What Does This Mean?
Sermon Delivered at The Local Church
June 5, 2022 • Pentecost
Scripture: Acts 2:1–21
I know that for many people, Sunday morning is a lot like working out. It’s a lot like exercise. I mean, I have to be here every week, but most of you don’t. We’re so glad when you are, and your presence really does make a difference, but I know I’ve told some of y’all that I was talking to a pastor friend a few weeks ago about summer attendance at church, and they said, “Yeah, attendance is up and down during the summer — up in the mountains and down at the beach.”
So great, right?
You need your Sabbath. You need your vacation. Just promise you’ll come back, okay? We need you here. And more on that in a bit. But I know how it is — because believe it or not, I’ve exercised before. And I know that Sunday mornings are a lot like working out. (At least for me.) I go through seasons where I’m all about it. l get some streaks going. I’m posting all my workouts to Strava. I’m feeling good. Confidence is high. I get that runner’s high even though it only ever lasts for like 30 seconds max for me. But then inevitably, I’ll fall off the wagon. My running shoes start collecting dust. The off-brand Peloton in my bedroom starts judging me. I make a million excuses. I’ll think about exercising, and all I can think is, “Uggghhhhh… Noooooowahhh.” It’s been like this for years. On again. Off again. And it’s so hard to get back on the wagon. Anybody else?
But then when I finally do and the endorphins get going, it feels great, you know? Maybe you’ve had that feeling, too, of getting back into a routine or a habit for the first time in a while, and you have this sense of, “Oh right — this is why people do this! This is what I’ve been missing.” And that’s enough to sustain you… at least for a little while. You just needed that reminder. That boost.
And that’s what today is all about. This is why we need today. To remember why we do this. What we’re a part of. Why we wake up on Sunday morning and make time for this weird, counter-cultural hour and offer our gifts and our time and our energy. Why we participate in service opportunities and lean hard into friendship even when it can be incredibly awkward. Why we give ourselves over to this movement. Why being part of a church matters. That’s what today is all about.
Because today is Pentecost. The word Pentecost comes from the Greek word for “fiftieth,” and today is the fiftieth and final day of the Easter season. Today marks fifty days post-resurrection.
If you remember, last week, we celebrated the Ascension which happened forty days after the resurrection. Ascension is the moment Jesus ascends to the right hand of the Father, and this ascension is a big deal because in his ascension to heaven, Jesus moves from a particular place in a particular time to inhabiting every time and every place. It’s holy and beautiful and maddeningly mysterious which is just par for the course when you get this far in the Jesus story.
But as we heard in the scripture we shared together last week, before Jesus ascends, he also tells his disciples to wait. Before you go, he says, wait. “Stay in Jerusalem.” Pray. “Not many days from now,” Jesus says, “the Holy Spirit — my presence — will come upon you.”
And that’s where we find them today — on the fiftieth day after Easter. Today, Pentecost, is the day that the Holy Spirit, indeed and at last, comes upon them.
Our story opens with the disciples waiting there in Jerusalem, and they’re all together in one place. And all of a sudden, there’s the sound of wind, and it fills the entire house. What you’ve got to remember is that in Greek and in Hebrew, the same word for wind is the same word for breath is the same word for Spirit. In Hebrew, that word is ruah. In Greek, it’s pneuma. So what Luke is pointing to and underlining and highlighting is that this is the descending of the Holy Spirit — the very presence and power of God. This is what Jesus had promised, and here it is. And then, Luke says, there are divided tongues, as of fire, that settled on the disciples, and they began to speak in other languages.
And if that’s not wild enough, Jews who had gathered from all over in Jerusalem for the Festival of Weeks, or the Jewish festival of Shavuot, they begin to hear, each in their own native languages. It’s as if they’re at the United Nations, receiving the translation of the disciples’ testimony, each in their mother tongue — except that there are no headsets here. This is instead the work of the Spirit.
And this whole experience is bewildering. It’s confusing. It’s chaotic and disorienting. And in the midst of their bewilderment, those who have gathered are trying to make sense of it, and so they jump to the most logical conclusion: “They are filled with new wine.” In other words, they must be drunk.
How great is that?
And all of this leads to one of my very favorite verses in the entire Bible.
Peter, one of the apostles, stands up to address the crowd and give the very first sermon, and among the very first words out of his mouth are, “Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.”
In other words, “They’re not drunk. It’s much too early for that.”
But from there, Peter is off. He quotes the prophet Joel, bringing ancient words forward in a modern context as if to say, “God’s doing something new. Remember when God said that God would pour out God’s spirit upon all flesh, all flesh — and that when that Spirit is poured out, sons and daughters would prophesy, that young men would see visions and old men would dream dreams? You remember that? That day is today.”
