ALL TOGETHER, NOW!
Carlos E. Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
May 19, 2013, Pentecost, Year C
Numbers 11:24-29; Acts 2:1-13
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”
— Acts 2:1
This day of Pentecost is a holiday like none other. I’ve pointed out, already, how it’s the third biggest celebration of the Christian year, but in fact it’s quite different from Christmas and Easter. In the case of both Christmas and Easter, secular culture has embraced the religious feast, manufacturing its own cheap knock-off. There’s secular Christmas, with its blatant consumerism and vague ethic of do-something-nice-for-someone-you-already-love. Then there’s secular Easter, the rite of Spring.
In the case of secular Christmas and Easter, you’ll have no problem finding decorations and greeting cards. Many of them feature the mascots of the holidays, Santa and the Easter Bunny. Those symbolic figures have pretty high name-recognition, even among people who’ve never darkened a church door.
Certain things you never, ever see, in relation to Pentecost. For example, I’ve never seen a rack of Pentecost cards in a drug store — have you? Nor have I ever tasted a special candy that commemorates the holiday. What sort of mascot would you suggest for Pentecost, to go toe-to-toe with Santa and the Easter Bunny? The Holy-Spirit dove? Somehow I don’t think the bird’s in the same league.
I don’t think we in the church will ever feel the need to remind one another to “Keep the Holy Spirit in Pentecost.” Nobody, but nobody is trying to hijack this holiday. Pentecost is ours alone.
I don’t think I could count all the times I’ve preached on this familiar Pentecost story from the second chapter of Acts. Over the years, I’ve zeroed in on various aspects of it….
the significance of the Holy Spirit as wind — that essential breath that seems to be the very life-force itself…
the Holy Spirit as fire, the source of warmth and light — but more than that, a vital force whose very nature is to consume and transform all that goes before it…
the strange detail of how, miraculously, the disciples are briefly given the gift of comprehending other languages — God breaking down the barriers between nations and cultures…
the scorn sometimes heaped on those who encounter the living God, who are all too often dismissed by those who say of them: “They are filled with new wine!”
Most of all there’s the way the Holy Spirit “lights a fire” under the disciples, in more ways than one: how there was a unique mix of combustible materials there that day, that caused the church to fairly explode into the heart of the Roman Empire, eventually burning its way into the very palace of the Caesars.
The second chapter of Acts is a rich, rich passage for preaching and teaching, sure enough. It’s one of those texts that bears repeated readings, and deep reflection.
In coming at it again this year, I was struck by a verse I’ve always glossed over in the past, that always seemed to be little more than a set-up for everything that follows. It’s the very first verse: “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”
First of all, there’s that word “Pentecost” itself. It’s another name for a significant Jewish holiday known as “the Feast of Weeks.” Its name refers to the fact that it occurs seven weeks after Passover.
The Feast of Weeks, like Pentecost in the Christian tradition, is the third most important feast of the Jewish year (after Passover and Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement). It’s essentially a harvest festival, coinciding with the time in ancient Israel when the first grain harvest came in.
There’s a lot I could say about the symbolic significance of that — how, when the Holy Spirit fell upon the church, it initiated a great harvest of believers. The good news of the gospel brought many to spiritual maturity, and caused them, in years to come, to bear fruits of the Spirit themselves.
Yet, that’s not what really struck me about that verse. What really struck me is the line: “They were all together in one place.”
They didn’t have to be, you know. Sure, they’d all been together when Jesus broke the bread and shared the cup, in the Upper Room. But then the news of his arrest and crucifixion scattered them, like roaches scurry to the four corners of a room when the lights go on.
Their grief, it seems, brought them together again — as funerals often do, for family and friends scattered far and wide. Then came the wonder of the resurrection. When Mary Magdalene, in John’s Gospel, runs back to tell the other disciples the news, there’s no mention of her searching them out in separate houses. No, they seem to be mourning their Master’s death together, supporting one another through their bereavement.
Now, with Jesus’ resurrection and ascension but a memory, the disciples are still together in one place. Their state of mind has got to be 100% more positive, now. Jesus’ ascension into heaven would surely have seemed a dramatic capstone to his life and ministry.
You’d have thought at least a few of them would have treated it like a high-school or college graduation. You know how it goes, on those occasions: how you sign each other’s yearbook, vowing undying friendship. You pass around those miniature senior pictures, certain you’ll carry each of them in your purse or wallet forever. You embrace one another, there on the football field (or in the gym, if the weather’s lousy), saying yes, we’ve got to get together over the summer, let’s do it. Yet — as every graduate inevitably discovers — you quickly lose track of all but a handful of those people. Up till now, their lives have described, for you, the latitude and longitude of your world. And, you for them. But, no longer: new adventures await!
What more dramatic a rite of passage could there be, than a man being lifted up into the clouds, without benefit of either rocket or airplane? No one could have faulted the disciples for turning around and going home, as soon as they beheld that miracle — for what more could God possibly have in store for them? It was like the silence following the grand finale of a fireworks display. Nobody sits around on the lawn chairs after the last booming percussion shell explodes: staring up into the night sky, hoping for more. What could there possibly be to do, in that moment, except fold the chairs and go home?
Yet, that is most certainly not what the disciples do! “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.” Why?
Maybe it has something to do with the Great Commission Jesus gives them, in Matthew’s version of the story: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” It’s impossible to discern this in English, but in the original Greek, the verb “make disciples” is clearly plural. Jesus isn’t commanding them to go out every which way, helter-skelter, and individually witness to everyone they meet. No, he’s commanding them to come together, and as one body devise a strategy for sharing the gospel. “Go, make me more disciples. Do it together!”
