When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and Arabs – in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed these are not drunk as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above, and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sum shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
Today, we are celebrating Pentecost. Pentecost is the conclusion of the great Easter season, and it occurs fifty days after Easter Sunday. Pentecost is sometimes referred to as the birthday of the Church, because on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit was poured out on the followers of Jesus, and the Church began. Every year, the Church continues to celebrate Pentecost, and pray for the Holy Spirit to be poured out on us, just as it was on the first followers of Jesus.
Pentecost is all about the Holy Spirit; and you know what? It is imperative that the Church be filled with the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised he would give us the gift of the Holy Spirit when he had returned to heaven as a guide, an advocate, a comforter. The Holy Spirit gives us power, the Holy Spirit gives us direction, the Holy Spirit, gives us clarity and purpose. Without the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives as Christians and in our collective life as a church, we will always fall short of what God desires and intends for us. It is imperative that the Church be filled with the Holy Spirit.
Every time you walk in this sanctuary, you are greeted by a visual reminder of the enduring presence and life-giving power of the Holy Spirit; do you remember where it is? The red banner on the east wall. Every time you see that banner, pray for the Holy Spirit to fill your heart and blow through our church with flames of power. Red is the color of fire, and throughout Scripture, the Holy Spirit is represented as the wind, as a dove, and as fire.
Today, on Pentecost, we have asked everyone to wear red as a way of representing the Holy Spirit resting on each of us.
After worship, please stay for our annual Pentecost “Tongues of Fire Chili Cookoff” – there’s lots of chili, cornbread, mac-n-cheese, and ice cream sundaes – there’s plenty there for everyone! One way or another, we hope everyone will leave church today with tongues of fire!
Today, we conclude our worship series on “Life in the Spirit-Filled Church.” We have noticed how the early Church was filled with the Holy Spirit, and realized that, in our day and time, we are called to be filled with the Holy Spirit, as well.
Each week, we have looked at a different aspect of the Spirit-filled church. The first aspect is that the Spirit-filled Church is unified; through the power of the Holy Spirit, all Christ’s followers are made one with each other. The second aspect is that the Spirit-filled Church is prophetic, meaning we see things as they are, we see things as God intends, and we call attention to the distance between the two. And the Spirit-filled Church is bold: we are called to boldly go wherever the Holy Spirit calls us to go.
Now, it’s possible to exist as a church, not the real Church, mind you – but an institution, an organization, a building, a group of people – it’s possible to exist as a church without the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps you’ve heard the story about a young man who visited a prominent church in his town. Let’s just say he didn’t fit in. He was “different” than the majority of people who attended that church. After worship, he greeted the pastor on his way back outside, and said, “Pastor, I really enjoyed worship today. I think I’d like to join this church!” The pastor was visibly agitated by this – anyone could see that this young man was “different,” and the pastor didn’t need the headache of what people might say if someone like this young man joined the church. But, trying to be diplomatic and pastoral, he said, “Well, joining a church is very serious business. Why don’t you go home this week and pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance about this very important decision?”
The young man walked away, and the pastor was surprised to see him sitting in the congregation the next week. As he left worship, the pastor said, “Did you pray about what we talked about last week?” The young man said, “I sure did, and I’ve decided not to join your church. I did what you said, and the Holy Spirit told me I shouldn’t bother; he’s been trying to get into this church for the last ten years!”
Turning back to our Scripture lesson for today, just before today’s passage, Jesus has commissioned his disciples to be his witnesses in the world. In other words, those who follow Jesus are supposed to continue doing the things Jesus did when he walked the earth. We are to continue his witness, playing show-and-tell on behalf of a God who is searching for lost sheep, a God who desires nothing more than all people being brought back to God. We are to continue his witness, offering hope and healing in Christ’s name, offering reconciliation to those who find themselves at the margins of society and perhaps even our churches. We are to continue his witness, our lives being the very signs along the path to point people toward God. We are to continue his witness, to love rather than judge, to accept rather than reject, to lay aside religious rules and embrace a living relationship with God.
The first followers of Jesus protested. “Jesus, we can’t do all those things on our own!” And Jesus said, “You’re right, and I don’t expect you to. The Holy Spirit will enable you to do that. The Holy Spirit will teach you everything. I will pour out the Holy Spirit on you, so that you may continue as my witnesses, doing all I have done and even greater things, all in my name, to continue the project I have started of bringing all humanity back to God.”
Historically, when the followers of Jesus have been serious about being his witnesses in the world, they have prayed fervently for the Holy Spirit to be poured out on them. Today, on Pentecost, we are praying for the Holy Spirit to be poured out not only on St. Paul United Methodist Church, but upon every church, of every denomination, around the world.
In seminary, friends used to speculate about whether the Holy Spirit even shows up at Methodist churches. One day, my friend, Oliver Box, a high-church Methodist from Aberdeen, Mississippi, said, “The Holy Spirit does, indeed, show up at the Methodist church. He just knows to mind his manners when he’s there.”
