Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 7:37-39
Happy Birthday to the Church! Today is our birthday as a faith. It was on the Day of Pentecost that the movement of Christ’s followers changed from simply a small band of disciples and hangers-on into a church: An ever-widening body of believers.
And what a strange turn of events we hear about in today’s reading from the Book of Acts. The disciples are all gathered together, and we can be certain that they are still in a bit of a stupor—still stunned by the journey they have been on with Jesus. Think about it: First, he appeared on the scene as if from nowhere with earth-shaking words and actions, capturing their hearts. They walked with him on a trip that took them places they had not imagined. And just as they were getting comfortable, Jesus was taken from them, tortured and killed. Shortly afterward he was resurrected, and then appeared to the disciples numerous times. But then, even faster than he came into their lives, he was gone for good, leaving behind promises and questions.
I imagine the disciples too were a bit unsure, and anxious about what would happen next. When our passage opens, they are gathered together for comfort as much as anything else. These men (and women of course – their names are not recorded but we can be sure they were there too) don’t quite know what to do next. “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.” That sounds like the description of a hurricane or a tornado, doesn’t it? And then tongues of fire light upon them, and they begin to speak in many different languages.
Then a crowd gathers – “devout Jews from every nation.” One friend said to me that the easiest way to understand this event is to think of it as a flash mob, Holy Spirit style. Just imagine – people were gathered from all over the world, and they each hear the word of God in their own language, spoken by these Galileans, people that one scholar reminds us are, “back country Jews unlikely to speak foreign languages.” I guess that everyone was confused, both those listening and those speaking. It was indeed a strange turn of events.
But Peter is not confused. Of course, it’s no accident that the writer of Acts has Peter speaking here. He is the founder of the Church, and what we have here is nothing less than the birthday of the church itself. Peter explains that this event is the coming of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit descends on all of them – and the various languages seem to be an indication of how wide God is casting the net. I often think of the events of Jesus’ life like a long camera shot – we start with wide focus on the regions around Jerusalem and gradually but relentlessly the camera zooms in to a tight shot of Golgotha and Christ on the cross. And now with the coming of the Holy Spirit, the camera zooms out quickly, moving beyond the Holy Land to encompass the whole world. With this moment, the church is born – the story of Christ moves beyond the immediate circle of those who encountered him in body, down through the ages, to us today and onto tomorrow.
And so with the gift of the Holy Spirit, the birthday party begins! It seems to me that there for everyone who witnessed this amazing event, there could be no mistaking that it was something incredible. The coming of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of the Church was surprising and exciting. But I wonder if the amazement that the disciples felt made much difference for them right away. I suspect that after the wonder of the event wore off, they still felt confused, and perhaps a bit tired.
Does that sound familiar? I wonder if some of you might not identify with the apostles just a bit. Maybe maybe you feel a little left behind by the world. The pace of change today is so rapid, it’s easy to feel like you’ve been left in the dust. And the disciples also didn’t know who or what was going to fill the void that was left in themselves. The probably felt a little bit like orphans. Maybe that is familiar to you too.
The truth is that we all have dry periods in our lives. And we have times when we are confused, or sad, or angry. These are moments when we can feel lost and alone.
What did the disciples have to lean on in an unsure time? Well, they didn’t have a lot, but they did have the words of Jesus: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” They are promised that Jesus will meet their needs. That Christ will see them in their vulnerable moment, and will not leave them to suffer, but will provide what they need to quench their longing.
I find this imagery of water very compelling. Have you ever experienced the feeling of desperate thirst? As most of you know, I grew up in Texas, where summer begins in early May and continues at least through September – a climate very similar to that of the Holy Land. I know that people everywhere talk about water, and worry in times of drought. But it was my experience, in the harsh climate of Texas, that we talked much more about water and the lack of it there than in other places around the country that I have lived.
Water as a key to life was a potent metaphor for the disciples. For us too. We are all thirsty—if not just for water, then for justice, or meaning, or knowledge, or power, or whatever. We all know what it means to long for something to soothe our souls. To be sure, we may not always long for the things that are best for us—and often we look to the wrong places for something to satisfy that thirst, and to things that only temporarily take away our longing. Do you remember that country song, “Looking for love in all the wrong places”? We’re so often like that, aren’t we?
One theologian says this: “Jesus is not saying, ‘Whatever drives your thirst, come to me,’ but, rather, ‘When you have discovered that none of the empty promises of a seductive culture can ease your thirst, come to me and drink of the true and living water.’”[i] Jesus promises that he will be for our souls a drink of cooling water on a hot parched day. He is nothing less than life-giving.
And the writer of John makes sure we understand that this restorative gift that Jesus gives is none other than the Holy Spirit – the real presence of God always with the disciples, and us, to the end of time.
But that’s not all—Jesus says that, “out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” Now that’s pretty amazing. Jesus promises that if we come to him with our thirst, he will not only take care of that need, but will also make us part of the solution. And we are not to become merely sprinkles, or streams, or fountains; out of our hearts shall flow RIVERS of living water. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the gift of the Holy Spirit is that it not only soothes our longing hearts, but transforms us into a balm for others. Jesus expects us to be instruments of the Holy Spirit.
Right here is the good news for St. Paul’s: you are filled with the Holy Spirit. Jesus promises that you are all RIVERS of living water, of the Holy Spirit – of the presence of God just as real as that experienced in Jesus over 2,000 years ago in a dry, dusty place on the other side of the globe, just as real as the mighty wind that unexpectedly blew through the people gathered and caused amazing things to happen, just as real as the love that you have experienced in your life. You are filled with God. And it is your job to provide that living water to a world longing for it, here in Stockbridge, in the Berkshires, and throughout the world.
And I don’t mean just each of us individually; we the St. Paul’s family have been given enormous gifts. And it’s now your job to see those gifts in each other and in yourselves. To think about what you are going to do to make this place thrive. To consider how we will bring living water to a thirsty world.
In reading about Pentecost this week, I came across an amazing reflection on the plight of the disciples at Pentecost: The author imagined what the Holy Spirit might have said to the disciples gathered there. He suggested this: “There’s bad news and good news. The bad news is there’s no one coming to fix your problems. The good news is the solutions you seek are all around you. You have strength and courage and compassion and a story to tell. Your problem isn’t money or divisions or arguments; your problem is you’ve got a story to tell.”[ii]
St. Paul’s, you’ve got a story to tell. And, praise be to God, the Holy Spirit is with you with everything you need to tell it. So today we say Happy Birthday to the Church, and Happy Birthday to St. Paul’s. I can’t wait to see what we grow into next!
[i] Thomas G. Long, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3, p. 23.
[ii] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rmweXyEeoBw, accessed June 8, 2011.