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Sep 17, 2017

Acts 2:1-13

Acts 2:1-13

Passage: Acts 2:1-13

Speaker: Rev. Jerry Deck

Series: Acts | Reflecting Jesus in our world

Category: Weekend Message

Last week we began our look at Acts by talking about how one of the themes, if not the major theme, of this book is the importance of witness. Jesus, much perhaps to the surprise of the disciples, looked at them and said that you are going to be my disciples. That God has chosen to work through each of us in order to helpful fulfill his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Of course, it’s important to hold that in tension with the fact that Jesus also said to wait on the Holy Spirit before beginning to be this witness. In other words, they cannot witness to Jesus alone, but need the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus also then tells them not only that they are going to be witnesses, but that they are going to do so in Jerusalem (right where we live, work and play), in Judea (places not too far away), in Samaria (those places or people that we don’t like or agree with—or don’t like or agree with us) and to the ends of the earth. And when we left, the disciples (men and women) were gathered in the upper room, waiting and praying.

And then this week takes us into the action of what happened when the Holy Spirit actually came upon the disciples. Now before we touch on that I think it’s important to say something before we talk about this event or even some of the other events that we see going on in the early church and that we’ll cover over the next few weeks. One of the things that happens in looking at Pentecost and the other stories of the early church is that in looking at the first few chapters in Acts is that we hear these stories and they are so radical that it’s easy for us to either try and domesticate them and minimize them or we simply look at Pentecost and the early church and, when comparing them to the reality of the church we see today, we put Acts up on a shelf and think that while it’s interesting to read it doesn’t have much to do with the real world.

It reminds me of my freshman year of high school when I was playing football. Like a lot of other boys I always had dreams of playing in the NFL. I had a whole image in my head of playing running back for the Dallas Cowboys and also being a pilot who would fly my mother to every game. And well, when I started playing football in high school those dreams were still there. I couldn’t wait to throw on the pads and get out on the field.

The high school I went to had a pretty good football team, in fact a couple of years before I started there they were ranked number one in the nation. Much of that was helped by the fact that Emmitt Smith was the star running back. When I got there Emmitt was playing at the University of Florida, but one of his younger brothers, Emory, was entering high school with me. Emory, it was well-known was bigger, faster and stronger than his older brother. He would, in fact, end up playing at Clemson and then for a few scout teams in the NFL. My introduction to Emory was in practice. I was playing defensive back and he was playing running back. He got the ball and quickly got around the defensive line and linebackers. As he began to run in my direction, my NFL dreams started crashing down around me. You see, I had never seen anyone who was that big run that fast and I have to admit that as he started coming at me I, well, I did everything I could to not get in front of him. I knew that if he ran straight into me that I would never be the same. And so as he darted by me and as I “ran after” him I realized that he was on a completely different level than me. In that moment my reality collided with my dream and reality won. So, though I made it through the rest of the season, once it was over I put my helmet and pads up on a shelf and never looked back. Sure, on Sundays, I will think back about that dream, but I don’t really take it all that seriously because well, the reality was so much different that it just didn’t make much sense to think about that dream anymore.

And this, I believe, is the danger of the stories about the early church. It’s great to hear about how the church started, it might even be fun to dream about, but then we look at our own local church or our own experiences in church and we realize that the stories we read about the early church look so markedly different that we just kind of give up thinking that we could ever be like that. We sort of put these stories in Acts up on the shelf and simply settle for what we have. That’s the NFL of churches and, quite honestly, we’re in the peewee league, so let’s just be content with that. We put our pads and helmet, we put these stories, up on the shelf and move on. And, while I certainly understand that, I’m afraid that when we do so we are missing out on just how powerfully this story can still speak to our reality today and that rather than just dismissing it, it might actually speak life into our reality and into our churches in ways beyond what we can fathom.

With that in mind, let us look at the beginning of the church as we see in Pentecost.   I have no idea what the disciples were expecting, but my guess is they didn’t know it was going to look quite like this. For suddenly, after all that expectant waiting, something finally began to happen. A sound, we are told, like a rushing wind filled the entire house. Tongues that looked like fire began to dance around in their presence and then fall upon them. Instantly they started speaking in other languages.

Passersby from across the known world began to hear their own languages spoken. Immediately these people from far and wide, these outsiders, began to take interest, hearing them speak words of praise to God. They were amazed, perplexed, wondering what this could be. Others, the skeptics of the bunch, may have been amazed and perplexed as well, but they came up with the more obvious explanation. Surely these folks have been celebrating our religious festival a bit too much by imbibing on sweet wine. They stuck around, it seems, but perhaps just to see what fools these disciples might make of themselves. There are many who enjoy watching the antics of the intoxicated. 

