Pentecost Sunday - 2023a
Old Testament: 104:24-34, 35b
New Testament: Acts 2:1-11
First Things First
INTRODUCTION: So a few weeks ago, May 6th to be exact, the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee held its 152nd Stated Meeting up at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Nashville.
And as usual, the meeting began with a morning worship service. One of the Co-Moderators for the entire denomination right now, Ruth Santana Grace, was actually in attendance and preached the sermon. She provided a helpful reminder during her sermon, I think, of the need for all of us to remain humble when it comes to matters of faith. After all, do any of us really have a good handle on God? I know I sure don’t.
Later in the service, though, something kind of neat took place. At some point, right after the Prayers of the People if I recall correctly, folks were invited to recite the Lord’s Prayer. Except they were specifically invited to recite the Lord’s Prayer in their native language.
And so while the vast majority of people, obviously, said the prayer in English, other versions of it could also clearly be heard. I happened to be standing right next to Ruth Santana Grace, who said the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish, as did the minister at the microphone who was leading us. And while they were at the back of the sanctuary and beyond my earshot, I presume those folks next to the commissioners from the Sudanese congregation also heard the prayer being said in Arabic.
So it was kinda of a neat experience, as far as I am concerned. There we were, Presbyterians from all walks of life and different backgrounds all saying the Lord’s Prayer - each of us in our tongue. And amazingly, we all actually finished at the same time!
ONE: Of course, we hear about a bunch of people at a presbytery meeting collectively saying the Lord’s Prayer in their preferred dialect, and that story from Acts about the Holy Spirit coming to rest on Jesus’ followers giving them the ability to speak in different languages easily comes to mind.
There they are, huddled in a house minding their own business, only to have the Holy Spirit come crashing into the scene bequeathing to each of them the sudden ability to speak in some foreign tongue. With Jerusalem packed with people from all over the Middle East for the festival of Pentecost, the disciples soon find themselves drawing quite a bit of attention and Peter, in response, gives his very first sermon.
No wonder Pentecost is considered the birth-day of the church. For with the ability to speak in foreign languages suddenly given to the disciples, the message is pretty clear. They are to get out into the world and start sharing the message of God’s new world begun in Jesus Christ. The time for being hesitant and timid is, for them, officially over.
Keep in mind “the church” at this point numbers about 120 people, at least according to verse 15 in chapter 1 of Acts. Hardly a mega-church, right? Even worse, Jesus, as we also learn from chapter 1 of Acts, has just drifted up into the heavens leaving his fledgling crop of followers to fend for themselves.
And then there is the actual make-up of Jesus’ small band of disciples. Why, there’s not a rock-star or heavy hitter among them, is there? Nope, they’re all a bunch of social misfits and low ranking hayseeds from the boondocks. No wonder in 1 Corinthians Paul, when describing the early church, can claim God clearly chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. For none of Jesus’ earliest followers “were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, [and] not many were of noble birth.”
Hardly the best way to start a church, right? And yet there is the Holy Spirit alighting on the disciples giving them the ability to speak in all kinds of foreign languages. The time for being quiet and sedate is, apparently, over.
TWO: You see, while it might seem blatantly obvious to point out, the truth is we can forget the primary purpose of the church above all else is to share the good news.
Sure, the church is supposed to be a place for community, support, growth, and learning, but all those aspects of church life take a back seat to our primary purpose - sharing the good news of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ.
Years ago now Stephen Covey wrote that book on The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. Habit three? Well, habit three is what Covey called keeping “first things first.” The idea, in a nutshell, is that all of us can get sidetracked when it comes to keeping our priorities in life straight.
There’s a story about a spiritual guru who was so pleased with his pupil’s growth and progress he decided the young man needed no further guidance.
And so the guru left his student to live simply and austerely all by himself in a small hut next to the banks of a river. And every day after swimming in the river the student would leave out his lone piece of clothing, which was nothing more than a loincloth, to dry in the sun.
But one day the student was dismayed to realize that rats had torn his loincloth to shreds while drying, forcing him to beg for a new one from the nearby villagers. And not wanting to have the rats shred his new loincloth, the student also begged for a cat as well, which he was also given.
But of course, with a cat the young man soon found himself also having to beg for milk. And so he went and acquired a cow. The cow, however, needed feed and so the student soon found himself having to plant a garden. But eventually realizing all his garden work prevented him from his spiritual duties, the student decided he’d better hire some workers to tend to his land.
Overseeing the workers, of course, became its own huge chore and so the student took for himself a wife as a helpmate and manager. Well eventually, with all the land and the workers, the student was soon one of the wealthiest people in the region.
Years later, when the student’s spiritual guru stopped by to visit him, the guru was shocked to see a giant mansion where once stood a hut. “My son, what’s the meaning of all this?” asked the guru upon seeing his former student.
“Well, you’re not going to believe this,” replied the student, “but this was the only way I could keep rats from eating my loincloth!” Well, a cautionary tale for church folk, right? For just like other people, we too can get so caught up in other duties and tasks related to church life, we can forget the primary reason we exist, which is to share the good news.
THREE: A Bishop named Ernest Fitzgerald tells the story of a little boy left at a church one December night in Winston-Salem, North Carolina several years ago.
According to Bishop Fitzgerald, several hundred people had gathered in a large downtown church one evening to celebrate the Christmas season. Stumbling upon a little boy about two years old who was hysterically crying while also trying to open some heavy oak doors that led outside, the Bishop just assumed the toddler was with one of the families at the event.
So scooping him up, he went in search of the boy’s parents. But eventually it became clear the little boy’s parents weren’t at the event, and what’s more, no one had a clue who the child was. Putting two and two together, it suddenly dawned on the Bishop the boy had been left at the church like an infant left at the front steps of an orphanage.
Well, over the next few days, both the church and the city of Winston-Salem were busy trying to discover the identity of the boy. The local TV stations ran pictures of him asking if anyone knew him and the city newspaper even ran an article detailing the events.
And what caught the Bishop’s attention about the newspaper article was the way the reporter began the story: “Someone trusted the church last night,” wrote the reporter, “and the church came through!”
In response to the reporter’s opening lines Bishop Fitzgerald had these words to offer: “It will be a long, long time before I can forget that newspaper headline. So much of the world's future depends on the faithfulness of the ‘People of God’ to the ‘Great Commission.’
There is a deep hunger across our land as countless people grope for answers to the deepest questions of the human spirit. The message of Christ speaks to these questions, bringing hope and light…Evangelism is no longer an option for the church. It is essential to the survival of our world.”
The Bishop then closed his remarks with these words, “The line in that Winston-Salem newspaper is a haunting reminder of what the world expects of the church. ‘Someone trusted the church last night, and the church came through!’ May that always be true!”
CONCLUSION: Well, not quite 2,000 years ago the church was born. God’s Spirit alighted on those disciples’ heads and ever since we’ve had a job to do - to share the good news of God’s love for all in Jesus Christ.
And while the church certainly has a lot of other roles and tasks to fulfill, that is always job number #1, right? For even people of faith like us, who are full of all sorts of good intentions and desires, well, even we need to make sure we’re keeping first things first.
Now to the ruler of all worlds, undying, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever! Amen.