ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH May 24, 2015
Happy Birthday! For some reason, when I hear those two words I’m reminded of the scene from the 1969 short animated show, Frosty the Snowman that is shown on T.V every Christmas season. Throughout the show, whenever they place the top hat on Frosty’s head, the snowman comes alive and says, “Happy Birthday”. When I was younger, I always laughed at Frosty’s statement. I thought it was a joke to make the snowman a funny and likeable character, but as I think about, in many ways it really was Frosty’s birthday. It’s just as the song says, “…for when they placed it on his head, he began to dance around”. His birthday was the beginning of his life.
This morning we celebrate not the birthday of an individual, but the birthday of the Christian Church. Today is the day we remember and rejoice the birth and beginning of the Church. This is Pentecost Sunday, originally a Jewish harvest festival, which over time became a commemoration of the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. As we read in Acts, the disciples were all gathered together on the day of Pentecost. A festival when many Jews from every nation would gather in Jerusalem. It was a day of celebration, a day or rejoicing; however, this Pentecost was going to become a party to remember!
When I think about birthday parties, I usually get the image of a child’s celebration in my mind, with friends and family laughing and playing, tables filled with food and snacks, and obviously a birthday cake. In the scriptures, we hear about a much different party. Of course, Pentecost wasn’t a birthday party, but it was a festival, so there would have been lots of food, music, and of course lots of friends and family with whom to celebrate. The Pentecost described in Acts 2; however, sounds like it would have been pretty wild, something above and beyond the norm. As I said, this would have been a Pentecost festival like no other!
The description of what happened to the disciples is pretty cool and amazing when you think about it. All the birthday parties and other celebrations I’ve attended, even the best and most eventful ones, had nothing on this! At birthday parties, the person of honour may sometimes arrive after the guests, but they usually don’t make an entrance like the Holy Spirt does in this passage; “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.” Wow, now that’s the way to say “I’m here!”
Not surprisingly, artists over the years have failed to capture the magnitude of this amazing event. Most of the pictures or paintings I have seen show the group of disciples standing around together with little flames floating above their heads. Some paintings have beams of light coming down from above the followers, while some have light coming from a dove, representing the Holy Spirit. In most of the pictures, the disciples have their heads raised to the sky or bowed, their faces shown in reverence or masking any emotion. In only a few pictures did I find the followers, look like they were happy and exciting, lifting their arms up in the air in celebration.
Obviously, none of us is sure of what really happened when the Spirit fell upon the people in that place, but I’m positive that it was amazing and more spectacular than art can portray it. I mean, this was the Holy Spirit coming! This was the foundational event for the Christian Church. In many ways, it was like the birth of a child. As we read about last week, Jesus spoke to his followers before he left, opening their minds and hearts to understand the Scriptures, the prophets, and the Psalms. Jesus also promised them that after he left them, an Advocate or Power was going to come to them. So like a pregnancy, Jesus’ followers new that God was sending them a gift, even though they did not know when it would arrive. I’m sure there was excitement and anticipation among the disciples. I’m sure they were also anxious and perhaps even fearful of what was to come, just like expectant parents. However, as parents rejoice in the birth of their child, I’m sure the disciples and followers of Christ, were equally joyful when the Holy Spirit came upon them in the form of wind and flame.
What makes me certain that this was a huge event, is the reaction of the crowd. We are told that there were devout Jews from every nation living in Jerusalem, and at the sound, they gathered in bewilderment and in awe because they heard the disciples of Jesus speaking in their own native tongues, despite the fact that the disciples were all from Galilee. How incredible this must have been! Imagine yourself in a similar situation, the sound of a gusting wind, and then tongues of fire dividing and resting upon the disciples, and then hearing them speak in your own native tongue, even though they come from another place. In many ways, I think this is difficult for us to comprehend, especially since we speak English, a universal language for business, trade, and tourism. Wherever we travel, despite the local language, we are likely to hear a native person speaking English. Yet, for these Jews, this would have been incredible. What an amazing party trick, or was it? Some in the crowd questioned the significance, while others suggested that the disciples were drunk on new wine. For the latter, this was the only credible excuse or reasoning. What else could it have been? Galileans speaking about God and his power, in many different languages, this just didn’t happen! More so, how could twelve men, be speaking so many languages? The scriptures passage lists numerous different nations and presumably, there were more languages than nations, if you include dialects. What an incredible festival this was turning out to be; one for the ages!
When we look at this first Christian Pentecost, we see the Holy Spirit sent by God, to the people who believed in Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. This fulfilled the promise that Jesus had given to his disciples before he ascended into heaven. The Spirit brought an identity and authority to believers to proclaim the Gospel. The Holy Spirit called these individuals into community as the body of Christ. It was from the receiving of the Holy Spirit, that the Church was born. The entrance of the Holy Spirit into creation was spectacular, as we have discussed, with a loud sound of wind and tongues of flames. There is no denying that this first Pentecost was memorable as well as effective. If we continue to read the remainder of chapter 2 we see that many came to believe after Peter spoke to them. Many repented and were baptized, as they converted to be followers of Christ. From this Pentecost, the church grew rapidly, with vigor and excitement. The people worshipped in the temple, broke bread together, as it tells us in verse 47; “…and day by day the LORD added to their number those who were being saved.” The Christian church was alive and well and swelling in numbers, all through the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Every year we read about this story as we celebrate Pentecost. It is a time to reflect, a time to remember, a time to see the power of God, and the Spirit at work. However, examining this story can also be depressing and discouraging when we compare the Church today to the one found in the Book of Acts. As, our present day Church is nothing like the early Church. If we are honest in the Western world, we see that the Church in general has lost its luster. It is a shell of itself. Infighting has created countless denominations, which for the most part do not work together. The fall of Christendom in the West, has also affected us, with the Church’s influence and power fading. An increasing secular society, scandals, and criticism of church involvement in programs such as the Residential schools, have led to many people leaving or never attending churches. Church renewal has been slow and in most cases, growth has been tepid. It is sad, compared to the Book of Acts description of Pentecost’s energy and excitement.
However, despite all these setbacks and failings, there is still a great reason to celebrate Pentecost! In reality, we don’t need to compare the Church today to the early Church. Pentecost is not meant to be a benchmark of what the Church should look like from Sunday to Sunday. The story of Pentecost tells us how important the Church is and how inseparable it is from Christ. Pentecost reminds us of the history of the Church and the Church’s identity and purpose. The story reminds us of who we are as the Church and what we proclaim, as well as the source of our proclamation. In reality, Pentecost is a celebration, a birthday of the Christian Church, which helps us remember who we are, whom we serve, and our purpose.
This should be a super exciting day, just like a child’s birthday party. The Holy Spirit came on that eventful Pentecost and was poured out upon Jesus’ first followers, thus empowering them for their mission and gathering them together as a church. The Holy Spirit remains, and continues to call us into community, so that we too can proclaim the Gospel. Our community is local and universal, just as we declare in the Apostle’s Creed, we believe in “…the holy catholic church.” We are called by the Spirit to work together as the body of Christ, regardless of our denominations, our nationalities, or our languages. Although, the Church in the Western world may be struggling, we need not be discouraged because the Holy Spirit has gifted us, comforts us, guides us, and challenges us as we set out on our mission to the world. We can also take solace that Christ’s Church is growing and expanding in other parts of the world, and although we may not see it as pronounced, the Spirit is working within this congregation, locally, and nationally. Showing us, that yes indeed the Holy Spirit’s wind and fire are still touching people around the globe. On this day of Pentecost, let us celebrate our birthday with joy and gladness, and recognize that the Spirit is here amongst us! Amen.