Jesus And We - Week 3: "Sound, Fury, Fire!"
We are in the middle of a sermon series for the month of May, entitled Jesus and We. The basic idea behind this series is pretty simple. We're wrestling with what it means to be a community of faith that lives into the hope of the Resurrection.
Christianity in America has become decidedly self-centered. Christian book stores are filled with all kinds of self-help books on all of the things you can do to become a better Christian. Far too many churches in America espouse a Jesus and Me kind of theology.
But what we know from Scripture, from the teachings of Jesus and from experience itself is that it's not all about Jesus and Me. The Church is about Jesus and We. Church is more than just a place you go, it's who we are.
Today is Pentecost Sunday, which marks the end of the season of Easter, but most certainly not the end of our series. Today we are going to be learning about the unexpected way that God launched the Church of Jesus Christ.
There was an unexpectedness about Jesus in the first place. You can read all about the numerous unexpected moments that he shared with his disciples throughout the Gospels. I can't even begin to tell you all of the times that he was having to tell them, "Peace be with you," or "Be not afraid," or "It's me, don't freak out!" That last one was my paraphrase.
Have you ever heard that old aphorism, "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans?" It does feel like nothing ever goes as planned, doesn't it? There is an unexpectedness to life that can either make you crazy or you can thrive in it. But either way, nothing prepares us for some of the crazy things that happen in our lives.
Styx was one of my favorite bands when I was a kid. They had a song entitled "Nothing Ever Goes As Planned" which had these lyrics:
'Cause, nothing ever goes as planned
It's a hell of a notion
Even Pharaohs turn to sand
Like a drop in the ocean
You're so together and you act so civilized
But every time that things go wrong you're still surprised
You've done your duty, you've paid a fortune in dues
Still got those Mother Nature's Blues
Can you think of a time when something unexpected changed your life? Think about it just for a moment. It could be something wonderful or terrible. Now that you have that in your head, share it with the person next to you.
Years ago, I heard someone say that the purpose of the Gospel is "to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." That little truism has landed on me more than once. It has its very roots in what we're going to be talking about today, though. When God sent the Holy Spirit to the early Church, as Jesus had promised them, it turned their world upside down. Jesus called the Holy Spirit, the "Comforter," which as we'll soon see was an odd choice of names.
In fact, that's what we're going to be focused on today--our one, big idea: THERE'S NOTHING MORE DANGEROUS TO YOUR COMFORT THAN THE COMFORT OF THE HOLY SPIRIT.
I want to read a passage of Scripture to you and hopefully teach a bit as I go. This is from Acts 2:1-21, the story of the Birthday of the Church:
1 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.
The Feast of Pentecost was the celebration of the giving of the Law. It occurred 50 days after Passover, when the Hebrew people escaped Egypt. Moses went on top of Mt. Sinai and received the Torah from God.
2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
This whole scene is a re-telling of the Creation story, the story of the tower of Babel, and also the moment when the Law is given to Moses. There was the ruach or Spirit of God that was present over the chaos of Creation as God created order out of the chaos. There was also wind and fire that was present on the mountain when Moses received the Torah
5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,[b] 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
In this moment we see the reversal of the curse of the Tower of Babel story--the story in Genesis that explains why there are so many different languages. In that story, the confusion and division of the human race began with pride. Here it is erased with the giving of a new Covenant, and a new Creation--the Church.
13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning!
To which Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffet would reply, "It's five o'clock somewhere!"
16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
17 “‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
19 I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
20 The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
21 And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.’
All of the old comfortable categories that the disciples were working with... All of the reasons these people who gathered to worship in the same old ways... All of it was turned upside down. Nothing would ever be the same again. The Spirit showed up and transformed the whole shebang. Peter had the chance to preach the Gospel after denying Jesus three times before his death, and he never looked back.
So what happened to these early Apostles? How did their lives change? Well, for starters, they were never timid again, they no longer gathered fearful into rooms and huddled together. The power of the Holy Spirit sent them out into the world to spread the Good News and because they did--the Church grew, and the message that Jesus had come to change the world was spread.
These courageous Apostles gave their very lives to this message, and to this joyous, uncomfortable transformation of the Spirit.
Peter was crucified upside down in 64 AD
James was beheaded in 45 AD, and was so faithful in his witness that his executioner refused to carry out his duty and was executed with him.
Philip was tortured and crucified in 54 AD
Matthew was beheaded in 60 AD
Andrew was crucified on an olive tree.
Thomas was thrust threw with pine spears, tormented with red hot plates and then burned alive in 70 AD
Simon was executed in 74 AD
Bartholemew was flayed alive and crucified.
Nathaniel was stoned while hanging on a cross.
Thaddeus was beaten to death by a mob.
James the brother of Jesus was thrown off the Temple wall and then beaten in the head with a club.
Paul was beheaded by the emperor Nero
When the old categories got turned upside down, it cost them. But they moved into the uncomfortable places without fear, because they believed that Jesus was risen, and they were full of the Holy Spirit.
And we get upset when we don't know the songs on Sunday morning.
Or the church leadership spends money on something that doesn't directly benefit us.
Or that person hurt my feelings.
Or I don't like it when they talk about money.
Or I am too busy, tired, old, young, not good enough to serve, do ministry, mission...
Far too many congregations in America hide behind words like "reverence," "tradition" and "history" to excuse their inattentiveness to the Holy Spirit. These words can be useful, to be sure, but only if they are used in a way that moves the Church beyond its walls and out into the wide world where the Spirit wants us to go.
Our story is one of discomfort and reversed categories, too.
When I became the pastor of this church I would tell people that I was the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Eustis, and after about ten minutes of explaining where it was located, they would almost always exclaim, "Oh that's that nice, old church with the beautiful stained glass!"
They are beautiful--those stained glass windows. But if they fell apart tomorrow, we wouldn't lose our identity. We are so much more than our buildings. And we need to continue asking our selves who we are--are we that nice old church with the stained glass or are we that church that is on fire from the inside, full of people filled with the Spirit who aren't afraid of discomfort?
A couple of years ago, I started noticing a difference when people in this area would ask me where I was a pastor--when I would tell them, they would say, "Oh, you're that church that does all of that stuff in the community... You're that church that feeds people... Has that Lifetree Cafe thing in Eustis...
And recently, the mayor of Eustis approached me and told me, "Thank you for all that you and your congregation does to make our city better. We appreciate you so much."
I don't know where God is leading us to next, but I can't wait to see what crazy, uncomfortable and incredible places we're going together. We can't start acting out of fear now, brothers and sisters. The Spirit is moving.
And there's nothing more dangerous to your comfort than the comfort of the Holy Spirit.