Today we celebrate one of the most important holidays on the church calendar, Pentecost. And yet, unlike Easter and Christmas, it’s not a holiday where people send cards and exchange gifts. Sure, we make the sanctuary red in honor of the “tongues of fire” that descended on the disciples that day, maybe sing a few songs about the Holy Spirit, but since summer vacations have started and churches are a little less full, Pentecost always strikes me as the holy day that everyone forgot. It’s a liturgical add-on.
But maybe its placement on the calendar isn’t Pentecost’s biggest obstacle to holiday prominence. I want to suggest that one of the reasons we have a hard time with Pentecost really has more to do with the nature of what we are to be celebrating—the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the early church. After a season where we’ve celebrated the birth of Jesus during Advent and Christmas, and the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus during Lent and Easter—the tangible story of Jesus, God in human flesh—we struggle a bit with the ethereal idea of God the Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost as some traditions espouse). We’re good with the story of Jesus, but we’re not sure what to do with the mysterious movement of the Spirit.
I want to suggest, however, that a good understanding of the work of the Spirit isn’t just an add-on to our understanding of the biblical story. Indeed, the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, is active all the way through since the beginning of creation. Luke brings that understanding to bear in his story, connecting Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, the Ascension of Jesus, and Pentecost all together as a comprehensive view of what the Trinity’s work has been and continues to be all about.
Luke, you might remember, wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles—each one of them addressed to “Theophilus” which loosely means “friend of God.” The Gospel of Luke was written to tell the story of Jesus, and Acts was written as the sequel—the story of the church that Jesus launches and empowers through the Spirit. If we read Luke-Acts as one continuous narrative, we begin to see that Pentecost is anything but an add-on holiday.
One of the signatures of Luke as a writer is that he is very into birth stories. Both Luke and Acts begin with the Holy Spirit being involved in a birth. Remember the Christmas story, where the angel tells Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (Luke 2:35). In Acts, Jesus tells the disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 2:8). The birth of Jesus and the birth of the church are both made to happen by the Holy Spirit “coming upon” ordinary people, empowering them to do extraordinary things.
What I find most interesting about the Pentecost story, though, is that it’s not only the story of birth, but of rebirth. Not only does the Spirit come upon these ordinary people, the Spirit also comes upon those who are broken and outright failures. When I was reading this familiar story again this week, I could not help but notice that one of the great example of what happens when the Spirit comes upon a person is Simon Peter.
You will recall that Simon was a fisherman when Jesus first called him. Luke tells us the story of how Jesus commissions one of Simon’s boats to use as a speaker’s rostrum while teaching there on the shore of Galilee. When Jesus finished, he told Simon to head back out into the lake to go fishing again, which seemed fruitless since they had already spent the whole night fishing and caught nothing. Simon reluctantly agreed, “If you say so,” he says to Jesus, and out they go. They let down their nets and hauled in a record catch. Simon’s response to this miraculous catch is interesting: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). He’s not only ordinary, he’s an admitted sinner. Jesus chooses him anyway—not only in spite of that fact but, I think, because of it.
Unlike Matthew, Luke doesn’t tell us why Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter, which means “rock.” Matthew tells us it was because Peter was the rock upon which Jesus would later build the church, but Luke demonstrates to us that Peter was anything but solid.
Nowhere is this more evident than there at the table on the night before Jesus’ crucifixion. There at the table, Jesus tells Peter that the disciples’ faith is in danger. Peter is their leader, and he’s going to be vulnerable. Peter will have none of it. “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!” Bold words spoken out of impulse. Jesus responds sadly, “I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day until you have denied me three times.”
That’s what happens, of course. Peter, the rock, the leader, the spokesman, the first real appointed pastor by Jesus, will fail miserably. The Jesus he claimed he would follow to the death was the same Jesus he vehemently denied even knowing just a few hours later.
Those denials of Jesus are the last words that Peter speaks in the Gospel of Luke. “I tell you, I don’t know him!” When the book of Acts picks up the story, Peter speaks for the disciples when they are casting lots to determine who is going to replace the traitor Judas. Luke leaves the irony open for us to wrestle with here: Peter, the denier, presides over the replacement of Judas, the betrayer. Judas gets the rap, but Peter is just as guilty.
In short, this really isn’t the kind of guy you’d pick to lead a movement—a guy full of bluster, who wants to please, but who doesn’t want to deal with adversity. He’s impulsive, a hypocrite, perhaps even violent. He puts on a front of toughness and bravado, but underneath he is scared, timid, and weak.
