A few years ago, in Newsweek magazine, Garrison Keillor was asked to choose what he considered to be the five most important books. Many readers were probably surprised to find that he ranked the Book of Acts at the top of his list. When describing the Book of Acts, Keillor offered this poetic summary: “The flames lit on their little heads and bravely and dangerously went they onward.”[i]
That was Pentecost. If you want to tell the story of what God is doing in history, you can tell it in five acts. The beginning is creation, the sparkling and pure morning of the world; then the fall of creation, in disobedience and confusion; then God chose Israel as a special people through whom the world would be restored; after that plan went awry, God sent his son Jesus Christ, to finally set things right and begin again. Then comes Act V, when God sends the Spirit to expand the work of Christ and bring healing and redemption to the whole earth. This last act begins on Pentecost; and the Book of Acts tells this story.
Now Acts is not a story of people who were smart and invented a new religion; it is not a story of people who were well-connected, and were able to make the wheels of society turn in their direction; it is not a story of people who were determined to continue the legacy of Jesus Christ. It is not a story of a group of people who had a really great idea to do something really cool. If it were that kind of story, we wouldn’t be here.
There’s an article this weekend in the New York Times entitled, “They built it. No one came.” It’s about two men who bought 63 acres in Pitman, Pennsylvania with the dream of creating a Moravian commune, dedicated to a spiritual and agrarian life, and living by 18th century methods. Their story and memoir is both tragic and comic, and the article recounts how they struggled for years to make it work before finally giving up. They collected old buildings and tools from the local area and restored them; they developed expertise in turning flax into linen; they spread the good news of their commune as far and wide as they could. But no one ever joined them. They close the article by saying, “It was a dream, and it was a good dream, though it broke our spirits that we had no one to share it with.”[ii]
If the community of disciples that Jesus had left behind tried to do something like that, it would have been a good dream and it would have died. No, the story we tell today is a story of God’s dream, God’s power, God’s grace and purpose. “The flames lit on their little heads and bravely and dangerously went they onward.”
After Jesus ascended into heaven, there was a festival in Jerusalem. It was 50 days after the Passover, thus “Pente-cost,” and disciples were gathered in a house. Suddenly there was a sound like the rush of a violent wind. When a tornado tears through a community, people often report that it sounds like a… freight train; that probably is what these disciples heard. The sound filled the whole house. Then divided tongues like fire appeared, and came to rest on each of them. The entire house was filled with the Holy Spirit, and each of them was filled with the Spirit.
They began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit empowered them. These disciples were all Galileans, with little education; they spoke their own native language, and maybe one other. But on this day, God enabled them to speak many languages. It was a miracle. People from every corner of the known world were there for the festival, they spoke dozens of languages, and they were outside the house. Never before had they heard the good news of God in their own foreign languages, but on this day they heard. As the Spirit spoke through the disciples, the people outside the house heard the good news of God’s works in words they could understand.
This was a miracle that the disciples could never have even dreamed of, let alone done by themselves. They didn’t know that God was up to something this big or radical; they didn’t know that God was beginning a new creation that would draw all people of every language to himself; they didn’t know that God would take Christ’s resurrection life and flood the earth with it. They have no idea. Now, suddenly, they are speaking in many languages and people from every corner of are hearing the good news of Jesus Christ.
This is God’s mission, and it begins with God’s power on Pentecost. But Pentecost is not meant to be just one day back then; God’s Spirit does not run out of energy by the end of the book of Acts. We live in this chapter V of God’s mission; Pentecost is meant to be our live, your life, and our lives together. To be accompanied and empowered by the Spirit of God; to be comforted, and challenged, to be led and guided, and sometimes even kicked; to be inspired and made courageous by the living Spirit of God. To have a flame, “lit on our little heads and bravely and dangerously travel onward.”[iii]
This is our destiny! And as appealing as it sounds, we wrestle and wrestle with this. As a church – and not just this church, every church – the temptation is always to do what those two men in Pennsylvania set out to do: to dream a good dream and work very hard to make it happen. To strategize and plan and hope and try. I have sat in so many church meetings that go something like this: if we just get the right strategy or the right message or the right mission statement or event, then we will grow, or we will meet our budget, or we will… fill in the blank.
The mission of the church, the mission of God’s people is so much larger than that. The mission of God is new creation. It is to make a new you, and a new me, and a new world. The greatest dreams of life are not ones you can do on your own power. Life’s greatest dreams are to be loved and to love, to have meaning and fulfillment, to be healthy and whole, to live with contentment and integrity. Life’s greatest dreams are to be of service to the world, to live with purpose and lead a life of significance, to contribute to the redemption to creation and the healing of those around you. These are dreams, these are good dreams.
But we can’t make them reality without God. One of the great insights of the recovery movement is that you cannot save yourself; and until you admit that, you will try and try and try and it will break your spirit. But when you trust in the power of God, God can and will do what we cannot do for ourselves. Pentecost is God’s power in the Spirit: for the people we love, for ourselves, for the wider world. It is God’s power to make all things new.
When I have the opportunity, I love to go sailing. I’m not a very good sailor, but then I don’t get to practice much. You have to practice to sail. A few years ago, I went sailing at Spruce Run Reservoir. It was a perfect day for me and my boat. When I got there the wind was blowing 10-15 knots. I put the boat in the water, tied to the dock; got in, untied and pushed off. I put up the mainsail, and turned the boat downwind… and it went. Silently, quickly, effortlessly, gliding through the water. It was a beautiful thing. After about an hour of sailing, though, the wind died down. It just stopped. There was no more wind. So I waited and waited, and then opened the cubby and pulled out the emergency oar. Now I love to sail. But I hate to row. And I rowed. And rowed. And rowed back to shore. Sailing is fun. Rowing is no fun.
Pentecost Sunday – in fact the whole gospel itself – is an invitation to sail. It’s an invitation to put up your spiritual sails and let the Spirit of God take you in directions you would not ordinarily go, to do things you things you did not think you could do, to live a life that is larger and deeper and of more significance and contentment than you could ever do for yourself. And for some reason, we keep trying to row. And God in God’s infinite grace keeps coming alongside and saying, put up your sail and go!
Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson
[i] Newsweek, 12-24-07
[iii] Newsweek, 12-24-07