This sermon was preached at Notting Hill Methodist Church in London, England, on Sunday May 31, 2020. Well, not preached so much at the church, after all, I was actually in my living room, on Zoom, preaching to the faces of my congregants through my computer screen. It's an odd way to preach. I found it even harder than doing Facebook live or pre-recording sermons like we had done in the last few months.
It would be strange and hard enough to preach to people I knew well in this way. The fact that I have not met hardly any parishioners in person makes it even harder and stranger. My preaching style is always to try and speak directly to the people I am preaching to, it makes my sermons very one time events - while there are elements of this sermon I might repeat someday, I could never actually preach it word for word in another time and place to another people. And yet, I feel like here I am not quite able to personalize my sermons enough, because I just don't know the people well enough yet. The internet can do a lot, and I am grateful for the ways we are staying connected, but nothing can replace in-person relationships.
All that to say, I guess, that I'm a bit self-conscious of this sermon. I want to do more, I want to address harder topics like so many of my colleagues did this past week, but I just don't have that kind of relationship with this church yet. And at this point, I'm not sure I will. We move in less than three months to Wales, and it's likely that I will never, not even once, get to lead worship in person while I am serving at Notting Hill. Like I said, it's strange and hard.
But I'm doing the best I can, and God will do the rest. So here's my sermon from this past week if you are interested.
Scripture: Acts 2:1-21
This story we just read in Acts tells us about a special day in the life of the church, one we celebrate every year - fifty days after Easter. This day is known as Pentecost.
Of the major Christian holidays, it is one of the less well-known. Unlike Christmas and Easter, it hasn’t been embraced by secular, consumer culture. There are no traditional decorations to put up or gifts to buy or special meals to be shared - we don’t even get a day off of work to celebrate. And yet, it is a very important holiday in the life of the church that should rank right up there with Christmas and Easter.
One theologian put it this way - Christmas is irrelevant without Easter, and Easter is pointless with Pentecost. While that might be phrasing it a bit harsher than I would myself, I do see their point. Without Pentecost, it’s possible no one would know to celebrate Easter, and without Easter, it’s possible no one would know to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
So what exactly is Pentecost? And what exactly are we celebrating on this day?
At Christmas, we know what we celebrate - the gift of the birth of Christ.
At Easter, we know what we celebrate - the gift of the resurrection of Christ.
And at Pentecost, we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit - this gift from the Father that Jesus Christ had repeatedly promised to his followers. Finally, on this day, a little over a week after Jesus ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father, the Spirit descends upon the people left behind, in quite dramatic fashion.
In some circles, Pentecost is celebrated as the birthday of the church. One place I served went so far as throwing an actual birthday party every year - complete with streamers, pointy hats, and a birthday cake with candles. While it’s a bit cheesy, it does point to something important if we pause to think about what a birthday usually celebrates.
When we celebrate the birthday of an individual, whether it’s Jesus’s birthday on Christmas, or a brand new baby in the family, or even when we all sent texts for Reverend Mike’s birthday earlier this month, we are celebrating the life of a person. We celebrate that a new life was brought into this world - and usually take time to acknowledge the impact this life has had on ourselves and the world around us.
If we consider that on Pentecost the church was born, then we learn a lot about what the church truly is.
Let’s return to our scripture reading to dig deeper. The story opens with the disciples of Christ and other followers all gathered in one place in Jerusalem. I imagine they were feeling a bit lost. After all, the world as they knew it had changed.
They had spent three years following Jesus and being in ministry with his embodied self. Then they went through the trauma and subsequent elation of what we now call Holy Week and Easter. After the resurrection, they spent 40 some odd days with the risen Christ, who continued to preach and teach and lead them. And then, the ascension came, and Christ was gone.
Suddenly, they were left alone. I imagine they felt somewhat abandoned. I imagine they felt directionless, aimless, at a loss for what to do next. So they followed one of Jesus’ final instructions, when he told them to wait in Jerusalem, to wait to receive the gift the Father promised. Jesus had told them many times throughout his ministry that the gift of the Spirit, the counselor, the Advocate, would be coming. But I doubt the disciples had any idea exactly how that Spirit would arrive.
