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Pentecost Sunday – 2024b

Old Testament – Psalm 104:24-34

New Testament – Acts 2:1-21


Aching Visionaries


INTRODUCTION: So the custom of celebrating birthdays, like a lot of things, has a sort of circuitous history.  


According to most people, the first mention of a birthday celebration goes back to 3000 BC and Egypt. Apparently, the day a pharaoh was crowned as King or Queen was also thought to be the day he or she officially became a type of god. So birthday celebrations were originally meant to celebrate a Pharaoh's birth as a god. Well, that sounds like a good reason to have a party, right?


Over the years, obviously, the tradition was expanded. First, the Romans started by celebrating the birthdays of famous leaders and other important men. And I say men, because that was indeed the case. Women, apparently, weren't considered worthy of such grand celebrations! 


Later, and fortunately, that changed and the tradition was expanded to include the birthdays of everyday, ordinary folks - including even women!  


A lot of people think the practice of celebrating birthdays for everyone goes back to the Germans, since they were first to start honoring children’s birthdays in the 1700s. It’s thought the Germans were also the ones who started putting candles on cakes to mark the passing of the years along with that extra candle for the coming new year.            


Interestingly, our earliest Christian ancestors didn’t celebrate birthdays, since they associated the practice with pagan religions. But when Christians started making a big fuss over the birth of Jesus in the 300s, well, we decided not to be so puritanical about observing birthdays.  


And so we too started marking the passing of the years for folks. And today? Well, birthdays are celebrated by assorted cultures and peoples from all around the world.                          


ONE: Well, the church, of course, is also thought to have a birthday too, right? Admittedly, Pentecost Sunday does move around on the calendar depending on when Easter falls each year, but the day, despite its calendar hopping, is still considered to be the day the church was officially born.      


It’s fifty days removed from Jesus’ resurrection in our reading from Acts this morning, and Jerusalem is humming with pilgrims who have come into town to celebrate the festival of Pentecost. Which, among other things, was a time for Jews to celebrate the giving of the Torah, as well as the harvesting of the first fruits of the annual wheat crop.


For the church, though, Pentecost is also the time to celebrate the giving of the Holy Spirit. Jesus, after all, in chapter 1 of Acts even went so far as to say: “But 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.”           


And so true to his word, that’s just what happens on Pentecost. Jesus’ followers, who are still huddled in that house where they have been residing since that Last Supper, soon find the entire place engulfed in a violent wind. What’s more, little flames of fire also come to rest on each of them and soon they are speaking in languages that, until then, had been unknown to them. 


And with that, a crowd soon gathers to listen to all the  hullabaloo, and the church is born as Peter promptly proceeds to give his very first sermon. On Pentecost, in other words, the church was both born and given its mission all at the sametime. So who’s up for baking a cake big enough to hold roughly 2,000 candles?


TWO: Of course, in some ways it’s kind of amazing that the church has made it through all the birthdays it has. 


After all, given the way the church started, things hardly looked promising. If a betting person back in the day had been told the over/under on the number of years the church would exist was 2,000 years, I doubt very few folks would have taken the over. I sure wouldn't have!        


Remember, as the book of Acts begins, things hardly look rosy for those early followers of Jesus. While they’re clearly a committed lot, they also live in a scary and uncertain time. After all, as we’re told in chapter one of Acts, Jesus had only recently ascended into the heavens leaving his followers officially alone and on their own for the very first time. 


And let’s not forget it isn’t as if those initial followers of Jesus were members of a mega-church with 10,000 people plopped in auditorium chairs on a Sunday morning. No, as we also learn from chapter one of Acts, the size of Christ’s church at that time totaled roughly 120 people. Why, we’ve been known to have that many in here on a big Sunday!


So that’s it at the start of Acts. The entire church of Jesus Christ consisted of 120 people give or take – all of whom could have fit in this sanctuary for a Christmas Eve service. 


And finally, don’t forget those 120 people were followers of a man who had been crucified by the Roman government for being a political insurrectionist. Sure, Jesus was now raised, but those early followers had also seen firsthand what happens to people who dared to challenge the power and authority of Rome. 

