A recent study by the Pew Research Center on “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” has generated much hand wringing and discussion because it indicates that the percentage of the American population identifying themselves as Christians is in serious decline. The release of that study just before Pentecost in the Christian calendar is a perfect motivation for us to take seriously what is often called “the birthday of the church” in Acts 2.
The second chapter of Acts is a wonderful summary of the Christian Gospel. It begins with the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, but that is just the beginning. The chapter goes on to describe the whole Gospel of both personal and social holiness which I outlined in my last post, and this article is the first in a series on Acts 2 that will reflect on our Judeo-Christian roots as a way of moving from hand wringing to spirit-led witness to our faith in both word and action.
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about discouragement as an obstacle to resurrection living, and the evidence for being discouraged has not abated in the interim. ISIS victories in Iraq and the ensuing political posturing and blame game, a horrific shoot out in Waco, a deadly train crash in Philadelphia, a huge oil spill and draughts in California while rains and flooding of biblical proportions hammer parts of Texas.
Such bad news everywhere reminds me of a conversation I had with one of my seminary professors back in 1971. I attended Dr. Roy Reed’s memorial service last week, and that brought back lots of memories. One of them was the day I preached my senior sermon in chapel at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio. I invited a talented group of youth from Wapakoneta, Ohio where I was youth pastor to join me for that service. They had formed a folk music group called “The Get Together,” and one of the numbers they sang in chapel that day was a Ray Stevens song, “Everything is Beautiful.” It’s a song about inclusivity and tolerance, but Professor Reed took exception to the chorus and challenged me about its theological soundness after the service. The chorus says:
“Everything is beautiful in its own way.
Like the starry summer night, or a snow-covered winter’s day.
And everybody’s beautiful in their own way.
Under God’s heaven, the world’s gonna find the way.”
The pastor at Dr. Reed’s memorial service talked about how honest (sometimes brutally honest) Dr. Reed could be. He even said Roy’s mother once remarked that Roy was so honest you sometimes just wanted to slap him! In retrospect I have come to appreciate and cherish that passion for truth, but not so much that day when I was on the receiving end as one of his students. In no uncertain terms Dr. Reed argued that everything is not beautiful, and as in every generation there were plenty of current events to support his argument. The news headlines in 1971 were all about Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos. Memories of My Lai, Selma, assassinations and riots in 1968, student deaths at Jackson State and Kent State, and the first big oil spill in Santa Barbara were all fresh in our minds.
With the benefit of more life experience I came to understand Dr. Reed’s point. Faith and hope are necessary for human survival, but so is a healthy balance of prophetic realism that shines the spotlight of truth on injustices that need to be made right. Sometimes when I reflect on my own life and career I get discouraged at the lack of progress we are making as a human race. The church and the world do not seem to be much closer to God’s vision for creation than we were that day 44 years ago.
But when I am tempted to lament the fact that the world is going to hell in the proverbial hand basket I remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” My alma mater, MTSO, is a good example of why we need to see things from God’s perspective. God’s time is not our time. That spring that Dr. Reed and I had our memorable discussion was a different era and the seminary we both love was not the same place it is today. The school was only 13 years old in 1971, and even though it had been founded by a wonderful faculty and board committed to progressive theology and the social gospel, it was a creature of its time and culture. In my class of 50 students there were only two women, and neither of them was in the track for ordination. The faculty we studied under was top-notch, but they were all white males. (The first female and minority faculty members were hired the year after I graduated.)
By comparison, the faculty of that school is now led by a female dean and is 43% female, 29% minority, and serves a diverse student body that is over 50% female. Does that mean it is utopia or that the church is now a perfect place? Of course not. Even though women clergy are now a very significant part of the fabric of our church, the truth is that clergy women still far too often hit a “stained glass ceiling” and are rising to leadership positions in large churches at a much slower rate than women in comparable positions in other professions. We can’t ignore the need for continual progress in the church or society, but neither should we discount the significant gains we have made in women’s rights, civil rights and human rights. Everything is not and never will be beautiful in this imperfect world, but some important things are certainly more beautiful than they once were, and those things can inspire us to keep the faith and continue the quest for truth and justice.
