If We Knew Then…
Acts 2:1-21

by | May 27, 2024

PRAYER:  Holy one, we come ready to receive anew the gifts of your spirit that will give us vision to form and reform ourselves as a people of Pentecost.  Come through this place and light our hearts on fire that we may proclaim and demonstrate God’s love to the world.  Blow us out into the world that we may bear witness and be a vehicle of the hope that only comes from you.  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, my rock and my redeemer.

We have a dinner plate in our house that has the words, “You are special today” written on it.  We always tried to ensure that this plate was used for every birthday, every celebration that we could.  Another birthday tradition in our house used to be birthday brownies.  I don’t remember when she started doing this, but when the kids were little, Anna would ask the kid celebrating their birthday to pick three of their favorite candies.  And whatever those three were, Anna would make brownies with those three candies mixed in.  total decadence!

Birthday traditions are a lot of fun.  It’s nice to have those things to look forward to every year.  And now that they’re all older, our kids will hopefully look back on those memories with joy for the rest of their lives.  Birthdays are not only a way that we mark time, they can be hopeful, markers of time that we carry with us throughout our lives.

Of course, what the kids don’t remember is their first moments in this world; how could they?  We do.  We still remember when our children first came into our lives.  I’d like to say something inspirational about how, in those moments, the possibilities of what could be seemed limitless… about how beautiful it all was.  I got in trouble for an offhand comment I made about one of our kids’ births that I’m still paying for today.  The hard truth is that in those moments, we couldn’t imagine what the future would bring… holding our infant children, we couldn’t fathom their first day of school or how they would all play soccer someday.  Their first words were not something we thought about.  Grandchildren were obviously not in our radar… all we could imagine in those moments were the responsibilities we were taking on, the sleep we would lose, the diapers we would have to change, the feeding… you know, it’s really amazing the stress that new parents are under.  And as any parent will attest, that stress doesn’t go away when they DO start uttering their first words, or playing soccer, or going to school… or even giving us grandchildren.  But still, we cannot imagine the future now any more than we could then.

Try to imagine those first disciples.  The Holy Spirit comes rushing in like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

This was the beginning of moments of the Church as we know it.  In those frenetic moments, the disciples could not have imagined that in a very short time, one of their chief persecutors would suddenly turn around and join their ranks.  They could not have imagined that in a few hundred years, a book would be formed from the things they would ultimately write.  There would have been no way of knowing that a council formed in Nicea would someday create a creed that is still used (in some form) today.  They couldn’t possibly imagine the sheer number of souls that are saved by the church being born that day.  They could not possibly have foretold the good that would come from that moment of birth.  The thousands / the millions of different points of ministry in which people were fed, lost were found, sick were cared for, prisoners were offered hope, marginalized were lifted up.

So much good came from that moment.  But we must not kid ourselves…

They could not have foretold the evil, the sin that would also come from that day.  A church, an organizational structure more interested in financial gain, in selling indulgences.  A structure using theology to manipulate others, crusades, people using the name of the prince of peace to justify violence, war, murder, slavery.  They could not have envisioned the heartbreak that the church would someday be complicit in.  How could they?  In the midst of the rushing wind, and the tongues of fire, I can’t help but wonder what the disciples would have done if they knew then what we know now.

Put yourself in the sandals of the disciples for the 5 or 6 weeks prior to that Pentecost day.  Their leader had been arrested and killed.  One of their own had betrayed them.  There was probably a lot of questions and maybe an accusation or two around that.  Did you know what Judas was going to do?  Did you have a clue?  Did he say anything to you that might have revealed his intentions?  Did Jesus know?  A lot of stress and finger pointing.  At some point, they had to have deliberations about who should be Judas’ replacement… I can imagine the interview questions those candidates might have faced.  And yes, they experienced the resurrection of their teacher, ultimately though, he didn’t stay long.  Just prior to this Pentecost day, they watched him ascend to heaven, once again leaving them to their own devices; he told them to wait in Jerusalem for the Spirit.

Think about the fact that they expected Jesus to be coming back any day.  Much of the scripture from that time says as much.  They didn’t expect to be creating an institution that would last 20 years let alone 2,000.  But if they had known then…

If they had known that the seeds of what was happening in that moment would lead to an institution that would fight for workers’ rights.  If they had known that what they did on that day would someday result in women’s suffrage.  The abolition of slavery would come about one day because of what the Holy Spirit did that day.  If they had known that!  Could they have known that what started that day would someday found hospitals, create reconciling communities, empower minorities, welcome the stranger.

At that moment, they couldn’t even know that what was happening in that moment would go even beyond the meeting room they had been using for the last 5 weeks.  But from that one little room where, almost 2 months prior, Jesus had offered them a piece of bread and a cup to drink from, the dream of radical love in community would go on to change the entire world.

Could they have known?  They were dealing with administrative issues.  They may have had some high ideals, but they still had to pay for it somehow.  Judas was supposedly the treasurer, who was going to fill that role now?  Maybe they had enough food for that night, but what about tomorrow night, or next week?

In verse 4, it says that “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.  Now there were devout Jews from every people under heaven living in Jerusalem.  And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.”  I want you to notice that the description of this day does not say, “Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit, and John was filled with the Holy Spirit, and so on… They were all filled.  All of them, as a community.  It doesn’t say that a few people gathered, it says that the crowd gathered and each one – everyone – heard them speaking in the native language of each.  The Pentecost was for everyone.  It is not an individual experience, it is communal, extending to all of God’s creation.

We witness in the Pentecost – and in throughout the history of the church that the spirit is not limited, not contained to one day, one moment.  It wasn’t temporary.  It was then and it is now.

What about us?  Even after two millennia of the church’s existence, are we any better at knowing what the future has in store for us?  If we only could know…  No.  For us, we can’t tell the future any more than the disciples could, but we do have hindsight.  The disciples didn’t have that!  We can see what the church has been in its best moments.  And we can see what the church has been in its not-so-best moments.   We can see what the church can and must be; we might be better able to recognize the invitation into healing and hope that the church brings.  We are in a better position to step into all the goodness and pain of building diverse communities.

We don’t know what the Spirit has in mind, but the Spirit does.  Today, we can boldly answer the call to be the church of the 21st century because we have seen what the church can do well.  We can answer the dream of healing, of hope, of justice, of peace.  The call of the Holy Spirit is too important for us to shrink away from because the Spirit of God is about love in our community.

The dream of healing, hope, justice, peace, beloved community… these are too important to shrink away from.   If we are to answer the call of the Spirit, if we are to be the church of the 21st century, then we don’t need to be afraid to fail.  We can respond with curiosity and with hope.  We don’t need to lament that we have more empty seats than full ones because the Spirit of God is calling us today to hear the rush of the wind and to watch for the flames sending us out into the world.   Pentecost is today as much as it was then in the second chapter of Acts.  The Spirit of God reminds us to always be open to the possibilities and to dream even the most audacious dreams possible.

God is up to something.  One thing that will never change: we can never know now what we’ll know years from now, and that’s OK.  Don’t look back years from now and realize that we missed the possibility of being the very best church we can be today.  Answer the call today to be the church that God calls us to be, that we may offer the love of God in all that we do.  And you know what?  Years from now, the people of the church will look at us today and see that we answered the Pentecost moment and that the flames of the Holy Spirit rested on us and we took God’s love out into the world.

To God be the glory.