organization – we have a common interest, a decent amount of concern for one another, and we generally enjoy each other’s company. Christian community was first founded when the Spirit descended on the Apostles in tongues of fire – we settle lukewarm. We fail to look at our brother or our sister and say, “The Spirit of God lives here!” We still look to a building to be the Temple of the Lord; we neglect to look at one another as the very place where God dwells on earth by his Spirit.
And that’s why we need to hear Acts 2 over and over again. We believe – or at least we act like – the Church was founded by us and is about us! Sisters and brothers, we need Acts 2 because we need to know that the Church – including this church here at Homewood Cumberland Presbyterian – was founded by the Holy Spirit and is about Jesus Christ.
Derek and I are preaching through Acts because we need to be reminded of this truth, too. Chapter one, which we heard last week, is the prologue for book. It sets the scene after Jesus’ resurrection and serves as the narrative transition from when Jesus walked the earth with the disciples to when the Holy Spirit founds the Church with the Apostles. Acts 2 is the lens through which the rest of the book must be read. The Apostles do many mighty acts. That’s why our tradition has named this book, “The Acts of the Apostles.” But even the Apostles would tell you they aren’t the main character. Luke, the author who wrote this as a sequel to his Gospel, doesn’t portray any one of them – or even them collectively – as the main character. No, the Holy Spirit is central to this narrative just as he is central to the life of the Church in all times and in all ages.
And that is why we are calling this sermon series “The Act of the Holy Spirit.” There are many movements of the Spirit in the actions of the Apostles throughout this book. If you’re keeping count with Derek and me, this chapter covers four, five, and six of eighty-five. (Those numbers aren’t inspired, so you don’t have to keep count. We calculated them through the highly technical process of counting the section headings in your ESV pew Bibles – you can just look at the ESV headings, and that will probably be easier!) Derek and I are operating under the premise that these eighty-five movements are all part of the one Act of the Holy Spirit – the establishment of Christ’s Church. It’s an Act that continues to this day and into this very place. And in order to begin to understand how the Spirit is moving in this time and place – in our movement here at Homewood – we must look to how the Act began.
And it began with the Spirit’s action. Take a look at the first movement we’ll be looking at today in verses 1-13 under the ESV heading, “The Coming of the Holy Spirit.” The Disciples are all sitting in the same room together in Jerusalem. But they’re not just twiddling their thumbs wondering what to next. Let’s remember that the Disciples have been told to wait by the resurrected Jesus in chapter 1. They are not held captive by indecision – they have made the deliberate decision to wait.
It is Father’s Day. And if being a father of a three-year-old has taught me anything, it’s that it’s not comfortable for us to wait. Will is appropriately named because his namesake characteristic is pretty strong in him. He’s going to let you know what he wants to do and exactly when he wants to do it. “Not right now,” is something he has little patience for, and “later” is concept he only vaguely understands.
But in truth, toddlers are better at waiting than us because they at least sometimes acknowledge that they’re not in control! They know they’re dependent on adults to provide for their every need or desire – that’s why they get so upset when they don’t get something! We have a more pernicious and deadly problem. We can sometimes trick ourselves into believing that we’re not dependent. What’s worse, we often slip into the false belief – either directly or tacitly – that God is dependent on us to get anything done in the Church. Jesus is off away somewhere, and we must be his hands and feet to get anything done in the world.
The truth of Pentecost – and the joyous freedom that comes from this truth – is that God doesn’t depend on any of us! God is going to accomplish what God is going to accomplish, and while we are invited to participate – indeed, commanded to participate – success or failure does not depend on our human action.
The disciples, for all their failures to understand what Jesus was saying in the Gospels, at least get this part right. They obey Jesus in this act of waiting. My good friend Adam Borneman – sage of practical theology and baseball that he is – gave me this wisdom as part of his charge to me when I was ordained, “Do not lead without first being led by the Spirit.” The path towards life is through Christ, and the path through Christ is led by the Holy Spirit. All other roads lead to death. Our churches are no exception to this rule.
It is true, and will always be true, that the Spirit of God is always ahead of us, leading us forward. In many churches that have seen decline, there is a frantic effort to find out where the Spirit has gone. New programs, new worship styles, new ways of appealing to the culture, new acceptance of old sins, a new preacher, a new youth director, a new worship leader – these are all appealing ways to find some quick fix for a dying church. Often in search of the new fix to old death, the dying church will say that it’s following the “new thing” God is doing in the Spirit. This kind of thinking ignores the truth that while the Spirit is indeed always ahead of us, urging us forward, the Spirit is also beside us and within us, telling us that the “new thing” Isaiah prophesied about is not an event but a person – Jesus Christ. The very Spirit of God speaks to us!
And the very Spirit of God speaks to us in our own language. When the Spirit comes in a mighty way to the Apostles, Jews from all across the world were in one place. They were there for the feast of Pentecost, a harvest feast fifty days after the Passover when Jesus had his Last Supper. And after the Spirit appears following a mighty wind and with fire, the narrative shifts –without any explicit description – from the tiny room where the Apostles were gathered to outdoors where the Jews and proselytes from many nations had gathered. And the very first thing the Apostles do when they are filled with the Spirit is proclaim the mighty works of God to people in their own languages.
There is a lot that can be said about the miracle of speaking in tongues here, but I know we all have Father’s Day lunches to get to, so I’ll keep a simple emphasis here: by a miracle of the Holy Spirit, the disciples speak in other languages, and the effect is that the people who hear do so in ways that they can understand clearly and intimately.
