A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, Farmville Baptist Church, Farmville, Va., on May 27, 2012.
Several years back, Jim Garrison, a dear friend of ours, celebrated his ninety seventh birthday. Beth posted on her Facebook page a picture of the occasion. One glance at the picture and the first thing your eyes are drawn to is the ball of fire shooting out of ninety seven candles crammed on top of a birthday cake, burning like an inferno and dripping melted wax all over the chocolate icing. Behind the fireball of a cake, you could see Ruth, his wife, with her mouth wide open – hard to tell whether in excitement or in horror – with her hands clutching the arms of her husband. Then you see the birthday boy with an amazed look in his eyes — and a fire extinguisher in his hands! I guess at that age, blowing out the candles on one’s birthday cake takes more than just a huff and a puff! I imagine it is also risky to have so many candles lit at one time . . . one false move and you might have more than just candles on fire! Celebrating the birthday of a nonagenarian can be a dangerous thing!
Well, today is Pentecost Sunday, a day many Christian theologians describe as the birthday of the Church. It happened on the Jewish festival of Pentecost, a feast that Jews celebrated fifty days after the Passover to commemorate the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Jewish people from all over the world gathered at Jerusalem to celebrate this important festival.
On that day, we find the followers of Jesus all huddled together in one place. It’s hard to understand why they were all together, isolating themselves from the festivities that were going on outside. It would be like all of us cloistering ourselves in this sanctuary while the Heart of Virginia Festival took place out on Main Street. Perhaps the disciples were happy just to stick to themselves and not bother with all those out-of-towners coming in to crash the party. Indeed, there were people from many different nationalities that day. Luke gave us a list. Parthians, Medes and Elamites were people from the area now known as Iran, but also covering parts of Armenia, Iraq, eastern Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kuwait and the Persian Gulf of Saudi Arabia. Mesopotamia was located in modern-day Iraq. These people lived to the east and southeast of Judea. Then there were people from Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia—all located in present-day Turkey to the north of Judea. There were also people from Africa coming from Egypt and parts of Libya near Cyrene—all south and southwest of Judea. And there were visitors from Rome and the Greek island of Crete, all northwest of Judea.
These people were literally from all corners of the known world, and as I did a little more research, I found out that, historically, many of these people groups were not known as friends of God. In Jeremiah 49:36, the prophet Jeremiah pronounced God’s judgment on the Elamites: “I will bring against Elam the four winds from the four quarters of the heavens; I will scatter them to the four winds, and there will not be a nation where Elam’s exiles do not go.” In Titus 1:12, the apostle Paul wrote about the Cretans: “One of their own prophets said it best: The Cretans are liars from the womb, barking dogs, lazy bellies.” Not exactly a compliment. And we all know that the Jews escaped from slavery in Egypt.
While we usually think of birthday parties as a pleasant and fun affair, so you could probably understand why these followers of Jesus might have decided just to have their own quiet party with people that they know and not bother with the Elamites, the Cretans, Libyans and Egyptians. However, God had other plans. Instead all these foreigners coming in to crash the party, God’s Holy Spirit decided to crash the party. Instead of a quiet and safe little feast among friends, 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. Unlike our ninety-seven year old friend, Jim Garrison, these disciples didn’t know what hit them, and they didn’t have a fire extinguisher handy. Like bees being smoked out of their hive, the fire and wind of the Holy Spirit drove the disciples out of their comfortable little house and into the streets, face to face with people radically different in culture, language and customs.
Once they were out among the crowds, out among those whom they thought had nothing in common with them, the disciples discovered something miraculous. They discovered that the Holy Spirit gifted them with the ability to speak in different languages. When the visitors from around the world heard the disciples speaking, they were surprised and confused because each one heard the disciples speaking in his or her own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans?”—in other words, “Are not all these men just hillbillies? So how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?”
