The most recent Minneapolis Area Synod assembly was held recently. The theme of the assembly was “I Will Pour Out My Spirit” which is taken from the Old Testament book of the prophet Joel. That theme was translated into a weekend focused on Pentecost.
Pentecost is the annual church celebration that occurs fifty days after Easter (penta=five). The Bible tells the story of Pentecost in the New Testament book of Acts, chapter 2. Jesus has been crucified, raised from the dead and ascended into heaven before the eyes of some of his followers. The disciples are preaching in Jerusalem and have a very dramatic experience:
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, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
The immediate thought from some of the bystanders is that some in the crowd were drunk, but the apostle Peter responds that no one is drunk since it is only 9:00 in the morning.
Peter goes on to give a sermon, in the process quoting those very words from Joel and as a result of everything that went on, 3,000 people were baptized. Many times over history Pentecost has been called the birthday of the church, and often various worship services include cake, singing “Happy Birthday”, and even hats and noisemakers.
As I ponder the idea, I’m not convinced of the accuracy of Pentecost being the “birthday” of the Christian church. Pentecost is, rather, a high point in the continuing ministry that Jesus began three years earlier and the work that God began at Creation. It is in the Pentecost story that God’s grace being for all people is best illustrated.
The story in Acts lists at least twelve different ethnic groups of people gathered to hear the disciples preach that day, and each heard the speaking in their own language. The text that Peter quotes from Joel concludes, “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” There are no caveats; not just Jews, not just Gentiles, not just people from Galilee or Rome or any other place. And, significant to the time, not just one gender. The gifts that come from God are meant for all.
Recently I saw a news story of a supposedly-Christian television host claiming that the First Amendment only protected Christians—Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and other faiths are not included in freedom of religion. This is the type of false preaching that Jesus repeatedly warned of and that we who truly strive to follow the teaching of the gospel need to expose and refute.
And of course it is not only faith that separates humans. Our news is full of examples of folks who want to exclude others based on race and ethnic background, gender, age, sexual identity, financial resources, body art and piercings, and just about any other way we can exclude each other. Multiple stories have been reported recently about police being called to check on people of color who were doing nothing more serious than sitting in a coffee shop, taking a college campus tour or barbecuing in the park.
Peter concludes his sermon by telling the listeners, “For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (so, basically, EVERYONE!). Then he adds, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”
As Christians we are called to love one another and freely share the gospel message. As humans it’s unlikely we will like everyone God puts in our path. One of the challenges of discipleship is believing that God still provides love and grace to those WE don’t particularly like or think deserve it. But we also are painfully aware that none of us deserves the love and grace of God. That’s what makes it such an amazing gift.
When Jesus appeared to his disciples the evening of Easter, he breathed on them the Holy Spirit and sent them out. Pentecost is the story of the Holy Spirit descending on 120 of Jesus’ followers, who then baptized a huge congregation of new believers. We as Christians understand the Holy Spirit coming to us in the sacrament of holy baptism. It is through the continued presence of the Holy Spirit that we are empowered to do the work God has created us to do and Jesus has commanded us to do: to love one another as God first loved us and bringing the gospel message of God’s love into the world. Not for some, not for those we like or who live and think like us, but for all.