But then, on the day of Pentecost, there is Peter, standing up in front of a scoffing crowd and speaking boldly about the very Jesus he had earlier denied to some of the very people of whom he had been afraid just a few short weeks ago.
How do you explain that? Luke tells us clearly: it was the Holy Spirit!
Maybe one of the reasons we’re so ambivalent about Pentecost is the fact that we’ve become so conditioned to doing things on our own and under our own power, and nowhere is this more evident than in the way Christians tend to do “church” in the 21st century. Somehow we’ve gotten the idea that the measure of a church is its size, the beauty of its building, the myriad programs it offers, and the charismatic nature of its pastor. I recently attended a webinar put on by the United Methodist Church that talked about a “vision” for our future, which really boiled down to an evaluation of the effectiveness of pastors and churches based on the “metrics” of worship attendance, financial giving, small groups, etc. If the numbers are good, then the pastor is effective and the church “successful.” Successful pastors grow large churches and become the celebrities of the church world.
Now don’t get me wrong. Numbers are not unimportant. Luke was clearly counting heads and tells us that on the day of Pentecost, “3,000” were added to the churches numbers. That’s a good membership Sunday by any stretch of the imagination.
Problem is, however, that the growth that took place on Pentecost wasn’t the result of the disciples’ marketing strategy, attractive building, programs to meet every community need, or their awesome web site. Their primary preacher wasn’t much to look at, had no charismatic personality, and no training in the preparation and conduct of sermons. In fact, he would have been considered a failure by most. Remember, the crowd initially thought these people were all drunk! So much for reputation and respectability!
If you were looking for the perfect people, the perfect setting, and the perfect leader upon which to model a church, this wouldn’t be it. Peter was no celebrity—not the kind of guy you’d pick to lead a “successful” church. Here’s a guy who, in and of himself, isn’t much to look at or listen to. He’s not the kind of guy who’s going to rise to the top based on his own charisma, confidence, or competence.
Interestingly, I read an article recently that said that if you want your child to become CEO of a major corporation, you ought to name him Peter. A survey by the business networking site LinkedIn revealed that Peter is the most prevalent first name of CEOs, therefore they imply that “Peter” is a name geared toward success.
The irony here, though, is that the apostle Peter is a success not because of his name, his efforts, or even his character. The only way Peter is successful in his preaching and the early church successfulin their witness is because of the presence and work of the Holy Spirit.
I think this is why Jesus chose him in the first place. He needs help, and the Bible tells us over and over again that God only ever chooses those who need help—those who are weak, broken, and clueless—to do his greatest work.
Think about it:
- Abraham was a nomadic senior citizen.
- Jacob was a cheat
- Moses stuttered and murdered an Egyptian
- Samson was a drunk, a bully, and a brawler
- David was an adulterer, who ordered the death of his most faithful soldier to cover up his sin.
- Solomon was addicted to the love of foreign women: a thousand of them
- Elijah hid out in a cave because he was afraid of an evil queen
- Jeremiah kept whining to God that he wanted to quit being a prophet
- Jonah ran away from God and then pouted when he didn’t get his way
And yet, these are some of the “heroes” of the Bible—not because they were strong, but precisely because they were weak. See it’s only when we realize that we’re weak, inadequate and clueless that God, through the Spirit, chooses to work through us.
I’ve been reading Eugene Peterson’s memoir this week (Peterson is the author of the Message translation of the Bible, as well as numerous other books). He writes about the church that he was planting in Maryland and about the discussions they had when forming the church:
“It would have been a lot easier to imagine a church formed from an elite group of talented men and women who hungered for the ‘beauty of holiness’… But then where would we be? We wouldn’t have had a chance of being part of it.
“The story had its way with us. It became more clear that when God forms a church, he starts with the nobodies. That’s the way the Holy Spirit works. These are the people he started with…to bring our Savior into the world. Why would he change strategies in bringing the salvation community, church, this congregation into formation?”
The apostle Paul, who was himself a hyper-religious hit man before encountering the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, wrote about God’s proclivity to choose a bunch of nobodies, with nothing to offer on their own (2 Corinthians 4:5-7):
“For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
Did you catch that? Clay jars are easily broken, but the treasure inside, “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” still remains. God chooses to invest his mission and his message in clay jar people like Peter, like Paul, like you and me. God doesn’t measure our success by our outward accomplishments, only by our faithfulness and willingness to be led by the Spirit. Given that realization, prayer is always precedes performance!
