HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
May 15, 2016
Acts 2: 1-21 (CEB)
When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. 2Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. 4They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.
5There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. 7They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? 8How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? 9Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” 12They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” 13Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”
14Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! 15These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! 16Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young will see visions. Your elders will dream dreams. 18Even upon my servants, men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. 19I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and a cloud of smoke. 20 The sun will be changed into darkness, and the moon will be changed into blood, before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes. 21And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
The story you just heard is the story of the first Pentecost day. Today is Pentecost Sunday, and that is going to be the framework for our message this morning. So that we all start on the same page, let me explain a bit of the history of Pentecost. Pentecost comes from the Greek word, “Pentekostos,” which means fifty. It’s the 50th day after the Passover Feast. Originally, the Jewish people celebrated this as the “Feast of Weeks,” during which time Jews were instructed by God to bring a new grain offering and present it to the Lord. So that’s exactly what’s happening here in the passage from Acts we heard a few moments ago.
The crowd that is described in Acts 2 consisted both of followers of Christ (about 120 people, we are told in the first chapter), and Jews who had come to Jerusalem in celebration of the Feast of Weeks. Christ, before his ascension, had instructed the disciples to stay in Jerusalem and to “wait for what the Father had promised,” but they were certainly not the only folks in Jerusalem at this time; hundreds, maybe thousands of faithful Jews would have been in Jerusalem as well to bring their first grain offering.
Then, as the Christ followers were gathered in the place they were staying, a home, suddenly, “a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house.” The sound was so loud it caught the attention of many others in Jerusalem, and in a short time a crowd had gathered around this dwelling, where the believers, now filled with the Holy Spirit were speaking in other languages. But the Holy Spirit wasn’t only with those who were speaking, it was also with those who were hearing, for they all understood what was being said! Even though there was quite a cosmopolitan gathering of folks in this place, each heard the Word in their own language! On that day, hundreds of people encountered God, were transformed by God, and began to share the good news of God in Christ Jesus. The church began.
I have to tell you all, I often read the Bible with a tinge of jealousy. It seems I never have these dramatic encounters with God. I regularly wonder what it would be like to be among the crowds listening to Jesus as he taught. I wish that I could see a dove descending from heaven, or experience the sensation of the Holy Spirit resting like a flame on my shoulder. It would be awe-inspiring to talk to God in a burning bush, or even just to hear him calling my name as I slept. I think I speak for most, if not all, of us when I say that we simply don’t have these dramatic sorts of encounters with God. And yet, we wish we did, don’t we? We wish Christ would lay his hands on us and heal us from whatever is afflicting us. We wish God would speak to us in the midst of difficult decisions, making clear the best path forward. We want the assurance of the Holy Spirit’s presence with us in those times when we feel isolated and lonely, or as we face the realities of this chaotic world. But it just never seems to happen that way. So we come to this place, we gather in church. We gather here to praise and thank God our Savior, but I think deep down inside, many of us also come here because we’re hoping for an encounter with God.
In that way, we are not unlike the believers huddled together in some house in Jerusalem 50 days after the Passover. They were waiting for what God had promised. They didn’t know when it would come. They didn’t know what it would look like. All they knew was that Jesus told them to wait. I’d imagine they were a little afraid. I suspect they were somewhat overwhelmed. Christ was gone, and all they had to go on were his instructions to wait in that place. We’ve got instructions, too. We have God’s promises. But that doesn’t change the desire I think we all have to truly and deeply encounter God in our lives.
Here’s the thing. You can bet that we Christians are not the only ones in this world who are longing for encounters with God in Christ Jesus. I almost think it’s something that’s built in to us humans. You see, God created us to be in relationship with him, and so, as Saint Augustine so poetically put it, “our hearts are restless until they find rest in God.” Friends, people all around us are looking for greater joy, peace, and fulfillment in their lives; and here is the answer!
