The Birth of the Church – June 4, 2006
Joel 2:21-29, Acts 2:1-21
June 4, 2006
As we’ve said, today is Pentecost Sunday. This is the day we celebrate the birth of the Church. Now, let me give you a bit of a caveat here. Please note that I intentionally did not call this the “Birthday of the Church” Sometimes people do that. Maybe you have before.
In my home church they once had a “birthday party for the Church,” complete with cake, candles, and balloons. And I have to tell you, it just seemed kind of out of place to me. Of course, I wouldn’t downplay the importance of birthdays. Lord knows I’ve had a lot of them myself! They’re very important celebrations in our lives. But, I’ve always thought what we’re talking about today transcends that kind of celebration. This is the story of one of the most profound and powerful events in human history. And I think that’s way beyond cake and candles!
Think of it this way. It could be said that Christianity itself began that first Easter morning. Christ was risen. The atonement was complete. The price was paid. The victory was won. Grace had come to all people. But, while all of that was wonderful and glorious, it’s acceptance was slow and tentative. There was a lot of unbelief in those early days. Most of the significance of that event was misunderstood at the time. And not a lot happened at first.
Then on Pentecost, it all finally made sense! This was the greatest “Aha moment” of all history. Yes, Christianity began that first Easter morning. But in was on the day of Pentecost that the Church began. And despite its faults – and people these days like to dwell on those faults – despite its faults, nothing has had more influence on the course of human history than the Church. And nothing else even comes close!
So you see, to call it a birthday party seems to me to be too much like trivializing it. Instead of cake and candles, I’d rather see fireworks and some kind of world wide media event. Maybe Church bells around the world should all be ringing simultaneously! Frankly, we already do enough trivializing of important events in this country. Think about it. As one writer put it, what do we do when it comes to celebrating the greatest President in the history of the country? We have a white sale at Penny’s! When it’s time to celebrate the father of our nation, or to honor the soldiers who fought for our freedom, what do we do? We have a sale on tires at Sears! (Wahoo!)
So, I’m not calling this the “birthday” of the Church. Instead, I am calling it “the Birth of the Church.” I’m choosing to relate the incredible miracle of the beginning of the Church to the incredible miracle of the birth of a child. (Or maybe Puppies!) Because this is miraculous! This is profound and unimaginable. This event changed the course of history!
Now, having said all that, (if you’re still with me) I want you to notice a couple of things. The first is, I want you to recognize how it is God who acted in this story. This isn’t the disciples sitting around talking about what to do next. They’re not in that house debating about how to go about spreading the word about Jesus or continuing his ministry. In fact, it doesn’t say much at all about what they were doing in that place. If we think about it, we’ll probably remember that this was still a time of fear for them. It was not long after the death of Jesus, and there was still a lingering fear that they were next. So it was not the disciples, but God who acted that day.
That’s what made this all the more miraculous. Remember who it was that God was using that day to begin his Church. It’s too easy from our side of the story to think of these men as the great apostles. We call them “Saint Peter” and “Saint John.” Don’t forget as we read this story that these guys were mostly what? They were fishermen! They were unremarkable men! Remembering that, no one throughout the history of the Church has been able to say God couldn’t use them because they were unremarkable!
Look what happens here. There is this sound of a rushing wind as the Holy Spirit flowed through the house. This was a powerful movement of the spirit, so much so that it becomes visible as some sort of flames resting on the disciples heads. Remember, that’s only how the Gospel writer Luke chose to describe this. Many artists have tried to give us this picture over the years, but I suspect no one has ever come close. However it looked, the Spirit came over these men in a powerful way, and they begin to speak in tongues. They began speaking in languages they had never learned before.
Next, they move out to the streets. They didn’t keep this to themselves. They couldn’t keep this to themselves. The people out in the streets began to comment on what was happening. They were amazed that the mighty works of God were being proclaimed, each in their own language. So then Peter steps up and explains what’s happening in what has come to be known as the first Christian sermon. He speaks with boldness and power, and many people are moved in their hearts and respond. And the Church is born.
This was a turning point in history. If we think about what was to come – the times of persecution in the early Church, the conversion of Constantine and the Holy Roman Empire, the coming of the Byzantine Empire, the Reformation, and all the other important things that would happen throughout the history of the Church and the history of the world, it is amazing to think that it all began with this event on this day of Pentecost.
As I’ve thought about this over the years, I’ve come to think about it in this way. “When God starts something he really starts something!” “When God writes a story of this kind of event, he makes liberal use of the exclamation point!!” When it comes down to it, there is no doubt about the importance of this event and what it meant!
The thing we must think about is, what is it’s importance in our lives? Do we see ourselves as part of this whole picture? Do we see our Church as part of that same “body of Christ” that goes all the way back to this event. And do we see God using us as he continues this age of the Church in our world?
We need to remember how the Church spread in those early days. People who were there that day began talking about it – from, one person to another. And the message of the Church spread like wildfire across the known world. It was a movement of God in people’s hearts. Like those people, we need to be willing to talk about it, too. But it’s not just about us. We need to remember that we make the effort, but it is God who touches people’s hearts. It is God who gives the increase.
That’s hard for us to do, isn’t it? No matter how many times we say it or hear it, it is still hard to seek the will of God and to give him the control of our lives or our Church programs. We’re still much more prone to saying, “Lord, bless us as we do what we think we should be doing.” Instead, we need to be praying, “Lord bless us by showing us what you want us to do.”
What do you think Peter and the boys (and girls probably) were thinking about and praying for before this event? Do you think they were praying, “Ok Lord, we’re going to go out in the streets now, and here’s what we’re going to do…” Probably not. And I’m not even all that sure they had the right attitude, either. Maybe they were simply open to the movement of the Spirit, or maybe they weren’t.
The reason I say it that way is that sometimes God waits for us, and sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he waits until we have the right attitude before he acts. But sometimes, whether we’re ready or not, whether we’re willing or not, he simply breaks into our lives and we are swept up in the power of his spirit.
The tendency here is for preachers to say, “if we ourselves are willing, if we make ourselves open to God in the right way, then he will use us.” Actually, I’m glad it isn’t always that way. Sometimes God doesn’t wait for us. Sometimes it’s not up to us to get it all right in our minds before God can act. I for one am glad of that. I’m glad God breaks into our lives at times we least expect it, and even at times we aren’t ready for it. Yes, of course we should do our best. Yes, we should strive to be close to God. Yes, we should be willing and open to God’s spirit. But even then, it is still God who acts – like he did on Pentecost. That’s what we should expect!
This is a turning point in history. And if you think about it, that turning point is still happening. The Church is still the greatest force in shaping the history of this planet. And we are part of it! We are the Church. The words I’m saying right now come down in a long line throughout the ages, following those of Saint Peter himself – Saint Peter the fisherman! We are all part of the three thousand who responded that day. We are part of that body of Christ who are continuing his ministry, telling his story, and sharing his love with the world.
May the Holy Spirit bless us and move through us as he did the disciples so long ago on the day of Pentecost.
Eternal God, work in and through us to do your will in this world. Use us even in our weakness to spread the message of Jesus Christ. Empower us by your Holy Spirit, that the world around us may know your story, and come to your light burning within us. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.