Theologian Frederich Beuchner once called the Holy Spirit the “shy member” of the Trinity. After all, we tend to give a lot more attention to God the Father and God the Son, and we often pay less attention to God the Holy Spirit. But any notion of shyness or staying in the background went out the window on the day of Pentecost.
On that day the Spirit came down in the blowing of a violent wind - and then divided tongues of fire came to rest on each of those gathered. They began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them. And a crowd began to gather - people who were amazed at what they were seeing - Galileans speaking not in their own native tongue, but in the languages of those gathered around. One of the first gifts of the Holy Spirit was the gift of communication, of understanding, of sharing the good news in a new and accessible way.
If we consider this to be the birth of the church we see that what the church ultimately is, is people filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit.
There was no building built on this day.
There was no church hierarchy or administration established.
There was no liturgical calendar given or ministers ordained.
There was simply the people, born into new life, baptized by the fire of the Holy Spirit, sharing the word of God. That is the essence of the church. That is what we celebrate on Pentecost. Pentecost is a fantastic story of God doing something new in the world, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Everyone present that day was called to something new. This birth of the Spirit-filled people helped to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ far and wide. The rest of the book of Acts is about that new story being expanded, spreading throughout Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Because of those Spirit-filled people, because of the birth that day of the church, we can sit here thousands of years later celebrating the good news and living our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. Even if we now have to celebrate and live in ways that are new to us.
I don’t know about you, but those first few weeks of lockdown I was feeling a bit lost. The world as I knew it had changed. I have struggled in this time with feeling directionless, aimless, at a loss for what to do next.
But God has not left us alone. We have not been abandoned, just like his followers so many years ago were not abandoned. On the day of Pentecost, the followers of Christ were called to something new. I believe that on the day of lockdown we were once again called to something new! And we do not have to sit around and wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit to arrive for we have already been given this gift! And when we look around us, it is clear we have seen the Spirit at work!
How many of us have connected with people in new ways since the lockdown began? We might not have tongues of fire leading us to speak in foreign languages but we have all learned new words and new ways of being in this world to keep others safe. We have learned new ways of communicating on WhatsApp and social media, we have figured out how to edit videos and meet up with each other on Zoom and conference calls. We have learned a new way of showing our appreciation to the NHS as we gather outside our windows every Thursday at 8pm to clap and cheer.
The Spirit is alive and well in the people who follow Christ as we continue to be in ministry to and with one another even as we stay out of our church building. We have an opportunity now to live into Pentecost in ways we never have before.
I heard someone ask a very important question this week - Are we willing to follow the Spirit even if we don’t know where the Spirit is leading us?
I hope the answer to that is yes.
Because we don’t know exactly what church is going to look like after lockdown.
We don’t know exactly when it will be safe to open our buildings and even when we do, we might have to take extreme precautions to keep each other safe.
But the Spirit will guide us in being the church no matter what. We have already seen it happening in the new ways we are doing and being the church. We will see it continue in the future, if we continue to be faithful, and listen.
Now don’t get me wrong, I look forward to the day that we can gather again in person, safely. I long to meet all of you in person, give hugs to those who want them, and sing praises in the sanctuary. So far I have only been in the Notting Hill sanctuary to water the plants, and every time it breaks my heart a little bit that I might never get to lead a “normal” worship service in that space.
But Pentecost is an incredible reminder that the church is not and never has been the building. The church is the people of God, filled with the Holy Spirit, following Jesus Christ in the world. And we can do that, and be that, anywhere.
So this day, let us celebrate the birthday of the church. On an individual’s birthday, we celebrate the life of a person. On the birthday of the church, we celebrate the life of a people. We would not be the people we are today without the gift of the Holy Spirit.
So let’s celebrate - maybe with cake, maybe even with pointy hats, streamers and candles if you have them, but definitely with giving praise to God and, empowered by the Holy Spirit, sharing the story of the good news of Jesus Christ, far and wide, to the ends of the earth.
May it be so.