This is the text of the sermon I delivered at Rosanna Uniting Church on Pentecost. It occurred to me in writing and delivering this sermon the interesting distinctions between the different Gospel accounts of the giving of the Spirit and the forming of the church. In this regard I wonder how one might read this sermon alongside my recent sermon on John. In any case, feedback always welcome.
Text: Acts 2.1-21
God, by your Spirit, enable me to speak truth; and by the same Spirit enable those that listen to point out what is not. Amen.
The end is nigh! The world is coming to an end!
All of it.
Political strife. Environmental degradation. The slow agonising heat death of the universe.
Everything is headed towards disaster, decay, and destruction.
Now all we have to do is wait for Jesus to return. Descending from the clouds to finally, finally wrap everything up. And reveal, once and for all, that we were right.
If we sit for a moment in this way of looking at the world, we might better understand the experience of the first Christians leading up to Pentecost.
Jewish expectations of resurrection were tied to the end of the world. And the first believers had seen Jesus resurrected, alive in the flesh, after being put to death on the cross. Surely this resurrection was a sign of the end, a sign of the world to come.
It is was only natural to expect, then, that what was to follow was a slow spiral into chaos and destruction. As it happened this came to pass. Rome came crashing down on Jerusalem, destroying the temple seemingly once and for all. Christians faced persecution. And it was difficult to see a way forward, a way of hope.
As we enter the story of today’s reading we should bear in mind what has just happened:
Jesus has ascended into heaven. Judas has died, and been replaced. The disciples are gathered in a house.
Waiting for something.
But it’s unclear what. Perhaps they really did sit there thinking, ‘this is it, the end is nigh.’
Indeed, after the Spirit comes Peter’s first response is to preach that sermon. A sermon about the end of the world. Quoting the prophet Joel, Peter sees the Spirit’s arrival as a sure sign of the “last days.” He quotes Joel’s references to:
“Blood, and fire, and smoky mist. | The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood.” (v19b-20a)
One can almost picture Peter giving this sermon wearing a sandwich board, or holding a giant sign, screaming on a street corner.
It is important to recognise this element of surprise in the story of Pentecost. The disciples did not see it coming. The outpouring of the Spirit simply happens.
While we have come to see this story as the story of the founding of the church, we should not be fooled into thinking that this foundation was led by the disciples. That the church was founded as a logical extension of the Jesus movement.
The church here is not a clear and logical outworking that follows from the realisation that Jesus can fly.
Rather, the church comes into existence as a response to the surprising activity of God: in response to an experience that is simply given to the first believers. The Spirit’s coming just happens, and the believers are called to respond. It is the community that responds to the activity of God that becomes the church.
This contrasts quite a bit with other accounts of the giving of the Spirit, and the birth of the church. In John’s Gospel, to take one example, the disciples are similarly gathered in one room. There Jesus breathes the Spirit onto them directly, as he presents his scarred and broken body. The founding of the church in that context is connected quite clearly with the practice of gathering around the table, sharing in broken bread and wine: signs of a broken body, and spilt blood.
What makes this account in Acts 2 of the birth of the church significant is that it does not seem at first directly connected with Jesus. We can see this in how the drama of the account unfolds.
The disciples are gathered together, the Spirit descends: a loud wind fills the house, tongues of fire fall and rest on each of them. This experience forces them out into the streets, where they encounter people from many different places, speaking many different languages.
Into this chaotic scene Peter stands to preach. Peter, as we’ve seen, names the full scope of what’s going on. It seems to point to something that calls into question the whole of reality itself.
This feeling of everything being called into question is echoed in our reading from Romans 8. There Paul says that Creation itself is yearning for revelation, groaning in labour pains, hoping to be caught up in the activity of God.
The surprise of Pentecost draws the first believers fully into the experience. It touches every part of them. It forces them out into the streets, preaching the end of the world.
And then …
And then Peter remembers. Peter remembers the witness of Jesus of Nazareth. Not some abstract Christ, functioning as a symbol untouched by history or culture. But Jesus of Nazareth – Nazareth, that town up the road, that people can visit, and that remains a site of significant conflict and contestation.
Peter remembers that it is in Jesus of Nazareth, and truly in him, that we understand the surprising activity of God. We understand God who attested to Jesus with deeds of power, wonders, and signs. We understand God through Jesus’ solidarity with those that suffer, and are oppressed. Solidarity that lead him to the cross. And we understand God through Jesus being raised, being freed from death.
What we glimpse in the vision of the church offered by Acts 2 is an understanding of the church rooted in two fundamental things:
A surprising experience of God, and Jesus of Nazareth – a man attested by God.
The church, in other words, is the community formed by experiences of the Spirit understood through the story of Jesus.
Experiences of the Spirit that draw in all of who we are, calling into question everything in our world. Experiences that compel us outside of our houses, into encounters with people of every language and race.
And the story of Jesus that we read in Scripture, and see lived out in lives of justice, mercy, and love. The story of Jesus we re-tell over and over and over, as we proclaim in words and deeds the reign of God on behalf of those that suffer, and against those that oppress.
The Spirit and the Christ shape who we are as the church. We are the church because we respond to this activity of God – in the Spirit and in the Christ.
We might, then, breathe a sigh of relief: we do not have to be all things to all people. But must simply, and humbly seek to be drawn into the life of God in the world. We might understand ourselves as continually moving towards the activity of the living God already at work in the world. Not relying on ourselves, but finding the sites of hope in the world.
We might, then, also be freed in responding to the life of God in the world. The point is not to control or smother the flames. But rather to encounter change and newness by attesting to Jesus of Nazareth. Recognising that the Spirit of God goes before us, and Jesus stands behind us.
In reminding ourselves of the story of Pentecost, we remind ourselves of the livingness of God, the willingness of God to engage with God’s people – that is, everyone, all people of the world.
We proclaim the Good News: God is a living God. The Spirit is at work in reconciliation, in deeds of justice, of mercy, and of love. And in Jesus the Messiah we see this work most fully: crucified with those that suffer, raised in opposition to oppression.
We ourselves are caught up in the activity of God, can we live up to this call? Can we experience the Spirit of Pentecost?