The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 5/31/98
Text: Acts 1:1-8 (Acts 2:1-21)
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"You will receive power..." What a great promise! Here was a rag-tag bunch of people with NO position, no influence, no clout...being given the promise of their risen Lord that things were about to change for them. Not in the way that they might have wished, to be sure. After all, the power they were about to get was not political (even though that is what they wanted) - there was no promise of an earthly kingdom. Just divine power. It must have made them feel pretty special. And rightly so. They WERE special...they belonged to Jesus. They were his church! "You will receive power..."

Today, of course, is the day Christians celebrate as the coming of that power, Pentecost Sunday. We call it the birthday of the church, the day that the Holy Spirit came on that little band of believers in a unique way and sent them off on a mission that changed the world. Happy birthday, dear church.

Now wait a minute. Are we really sure we want to celebrate this day? Lots of folks look at it with mixed emotions. It is almost like the celebration of a birthday that we would rather not acknowledge - hitting the big "three-oh" or "four-oh" or "five-oh" or any other date we would just as soon have pass unnoticed. Oh, we like the church all right and are happy enough to extend our good wishes, but all this about the Holy Spirit... well, we are not so sure about that.

Most of us who come from the mainline tradition will freely admit that the church cannot live WITHOUT the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, but in our heart of hearts, we wonder whether we can live WITH the Spirit either. We sing "Spirit of God, descend upon my heart; Wean it from earth, through all its pulses move."(1) But then in the second stanza of that hymn, it is made clear, "I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies, no sudden rending of the veil of clay."(2) Yes, we want the Spirit, as long as the Spirit does not upset the orderliness of our lives or the church. We are wary, and with good reason.

Think about it. The experience that most of us have had in questions concerning the Spirit have had to do with the religious fringes. We turn on the TV and see people with faces turned to heaven, eyes tightly closed, hands in the air, and shouting gibberish. We see others coming down to a stage to meet a faith healer who claims the power of the Spirit as his own but who is also well known as a charlatan. We are sometimes confronted by folks who are convinced that this is the ONLY kind of Christian experience that is legitimate and we are even accused of not really being Christian if we do not agree. Those sorts of things embarrass us. No wonder we are wary.

Should we then celebrate Pentecost? Well, of course, we should. After all, the Bible does make a rather big deal about it, and there is that thing about power which is always fascinating. "You will receive power..." Whether we moderns understand it or are comfortable with it or not, those disciples DID receive it.

A note here about this word power. The Greek that stands behind it is the same root from which we get our word "dynamite." On that day before his ascension, Jesus was not promising the boost of 9-volt battery to his disciples; he was offering his people something akin to those nuclear blasts in India and Pakistan about which we have been hearing so much, something absolutely explosive. And come Pentecost, they would find out what he meant.

You remember the story. Jesus had told them to go to Jerusalem and wait, a hard task for anyone, much less people who were convinced that they had a mission to fulfill. But they managed. As they waited they prayed together, talked about what had happened in their lives over this extraordinary past month and a half - seeing their master tortured and murdered on a Roman cross but then returning to life just three days later. They prayed some more...chose a replacement for Judas...prayed still more. For ten solid days this went on. And then it happened. "You will receive power...dynamite..." Pentecost.

We should not be surprised that something incredible occurred. Christians are always saying how much we believe in the power of prayer, but when was the last time you saw one hundred percent of a congregation turn out for a prayer meeting...just for an hour. What do you think would happen to a church in which EVERYONE would gather together for 240 hours of prayer? Wow!

Face it, if the 20th century model were substituted for what we find in the first century, only about a tenth of the membership would have showed up. Peter and his family would have recently purchased a time share in a condominium on the Sea of Galilee and would be away checking out the beach; Andrew would have had guests in for the weekend and would not have wanted to force them to come with him so he would have stayed away. Philip and his wife would have been to a late-night party at the club the night before and would have decided to sleep in. James and John would have had an absolutely urgent business meeting about the purchase of a new fishing boat so they would not have been able to get there. "You will receive POWER???" Ha!

Fortunately, that was not the case on that Pentecost we commemorate. But if anyone is ever tempted to wonder why modern congregations fail to measure up to the New Testament model, all that is necessary is a quick check of how much gathering together and praying goes on.

The story continued. As that marathon prayer meeting progressed, a strange violent wind-like sound penetrated the room. And those who have experienced recent tornadoes know how terrifying that can be. Eyes that had been closed in reverence opened up and saw what appeared to be tongues of flame dancing about the heads of the others. There was excited and ecstatic talk.

The noise from the room was loud enough to attract attention on the street below - people gathered outside the house, curious as to what was going on. The foreigners in town for the annual Pentecost celebration at the temple were hearing their own languages being spoken and they paused to find out about it, just as we would do if we happened to be in a far country and suddenly heard someone conversing in English. Some wondered what was happening. Others did not wonder - they figured it was just a party and the whole bunch was snockered.

That was not the case, of course. Peter came out on the balcony overlooking the dusty street and made that clear. "We are not drunk," he said. "It is only nine o'clock in the morning. No, this is something directly from God...power... divine dynamite. It is what was promised through the prophet Joel centuries ago: `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...I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below...Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'"

That is something important to remember about this divine dynamite, this power that God provides. The power is directed to a task, "then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved." When Jesus promised power to his disciples he made it clear that the power was being given to accomplish a particular aim: "that you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth." Divine power is not provided willy-nilly; it is provided for the fulfillment of a divine commission.

