David A. Davis
June 4, 2017
In my first class in theology at seminary, theology 101 or whatever it was called back then, Professor David Willis stood at the front of the lecture hall and said, “The Holy Spirit matters!” And he let out loud laugh, a kind of cackle, like he was prone to do. “The Holy Spirit matters! (HA!) And I mean that in every possible way!” He went on to tell the story of a fellowship hour conversation with a woman after worship. She was announcing to Dr. Willis, the guest preacher for the day, her disillusionment with the church and the lack of the Holy Spirit. During that conversation, people from the church kept coming up to her and asking after her health, offering a touch on the arm, mentioning they had been praying for her in the aftermath of some illness. Surrounded by the fellowship of the church, the witness of prayer, the touch of concern, the smell of coffee hour, Professor Willis confessed that he found the woman’s take on the Holy Spirit ironic. He turned again to the class and bellowed, “The Holy Spirit matters! HA!” And he took his hands and rubbed his fingers together. “The Holy Spirit Matters!” It took me a good ten or fifteen years in ministry to understand what that teacher of mine was trying to get at when it came to the Holy Spirit.
It took me ten or fifteen years to understand what the professor was getting at. Imagine with me….
It was very early one Sunday morning in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus, Peter the Rock, and Paul the Apostle were trying to decide where to go to church. Peter was more than a bit awestruck with the beauty of the day. And Peter, who always seemed to rush into saying the wrong thing, made the mistake of mentioning that maybe they could go play golf instead. As you might have guessed, his frivolous suggestion brought two stares that could only be matched there in eternity. Paul, who even there in heaven prided himself on always having the right answer, reminded the other two that it was, in fact, Pentecost Sunday. He shared with them that maybe they could find a place where they could relive the Pentecost experience all over again. Of course in eternity everything seems like just yesterday. But Peter and Jesus knew what Paul was driving at; the rush of a mighty wind, the tongues as of fire, being filled with the Holy Spirit, that mystery having to do with language. Paul wanted to find a place to worship where the Holy Spirit was present in all it’s power; power like that unleashed on that first Day of Pentecost.
Jesus smiled and thought to himself about the church and the Holy Spirit. He knew how churches and traditions and preachers were always trying to claim the corner of the market on the Holy Spirit. Some think they have the Spirit all to themselves. Others live almost oblivious to the reality of God’s Spirit working in their lives and the lives of their congregations. So the prospect of finding a church to attend on the morning when Pentecost was being celebrated, a church where the Spirit’s presence was clearly acknowledged and celebrated, a church that would reek of the aroma of the first Pentecost, well, the prospect of worshiping with a congregation like that was rather intriguing. And despite the fact that so many misunderstood, misplaced, and mistook the Holy Spirit, Jesus knew just the place to go.
Always the one looking for a teachable moment among his followers, Jesus first asked Peter and Paul to suggest a church where they should go to worship. Shockingly, the both had an opinion about where to go, which congregation to visit on Pentecost morning. And they shockingly disagreed. Jesus made a comment about whenever two or three are gathered there will be different opinions, sighed a bit, and then said those all familiar words. Jesus said “Follow me” and they went off to the church of the Lord’s choosing. Along the way Peter and Paul were arguing amongst themselves about which church choice had been better, about whose idea was better, about which one of them was the greatest. Jesus just shook his head and kept moving.
Before they knew it, the Apostle and the Rock found themselves sitting next to Jesus in a sanctuary that looked awfully ordinary. The worship service had already started and the people were singing a hymn. The congregation wasn’t big and the congregation wasn’t small, but it was just right. As the minister led the congregation in a prayer of confession, Jesus elbowed the two of them and motioned with his eyes that they should look up and look around. It didn’t take long for them to begin to catch on.
There were young and old gathered there for Pentecost. There were individuals and there were families. Families of all combinations and there were individuals sitting together as adopted Lord’s Day families. A few single parents sat with their kids not far from an older couple who seemed to be surrogate grandparents, maybe for the whole church. Peter happened to notice the young man standing up front, repeating everything that was said or sung in sign language. Paul was looking at the collage of color in the pews. It wasn’t that everyone was wearing red. It was the many colors of skin. The diversity was even greater when it came to dialect, or accent, or language. Jesus motioned slightly with his head to point out various folks who were differently abled. Or the same gendered couple sitting together. A young baby over on one side was joining right with her “shouts of praise.” A young boy on the other side was fidgety. Back in the last pew a parent sitting next to three young children was rearranging the order of seating. What couldn’t be seen was the plethora of opinions represented in the congregation; political, theological, economic, moral. Thoughts about education and schools (charter, public, private), opinions about the local candidates for office, what team to cheer for what team not to cheer for, the best music to sing in worship, what made for the best sermon, what was most important in the congregation’s outreach, and how the congregation ought to spend it’s money. The differences ranged from the mundane to the essential, from life in the community, to life in the church, to life in the world. Not all difference can be seen or heard, but Jesus knew that when he chose that congregation for Pentecost worship.