What Peter is working to drive home here is that something new is happening. It’s beginning to click for him, and he wants to make it click for everyone else that Jesus isn’t gone; rather, the very presence and power of Jesus was being poured out in that very moment, coming in wind and fire to inhabit the hearts and souls of all flesh — coming to breathe life into the lungs of every human being.
In this moment, by grace, Christ’s body is being reformed in those who had gathered and those who were listening. In this moment, the church is born.
There are a few things I want to point out about this incredible story. First, I don’t want us to miss how the Spirit is working through language here. The disciples are empowered to speak in other languages, and in so doing, it’s no longer about their desire to conform others to their way of living and moving and speaking; rather, to speak a language that’s not your own is an act of submission. It’s an act of humility. It moves the dynamic in a relationship from one of power to solidarity.
And speaking of language, there’s something powerful here, too, about the tongues, because notice that though the Spirit gives each of the disciples other languages, everyone can still understand and communicate. There’s a powerful message here about how there is unity in the midst of diversity and how there is room for difference in God’s kingdom. There’s unity in particularity. In other words, sameness is not the goal of the Spirit. Oneness is. Unity and uniformity are two very different things.
And the last thing I want to point out is that question that those who’ve gathered begin to ask when they’re trying to make sense of what’s happening. Before they ask if everyone is drunk, they ask, “What does this mean?”
What does this mean?
It’s a question that perhaps we’ve asked lately, too — trying to make sense of all the things.
War raging on the other side of the world with tens of thousands of innocent men, women, and children displaced or killed as missiles and bullets continue to rain down.
Food and fuel prices rising making it harder for families to put food on the table.
Parents racing against time to find formula for their infants.
Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere at their highest in history.
Children murdered in an elementary school classroom — and another mass shooting this week at a hospital in Tulsa. It seems to be a daily occurrence.
And this is all on top of the questions we carry about our loved ones.
How we’ll keep going after losing a loved one.
Wondering if we’ll ever feel like ourselves again.
Will we find the one? Will there be any end to this anxiety, this sadness, this fear?
What does this mean?
And this is why we need today. Because on this day, we remember who we are and what we’re about. God is asking us the same question: “What does this mean?” And by this, God’s talking about this. About the church.
Because on Pentecost Sunday, the birthday of the church, we are reminded that the story of the sending of the Spirit upon the gathered community isn’t just a story that happened generations ago, but it is still happening now. Amidst the weariness of the world and the heaviness of our hearts, today is a reminder that God is still with us and the empowering Spirit of Jesus is still active among us — the body of Christ here in our neighborhoods, our communities, our workplaces, our schools, and our world.
Today, we remember that we don’t just get together once a week so we can sing and say a few words and have a snack and then go back home as if nothing ever happened. It makes me think of the words of my pastor friend, Jerry, who says all the time, “Look, Jesus never said, ‘Y’all get together once a week and tell me how great I am.’ No, he says, ‘If someone’s hungry, feed them. If someone’s thirsty, give them something to drink. If someone is sick, be a healing presence. If someone needs a coat, give it to them. If someone’s outcast or marginalized, cross those boundaries to be with them.’” This is our mission. This is what we’re about.
About once a year, I have the privilege of teaching a course on the mission of the church to aspiring pastors. And there’s this great quotation I use every time I teach by a theologian named Christopher Wright. And he says this:
“The church doesn’t have a mission. God’s mission has a church.”
And this is why we need today. This is “what this means.” We sing and pray and hear scripture and receive Holy Communion because, when the Spirit gets involved in all of it, it transforms us. And not only does it transform us, but it sends us into the world as a changed people. We’re sent in love with love for love.
That’s what this means. And as I’ve been sitting this week with the weariness of the world and the heaviness of so many hearts — my own included — it feels like Pentecost couldn’t be more perfectly timed.
Because God does have a mission: Where swords are beaten into plowshares. Where the lion and the lamb lie together. Where there is unity and justice and peace. Where every tear is wiped from every eye. Where every belly is full. Where all have enough. Where the land is stewarded and cared for — not plundered and exploited. Where each and every child of God has belonging and is honored, beloved, and knows it and claims it. Where no one is lonely. And where kids can sleep and play and learn in peace and their parents without fear.
God has a mission. And God’s mission has a church. God’s mission has a your name here. God’s mission has us together as The Local Church.
So today, on this Pentecost Sunday, may the Spirit fill you and empower you to be sent in mission — to love where you are.