Half Truth of Pentecost
“All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit,” Acts 2.
“The Lord Helps Those who Help Themselves…” said Jesus never.
This morning we are going to preview the sermon series we have planned for the latter part of the spring and that will continue through the summer: … Said Jesus Never. If you’re confused by that statement you are not alone. … Said Jesus Never had to be explained to a few of the older members of the pastoral staff.
We will be examining common Christian sayings that are contrary to or misrepresent what Jesus actually said and did. Sayings like, preach the Gospel and when necessary use words, love the sinner hate the sin, and God won’t give you more than you can handle. Adam Hamilton, a United Methodist Pastor, refers to these sayings and similar sayings as “half truths,” meaning there is some truth to them but it requires us to take a closer examination to what we are saying when we use them. We are going to have fun with these sayings but are not going to dismiss them entirely.
Pentecost is a time of celebration. Ten days after the Ascension of Christ and 50 days removed from Passover, Pentecost then and Pentecost now is a celebration.
2000 years ago, Pentecost occurred during the Festival of Weeks. This marked the end of the spring harvest and Jews would sacrifice the first-fruits of the field. In doing so, they celebrated, remembered, and renewed the covenant made between YHWH and Abraham. They remembered YHWH keeping that covenant as Israel found freedom from their Egyptian captors.
From the onset, Pentecost was not a strictly Christian holiday or event. It had only been 10 days since Jesus ascended and told the disciples that He would send what the Father had promised, telling the disciples to remain and await the sending of “power from on high.”
What we miss reading this text through our Gentile eyes is that the disciples and those waiting for the “power from on high” were gathered together to celebrate the Festival of Weeks. So before Pentecost became the catapult from which the Church would grow, it was first and foremost a gathering of faithful Jews praising God who had established a covenant with them generations ago.
So while on Pentecost there was a promise fulfilled to those who anxiously and/or patiently awaited what Jesus had promised them, the promise of covenant with Israel was also fulfilled, not by the workings of Israel or righteous deeds of religious leaders but by God, by a promise made by Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit.
“Power from on high” sounds pretty awesome but it also is a pretty vague promise. Because of that vagueness, those waiting did not fully understand what was about to happen and what was happening. And it's not like they could go to the synagogue or Temple and ask a rabbi or priest for clarification. While the Festival of Weeks had been celebrated for generations, the “power from on high” promised by Christ had not been experienced before.
There was nothing they could do to help themselves understand what was going to happen. To say there was a prerequisite that the 120 do something before the Holy Spirit descended runs contrary to the promise made by Jesus when he ascended. And when the “power from on high” descended and the tongues of fire appeared there was little the 120 could do to help themselves further understand, especially when they began speaking in the different languages.
The Holy Spirit gave them the ability to understand what was being said, meaning that the languages used were outside their understanding. Like a translator working through a set of headphones, God was at work on Pentecost keeping a promise, fulfilling a covenant, and empowering those present to not only be filled with “power from on high” but also to understand everything what was happening.
This is why and how Peter was able to interpret the words of the prophet Joel at the end of the event: the outpouring of the spirit signaled fulfillment of a prophesy as Christ had been killed but then rose victoriously. The result was the Holy Spirit, the divine messenger, invading human life and shattering any expectations that had been established prior to the Pentecost event.
While Pentecost is a moment to look back on at what God has done in establishing the first community of believers, today is also an occasion to remember that the Holy Spirit, the divine messenger, is still at work today. We can look back and see God’s faithfulness in keeping the covenant established with Abraham and freeing Israel from bondage, but we can also see on Pentecost that God is faithful throughout all generations. Which means that we today should expect the faithfulness of God to continue - through us sitting here this morning, those sitting upstairs, and especially though our confirmands.
Pentecost signals a universality to the working of the Holy Spirit. In the listing of the nations we see that while our customs and traditions may be diverse, God can and will work across them. No one is left out because they come from background X or where raised in a place like Galilee.
Pentecost is a reminder that 2000 years ago, and today, the identity of the Church extends beyond the local congregation, our denominations, and our theology. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit seals the Church’s identity in the resurrection and ascension of Christ.
Our identity is not found in local church politics, denominational dysfunction, or theological impasses but instead in the One who calls us to transform the world.
We also see the universality of the Holy Spirit in the social equality of those receiving “power from on high.” All present were given the power to prophesy, dream, and see visions. God anointed leaders of this group along with the ordinary folks who were present. We know that God spoke to big dreamers then and continues to speak to big dreamers today, but we often forget that everyone, all of us here, has the ability to see visions and dreams that will move the Church and community toward the “Lord’s great and glorious day.” The incarnation was prophesied by Ezekiel and then God came to a humble servant named Mary. So while God is speaking to people like The Most Rev. Michael Curry and Bishop Sharma Lewis god is speaking and sending “power from on high” to people like me and you.
The social equity extended beyond those we would expect to have power in first century Israel to those who were kept on the margins of the religious life of the community. When “God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,” that means everyone.
Pentecost is a reminder to us that as disciples of Jesus Christ we cannot exist apart from one another. The Holy Spirit formed the first 120 people into a community and while we like to romanticize what they had and did, truth be told, we cannot be a community of faith without them but also without one another. That includes all of us here at Mount Olivet but extends to the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches down the street, along with churches around the world.
When our differences and division are highlighted more than what unifies us, it is hard to believe that the Holy Spirit is still at work. But in the midst of our divisions God is at work, speaking to leaders yes, but also to ordinary folks who are open to the possibility that God is going to work in and through them. Our identity as a community of believers is what connects us with other believers around the world and not our denominational disfunction, or theological impasses.
This is what gives life to the Church. This is what moves us beyond God helping those who help themselves and brings us into a life as a community of people filled with the power of God.
Pentecost is a hard sell for many of us today, 2000 years removed. It seems like something that happened back then and something that is not or cannot happen now. Understanding one additional language let alone multiple languages seems like an insurmountable barrier. And then there are the sights of the event. Our attempts to recreate tongues of fire on cloth or with candles gives us a glimpse but does not provide us with the real experience of Pentecost. It is hard to reproduce.
We try to help ourselves understand what happened and how God is still speaking and working through the Holy Spirit today, and in these efforts, at times, we reallocate the agency of the divine to ourselves because on some level many of us have bought into the idea that God helps those who help themselves. The 120 people assembled at the first Pentecost did not multiply to 3000 and then 5000 because they helped themselves. They did not multiply from 5000 then to 2.3 billion today because they did everything themselves and then God came along and sprinkled a little bit of the Holy Spirit on them. The hard sell of Pentecost is that we lack any agency, other than to gather together and prayerfully wait.
On Pentecost and throughout the life of the Church, the Holy Spirit is the invitation into the prophetic work and life of the Church. Pentecost is not the benchmark for us today but instead it illustrates how important the Church is and how inseparable the Church is from God. We are reminded who we are as a local church and who we are as part of the Church universal. We are reminded that what we proclaim is unmerited and irresistible new life and that we are not the source of that new life. There is nothing we can do to help ourselves corporately or individually experience the unmerited and irresistible new life given to us by through the promise of Christ and by the Holy Spirit.