The enduring message of Pentecost is that God is always with us. On the last night with his disciples, Jesus explained that he would not be with them much longer, but that the Father would send another Companion to be with Christ’s disciples forever. Pentecost is the realization of that promise. But we so easily forget that the promise wasn’t just a one-time thing. The promise is that the Spirit is ALWAYS with us. Here we are, searching for something greater, longing for an encounter with God, but God is all around us.
You know, we have come to this place, this church, for countless Sundays over the course of a few years, or maybe over the course of our lives. This has been the place where many of us have encountered God in some way that has been meaningful to us. But here’s what I want to impress upon each of us today; even though Pentecost is the birthday of the church, it doesn’t mean that the church is the only place we encounter God. We are outside today for a lot of reasons; so we can dedicate the new garden, so we can enjoy a Spring picnic…but I want you also to see the symbolism of this location, beyond the church walls. When the Holy Spirit came among believers on that first Pentecost, they weren’t in a church, they weren’t even in a Temple; they were in a house. And when the sound of the violent wind filled that part of Jerusalem, it attracted a crowd that came, not because of the church, not even because of the programs, they came because of the presence of the Spirit in that place.
Since early February, a group of leaders from Wesley Memorial and Christ UMCs has been meeting on a regular basis; honestly, I think it’s fair to say we’ve been meeting more than any of us probably want to. The reason we’ve been meeting is to try and discern together God’s will for this place; how to make this place, not necessarily a better church (because that puts the focus on the institution), but a place of the Spirit, a place where people who are longing and searching and hoping can come and encounter the living God. Such an important part of our work was to seek God’s vision for this place. It was not easy, and I will say to you that we are human beings, and as such our work is flawed, imperfect, compared to the ideal that God has in mind. But as we worked together, as we met, as we talked about all the ministries we would like to see in this place, the theme that kept emerging was one of hope. God’s spirit moved among us until what burned within each of us was a desire to make this a place where people, in encountering the living God, can find hope in the midst of whatever they are experiencing in life. That idea of hope grew into an acronym, further clarifying what will give people hope in this place: healing, optimism, peace, and encouragement.
As Christians, we know that our greatest hope is in Jesus Christ. But sometimes, hope comes first in smaller ways, when a need is met, when a relationship is formed, when love is shared. And so, looking at the demographics in our area, we have tried to put in place some ministries that will offer the kind of support that people in our community need. As of today, there is a new Sunday School class for those looking to build loving relationships with others. Beginning on June 1, we will host a “Faith and Finances Class” for those longing to break free from bonds of poverty. Conversations are in the works to begin a Kendo club, Yoga classes, and cooking and canning classes. Perhaps the most visible new ministry is the community garden. We have eight people from the church and community who are gardening 14 plots in our garden. The community plot, which those folks are helping with, will provide food for our friends and neighbors who use the Helping Hands Ministry. In the fall, our gym will be full of young people from Ooltewah and East Hamilton practicing for the Special Olympics.
We are doing these things not necessarily because we expect it will raise worship attendance, though that would be nice. We are doing this because we want people to have hope. We want people in this community to know the fulfillment and true joy that comes through an encounter with Christ. When relationships are formed and needs are fulfilled, people experience transformation, they are given a new outlook on life, they experience joy and peace, and it fosters a sense of hope.
It might not be tongues of flame or violent rushing winds, but this is how God works in our lives everyday; in small ways, in loving relationships, in needs met. We need to open ourselves up to the movement of the Spirit in our lives, but we also need to help others understand the movement of the Spirit in theirs. You know, for decades, the church institution has been maintaining itself to such a degree that we have lost touch with the unexpected, radical ways that God moves among us by God’s Spirit. God is moving in radical new ways in this place. As the prophet Isaiah says, “Don’t remember the prior things; don’t ponder ancient history. Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?”
Friends, this is our chance. God’s Spirit is among us now, in this and every moment. This is the time to share God’s love in the world; this is our opportunity to help people encounter God and find fulfillment! This is our chance to give people hope!