A sermon for Pentecost

at at a café where they change the art on the walls from time to time, so I notice different things each time I’m there, and this time the thing that caught my eye was a big wooden plaque with a slogan that said:

“There will always be a reason why you meet people. Either you need them to change your life or you’re the one that will change theirs.”

And it occurred to me that this is a perfect summary of the book of Acts. A couple of us have been reading Acts for our Good Book Club discussions, and I have to admit that it’s the first time I’ve read Acts straight through since seminary. And when you do that, you don’t just see the individual stories, you’re more aware of the big themes that connect them.

And the story in Acts about the early church and how it grew is all about people meeting other people and changing them, with the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

When that big wind blows, you never know what’s going to happen next, but you can see that it’s probably not going to be what anyone expected.

Sometimes the followers of Jesus Christ are the ones who are changed, and sometimes it’s the people they meet, and we see both of those things happening in this morning’s story about the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

This takes place after the Resurrection and the Ascension. Jesus is gone. His body was lifted up and taken away while the believers watched. And now they’re waiting. Waiting for the coming of the Spirit Jesus promised them. Waiting for whatever is going to happen next.

And suddenly there’s the sound of a violently powerful wind, rushing through the house where they were staying, shaking and rattling the place and making a noise so big that a crowd of people came to see what was happening.

And inside that place they see fire, and it divides into tongues and comes to rest on each one of them.

And the next thing you know they’re out there preaching, “speaking about God’s deeds of power” to the crowd.

It was festival time and the city of Jerusalem was filled with Jews from all over who had come to celebrate Pentecost, the Jewish feast five weeks after Passover commemorating the giving of the law to Moses at Mount Sinai. These visitors speak many languages, and yet miraculously when the believers began to talk about Jesus, everyone can understand what they’re saying.

And this encounter changes all of them, those who spoke and those who heard them.

Those who listened heard a story about God’s love and power like nothing they’d ever heard before.

And Peter, who so often got it not quite right in his conversations with Jesus, preached it so powerfully that his listeners were “cut to the heart,” and when they ask him what they should do next, he tells them to repent and be baptized, and three thousand people are added to the ranks of believers who had numbered only about 120 when the sun rose that morning.

So both sides are changed. The believers became powerful preachers, and those who heard them became believers. And nothing has ever been the same since that day.

From the beginning, our faith has been about change. Change in ways no one could have anticipated. Change in ways that felt intensely uncomfortable at times, not what anyone had in mind.

There was Paul, the one who had been ravaging the church, breathing threats and murder.[i]Filled with the Spirit, he becomes one of its most passionate spokesmen.

Off on his 10,000-mile series of missionary journeys, he brings men and women into the ranks of believers wherever he goes. Gentiles are welcomed, and the Jewish laws that Jesus himself had followed are relaxed for them.

The church gets bigger and bigger, and the Good News is heard in more and more places, and all along the Spirit is there helping them to understand that God is doing a new thing, and and the whole world is changed.

From the beginning, our faith has been about change. It’s been about the Spirit pushing people out of their comfort zone, out to where God wanted them to be.

It’s about change, even at a personal level—the change of heart that is the root meaning of the word repent, the change of heart that brings us to turn to God.

“What shall we do?” the people who heard Peter preach on Pentecost asked him, and he tells them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of youin the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and youwill receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Our faith is fundamentally about change, change at every level, and so you have to wonder why we so often act as if it’s supposed to be about keeping everything exactly as it was.

When did we stop trusting the Spirit to show us the way?

If you read the book of Acts straight through, you can’t help but come away impressed by how that ragtag band of country hicks from the region of Galilee spread the Good News across the known world, and how the church grew and grew.

And you have to wonder if the decline we’re seeing in our own time has anything to do with the way we cling to the past.

What would you think if this room were suddenly filled with the sound of a rushing wind, if tongues of fire suddenly appeared and settled over each one of us?

But we don’t allow that kind of fire here this church. We light a couple of candles up at the altar here every Sunday, but they burn with a nice, controlled flame. We don’t like to play with fire here, and on the days when we do, I can’t stop worrying until those flames are out.

If you’ve ever been to one of our Easter Vigil services, you know that we light what we call the new fire in the back of the church, to symbolize the light of Christ in the Resurrection. It’s actually just a bowl with some salt that’s been soaked with rubbing alcohol, so it flames up when we touch a match to it, and it should be pretty safe, but I feel a lot better when the Paschal candle has been lit from it and the so-called new fire burns itself out.

And from the Paschal candle we light individual candles, passing the flame from person to person. And it’s beautiful, but I’m always relieved later in the service when the overhead lights come on and all of those little candles go out.

We are just so careful about keeping any fire here under control.

I visited the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City not long ago—it’s an amazing place, the largest cathedral in the world—and the first thing I noticed when I came in the door was two racks of candles like the one that burns on the wall in the sacristy.

You can light one to stand as a visible sign of a prayer request, and you can even write your prayer intention on the glass with permanent marker. And right nearby they keep a big red fire extinguisher.

My first thought was, wow, they let just anybody come in off the street here and play with fire. I was exposed to a lot of risk -management thinking in my job before seminary, so I tend to worry about things like that. And I was glad to see the fire extinguisher.

It worried me to think that people were playing with fire in that amazing building. And then I thought about how true that actually is.

Because once we start to pray—once we invoke the power of the Holy Spirit—we areplaying with fire! And we are tapping into a power that no red fire extinguisher will ever be able to control, no matter how big it is.

So many times when we pray, I think we’re really hoping God will do just exactly what we’re asking for—nothing less, but also nothing more!

And maybe we should be praying for the wind to blow and the fire to give us the courage to welcome the crazy ways that things can change once the Holy Spirit shows up.

The wind blew, and Peter was changed, and Paul was changed, and the people they preached to from Jerusalem to Rome and beyond were changed.

The wind blew, and the Spirit fell on all of them, and young men saw visions and old men dreamed dreams, as Peter said, quoting the prophet Joel.

The wind blew, and the church was officially “born” on that Pentecost, and immediately it began to change.

What dreams do you dream, for yourself, and for our church? Where is the Spirit ready to blow us to change?

Because our faith has always been all about change. When we meet God … when God meets us …when the wind of that Holy Spirit begins to blow.

In the hymn we sang before the Gospel, we prayed for the Spirit to fill us with life anew, to love the way God loves. May we live as if that were the change we really desired.


[i]Acts 9:1 NRSV