Peter went on to explain about Jesus, his wondrous life, his cruel and unjust death, and finally his miraculous resurrection and ascension to glory. He concluded with a call for repentance and the offer of forgiveness of sins. The result? Three-thousand people joined the church that day. Dynamite! Too powerful to ignore.

Granted, most people would prefer to ignore it. After all, an explosion does not leave things as they were, and there are not many who are comfortable with change...and particularly a change in matters of religion. After all, there are enough changes in our lives without touching the one seemingly solid foundation that we have. We would rather not allow any questions to arise concerning expressions of faith. That is why folks talk about OUR church rather than the Lord's church; in their heart of hearts, they would just as soon that he leave well enough (or even bad enough) alone. No rushing mighty winds needed here, thank you.

But on that Pentecost and in the days that followed the Lord did NOT leave well enough alone. Some marvelous things occurred, things which I believe could occur again if Christians would really WANT them to.

There was genuine communication. For the first time since the confusion of the Tower of Babel, the ways people expressed themselves was no longer a problem. People could actually understand what one another said.

Do modern Christians want that? I am not sure. In over 50 years of watching church people operate, the impression I get is that too many folks get some of their greatest religious enjoyment by insuring that NO communication, no give and take, no back and forth, should ever be evidenced. "Do it our way, believe it our way, profess it our way, live it our way...or go to hell." Communication is only possible if one side absolutely buys into the jargon of the other.

That is the problem right now in that continuing battle over the role of gays and lesbians in the church. Those who believe that homosexual activity is a particularly horrible sin and those who think it is not have been going at one another tooth and nail. And the meanness of the rhetoric makes us want to say a plague on BOTH your houses. It is no wonder that those outside the church are not particularly attracted to us, much less at a rate of 3,000 in a day.

Something else was evident in that post-Pentecost Jerusalem church, a real concern for growing in the faith. As the story in Acts has it, "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers."(3) They did not assume that because they were Christians now they had spiritually arrived; they wanted to grow.

Can you picture a modern congregation like that? One in which all the members WANT to come as often as the church doors are open so they might be better equipped for the mission that faces them? Pretty rare. Only a relatively small percentage of God's people seem to be interested in being taught anything - most mainline churches of any size are thrilled if they get a third of their people out for Sunday School. If any at all come to a mid-week Bible study, that is a bonus. Twentieth century church folks ARE interested in fellowship as long as whatever is planned is fun, will not require much effort, and does not interfere with ANYTHING else people want to do. In most American churches gathering for common worship from week to week is all right for about a third of the members as long as the weather is neither too bad nor too good, the music is entertaining, and the sermon does not hit too close to home too often - the other two-thirds of the folks have other commitments.

Spiritual growth? Why? As long as the church is around to marry the kids, baptize the babies, and give us a nice send-off when we die, that is plenty. But that is nothing like the church that experienced such divine dynamite on Pentecost, and one would suspect that the modern successor to that church is more than a bit embarrassing to the Spirit who made such an explosive impact.

One more thing should be noted about the church that was born at Pentecost - the people became exceedingly generous. Now that IS power. When people can actually be touched in their pocketbooks for unselfish reasons, you know that something is going on. As the Bible recounts it, "they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need."(4) Spirituality meant more to these folks than dreaming of pie-in-the-sky bye-and-bye; it meant taking care of other people, providing for their needs. And it meant the opposite as well - not being overly concerned about their OWN needs, being content in the understanding that the Lord would provide for them just as THROUGH them, others were being providing for.

What a change that would be for many a modern congregation. Do you realize that more than fifty percent of American Christians do not give ONE PENNY to the support of their church? Lots of others provide piddling amounts. They are on welfare, religious welfare - others in the congregation are supporting them, carrying THEIR load, in meeting the expenses of ministry. Sad.

Yes, the Holy Spirit did some incredible things for that early church...and would do them again for us if we were the least bit open to the prospect. "You will receive power... dynamite." The Spirit of God blasts through our world and blows down the comfortable walls we hide behind - walls of suspicion, walls of self-righteousness, walls of fear. God's Spirit blows us right out into the dusty, threatening streets where we have no idea what we might find. The Spirit of God does not always waft gently into our lives; sometimes we are confronted with a divine tornado that huffs and puffs and blows our houses down only to rebuild them into one glorious house, the house of God!

Pentecost. Those folks in that room in Jerusalem were special, yes, but no more special than us...and for the same reason: we belong to Jesus; we are his church. That same power is available to us. Think what could happen. There might be genuine communication - people truly interested in listening to what others might say. We might experience spiritual growth with folks actually wanting to come every time the doors are open. We would become more interested in caring for the needs of others as we become more generous. And the result would probably be bushels of new members, not just because the church would be such an attractive and winsome group to be a part of, but because folks would be interested in finding out "What wind blew through here?" Power.

Pentecost. Divine dynamite. Can we handle it? Are we ready for it? By the power of God's Holy Spirit, it is OURS. Now, let's get to work.

Let us pray.

Lord, we pray your blessing upon this congregation, and we pray that we might be made happy to accept whatever that blessing might be. Our prayer is made in the name and power of Jesus. Amen!

1. George Croly, 1854

2. Interestingly, this second stanza is omitted from The Presbyterian Hymnal, 1990

3. Acts 2:42

4. Acts 2:45

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