The early church was formed on that day of Pentecost not by the strength of a charismatic leader, but by a charismatic movement of God’s Spirit. That’s why the church whose birth we celebrate today is still around two thousand years later. It’s all about the Spirit!
This is an especially important message for TLUMC on this Pentecost. The church celebrates only its 20th anniversary this year. It’s the “youngest” congregation I’ve served in terms of years of existence. The energy and leadership that brought this church from a little truck stop fellowship to a 500+ member church on 40 acres of land is something to celebrate today. Good things have been happening here!
But we also need to understand this—this church has never been and will never be primarily about its individual pastors or parishioners. The longer a church’s history, the less people will remember about the people in its past. When this church reaches it’s hundredth anniversary, those sitting in these chairs (well, probably not these chairs) will have virtually no memory of any of us, yet the church will still continue its work, Lord willing. That’s because since Pentecost the church has been and always will be not about our efforts, but the work of the Spirit in us—a work that will continue long after we’re gone.
When we try to make the church “successful” based on our own efforts, we wind up creating a church that might attract and impress people for a time, but doesn’t transform people deeply. We can create a church that looks great on the stat sheet, but is spiritually bankrupt. We expect hard work and excellence from our leaders, and rightly so, but leaders will eventually burn out if they don’t pay primary attention to the fact that the work of the church is the work of the Spirit. We want lay people to be active and volunteer and give, and rightly so—but what is needed first is a willingness to listen to the Spirit. The birth of the church was the work of the Spirit, and the church’s continued life and maturity is the Spirit’s work as well. A church that isn’t driven by the Spirit will eventually be no church at all. Without the Spirit, we are nobodies, indeed.
Therefore, as Paul says, we must never proclaim ourselves because, at base, we are like Peter and all the rest—broken and in need of redemption. Instead, we must always proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord. Like Peter, it’s the Spirit that gives us the ability to do that in ways that really matter.
The truth is that we are all fragile containers for the work of the Spirit. We have learned that the hard way this week. Pastors and parishioners both will sometimes stumble and fall, and we’ll all be reminded of the cracks in the jar. But remember this: sometimes with us, sometimes in spite of us, the Spirit has continued and will continue to do his work through the fragile people and pastors of Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church. That’s why we can say with Paul today:
“We are afflicted in every way but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 5:8).
How do we maintain our dependence on the Holy Spirit? Jesus told his disciples, including Peter, to wait and to pray. I think that’s good advice for us today as we consider the church’s past and its future. Waiting on the Lord in prayer is our number one job as a church.
I was in South Korea about a year and a half ago visiting some of the largest churches in the world. Yoido Full Gospel Church, for example, has 750,000 members. You think we have parking problems? Kwanglim Methodist Church, the largest Methodist Church in the world, has 50,000 members plus. I was there with a bunch of other pastors and we were all asking the same question. How did this happen?
The Koreans won’t hesitate to tell you. It’s prayer. They pray constantly—individually, corporately, on retreats. People at Kwanglim pray all night before a worship service, asking the Holy Spirit to come upon the pastor and people with power. The ushers pray before services, people are praying in the background during the worship service. At Yoido Church, the pray time sounds a lot like Pentecost. The pastor doesn’t do the formal prayer, he just yells out “Jesus!” three times and then everyone starts praying out loud, individually and in small groups. They pray, and God does amazing things with these very ordinary people.
I wonder what would happen in our American churches if we gave up all of our activity for awhile and instead we waited and we prayed for the Spirit to come upon us in power? My guess is that we’d begin to redefine success according to the Spirit’s terms.
When we take the time to wait and listen to the Spirit, we are reminded that we are a people of grace. We are reminded that brokenness can be overcome by the forgiveness and love of God. We can celebrate what the Spirit has been up to in us already, and look ahead to where the Spirit will lead us in the future.
Yes, Pentecost is no add-on holy day. It’s a humbling reminder that this church, the United Methodist church, and indeed churches everywhere, are the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s the Spirit that gives us vision, the Spirit that gives us strength, the Spirit that convicts, convinces, and converts us to follow in the way of Christ. It’s the Spirit that gives us new birth, and births in us a vision for a new way of life made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s the Spirit that works in our baptism to wash us clean of our sin and make us whole again. It’s the Spirit that picks us up when we fall, and puts all our broken pieces back together again. It’s the Spirit that gives us a vision of our future as citizens of the kingdom of God.
That’s something to celebrate!