The pastor was calling for prayer requests now. She was standing in the center aisle and they had all just shared the peace. You could feel how the concerns of the congregation were bound together as they were lifted up in prayer. The pastor led the congregation from there in the center aisle, next to the baptismal fount. They prayed for the sick and the grieving. They prayed for one another. They prayed for young and thy prayed for old. They prayed for far off places in the world worn down by despair and torn apart by violence, war, and hatred. They prayed for the families of the latest victims of a terror attack. They prayed for their own community outside the church, for those struggling with not enough money, not enough to eat, not enough love to carry them through another day. During that prayer the community of the congregation and the community of the world, it all seemed to merge. Then they prayed the Lord’s Prayer together in so many different languages. Peter, Paul, and Jesus, they heard so many different voices, and language, but, of course, it was all one prayer. When it came to languages, and voices, and volume, it suddenly sounded like a whole lot more than the number gathered there in the sanctuary. Like the volume was just turned up. Jesus and his two followers found themselves again looking up from the prayer, looking around and listening just to make sure more people weren’t suddenly added to the room.
Soon it was time for the pastor to preach. It seemed she was right in tune with the purpose of the visit of the heavenly three. Right in tune or maybe it was the Holy Spirit. She spoke about the miracle of Pentecost in the Second Chapter of Acts. “It may have been the rushing wind. It may have been the tongues of fire,” the preacher proclaimed. “It may have been the part about speaking in other languages. Maybe it was Peter’s sermon…” Sitting there in the pew, Peter looked over at Jesus for maybe a nod of affirmation. But Jesus was listening so intently to the preaching. “It may have been the image of sons and daughters prophesying, or young men seeing visions and old men dreaming dreams. It may have been that the church grew by thousands in one day.”
“It may have been all of that” she said with her voice dropping to a whisper. “But I think the most miraculous thing happened right at the beginning. Right at the start of the story. Right there where they were all together in one place. As it is written, she said, ‘when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.’” The preacher paused and she looked around the congregation. She looked around long enough to create a bit of an awkward silence. “That first sentence”, she went on, “it’s not just a description of the small group of apostles gathering for the feast. It is the thesis statement of the whole story. It is the theological thesis statement that foreshadows the depth of meaning for Pentecost itself. It is the trumpet fanfare that tells of a gathering from every nation under heaven. People from east and west, north and south, all together in one place, miraculously united by the power of the Holy Spirit. “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”
In words of profound power, the pastor stood before her otherwise ordinary congregation and concluded her sermon by telling them that they were a living witness to the truth that Pentecost still happens. “Each of you and all of you. Each and all”, she said. Jesus elbowed both Peter and Paul to make sure they got the point. Yes, miracles happen. Yes, the Holy Spirit is at work in the church in powerful and charismatic and mysterious. Yes, the very Spirit of God is at work in the world in ways that go far beyond what can be imagined or comprehended. But the experience of that first Pentecost is best relived when the people of God find ways to be with one another, to love one another, to allow the Spirit to bind them together, to taste and see something of what it means to be One in Christ the Lord. Some years when Pentecost comes around, that is miracle enough.”
The sermon was done, another hymn has been sung, and the congregation was gathering around the Table for the Lord’s Supper. As the pastor led in those familiar words of celebration, Jesus found himself mouthing right along with her. “This is my body broken for you.” “This is the cup of the new covenant sealed in my blood.” “Do this in remembrance of me.” Then she said, “the gifts of God, for you, the people of God. For each and for all”
Jesus turned to Peter and Paul and whispered “Pentecost.”
When the people of God find ways to be with one another, to love one another, and to allow the Spirit to bind them together, to taste and see something of what it means to be One in Christ the Lord. When Pentecost comes around, that might just be miracle enough.
© 2017 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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