And just like that the church began. To be sure it is a fascinating beginning. It’s really quite an extraordinary story. This is no run-of-the-mill church service, so to speak. It’s one of those stories that, if you’re really listening, will leave you wide-eyed and perhaps even a bit frightened. But again, if we aren’t supposed to just be in awe of this story and then put it on a shelf, without being changed by it, then what do we do with it? “What does Pentecost have to say to us today? Churches, of course, have wrestled with this over the years and have dealt with it in a myriad of ways. Having grown up in the Pentecostal church I have experienced fairly strongly one way to deal with this passage which is to expect things to happen exactly as they happened back then. I may have shared this story with you before, but it’s the one that always comes to mind when it comes to Pentecost.

When I was in college one summer I spent a week with some of my good friends being a camp counselor. We left on a Sunday afternoon and so Sunday morning we worshipped at the large Pentecostal church that was sponsoring the camp. My friend who had spent the summer at the church met us that morning and then led us down to the front row for the service. Now, if you’ve ever been in a Pentecostal church you know that you don’t sit up front unless you’re willing to actively participate in the service in one form or fashion. Let’s just say that as we got to the front row I was none too pleased to be right there, but since I was going to be a counselor I couldn’t easily just run to the back.

About 20 minutes into the service I knew I was in trouble because a man went up and began whispering something in the pastor’s ear. He then grabbed the mike and started telling us how the previous Friday, during an evening church service, he had gotten drunk in the Holy Ghost and been hardly able to walk at all. He then asked the few hundred of us gathered whether or not we wanted to get drunk in the Holy Ghost. And, as is usual in these types of situations, there was quite a group of folks on the other side of the sanctuary who jumped up and down and said they wanted to be drunk in the Holy Ghost. I, and most of my buddies, did what you do in these kinds of situations when you don’t want to get called up which is neither jump up and down nor put your hands in your pockets and look down like you’re a complete reprobate (which would certainly catch some attention). So instead we politely clapped hoping to garner little, if any, attention. It was, though, to no avail. 

Like a shark smelling a victim’s blood he began to walk over to me, and asked me to come toward him. “Have you ever been drunk in the Holy Spirit?” I didn’t want to lie, but also didn’t want to remain the focus of him or all those gathered, so I told him that I had been filled with the Holy Ghost, hoping this would appease him. But it did not. “I’m not talking about being filled with the Holy Ghost, I’m talking about being slap happy, you can’t walk, stumbling around all crazy-like drunk in the Holy Ghost.” When I told him I had not, he began to pray and pray and pray. It felt like an eternity and I knew what he wanted was for me to fall down or at least do something drunk-like, but I did not. I just closed my eyes, lifted my hands and prayed. Not so much to get drunk in the Holy Ghost, but that God would get this guy to leave me alone. Which finally, he did. 

And so whenever I think about the Holy Spirit and being drunk this situation always comes to my mind. Is this the best way for us to deal with this text today? If we don’t want to put this story on the shelf then is this how we have to deal with it. Well, I certainly hope not. And I struggle to believe that this is how we recapture that Pentecost day, not because I believe that there is no such thing as speaking in tongues nor because I don’t think that God could give us the power to speak another language, but because I think this fine gentleman really misses the main point of the Holy Spirit. That the point of the Holy Spirit is not some self-help phantom guru who is supposed to simply do something inside of you, but instead is primarily (as Jesus said last week) is there to empower us to be about God’s kingdom and to help others experience God. It’s not about what happens to me, it’s about what happens to you? Isn’t this what we see happening at Pentecost?

The Spirit came along and all of a sudden those gathered had the ability to speak, not to their inner selves or even to the other disciples, but to those who were outside of the room. Because of the Spirit they were able to communicate in such a way that others could understand what they were saying about God. Acts says that they were astonished and asking how, in their own language, they could hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power. In other words, the disciples were witnessing, exactly what Jesus had told them they would have the power to do once the Spirit had come.

And because they were able to communicate to the outside world, all of those on the outside looking in were amazed and perplexed. Some of them wondered what it all meant and the more critical or cynical accused them of being drunk. But what is most significant, it seems to me, is that they were actually getting any kind of reaction at all, positive or negative. I once taught about Pentecost to a Sunday School Class and the thing we pondered, which has stayed with me to today, is the fact that the worst thing in the world is not getting a negative reaction from the world around us, like “Oh, you must be drunk.” No, the worst thing is to get no reaction at all, as if you’re not doing anything to garner any response. N.T. Wright puts it this way: Have our churches today got enough energy, enough spirit-driven new life, to make onlookers pass any comment at all? Has anything happened which might make people think we were drunk?”

