Once again, good morning! It is a joy to be with you on this Pentecost Sunday, as we celebrate the birth of the Christian Church, and as we celebrate the ministry of the Washington Street UMC Preschool in the community. For over 60 years now, the Preschool has been an extension of the ministry of this Church, with a focus on Learning to Live Lovingly.
Such a mission statement, such a focus on living lovingly is what Pentecost is really all about. At Pentecost, we celebrate the gift of the Spirit as an ever present and empowering breath of God that leads us to live according to God’s will.
In Acts 2, the Gospel Author Luke, tells us what happened on that Pentecost day. The body of believers in Christ had gathered 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 flame, appeared among them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages.
Let’s remember that the disciples were still Jews. The city of Jerusalem was filled with Jews who had gathered to celebrate Pentecost. This festival, taking place on the 50th day after Passover, was a time to celebrate the giving of the 10 Commandments in the Jewish faith. So, with the community of Jewish faithful gathered in large quantities, the commotion of the disciples caused quite a stir. At this sound of the disciples speaking so many languages, a crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each heard the disciples speaking in their native language.
Following this experience of being filled with the Spirit and speaking in diverse tongues, our great disciple Peter stands up before all who had gathered and preaches what is considered by some as the first sermon in the Christian tradition. His sermon is not simply about recounting the events that had just taken place, or trying to explain exactly what had just happened – I mean, tongues of fire and languages being spoken by people who had never heard the language before? The people thought they were drunk. Instead, Peter’s sermon was primarily about the significance and meaning of receiving the Holy Spirit.[i]
At the conclusion of his sermon, people wanted to know, how can I be a part of what is happening? How can I join in and receive this gift of the Spirit, about which you have preached? And Peter says, “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” He goes on, “For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”[ii]
The scripture then tells us that some 3,000 persons joined in the new Church, the Church whose foundational belief is in Jesus Christ as Lord, and in the belief that Christ has empowered us as faithful followers with the gift of the Holy Spirit. The scripture then skips forward and says that in the days to come, more signs and wonders were displayed by the apostles, who would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. And that the disciples praised God and had the goodwill of the people. And as the result of living with the momentum and witness of Christ as gifted by the Spirit, people were added to their number every day; the text says, “Day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
The gift of the Spirit was a mighty force for the believers. But perhaps it’s not always understood how significant the Spirit is in each of our lives. So let’s take a look at why the Spirit is so important for us as a community of believers. To do so, let’s look at the very next story that takes place in the Scriptural text, the one we heard read for us this morning. It is the story of Peter and John going to the temple and encountering the lame man, the man who could not walk – and who has been unable to walk since birth.
His being lame from birth is an important detail that underscores the significance of what’s about to happen. This man has been dropped off at one of the gates leading into the temple so that he could beg for support from any coming and going from the temple.
As John and Peter are entering into to the temple, like every other patron that day, he asks them for alms – which many interpret and understood to mean financial support.
Have you ever driven up to an intersection where someone was holding a sign asking for support? Have you ever taken the metro, and passed someone playing an instrument with a sign that says, “tips appreciated?” Have you ever walked downtown and seen someone sitting or laying on a bench with a turned hat or an open suitcase, begging for some kind of support?
Imagine now that in any of these situations you’re in a hurry, or you don’t have any money … imagine that you don’t want to give the person money or offer support at this time. What do you tend to do to avoid feeling guilty about not offering support? I can tell you what I do in these situations … (turn head down, and look away). I do everything I possibly can to not make eye contact with the person. I don’t know if I do it because I’m trying to protect myself … or if I do it because I don’t want to see how poorly in shape this person really may be … or perhaps because I just don’t want them to know it’s me … but I do all in my power to avoid seeing them eye to eye.
As Peter and John come upon the man, the text tells us in verse 4 that “Peter looked intently at him, and so did John, and they said to him, “Look at us.” No only did the NOT avoid eye contact, they intentionally brought it upon them. The text tells us then that the man fixed his attention upon them, and it mentions that he was expecting to receive something from them. Them drawing eye contact with the man led him to believe he was about to receive something.
Peter had no gold or silver to give, but he tells the man, here is what I have to offer, “in the name of Jesus Christ, stand up and walk.” Peter leans forward, takes the man’s hand, and he helps him stand up. The man, who has never walked a day in his life, stands up and begins to jump, shout, leap and praise God. And the text is sure to let us know that everyone who witnessed this – all who had seen this man day after day sitting at the gate – they all were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.
I want to highlight three things this text teaches us about the work of the Holy Spirit.
1. The power of the Holy Spirit allows us to be seen as people who are worth saving.
This man had been lame since birth. According to the understanding of the laws of nature at the time, this man’s inability to walk since birth was attributed to the sin of the man’s parents, or grandparents – some previous family member who had sinned. According to their understanding of such a disability, his inability to walk had nothing to do with genetic disease or muscular ailment. He was in his position due to the punishment of God because of a past generation’s transgressions.