Take a look at our denominational logo, our trademark “cross and flame.” That red thing beside the cross is supposed to represent the fire of the Holy Spirit. Even on our logo, it looks like a pretty controlled burn, doesn’t it? Not getting out of control, burning quietly, never really flaring up too much – always there, steady, controlled – sort of like the pilot light on your water heater.
A controlled burn – that’s an interesting way to think about the Holy Spirit. And actually, I think the word “control” has a lot to do with it. As long as we want to remain in control – in control of our lives, in control of our church – we have closed ourselves off from living into a Holy Spirit-filled existence. If we truly want the Holy Spirit in our lives and in our church, we need to surrender our own control. In so doing, we are opening ourselves up to a world of possibility we may have never considered because the Holy Spirit will always move us beyond ourselves.
Take the first followers of Jesus in today’s Scripture reading. When they received the Holy Spirit, they found themselves getting into all sorts of things they never would have on their own. They were speaking in languages they’d never learned, prophesying about things they didn’t know anything about, not bound by a spirit of fear and timidity but boldness and courage – all because they received the Holy Spirit.
The same is true for us. Having the Holy Spirit in our lives means giving up control and opening ourselves up to things and people and experiences we would never seek on our own. It means getting out of the drivers’ seat and letting the Holy Spirit set the course. It means getting caught up in the wildfire of the Holy Spirit.
If we are truly going to be the church – the unified, prophetic, bold body of Christ; if we’re not just going to go to church but be the church, the authentic, God-glorifying, Christ-following community; the real hands and feet of Jesus in the world, sacrificially giving ourselves for the world just as Christ sacrificially gave himself for the world – if we’re going to do all that we have been called to be, we need the Holy Spirit.
Friends, we need some fire in our belly. When we see someone with passion for something, we say they have fire in their belly. Now, if someone has inflammatory bowel disease, they might be experiencing fire in their belly, but that’s not what we’re talking about. We need some passion for the things God would have us be passionate about.
Or, to put it another way, we need to get fired up. On cold mornings, my first car that I drove in high school – a 1986 Honda Prelude – had trouble getting fired up. You had to turn the ignition and then mash your foot down on the accelerator, hoping it wouldn’t die right away. The goal was to increase the RPMs on the engine and let it run long enough that it would warm up enough to not stall out when you let it idle. There were some mornings I had to turn the ignition 20 times just to finally crank it up enough that it would continue to run.
With that car, if it didn’t get fired up in the morning, do you know what happened? It didn’t go anywhere. Likewise, when the church fails to get fired up, we don’t go anywhere, either.
We need to get fired up. We need some fire in our belly. We need passion for the things God would have us be passionate about. We need the wildfire of the Holy Spirit. Without that wildfire, without that passion, without that fire in our belly, without getting fired up, we don’t go anywhere.
Every Sunday morning – early, before anyone else is here – I walk through the sanctuary and touch every pew, and I pray for the Holy Spirit to fill the hearts of the people who will sit there and kindle in them the fire of God’s love. I do the same thing for every door, praying the same thing for every person who will walk through them. I do the same thing in the nursery, and in the finance office, and pray for the people who will be in those spaces.
So, if you come into this building on Sunday morning, even if you never set foot in the sanctuary, I have prayed for you. As you sit in these seats and walk through these doors, I pray you feel the power of those prayers and sense the presence of the Holy Spirit upon you and within you.
How will you know if the Holy Spirit is at work within you? Well, there’s a couple ways to tell. If you find you’ve got some fire in your belly, if you find you’re passionate about the things Jesus was passionate about, if you’re all fired up about being Christ’s witness in the world, then the Holy Spirit is at work within you. If you find yourself boldly going places and doing things you might not otherwise do for the sake of reconciling people to God, then the Holy Spirit is at work within you. If you have given up control and couldn’t be happier, then the Holy Spirit is at work within you.
None of us can control the Holy Spirit. We can’t turn it on, make it show up, or do things for us. The Holy Spirit isn’t a genie in a bottle or a good luck charm. But while we can’t control the Holy Spirit, I am convinced that one of the keys to living in the Spirit is to do something very simple: to be intentionally open.
So today, I want to give you an opportunity to be intentionally open to the Holy Spirit. For those who genuinely and authentically seek to follow Jesus, Spirit-filled living isn’t an option; it’s simply part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
I just have two basic questions for you this morning. First, do you want to follow Jesus? Maybe for the first time today, maybe you are already a follower of Jesus and just want to reaffirm that, but if you want to follow Jesus, would you just stand up where you are?
Now, for those who follow Jesus, opening ourselves up to the Holy Spirit is part of the package. So if you’re standing, I am asking you to be intentionally open to the Holy Spirit; would you open your arms wide, close your eyes, and repeat after me as we pray?
Come, Holy Spirit. Fill my heart. Kindle in me the fire of your love. I surrender to your control.
Come, Holy Spirit. Put your fire in my belly. Lead me beyond my comfort zone.
Come, Holy Spirit. Fill our church. Make us unified. Make us prophetic. Make us bold. Get us all fired up, give us passion, passion for you, passion for people, passion to do what you want us to do. We love you. We’ll do what you want. We’ll go where you lead, in Jesus’ name. Amen.