Preached at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church on June 9, 2013 on Acts 2 as part of a series on journey and transformation that is personal and lived out corporately in the life of our congregations.
For the rest of the month of June, the next four Sundays in this series on journey and transformation, we are going to spend time in only one book in the Bible, the Book of Acts. It is the history of the beginnings of the early church, biblical scholars think that this book was written by the same author of Luke’s Gospel, who begins Acts with these words:
In the first book Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.
And the opening to Luke he writes that, “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed onto us by those from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” These opening lines to the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles tell us something important: the writer of Luke-Acts was careful! He, and we have to assume it was a man, didn’t just write things down in a hurry; didn’t just write down what he thought! He studied the history of the life of Jesus, as in his words, he “investigated” it, figured out what was most important to be shared. And why did he write these two books? For Theophilus! Translated from the Greek the name Theophilus means “lover of God.” We don’t know who exactly Theophilus was. Some have suggested he was a recent convert to whom Luke was writing. Others have suggested he was a Roman official that Luke was seeking to convert. We just do not know. I like to think that he was that recent convert—someone who was a lover of God and wanted to know and understand more. Someone like you or like me. Someone on the journey of being a disciple.
Today’s reading in Acts 2 is a familiar reading, at least the first part is. The story of the disciples gathered together and a rushing wind that filled them with God’s Spirit. All of a sudden the disciples started to speak to each other, but they are speaking in different languages than their native tongues, and no one is speaking in a common language anymore. The sound of the Spirit breaking into their lives is so great that a crowd appears and is described as containing people from many different geographic places around the Roman Empire; over twenty different places/nationalities/tribes/cultures are represented. Even though these people come from different places, and speak different tongues, as they gather around the disciples and this strange loud wind—they say to themselves, “We can understand them! They are speaking my language!” It’s a crazy-sounding experience isn’t it? Imagine yourself in a situation like this for a few minutes; maybe you are in the middle of Times Square in New York City with your family. You hear other languages around you, languages you do not speak. French, Spanish, Arabic, Urdu, Chinese, Swahili and many more….Imagine if your family that day had a Pentecost-experience. A loud wind rushing around you as you stand in the middle of Times Square. All of the people from many different places gather around you. Your family starts speaking in other languages, languages no one knows. And there are people in the crowd around you saying, “I understand you! You make sense to me!”
What would a modern-day Pentecost experience be like? How would it feel to be the person all of a sudden speaking a new language, something you have never spoken—maybe from a land you have never gone to or aspire to go to? Would you think you were having a psychiatric-episode? Would it be exciting? How would it feel to be someone in the crowd? You are surrounded by other languages, and yet you feel all alone because it feels like no one else speaks your language or knows your culture? And then all of a sudden there is a person who is talking in your native tongue! You rush to listen to them because not hearing your own language has made you feel like such an outsider. And now you feel welcome! Now you have someone to connect with! What did the first Pentecost feel like!?
Like today, the early church existed in a multicultural space. Sometimes the cultures got along with each other, other times they fought. Like us today they had the same problems of having trouble understanding each other, or knowing each other. Some were probably afraid of people from other cultures or those who spoke other languages, just like some people are today. They were rural cultures spread out over a geographic area, but they came together in the city of Jerusalem for commerce and for connection to the ruling Roman Empire. Like today, those of us who do not live in big cities head to them sometimes for connections to commerce or sometimes for governmental or even religious services. Big cities can be exhilarating and exciting, but they for some they can be frightening and strange.
And like today, there were detractors. Some in the crowd were not excited by the Pentecost experience. Luke tells us that they “sneered” and said, “they are filled with new wine.” Peter stands up to defend the Pentecost-experience from mockery, and engages in a long teaching from the Prophet Joel, describing the new things that God is doing in their midst, and calling those who are drawn in by the Pentecost-experience to conversation and new life in Jesus. The last part of the chapter describes the ways the new, diverse and growing community functions together: they shared all their possessions; there was no private ownership of anything. They helped anyone in the community with any need they had. They shared worship, meals and friendships; reaching out to the community around them. And that’s how the early church community grew. You can imagine that this way of egalitarian living, as it would today, had many detractors and critics!
Years ago I read an article in a Christian Education magazine geared towards pastors and educators in mainline churches like ours, congregations of tradition and constancy. The title of the article was, “No! We’re Not Drunk!” The author, Neil McQueen is a Presbyterian pastor and educator, who at the time was serving a congregation in Ohio. It was written about what was then a very different method of teaching what we used to call “church school” to children, and the new method had been getting some criticism from veteran church educators. It was teaching the biblical story in a new way and kids and families were enjoying it and growing in their faith. Despite all this the criticism persisted. Neil responded by using the Acts 2 reading as a reminder of the criticism that was lodged then at the early church that was doing a new thing and experiencing God in a new way. And so people said that they were not having a religious experience, but that instead they were the village drunks. Neil made the point that education in the church, if it wanted to reach children and families, would need to do the same thing—change and do something different—and speak a new language.
Last week I was talking to a Methodist friend of mine who lives in Texas about the changing life in the church we are experiencing and he made this observation to me:
What do we do when we send mission workers out to other countries? What do our denominations do? If they don’t speak the native language in that place, or don’t speak it well, we send them to language immersion school for a few months. We know that mission service and partnership cannot properly happen if we don’t speak the language of those we are seeking to be in partnership with.
Chris, a leader in technology and its applications for faith communities went on to say that the same is true for congregations today. So much of our world exists and operates in the technological world of digitized communication, social media and doing work online. And yet many of us in the church don’t know that language very well. Some of us do not even speak it or want to speak it. Some of us do it very well and others of us can speak some digital language, but maybe haltingly or sparingly and so our communications are stunted. Chris was making the point that the church today needs to go through a type of culture/language immersion process like we have offered to our mission workers for so many years. Because like them we oftentimes find ourselves as well-meaning, well-intentioned persons in a foreign culture who are unable to communicate. And communication is the first step towards sharing and building egalitarian Christian community like the ones first described in Acts. My friend Chris was suggesting to me on the phone the other week what my friend Neil wrote in his article over fifteen years ago. Some ways of doing things might be different, but no, we’re not drunk. We’re speaking a new language. God is helping us to communicate in a new way. We have the opportunity now to tell more people the Good News. We have the opportunity to share what Christian community and practice looks like to us, and learn what it looks like and means to other people—and in doing so strengthen and grow our faith together as people who follow Jesus Christ. And the challenge for all of us as a Christian community is to grow in those new ways, whatever they are for the sake of the kingdom of God.
We will keep on exploring the journey of the early church for the rest of this month in worship. We’ll follow them on the next steps and mis-steps after Pentecost that God’s Spirit invites them on. And we’ll listen to the questions that the story of the early church offers to us today. What languages do we speak? What languages do we not speak? Are the languages only verbal languages, or are they cultural or lifestyle languages? What new languages do we need to learn today so that we can reach out and speak and be understood by those gathered around us? How can speaking new languages help us to share the Good News we want to? How can speaking new languages help us change and grow and continue to evolve in our practice and witness? How can we strengthen our witness and create the egalitarian, beloved and diverse community that the Pentecost-Church reminds us is our original calling?
These are the Pentecost questions that Acts invites us into. And I look forward to seeing where God’s Spirit might lead us as we seek to answer them here in this place that God has called us to. Thanks be to God! Amen.