May 28, 2023
The Power of God
Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.
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, 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.
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 proselytes, Cretans 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 sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
What’s going on this weekend? For the church, it’s Pentecost, and we tell an important part of the gospel story. Christ was born, that’s Christmas. Christ died and rose again, that’s Easter. Christ ascended into heaven and sends the Spirit to be his presence with us, that’s Pentecost. This year, this weekend is also Memorial Day, and we remember the individuals who gave their lives for our country and in service to our nation. And beside those two very weighty things, theological and national, this is also the weekend that pools are supposed to open and summer begins – at least that’s a hot topic in our house. Not that you would want to get in the pool this weekend.
I’ve been thinking about swimming pools because Pentecost is a full immersion into deep theological water. Most of us like to get into a pool by tip toeing into the shallow end. First, I’ll get my feet wet, then up to my knees, then splash a little water, then up to my waist. Others of us, though, believe that the best way to get into a pool, even when the water is cold, is to just do it. Jump in the deep end, go straight down, and feel your whole-body shiver as you acclimate to a new reality. That’s Pentecost – deep theological water.
You wouldn’t know it from the songs we sing and prayers we pray on Pentecost most of the time. I heard a pastor say recently that he didn’t like the imagery of Pentecost, with its violent wind. He preferred to think about the Holy Spirit as a warm, gentle breeze blowing in off the ocean. Isn’t that nice? And it’s true that sometimes the presence of God’s Spirit is gentle and reassuring, but that’s not what happened on Pentecost. This was an experience in the deep end of the theological pool, and I’d like for us to think about this in three ways: an experience of new power, new community, and a new future.
Pentecost was actually an ancient festival, called the Festival of Weeks, and it was really a harvest celebration that happened fifty days after Passover. Whereas Passover had a somber and commemorative tone, remembering Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, Pentecost was pure celebration. First fruit offerings of the harvest were brought to the temple, and first-born children were paraded through the streets, and everybody was happy, and people came to Jerusalem from everywhere for the party. It was a holiday weekend.
On that Pentecost after the Resurrection the disciples were gathered in the upper room praying and waiting for the power of the Spirit, just as Jesus told them to do. And suddenly there was a sound like a violent rushing wind that filled the house – more like a hurricane than a Caribbean breeze – and tongues like fire came to rest on each person. Now, flame symbolizes the divine presence, like a burning bush or a pillar of fire in the wilderness, and the disciples were filled with the divine Spirit and began to speak in other languages.
This is the first deep-end of the pool lesson we learn about the Spirit in this story – God’s Spirit arrives with a new power. What is this new power? Well, the Spirit of God is not a nebulous spirit from another planet, and it’s not a general kind spirit that fills the air. The Spirit of God is very specifically the spirit of Jesus. In John, Jesus actually called the Spirit his twin, another him, and said that this Spirit twin would come to remind us of everything that he taught us and to unite us to him.
Last week when we looked at the Ascension, I told you that the disciples stood there confused because they never intended to do this kingdom of God thing without Jesus. And that’s true. What I didn’t say is that while Jesus never intended to stay with them, he did promise to live in them. Before he was crucified, he said, “If you remain in me and I in you then you will bear much fruit.” They didn’t understand it, but this is what he meant. He would live in them, and they would live in him, in the power of his Spirit.
You see, Jesus never intended you and I to live a life of faith without him. If we could live perfectly faithfully and love unconditionally on our own, we wouldn’t need a Savior. Sometimes we might imagine that Jesus came to live, die, and rise again, and then send us off to do better. But that’s not it at all. The only way we can live the life that Jesus saves us for and calls us into, which is a life of love for God and one another, is in the power of his Spirit. That’s why the Spirit came to rest on each one at Pentecost. It wasn’t just on them as a group, but on each one individually — and the Spirit rests on each one of us.
Pentecost means that the power of God is alive in you: to forgive you more than you think you can be forgiven, to love you more than you ever dared hope you could be loved, to empower you to forgive more than you think you can forgive, and serve more than you think you can serve, and to believe more, and hope more, and love more than you ever imagine you could.
In the letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul puts it this way, “[God] is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine according to his power at work within us.” That’s the Spirit. God’s power – a new power – at work in you.
Now, when the crowd outside the house heard these country disciples talking about God’s mighty works in different languages, it drew attention. Remember, there were Jews gathered for this festival from all over the Mediterranean, and they spoke many different languages with different cultures and ethnicities. Did you notice, in the reading, all the ethnicities that we named – there are at least eleven regions or ethnicities named that covered all the known world at that time. Why would Luke, the author of Acts, recount for us all that detail?