If someone had tried to tell Jesus’ frightened band of disciples just before Pentecost that everything is beautiful, I’m sure they would have objected even more strongly than Professor Reed did to our song. Jesus had been brutally executed and all their hopes for political liberation from Rome and reestablishment of the glory of Israel were crushed. Then their hopes rose again. Jesus was back with them for a short time only to leave again permanently on Ascension Day. He promised to be with them always in spirit but told them to wait in Jerusalem for that promise to be fulfilled (Acts 1).
And that brings us to Acts 2:
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” (Acts 2:1-4)
Not too long ago it was common to find a yellow and brown post-it note on one’s door notifying the occupants that UPS had attempted to deliver a package but could not leave it because someone needed to sign for it. That practice has changed because the percentage of people who are home during the day makes it impractical. But God’s delivery policy has not changed. You still have to be fully present to receive God’s spirit. It can’t be done half-heartedly or in absentia. The disciples were told to wait in Jerusalem until they received the Holy Spirit. Jerusalem was not a safe, cozy place for them to hang out. They had good reason to believe their lives were in danger at the hands of those who had killed Jesus.
Given their track record for bravery it is pretty amazing that the disciples obeyed Jesus’ command. They were more likely to go into a witness protection program than to become bold witnesses for the faith. Let me remind you that the Greek word for witness also means “martyr.” Discipleship was not and still is not for sissies, but wait and obey they did; and on the day of Pentecost God delivered an event that transformed their lives and the world forever.
That kind of transformation requires tremendous power to overcome fear and inertia; so the delivery does not come in the form of a gentle dove alighting on their heads. It comes in the form of a violent wind and flames of refining fire that propel the apostles out of their man cave sanctuary into the cosmic battle with the forces of evil and darkness. So be careful what you ask for. Those baptized into the Christian community are playing with fire and will never be the same.
Baptism initiates all who accept it into the priesthood of all believers. Peter and his gang were not seminary grads, just forever changed by their encounter with Jesus and now filled with his spirit to do, as he predicted, even greater things than he did because he was in them and they were in him (John 14:12-20).
The seeds Jesus had planted in the disciples came to fruition on the Day of Pentecost, a significant Jewish holiday, The Festival of Weeks. Our English word “Pentecost” comes from a phrase in Leviticus 23:16, which instructs the Hebrews to count seven weeks or “fifty days” from the end of Passover to the beginning of the next holiday (pentekonta hemeras in the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scripture). This Jewish holiday was originally a harvest feast when the first fruits of their labors were brought as an offering to God. That is important to the Christian observation of Pentecost for two reasons.
The new birth of the spirit in Jesus’ followers represents an offering of their best to God first and foremost. The disciples are all in for the first time in their commitment to Christ, offering themselves completely to God’s kingdom and not to any false idols of comfort, wealth or worldly power. It is a new beginning for them, the church and the world.
Secondly, the date is important because it explains why people from all over the world were in Jerusalem. They were there for the Jewish Festival, and that’s why we hear in verse 4 that the first way the spirit manifests itself in the disciples is through a new found ability to communicate in languages they had not previously known. That is an appropriate first fruit of the spirit because it goes without saying that communication is a necessary skill for any human interaction but never more so than when it comes to the mysterious matters of faith.
The Hebrew Scriptures explain our human failure to communicate and understand each other as a punishment for human pride in the Tower of Babel story (Gen. 11). Now at Pentecost a new wind is blowing that restores the ability to bridge the communication chasm and open the potential for genuine community. I will address what that gift of communication means and why we all need God’s unifying spirit more than ever in our global village today when we turn in the next part of this series to verses 5-13.