This is a version of the sermon I preached for worship at BBUMC for Sunday, May 31, 2020, Pentecost Sunday.
Today’s sermon is based on Acts 2:1-21.
As I talked about with the kids, sometimes we talk about the day of Pentecost as the birthday of the church. Sometimes churches have big birthday parties for the church. They invite loads of people and they celebrate with a cake and other birthday party-type festivities. When they do this, they’re celebrating God’s inauguration of a people empowered by God to be partners in God’s mission of saving the world. But, with a few weddings coming up in the church’s calendar, and a little Pentecost history, I’ve been thinking about weddings and how they might inform how we think about Pentecost today.
Imagine your own wedding preparations, or those of loved ones, and think about all the preparations and meaning of a wedding. There’s the proposal – and the social media-official – proclamations that they’ve decided to get married. Then, they pick a date, send out the save-the-date cards, and start planning. They do the premarital work with a pastor, which is hopefully an opportunity for the couple to build some additional tools for a relationship that reveals God to the world. They plan the service. They say “yes to the dress” and pick out all the other clothing and decorations. They prepare the guest list, often for both the rehearsal dinner and the wedding reception, and coordinate the menus and activities of each.
All of this is important, but at the end of the day, the wedding is about witnessing and celebrating something holy. In a wedding, God unites Godself with a couple in a special way. God creates this couple as a new thing, a shared body, often with a shared name and a new, united family. And God empowers this couple to reveal God to others. In a wedding and a marriage, we see and celebrate who God is: God is steadfast, God is an enduring covenant partner, God is grace, and God is love that grows us each into our best selves.
While you keep these wedding preparations and their purpose in mind, let’s think about Pentecost from our passage. It begins with an important and quickly overshadowed line, “When Pentecost day arrived, they were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1). We might be quick to jump from this line to the main events of the text, but let’s slow down.
Long before Christians began thinking about Pentecost as the birthday of the church, it was already a celebration for Jewish people in the First Century. In Hebrew, they called it Shavuot, meaning “weeks,” because it’s seven weeks after Passover (7×7=49, so Pentecost, in Greek, means fiftieth). Pentecost or Shavuot is one of three pilgrimage festivals prescribed in the Torah (Ex 23:16, Lev 23:15-22, Deut 16:9-10), celebrating two things: the spring harvest of barley, and the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai (Ex 19-24). And it’s a celebration and a blessing for everyone in the community, not just the Jewish people.
And here’s where the wedding image comes in. One group of Jewish people developed the practice of enacting a sort of marriage covenant ceremony between the people in worship and God as part of the celebration of Shavuot. They recognized that God’s gift of the Law, the Torah, at Mount Sinai was a covenant God made with the people. As a covenant, or a promise of partnership, God tells they people, “[If] you faithfully obey me and stay true to my covenant, you will be my most precious possession out of all the peoples” (Ex 19:5).
So, in our passage today, faithful Jewish people from all over the world had gathered to celebrate God’s covenant with them and renew their covenant with God. They celebrated that God had united Godself with them as a people. They celebrated that God creates a new thing – the people of Israel. And they celebrated that as God’s people, God empowers them to reveal God to others – to be a blessing to the world. The wedding imagery should be very clear in this, for even if we use different language, the results of a wedding are the same. At a wedding we celebrate that God unites couples with Godself, that God creates a new thing in them as a married couple, and God empowers them to live as witnesses of God for the world.
Of course, that’s Pentecost in the Jewish sense, so let’s think about the events of Pentecost through this lens for us as Christians. When the winds rush through the space, and things like flaming tongues descend upon the disciples, this was a visible, public display of God, similar to God giving the Law on Mount Sinai. In this act, God unites the disciples, and those who are gathered, with God, just as God had done before. Moreover, with the Spirit’s presence, God creates a new thing – the movement of Jesus’s disciples who are “empowered” to “be his witnesses to the ends of the earth” – the church (Acts 1:8). In this, we can see the wedding, covenant, language again. In this event, the Spirit empowers the disciples to proclaim the message of Jesus to each person in his or her own language. It’s a party for all.
This enlightens how we can think about the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. From the day of Pentecost onward, the Holy Spirit continues to be at work in our lives in similar ways, even if they don’t always seem so dramatic. The Spirit unites us with God through Christ. The Spirit creates a new thing in us: a movement of disciples of Jesus bearing witness to the abundant life of God in Christ. And like the Acts Pentecost, the Spirit is actively empowering us to live as witnesses of Jesus for others. Jim talked about this in his “Being a Witness” piece (see below).
But God is empowering each of us to be Jesus’s witnesses, which we can see in this season of our lives. Through online worship and Sunday School, the Spirit is empowering us to be Jesus’s witnesses beyond our walls – to campgrounds, to other countries, and other parts of the state. Being online-only has also revealed the value of direct communication – through phone calls and letter writing. The Spirit is inspiring us to connect creatively, or revealing the need to do so better. In Pentecost, as Christians, God unites with Godself, creates us anew as God’s people, and empowers us to be Jesus’s witnesses to all the earth.
And so, if this is like a wedding covenant, then let us today renew our vows together with God. Let us, in our prayer time, specifically give ourselves to God – in worship, and every day. Let’s wake each morning with this prayer on our lips, “God, I give myself to you. Let me reveal you to others today.” This prayer is like the wedding blessings, in which we pray for a couple to be a means of grace and revelation of God to others. And in addition to this prayer, let’s spend the weeks from today until we meet together again in-person, praying that God’s Spirit would work mightily in our midst through us as a church. Let’s pray for a revival of heart, soul, and mind together as church, saying, “Come, Holy Spirit, inspire and renew us.” And finally, let’s walk from our worship today remembering our calling: we are God’s people empowered as Jesus’ witnesses. Just like a wedding couple exchanges rings to wear to signify their covenant, let us live so that our very lives proclaim clearly that we are God’s in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. May it be so.
- What does being a witness of Jesus mean? (See Acts 1:1-14 for how the events of Pentecost are linked to the previous chapter and the call to be witnesses).
- In what ways do you experience (or have you experienced) the movement of the Holy Spirit in your life?
- Pay attention to who is present. Jesus calls his disciples to be witnesses “to the ends of the earth” (Act 1:8). At Pentecost, there are people from all over the world present for Pentecost who hear the disciples’ message in their own languages (Acts 2). And God’s instructions about the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot or Pentecost) says everyone in the community should celebrate and experience the giving of the Law as a blessing: “you, your sons, your daughters, your male and female servants, the Levites who live in your cities, the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows who are among you…” (Deut 16:9-12). Who are the beneficiaries of the Pentecost event? For whom does the church truly exist – its members, the world, both?
- If the church exists for its members, what are the main callings of us as church? How do exist for our members? In what ways can we grow better, or more faithful and fruitful?
- If the church exists (also? foremost?) for the world, in what was does our church live out this calling? In what ways can we grow better, or more faithful and fruitful?
- Do the needs of the church’s members and the needs of the world – or, the callings to be for members and for the world – ever contradict or lead us to points of tension? In what ways might these two callings be at odds with one another? If they ever are, how do we make decisions about ministry? What does Jesus call us to prioritize, and in which seasons?