Joel 2:21-29, Acts 2:1-16, 37-39
May 31, 2009
If you don’t know it already, I am a huge fan of J. R. R. Tolkien, and especially his epic adventure story “The Lord of the Rings.” It is one of the greatest stories ever written and I literally can’t tell you how many times I’ve read it!
At one point early on in that story, there is a chapter about the great Council of Elrond. That is the gathering of the leaders of all the free peoples of Middle Earth. They were there to hear the incredible history of the Great Ring of Power, which was made long ages ago by the evil wizard Sauron for the purpose of enslaving the world. The heard how the Ring was once taken from him by force, and then lost for many ages, until it was found again by the most unlikely of people, little Bilbo Baggins of the Shire. And they heard the ominous warning of how Bilbo was now being pursued by forces of evil much more powerful than he could ever imagine.
The story of the Ring was an amazing story, with many unexpected twists and turns, triumphs and betrayals. But after all the long telling of that whole history that encompassed countless peoples and generations, Gandalf the wizard said, “Well the tale is now told from first to last. Here we all are, and here is the Ring. But [after all this telling] we have not yet come any nearer our purpose. What shall we do with it?!”
It’s always a good day when I get to quote Tolkien! But it’s more than that. Because that moment in that story is a great parallel to the story we have today from Acts. After all that has happened to these Apostles, Peter stood forth on the morning of Pentecost and told the story of Jesus through countless generations, from the Old Testament prophets, to the hard events of recent history. And it too was a story with many twists and turns, triumphs and betrayals. Yet, like the telling of the story of the Great Ring, Peter’s words too would only have been a “nice story.” He and the crowds listening in Jerusalem would not have come any nearer their purpose, as great as this sermon was, were it not for the question we find in verse 37. At the conclusion of his message, when their hearts had been touched by his words, the people asked a similar question to the one of Gandalf, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
Brothers and Sisters, that is the most important part of the story of Pentecost!! Because Pentecost isn’t about learning the story! This first Christian sermon was helping them do that. It was helping them to learn. And don’t get me wrong here! This was a great sermon! Peter really floored ‘em! But ultimately, the hearing of this sermon isn’t the end of the story. It was the people’s response that was important. It’s always the response!!
That’s the case with us here, every Sunday morning. If you come here and you think I’ve done a good job, you might leave thinking “Hey, that was a great sermon!” But if you don’t do anything with it, if I’ve done nothing more than inspire you – as great as that is – then we’ve missed the mark! The life of faith should be just that, a life of faith. It can’t be just learning!
Turning words into action is always the most important part of our faith – or it is no faith, it’s only “religion!” And if we think of that word “religion,” we think of something to be studied and learned and maybe even to be inspired by, but nothing more. We’re here today to know that Pentecost ultimately was not about Peter’s teaching. It was about people responding! That’s what made this day the beginning of the Church, not Easter! They got the story on Easter. They got the power on Pentecost. It made sense on Easter. It made a difference on Pentecost! And it is my prayer, that we grow in our ability to feel that power and know that difference!
Today we welcome the confirmation class, and next week the new members class. And by the nature of that word “class,” we recognize that they’ve been through a process of learning. And learning we did! Both classes learned the history of the Church, the meaning of the sacraments, the structure of our denomination, the meaning of the word “Presbyterian.” and the content of the Bible. They learned all of that and more. And believe me, that’s a lot of stuff. And it’s good stuff! But I’m telling them now, as well as all of us, that it’s not the learning that matters. It’s the doing! It’s not the hearing only. It’s the responding!
Yes, it’s important to know the story of the Faith. That helps us to know who we are. But if all we do is “know the story,” we’re just like the people at the Council or Elrond, who just “knew” the story of the Ring. Just knowing puts us no nearer our purpose. What shall we do with it? That’s the question! That’s why James said, “faith without works is dead.” He never meant that our “good works” or our knowledge are how we “earn” salvation. He meant that our good works are the way we live out our salvation. The good things we do are how we respond to that which we have been given as a free gift!
Do you see today’s message yet? Have we come any closer to our purpose? What do we do with what we have learned and what we know. It’s always a matter of turning words into actions.
Next week we’re going to be thinking about the first days of the Christian community described at the end of this chapter. When w read that story, we’ll see again how the people began to live in a communal arrangement. They sold their possessions, they shared everything in common. And while for us that may be out of our realm of possibility, the characteristic of community is still the same. It’s the sharing of this life together in community, it’s the living out of what we have learned that makes all the difference in all of this!
When we realize that about ourselves, when we see just how important we really are to each other, and to God, it is then that we find and experience God’s glory. As we’ve said many times before, we’ve been created in his image. But more than that, we’ve been made to be reflections of his glory. As we live out this life of faith, as we strive to become more like him – as opposed to just learning more about him, you see – it is then that we experience his glory!
The people asked that day, “What shall we do?” That is so important. I hope you will leave this place with those words on your hearts. And I hope you will ponder them, and consider them, and reconsider them, in the days ahead. I hope you will strive every day to get beyond learning, and get on to living. And I hope you will remember this day of Pentecost, the day the church really began. As I said before, the Apostles got the story on Easter. They got the power on Pentecost. It made sense on Easter. It made a difference on Pentecost! And it is still my prayer, that we grow in our ability to feel that power and know that difference!
Eternal God, you have broken into our lives so that we might know the life you have for us. Help us to see that life. Help us not just to learn more about you, but to turn words into actions. Help us to be people who live bold lives of faith, knowing that you are with us, walking beside us, sharing this life with us. We thank you, and we praise you, and we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.