But on that Pentecost day, these people from all nationalities, whether historically friends or foes, all of them heard the disciples declaring the wonders of God in their own languages. And while some mocked the disciples for speaking in what they thought was a drunken gibberish, others asked one another: “What does this mean?” And Peter took the opportunity to stand up and to explain to the crowd the significance of what was happening.
“These men are not drunk,” said Peter, “it’s only nine in the morning! Instead, this is the fulfillment of what was prophesized by the prophet Joel.” Joel recorded God’s promise long ago: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon ALL flesh.” The implication was that the barriers that once separated people from each other would be no more. Gone is the racial barrier between Jews and Gentiles, for the Spirit will be poured out upon all flesh. Gone is the barrier of gender: for your sons and your daughters shall prophesy. Gone is the barrier of age: your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Gone is the barrier of domination of one group over another, for God promised that even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. All people will receive and proclaim the Word of God. This will happen during the direst of days as described by the starkest imagery of the sun turning into darkness and the moon into blood. But even then, the people of God will not be without hope, for God promised that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
As you can see, this is big! A new day is dawning! A new age is coming! A new people are being created! As the apostle Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:7: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation, the old is gone, the new has come!”
On that Pentecost day, the Holy Spirit came and didn’t make the one million people who were gathered from all over the world speak and understand Aramaic, the language of the disciples. The Holy Spirit didn’t cram those million visitors into the room where the disciples were staying. No! The Holy Spirit, settled on the disciples and sent them out of the room to the people, and made them speak a different language so that the people who were gathered from all over the world could hear God’s good news in their own native language! And in doing so, they all worshipped God, because you see, God’s Spirit is for all.
At Pentecost, Peter declared that God’s Spirit was doing a new thing. God was giving birth to a new group of people called the Church which will witness to God’s love to all. The Church was birthed not in one ethnic group, with one language, and one culture. From its very beginning, the charter members of the Church included women and men, old and young, servants and masters from all nationalities and ethnicities. It would be made up of God fearers who might have been enemies of God and with each other, but with the coming of God’s Spirit, all they had to do was to call upon the name of the Lord, and they would be saved and be included in God’s family. This was the Church’s founding DNA.
Several months ago, I had a conversation with a friend pastoring a small church who recounted the story of what happened after his church building burned down. In that conflagration, the building was razed to the ground, and nothing was salvageable. At first, the congregation was stunned, and they didn’t know what to do. But then something miraculous happened. Forced out of their building, the members of that church began to spend more time with each other and with their neighbors. They held Bible studies and prayer meetings in homes, at the local coffee shop, at the park, in the community library, and they began connecting with people whom they’ve never known before. They discovered that despite their differences, they all shared similar struggles, anxieties and fears, and they began to support each other and serve others. A fresh wind was blowing across that congregation and after a several years, they sold their old location and bought land at the outskirts of town and built a new worship center. On the first Sunday that they worshiped in their new space, they discovered that their membership had grown during the time when they were “homeless,” and now they had a revitalized sense of mission to their community. My pastor friend said, “That fire was the best thing that happened to the congregation. It forced us out to connect with people in our community. As a result, I feel like our congregation has been reborn.” And I thought to myself, “So, maybe that’s what Pentecost looks like today.”
On this birthday of the Church, let us realize that the Spirit of God wants to crash our safe little parties. When the Holy Spirit shows up, you can bet that it won’t be safe, just like having ninety-seven candles lit all at once on a cake. Now, I’m not saying that the Holy Spirit should literally set Farmville Baptist on fire, but I do believe that the Holy Spirit wants to come down and rest on each of us with a fire-like passion to reach all peoples in our community, to go out to where they are instead of just inviting them to come into our space, and to speak their language instead of demanding that they learn our religious lingo. We can either let the fire of the Spirit lead us out of our room, or we can extinguish that fire and stay where we are. On this Pentecost Sunday, may God’s Spirit light upon us so that we may be God’s people, sent out to proclaim the good news that God’s Spirit of salvation is being poured out for all! Amen.