This is the second, deep-end of the pool lesson about the Spirit in this story. God’s Spirit arrives to create a new community, called the church, that cuts across all of the boundaries and borders that we construct in human life: you don’t talk like me, think like me, vote like me, look like me, eat like me, pray like me, live like me.
If you notice what happens on Pentecost, and Luke is careful to tell us this, people from every culture in the known world hear the gospel in their own language, and by the end of the day – in a part of the story that comes later in this chapter – it says that about three thousand were added to the number of disciples. So notice this: by the end of the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit had gathered a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, multi-national, multi-cultural, multi-gender, multi-economic, incredibly diverse church that was one in Christ Jesus. This is God’s vision for humanity, a vision that takes place in the church as a sign of how God is saving the world.
Now, if you look around most congregations today, you often wouldn’t know that this kind of community exists, but you can see it in glimpses. In your bulletin, there is a celebration in the joys and concerns that our sister congregation in Guatemala, the EbenEzer congregation, received seven new adult members by baptism. Now, that’s wonderful, and here’s what I want you to see – they are our siblings in Christ. Our church family just got bigger because the EbenEzer congregation grew. We are one with them in Christ, even though in culture, language, economy, life experience, probably politics, we could not be more different. The new reality created by the Spirit is that we are now family.
In our Presbyterian Book of Order, there is a statement that your new church officers studied together last weekend, and it this: “the local congregation is an insufficient form of the church.” That language may be surprising, to think that somehow the local congregation is not enough for what it means to be the church, but this story from Pentecost day shows us why. Because the church is larger, broader, and more diverse in every way than a local congregation could ever be. Being connected with other congregations, locally and nationally and internationally, helps us to realize our unity in Christ with people across every kind of social, political, and national identity. The church is meant to be a diverse fellowship that demonstrates God’s vision for humanity.
A new power, a new community. Finally, the third deep-end of the pool lesson we find in this story of Pentecost is a new future. When all the people who heard the disciples speaking in their languages began to wonder what in the world was going on, Peter – who was filled with a new power in himself – stood up to preach. He quoted the prophet Joel, and began by saying, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.” In the last days. In other words, these are the last days, God’s future is arriving now and in this new community filled with this new power you are seeing it before your very eyes.
Israel’s prophets had pointed for generations to God’s good future, and now it was arriving on Pentecost. You see, the work of the Spirit is to usher in the future of God’s peace, God’s wholeness, when all the powers and principalities that cause chaos and turmoil in the garden of God’s good creation, have been subdued and put under the lordship of Jesus Christ, who is the faithful Human One, the new Adam to tend the garden. The work of the Spirit of Jesus is to begin a future in which all is at rest and all is made well. What does this mean for us? Let me give you an example.
Tomorrow, on Memorial Day, we will remember those who gave their lives in service to this country, and in Asheville, we will gather in Pack Square at 2 pm. As country, we should give thanks for their sacrifice, and remember the families and friends who mourn their loss, and recommit ourselves care for those who continue to bear the pain of war. That’s our national work.
But today as a church, we can and should push out into deeper waters, and to declare God’s promise of peace and a new future for all people. Isaiah put it this way, speaking about the reality of God’s new future: “for the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.” Why? Why will those be burned? Because we won’t need them anymore. No boots, no uniforms, no weapons, not in Ukraine, not in Sudan, not in the straits of Taiwan. Why? “For a child has been born for us, a Son given to us, and the government shall be upon his shoulders, and he shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” We read that every year on Christmas Eve.
Because, you see, that’s Christmas, and Easter, and Pentecost. A new future. A new future that is begun by the Spirit of Jesus, and announced by a new community of people who are filled with a new power.
Pentecost is not for tip-toeing into the shallow end of the pool. Pentecost is a day for jumping into the deep end. I know that faith can be a struggle, and it can be hard to have faith and keep faith. Today is a day to believe that there is a power at work within you able to do more than you can ask or imagine. I know it can be hard to see the church as more than one organization like others who are trying to make the world. Today is a day to believe that the church is, in truth, a Spirit-filled community that is a sign of God’s saving work. And I know it can be hard to have hope that the world will be okay. But today is a day to believe that God’s future is arriving, and in the power of the Spirit, all shall be well.