Needless to say, publicly broadcasting that they were followers of Jesus Christ wasn’t considered the wisest of moves to make.   


So no wonder those 120 followers are all crammed into a house at the start of Acts. Rightly so, they’re scared out of their minds because the world outside their door has been, and easily could be again, big trouble. 


THREE: And yet, despite such an unsavory and harsh environment, Jesus’ disciples are still sent out into the world by the Holy Spirit to be his witnesses nonetheless. 


Understandably so, those 120 followers just want to lay low and stay out of trouble. Unfortunately for them, though, the Holy Spirit shows up and before anyone knows it, half of Jerusalem is outside that house wanting to know just what in the world is happening. 


So on Pentecost those early disciples were pushed out into the world by the Holy Spirit so they might provide bold testimony to God’s new world begun in Jesus Christ. Filled with their own glimpse of God’s new day, those first followers, rather than be allowed to reside safely in their house, were commissioned on Pentecost by the Holy Spirit to be herald’s of the good news.


With conviction and courage, the disciples were to speak of God’s vision for the world - even when the gap between the way the world actually existed and the way God wished for it to exist seemed insurmountable. With a portion of the Holy Spirit resting on each one of them, they onward moved into a disconcerting world to speak of God’s unfolding kingdom. 


No wonder during the Middle Ages churches were often built with an odd architectural feature known as a Holy Ghost Hole. A small hole placed in the ceiling of sanctuaries, Holy Ghost Holes were meant to symbolize Pentecost Sunday and the entrance of the Holy Spirit into the sanctuary.


And likewise, is it any wonder that in Italy even today there are churches on Pentecost Sunday that shower rose petals on people in attendance from the galleries above them to symbolize all those little flames?


“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” says Jesus, “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 


FOUR: There is a great story about a young woman who had just returned from a mission trip to Haiti. Gathering for a debriefing upon returning to the states, the young women startled everyone else by blurting out at one point:


“Part of me now hates the church. Before I became a disciple, my life was my life. I was content with myself and comfortable. Then the church took me to Haiti and had me stare at people who were dying because of dire poverty, and yet seemed to also be so full of faith. Without the church I probably could have just gone on with my life. But now, these strangers in Haiti have become my obsession. I am thinking about them as if they were family.” (Adapted from Lectionary Sermon Resource: Year C Part 2, Willimon, Will) 


And while the young woman’s remarks about hating the church might seem inappropriate and even a tad disturbing, so it goes when the church gets around to doing its job, I would propose. Yep, while the church is supposed to be a place of comfort and solace and even respite, under the direction and leading of God’s Spirit, the church is also to be in the business of shaping and molding us, even if sometimes reluctantly on our part, into the people God calls us to be. 


So whatever church that young woman belonged to, well, good on it and that congregation, I say. Because it sounds to me like that church and congregation were doing their job! 


For the young woman was, I think, being converted into what Nicholas Wolterstorff likes to call an “aching visionary.” What are aching visionaries? Well, as Woltertsorff likes to put; 


“They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one who suffers oppression and who ache whenever they see someone beat down. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one without dignity and who ache whenever they see someone treated with indignity.” 


The “aching visionaries,” in other words, are those who are open to the hurts, wounds, and tears of the world because they’ve seen God’s vision of the way the world can and should be versus the way it all too often is.  


CONCLUSION: So maybe sometimes we actually have good reason to hate the church, or at least not be all that thrilled with it.   


Because under the guidance and by the power of the Holy Spirit, the church is always more than just a place of solace and comfort, as important as those things are. The church is also in the business of change - changing you, me, and anyone else willing to take such a journey. 


So if we find there are times we don’t like the church all that much, well, maybe that’s actually a good thing. Because maybe, just maybe, the church is busy doing its job, which by the power of the Holy Spirit, is to turn us all into God’s aching visionaries.     


Now to the Ruler of all worlds, undying, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever! Amen.

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