To treat this man’s condition as the appropriate result of sin was acceptable to the community at the time. They knew nothing different. So when people walked past him on their way into the temple to pray – to seek forgiveness for their own transgression – to give alms to God – many felt they owed this man nothing because his condition was the result of unfaithful living. But the disciples, now filled with the Holy Spirit, they saw more than a man who had no hope for life. Filled with the power of the Spirit, which allows us to see others as more than just broken people, which gifts us the ability to exemplify the love of God as seen in Jesus Christ, the disciples make eye contact with the man. In that act alone, they have filled him with self-worth. He is worth seeing – he is worth knowing.
The power of the Spirit gifts us, like it did this man lame from birth, with the ability to be seen as people who are worth saving … just as the power of the Spirit gifts us, like it did Peter and John, with the ability to see other people as worthy of being saved. We can not let our limited understanding of knowing why people are they way they are – socially, sexually, economically, mentally – we can not allow our limited understanding keep us from ensuring they all persons are treated as persons whom God our Lord has called to him, as people worthy of being loved. The power of the Holy Spirit allows us to be seen as people who are worth saving.
2. The power of the Holy Spirit gifts us the ability to change people’s lives.
There have been numerous books written in the past few years around the failure of charitable giving to make real and lasting impact in the lives of others. Books like Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts claim that financial handouts can be the worst form of support for non-profits and churches to offer. The foundation of this complaint is rooted both in the reality from the perspective of the recipient, who while receiving financial support may be able to have food for the night still has no ability to claim long-term housing, and from the perspective of the giver, who wonders how a few bucks is going to help a person get back on a more sustainable path of living.
Perhaps even more importantly, we should understand the problem of charitable giving as it relates to the mission and purpose of the Church. “Temporary modest financial gain and charitable handouts are not what [the community of faith] is primarily about.”[iii] The man in the story doesn’t just get up and walk away, he leaps about, praising God because the change that has happened is an impressive change of life projection. The disciples, gifted with the power of the Spirit, are not simply offering kind words of hope; they aren’t proclaiming platitudes of optimism; they are offering true healing, rooted in the love of God.
The disciples aren’t able to heal the man because of their own power or offering their own financial gifts, they’re able to heal the man because of the power of the name of Jesus Christ, power we are able to claim because of the sustaining gift of the Spirit. The power of the Holy Spirit gifts us the ability to change people’s lives.
3. The power of the Holy Spirit leads us to be excellent story tellers.
I grew up in the north-east suburbs of Atlanta. In the winter seasons we didn’t get much snow, but we would from time to time get up to an inch or two of ice. Ice brings down trees and power lines. Because of their lack of ability to respond in wintry conditions, when the power goes out in Atlanta due to ice, you can pretty much plan on spending the night huddled by the fire, because the power isn’t coming back on. My family would gather around the fire place and my dad, the entertainer of the family, would tell us stories. Can you remember a time you sat around a fire – maybe at a summer camp, or on a family camping trip – hearing the stories of your parents or leaders?
The stories I always think about when I think of children being told stories are the stories that we as parents like to over-tell. The kind of story that gets the kids all wound up, scared of the dragon at the castle, or the monster in the closet … you know the kind. The one that inevitable ends with you taking your hands and making grand claws, only to dive in and provoke your child into shrieks of laughter and shouts of exuberant joy.
Story telling is a powerful art. Stories carry with them the power to move someone else from a place of dark mistrust to a haven of hopeful promise. And it is this gift to be story tellers that we are filled with in the gifting and receiving of the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit empowers us to be witnesses to the love of God in our lives and in the lives of others. The Spirit brings us alive to God’s presence in our own lives. The sermon of Peter made an impact on the lives of 3,000 persons in one day because he told them the story of how people’s lives were being changed – and of how their lives could be changed. The people at the temple were filled with wonder and amazement because this man was a living story … he was leaping around and praising God. His story, as one who had gone from brokenness to true healing, was profoundly impactful to all who observed.
And this is the story of Pentecost, receiving the gift of the Spirt: in our telling the story – in our claiming how God has healed our lives – how we have been transformed because somewhere, someone in our past took the time to look us in the eye … to see us as worthy of being healed … that we, as empowered to be a healer of others, can bring the saving grace of God to be tangibly known in the lives of the world, by telling our story.
The gift of the Holy Spirit is not offered so that we may celebrate life for ourselves, but so that we may share with others to love of God, that all may have life. It’s about embracing a new community, in which all persons are seen as children of God, invited to find healing and new life. This is why we are Learning to Live Lovingly. This is Pentecost. Thanks be to God, Amen.