Over the last month, if you’ve been reading the Book of Acts and following the A.D. series on Sunday nights, you’re getting a little picture of how God, in the form of the Holy Spirit, came to a frightened little group of people who had been followers of Jesus. After he was crucified, they were hiding in the shadows. Then, the most amazing thing happened – he came to them, and after they found out he was alive, everything changed for them.
Everything can change for you, too – and for us, in powerful ways. What we’re learning is how faith in Christ spreads among people, in groups and from person to person.
So, this morning, we’re going to do a prequel. You know, like Star Wars. A movie series might start with episodes 4, 5, and 6, then episodes 1, 2, and 3 after those. Like the Lord of the Rngs / Hobbit series. Doing a prequel can help the whole story make more sense. Let’s go back to the beginning on the adventure in the Book of Acts…
Acts 2. When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
14 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. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 “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.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Everyone. I wonder what got your attention as you heard that scripture. Was it the fire over their heads? I wonder what that felt like. The whoosh of the wind? Everybody speaking and hearing different languages? Have you ever been in a situation where there was a language barrier? If you could speak a different language, if that flame was over your head and you had a choice, what language would you want to speak? Why that one?
Back in 2,000, I was on a sabbatical trip in Europe with my family and about a week into it, we found that our younger son Jamie had developed a case of poison ivy (it started at home). It was getting worse by the hour and we needed to deal with it. At that point, we were in Paris, and managed to find a pharmacy, but nobody there spoke English. We spoke no French. It was an interesting moment of charades as we stood in front of the counter scratching ourselves and pointing at pictures of plants.
You know, you can get a computer program called “Rosetta Stone” and learn a new language in a few weeks. But God worked much more quickly than that. We start with a small group of country people from Galilee in Jerusalem, hiding in a big room somewhere in the city. This is a little like saying the church started with some Lancaster County dairy farmers on vacation in New York City or Philadelphia. It would take a miracle, and that’s what happened, a miracle. But there’s more to know about that miracle of speaking in other languages. We need to understand why God would do such a thing.
There are three things to know about God from hearing that scripture:
1.) God loves the world. … loves people, no matter what language they speak. God wants to live in them and change them, everyone, whether they live in Manheim or Mongolia. It’s not an accident that the story took the focus off those first believers (once the fire had gone out over their heads!) and put a spotlight on people from a bunch of different places who didn’t speak their language. That crowd was from the world, they were foreigners, and they did not believe in Jesus – yet.
2.) God uses believers to reach the world. Having been with Jesus gave those first believers a good idea of what to do with the power of God once they had it. Do what Jesus did. Tell people about God’s love and heal them! It would be so convenient if God would just speak to people himself, in some amazing, booming God-voice, but instead, God uses us. God equips believers in Jesus to speak to the world. In the UCC, we like to say “God is still speaking.” God has a voice; God uses words. Your faith came to you, the Holy Spirit came to you, because you heard a message in a language you understood and believed it. You heard a message about “God’s deeds of power” and believed for yourself. God literally spoke your language. Or, God is speaking your language and calling you to faith right now.
Standing in that crowd, listening to God speak through those first believers, there were people from 15 different countries. If you looked at a map with push-pins that represented where they were from, you’d see it looks like a big wheel extending out hundreds, even thousands of miles. Faith was about to travel to those places, God was going on the road (God needed to come to you in Manheim) and God is still traveling.
But here’s another awesome thing about that moment. In those days, Greek was a “universal” language, like English is today – a language of commerce. You can get off of a plane almost anywhere in the world and find an English-speaker in about two seconds. It wasn’t as if all those travelers couldn’t communicate. They probably could speak Greek with each other, but the awesome part was that they each heard “God’s deeds of power” spoken in their own personal language from home.
Another thing to know from that story is that…
3.) God sends believers to the world. It’s one of God’s policies. “God so loved the world…” Well, if God loves the world and wants to touch the world with healing and good news, that can’t happen if believers don’t go. God can’t use us to love the world if we have no connection to the world. In every church, there needs to be a kind of a doorway with a sign on it that says, “The World.” People need to come and go through that doorway. God gave the first believers marching orders right from the start and gave a picture of how a healthy church works. Faith travels. Even the first churches had relationships with believers who were very far away. They were all reaching the world together with the Gospel and supporting each other to do that.
Faith, and the good works that come from faith, need to travel to the places where they are not. People are thirsty for what we have, they need Christ, whether they live next to us or very far away. It is our mission to send those who are called to go, and it is spiritually fulfilling for us to send them. This “travel” happens two ways:
First, we work at opening our doors to strangers. We don’t have to travel far to find need. The community is always changing and the population of strangers outside our walls is growing. The “world” of folks who don’t know Christ, or the love of Christ, is just out there. So we work at our invitation. We practice inviting.
We look for faith-sharing people to send. We create opportunities to go to the strangers, and we make those opportunities available as much as we’re able. We sent Melissa Shumaker to Spain – can you believe it was almost two years ago? (see August 25, 2013 sermon) We will send our Mission Team to Tennessee in three weeks. They’ve been to Philadelphia and Maryland and Mississippi and the streets of our own town. We’ve sent teams to the Dominican Republic, and for next year, there seems to be an opportunity worth exploring in Peru.
In the Bible, people always got in trouble when they stayed in one place for too long. The Christian faith is always about moving from one place to another with a purpose. Part of it is about growth – your own personal movement from some point A to point B, reading scripture, praying, absorbing the things God teaches you, listening to what God has to say through other believers, learning the hard way sometimes. The other part of growth is sharing. Somebody somewhere needs your faith, and you grow from the sharing. Read Romans 10:8-14.
When we believe in Christ, God speaks our personal language. God goes straight to the heart of the relationship and says, “Did you know that my son Jesus is alive and would love to talk to you? You know, I could help you a lot right now. ” When you believe Jesus is alive and give yourself to him, God gives you a new kind of life and power that you never had before. Faith brings hope and confidence; for a lot of people, just that is huge. The God may need you to tell your story when the opportunity comes.
The last thing Jesus told his people before he left was that when the power of the Spirit came to them, they were going to…
“be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
He also told them to…
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19)
Next month, we’ll look more closely at what happens when we go to all nations to make disciples, and the series will be called “To All Nations.”
In one fell-swoop God met the deepest need of the world: an open door to a relationship with God. The new church believed in the resurrection of Jesus, they talked about it, and people from other countries understood – in a personal way. The Spirit gave them the power to talk about Jesus. And this is what the church continues to do: talk about the living Jesus; and as we do, the Spirit gives us power. God is still on the road and will take us to places we never expected.
God, we pray for our own day of Pentecost. Fill us with your power, speaking the truth of your love in a language our families, friends, and neighbors understand. Show us where to go, what to do, what to say, and when to be quiet. Use your Spirit to help us make a deeper commitment to following Christ. Help us see the world as he sees it, feeling his joy at the good things happening in his church, his weeping at the sight of sick or hungry children, his anger at the injustice of senseless violence. Use your Spirit in us to bring forgiveness and healing to a world you love. We believe; help our unbelief. Amen.