There could be another reason, still. It’s very possible they don’t comprehend exactly how they’re going to fulfill this Great Commandment of their Lord. Making disciples is easier said than done. As complicated as people are, as resistant as they can be to change, as limited as the disciples surely regard themselves to be — by virtue of poor education, limited experience, or whatever — they may be simply sitting around, waiting for a little further direction.
If they’re like most groups who’ve lost the daily guidance of a beloved leader, they’re spending an awful lot of time talking and discussing and disagreeing with one another, as they look for a common mind to arise among them. Knowing what we know, from the Gospels, about how everlastingly stubborn those disciples could be, it would be no wonder if they spent hour after hour wrestling with the issue, coming to no resolution.
In the past, they would have looked to their Lord and Master to resolve the dispute: to ask them a pointed question, to tell them a parable — or simply to declare to them the correct interpretation. Yet, now that Jesus no longer walks among them, what are they to do?
Actually, Jesus himself does intervene to answer their questions. The Holy Spirit is the living Spirit of Christ, active in the world — and so, on Pentecost, the one who said, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” proves he truly means what he said.
It’s not exactly the answer they expected. It’s not an answer rendered in words, nor even one that lends itself to retelling later. The Pentecost miracle is pure experience: a drawing-near of the holy. The powerful spiritual kick is something those disciples will remember all their days.
I get the sense, reading this biblical story, that not even the most gifted investigative journalist — had there been one on the scene — could have wrapped the Pentecost experience up in a neat little verbal package. It’s not so much what lesson the disciples may have learned from the experience, but how the experience transformed them. The content of the Pentecost experience is the disciples themselves — not the disciples as they went into that room, but as they came out of it, on fire for the gospel, equipped to travel to the ends of the earth!
Further, the content of Pentecost is the disciples together, as a group. Except for Peter — who goes out, afterwards, and gives a sermon — there’s no mention of any individual names. The Christmas story has Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. The Easter story offers Mary Magdalene, and Peter, and Thomas, and several others who all have starring roles. Yet, Pentecost’s not like that. The gathered company of the faithful is just that: a company. A group. A collective.
And that’s not something our individualistic culture is likely to be happy with. Maybe that’s a good bit of the reason why there are no Pentecost greeting cards, and why no one’s ever developed a secular clone of this particular religious holiday. We Americans simply have a hard time celebrating anything we can’t do alone, on our own, as individuals.
You know, there’s even an individualistic variety of Christianity. It downplays the communal experience of being church together and elevates in its place a purely personal expression of the faith. It’s known as evangelicalism. Now, I know there are some streams within evangelical Christianity — like the Billy Graham organization — who work very hard, in concert with congregations, to connect those who make a decision for Christ with a local church. Yet, there are also a great many other evangelical organizations — especially those who get their message out exclusively by electronic means, TV or internet — who don’t seem to care whether their followers are ever “all together in one place.” Faith, according to this way of thinking, is a purely individual choice. Whether or not you ever connect with a church is a matter of indifference. As long as you and Jesus have made your own little arrangement, everything’s just fine.
This message, I’m afraid, has permeated our culture rather deeply. It’s resulted in people proudly making statements like, “I can worship God just as well on the golf course — or hiking a woodland trail, or watching the sunrise on the beach — as I can in church.”
Now, I don’t doubt the Holy Spirit can touch people’s hearts anywhere they may happen to be. (As the disciples learned, trying to put limits on what the Spirit can do is a losing proposition.) But remember the language of that all-too-common claim: “I can worship God just as well on the golf course,” or wherever.
I’m sorry, but no you can’t. And there’s a very simple reason. Worship, by definition, is not an individual sport. Prayer may be. Certain spiritual experiences may be. But worship is something the whole people of God do together. It’s the singing of hymns that join individual voices in a powerful chorus of praise. It’s the passing of communion bread and wine from one person to another. It’s a community making covenant, along with the parents, at a baptism, to embody the truth of that old saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” It’s the experience of public prayer, as petitions and intercessions are lovingly gathered up and joined together in one common voice.
The two special celebrations we engage in today are demonstrations of that. Both the young people being confirmed at 9:00 and the officers being ordained and installed at 11 are making a choice to exercise their Christian faith in community. In doing so, they are bearing faithful witness to Acts, chapter 2, verse 1: “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”
The only place where this can happen, in any meaningful way, is in the church. It happens in the formal gathering for worship. It happens in the multitude of opportunities for service and fellowship that foster Christian community. It happens as we join together in mission, as so many of us are learning in these days of hurricane recovery. Every time a new group of volunteer workers unpacks their bags in our Volunteer Village — and every time a new crew from our church shows up to cook a meal for them — they are “all together in one place,” convened by the Holy Spirit to do the work of Christ.
Those people may not be miraculously speaking in different languages, and the only tongues of fire you’re likely to see over there are the flames of the gas stove. Yet, that is just as Pentecostal a gathering as what we do here in worship, or what Christians do together in any other time or place as we gather for a holy purpose.
As those first disciples learned on that first Pentecost, wherever two or three (or more) are gathered in Christ’s name, there he is in our midst. It’s a wonder. It’s a miracle. And it’s an experience you or I or anyone else can have, if we practice a truly Pentecostal faith!
Copyright © 2013 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.