I think that is a phenomenal, Pentecost question. Not so much are you staggering and falling down because you are drunk or even are you literally speaking another language, but are you so full of the Holy Spirit that you are acting in a way that might make people wonder if you have been imbibing a bit too much? This is a witness kind of question. In our day and age, how might what we do give people pause and make them wonder if we’re thinking straight? Or perhaps even, how might what we do make them wonder if they’re thinking straight?

In a culture that seems to be so highly focused on materialism and getting more and more, how might our actions be construed as being perhaps a bit odd or off-kilter? A few weeks ago Scott received a letter here at the church. I’ve tried to teach Scott that it’s always wise when you open up a personal letter at the church to shake it out first just to make sure there’s no powdery substance in it. You know people can get pretty upset about sermons sometimes! Anyway, he got a letter and it was from someone who moved away more than a decade ago. Inside the letter there was a simple note that said how much they appreciated their time here and how much, after taking a financial class here at the church, they had grown to see the connection between their faith and their finances. And inside the letter was a check for $25,000 given to ZPC with, as they said, no restrictions attached. I was out of town when Scott texted me about this and my first thought, right after (of course!), I said thanks be to God, was to hurry up and cash that check. I mean, what if it was a mistake or, as I thought about it this week, what if they wrote that check when they were drunk, because they certainly could have been! Their generosity was to such an extent that I almost stumbled when I saw it? Were they filled with new wine or were they filled with the Holy Spirit?

Or in a culture that worships security, what does it look like to appear drunk in this world? I’ve shared before about my friend Joel who was pastoring a church in Illinois, but then he and his wife felt called to move their family of five to Denver where they would slowly begin to love their literal neighbors and see what God might do. That’s a great idea except for the fact that, well, loving your literal neighbors doesn’t actually pay the bills. And so he began to dumpster dive for furniture and other things that he could refinish and sell in flea markets or antique stores and over the years he’s found ways to help support his family. But, it hasn’t been easy. In fact I have had conversations with him where he seems to almost be in a hangover as he wonders, “What was I thinking?” There’s not a lot of security in that and those who know him, including this guy right here, often think, “Were you drunk when you decided to do this?” And, of course, he was and he is. And because of his drunkenness I am continually challenged to ask whether I am relying far too much on my own security or whether the Spirit is alive enough in me to take risks I would never take when I was wholly sober.

And then I started thinking about a ZPCer that I had breakfast with maybe 2.5 years ago. We sat down and he told me that he had just started coming to ZPC, just begun to want to get more engaged in church and was wondering how he might do that. Well, honestly, during my time as a pastor I’ve heard that quite a few times before and it’s a bit hard to not be skeptical. I told him about some new home groups that we were starting up and sure enough, because someone else saw him in the Gathering Space and invited him, he joined it. And I’ve watched this guy over the last couple of years and seen him get more involved, seen his priorities begin to shift, seen him invite people to worship, seen him talk to people about Jesus, seen him go through Great Banquet, and then a couple of months ago saw him head off to Uganda for a week in order to work with a Christian orphanage. I was picturing what would have happened if you’d been a friend of this guy two years ago went into a coma and then woke up last month. You would have looked at this ZPCer and what would you have wondered? You would have wondered if he was drunk.

Or perhaps even you would wonder whether you were drunk? In other words, when a church community is Spirit-filled and is acting in such a way that causes people to wonder what’s going on, I can’t help but wonder if at some point they might also begin to ask whether they themselves are actually the ones who aren’t seeing things as they truly are. Perhaps that’s what a witness does which is to cause others to wonder whether or not they don’t need to reexamine their own lives.

What Pentecost teaches us is not that this was an event that occurred once and that we should look at and put up on a shelf, but that the Spirit of God is here in order to help us act in such a way that confuses or confounds others so that they begin to wonder whether we are drunk or whether it is they who are not seeing the world in the right way. Ultimately a spirit-filled life, a spirit-filled community is one which should cause others to question how they are living.. Does our generosity cause others to question how their money is spent? Does our hospitality and community make others question whether the individualism that is so rampant is really the right way to see the world? Does our willingness to put our security in God rather than ourselves make people rub their eyes to make sure their vision is accurate? Does the way our lives have been changed because of the Spirit of God force even the most cynical to wonder whether or not there really is transformation in Jesus Christ?

Perhaps, much like last week, our call this week is to continue to pray for the Holy Spirit to come upon us and to fill us. Not so that we can then stumble out of our houses and into our neighborhoods, nor so that we can speak in languages we’ve never spoken before, but so that we might have the power to live lives that are so unlike the world around us, that others can’t help but begin to question not just our lives, but their own. Let us not be be enamored by Pentecost, but inspired by it, for we know that the same Spirit upon whom they imbibed is the same Spirit who is with us even now. May it be so. Amen.