There is much benefit to learning another language. But hearing the truth of God spoken in the same accent your mother used when she sang you to sleep – that is deeply intimate. If you’ve ever travelled to a foreign country (whether you spoke the language and could get around or not) there’s something special about hearing someone speak your native tongue. For those of you who haven’t traveled abroad, you might have gotten a similar sense of what I’m talking about if you’ve been to a place like New York and, in the midst of the crowd, heard an Alabama accent. There is an instant bond, a feeling that someone knows something about you – or at least knows you in ways the other people around you don’t – even if you’ve just met.
“What does all of this mean?” the crowd asks the Apostles. The miracle of tongues at Pentecost is that God is intimate with us and tells us of his mighty works in ways that we can understand. He speaks to us in our own language. Have we ever paused to consider how miraculous it is that we can read the very words of God, inspired by the Spirit, in our native tongue simply by picking up a copy of Scripture! This is not common in the history of the world, but we have it here in our hands because of the movement of the Spirit in Church history! Like a nurse to a baby, God lisps to us, John Calvin says. God condescends to us, God comes down to us, to himself known. The Spirit indeed goes ahead of us, calling us outdoors toward proclamation, but never in way that leaves us lost! God does not play hide and seek with his Will, a mutual professor of both your pastors would say. God makes his will known, and God makes God’s will known in the words of Scripture and in the Word of God, Jesus Christ.
And as Peter proclaimed in his first sermon, God’s will is that we follow Christ. Look at the next movement of the Spirit in verses 14-41 under the ESV heading, “Peter’s Sermon at Pentecost.” We won’t have time to cover it all in detail and – in truth, who am I to add to the preached words of an Apostle preached on the day the Church was founded! But take a look at the subject matter – it’s all about God’s gracious action in Jesus Christ. What’s happening with the Apostles is spectacular – it’s so spectacular some are saying they’re drunk! Peter starts with a defense: “How can we be drunk, it’s 9 in the morning?!” Then he shifts his discussion to the might work of God. These are the last days, the days when God has poured out God’s Spirit. And the Spirit is not simply poured out on kings or prophets. The Spirit has been poured out on men and women, young and old.
People of God, you are prophets! You are not prophets in the sense that you can predict lottery numbers or the outcome of football games. But if you have been filled by the Spirit of God then you will prophesy. You will proclaim the truth of God to a world that’s not eager to hear it! You will pronounce the truth that God is acting in the world. You will proclaim future things – that God will set all things right.
You prophesy in the Spirit the same way Peter does. You prophesy – oh people of God filled by the Holy Spirit – by talking about Jesus. This Jesus, whom you and I crucified, is the same Jesus who has triumphed over death. This Jesus, whose death is the result of our sin, has been lifted up above all creation, sits at the right hand of God the Father in power, and is coming again to judge the living and the dead.
And to those gathered at Pentecost, that is a terrifying reality! The crowd asked, “What does this mean?” – and they got their answer. Make no mistake, whether the people in the crowd were present before Pilate and shouted, “Crucify him,” or not, Peter is implicating all of them in Jesus’ death. What would you do if the man you crucified was just declared King of all Kings and was coming back?
To start, you might ask the same question the crowd asked, “What shall we do?” How can killers – and we are, even though Christ willingly laid down his life – find pardon and grace and peace?
The crowd asks this question of Peter, and Peter responds not with judgment, but with grace. “Repent and be baptized.” Too often, we look at repentance as something we’d rather avoid. It’s like a new diet or an exercise plan – we know it’s good for us, but it’s too arduous to take up right now. Repentance here is pure joy. It’s walking down a dark trail, lost in the woods at night, and turning around to see the light of a fire that leads you back to camp. Luke has already talked extensively about repentance in his Gospel. In Luke 15, Jesus says that repentance is like the one lost sheep out of ninety-nine who is found by the shepherd. Repentance is like the one lost coin out of ten being found by a woman desperately searching for it. Repentance is like one lost, frivolous, and wicked son out of two being found by a Father who rushes out while he is a long way off not to chastise him but to welcome him in to a feast.
Repentance is about responding in faith to God, but it’s primary emphasis is on the God who finds. With blood still on our hands from the torture and death of God’s own Son, God finds us, washes our hands in the waters of our baptism, and fills us with his very Spirit. And not only that, God tells us that the promise for us is also the promise for our children. The promise for us is the promise for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself. We are called into community.
And that is where the final movement takes us – to community – in verses 42-47 under the ESV heading, “The Fellowship of the Belivers.” This chapter begins and ends in community. There is no Spirit-filled life without community, and there is no true community without the Spirit. The repentance Peter proclaims is a repentance away from self and into community! The baptism Peter prescribes is a baptism that is the entrance into a community. Despite what you may have heard – baptism not about the individual being baptized. It is about God’s gracious action on behalf of the individual within the communion of saints.
And the community to which we are called is not a community manufactured, grown, or sustained by our human design. It is a community of love in and through the Holy Spirit. The community that comes out of the Pentecost sermon is a community so filled with love in the Spirit that they give to one another without compulsion. It is a community that recognizes their time, talents, finances, gifts, and everything that they have is not their own but belongs to a gracious God who offers provision for all.
This is the fellowship of the Spirit, the fellowship that is brought about by the proclamation of the Spirit in our own language, that communicates the mighty works of God in Jesus Christ, that prompts our joyful repentance, and that gives us entrance into fellowship with one another through baptism. This is where the loving and powerful Spirit of God leads us. Amen.