There were sounds of hustle and bustle outside. People from all over the Roman Empire had gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of Pentecost. The streets were crowded, the merchants were noisily selling their wares. Inside the house, however, it was relatively quiet. They had not much to say to each other, each busy with his own thoughts. It had been 53 days since Jesus was crucified, 50 days since his strange disappearance and several reappearances, but the disciples had still not dealt with their feelings nor had they agreed on a future direction.
No doubt there were occasional outbursts. Tempers must have flared. Short fuses. They would probably apologize for the outbursts, and then retreat once again into their own private worlds. I wonder if they talked openly about their fear. They must have been afraid for their lives. The authorities had crucified Jesus, were they also looking for his disciples to execute them as well?
But, even acknowledging their fear, guilt must have been the overriding feeling. Remembering how they had all let Jesus down must have been painful. They had all promised to serve and follow him. None of them would ever forsake him, they vowed. But, when the chips were down, they deserted. Peter denied knowing him. None of them went to the trials. None of them stood up for Jesus when the crowd shouted, "Release Barabbas, and crucify Jesus." None of them stood at the foot of the cross while he died, only the women. Although, the Gospel of John does put John in the vicinity because Jesus told John to take care of his mother. By the way, Jesus' mother and brothers were with the disciples on the day of Pentecost.
The guilt feelings must have been debilitating and paralyzing. They huddled in a room, ashamed, embarrassed. I wonder how much finger pointing they did. "You let him down more than I did." Or, did they point their fingers at themselves, and try to outdo one another in remorse and self-deprecation, "I let him down more than you did."
However, to their credit, they did two things that saved them. They stayed together and they prayed. They were together when it happened. All of a sudden, like a tornado or a hurricane, a sound like the rush of a violent wind filled the entire house. How startled they must have been. They must have been lifted off their cushions by the power of the wind. Then tongues of fire appeared and rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit. Unabashed power transformed them from frightened, cowardly, guilt-paralyzed weaklings into strong, courageous, unafraid, risky, frisky people of God.
They found themselves speaking a language they did not know, and went out into the streets, into the midst of the pilgrims, tourists, shoppers, most of whom were foreigners. The foreigners heard their languages being spoken, and were amazed. "Aren't these men Galileans? How do they know our languages?"
Then, in spite of the tumult, Peter got their attention and began to speak. 3,000 people heard his invitation, responded, were baptized, and received into the fellowship. The church was born. It's an amazing and astonishing story.
On Pentecost which was changed in Christian tradition into a celebration of the birthday of the church, God created a new community, a new family, a fellowship of persons which is unique and distinctive. God's answer to the human predicament was to make a new covenant with a new people, a people who respond to the call, come out from the world, come into a relationship built on and with Jesus Christ, and join in a new community, the church.
The Pentecost event gives us two clues as to what it means to be in the community of faith called the church. The disciples were praying and they were together. Last week I preached about prayer. This morning let's look at Being Together. We cannot control the Holy Spirit. We cannot turn the Holy Spirit on and off like a faucet. God gives the Holy Spirit in God's time, not ours. What we can do is pray and be together. While studying for this sermon, I was struck with a phrase I had not noticed before. When Peter preached to the crowd, the account begins in Acts 2:14, "Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them." Peter is now standing with the eleven. No longer are they isolated individuals lost in their private worlds wallowing in fear and guilt. Now they are standing together, and one speaks on behalf of them all.
I find that comforting. When I stand to preach, I do not stand alone. I stand not just in front of you, I stand with you. Especially knowing that hundreds of you last week raised your hands and committed yourselves to daily prayer for our church, I stand with you. I stand here, knowing you pray for me, knowing you are my sisters and brothers in Jesus Christ, knowing we share a common commitment, knowing we share a common bond of concern for the world, knowing you love me. It is not necessary to agree with me or even like me, but you love me, as I love you.
We stand together. Can you find that comforting? You are not alone. You need not face your life alone. When you are paralyzed with guilt, or paralyzed with fear, pray and remember you are not alone. You have us. When crises come, you're not alone. You have brothers and sisters here. You are prayed for. You are loved. When you serve God by teaching Sunday School, or volunteering at the hospital, or working to improve this community, serving the homeless, working to eradicate racism and sexism, or whatever and however God is calling you to serve, you do not stand alone. Standing with the eleven, Peter served.
Novelist Madeleine L'Engle is quoted, "When I speak at denominational universities, I'm often asked what I think of the organized church. My answer is, `I think it stinks, but it's all we've got.' You can't do it in isolation." Sometimes the church forgets we are together. Sometimes we fall far short of the vision of what we might be for each other.
A church newsletter I received last week reported a retreat. The group was studying the book of 1 John, emphasizing in particular the love of God and neighbor. One of the discussion questions which led to a very beautiful experience was, "How have you felt loved by someone in our church? Who has shown you the love of God?" A young mother answered, "My family has felt the love of God through my daughter's Sunday School teacher. Even though my daughter has now graduated from her class, she still wants to stop and visit with her special friend. That Sunday School teacher has encouraged our whole family."
If you were asked who in our church has shown you the love of God, whom would you name? Let's turn the question around. Would your name appear on anyone's list? Would you be named as a person who shows the love of God? If not, why not? Are you known as the shy one, or the complainer, or the one who always throws cold water on enthusiasm, or Miss Negative, or the detective: if there is anything wrong, you will find it, or the gossiper, or the worrier, or the one who is too busy to talk or listen?
Wouldn't you rather be known as one who shows the love of God,l as one who is loving, forgiving, helpful, courageous, a fighter for justice, yet considerate, friendly, humble, gentle, a pray-er, compassionate, caring? And, who knows, in the process you might make new friends. The old adage is true: the best way to have a friend is to be one. Come outside yourself, smile, greet, show concern, take time to be present and available. Jimmy Dean speaks with musical accompaniment a poem written by C. Friend and G. Paxton. Somehow, it seems fitting on Bach Sunday to quote "country" for all you country music fans!
I didn't have time in my hurry today
to smile at the folks I met.
And I failed to kiss someone as I rushed,
and I caused her to worry and fret.
I didn't have time to say, "How are you?"
or note that the weather was fine.
Tomorrow I planned on doing these things,
but today I just didn't have time.
I didn't have time to stop with the friends
that needed the help I could bring.
I didn't have time, not a moment to spend,
where loneliness had left its sting.
Didn't have time to visit the sick
or give an old panhandler a dime.
And I'll wait till tomorrow or maybe next week.
But, today I just don't have time.
I didn't have time for upbuilding thoughts,
not even a moment of prayer.
I feel my whole life has gone for naught
And now it's too late to care.
But, as I walk down life's final mile,
and I stand in God's receiving line.
I somehow wonder if He just might close the gate and say,
"Remember, you didn't have time."
On Pentecost today, we celebrate the birthday of the church. God created a new community to be his people, his representatives in the world. You and I are privileged to be among those God has called to be together, to stand together, to show the love of God to one another and the world.
© 1991 Douglas I. Norris