“Held in Its Power”
Acts 2:1-15, 22-24
Rev. Tasha Blackburn
May 15, 2016 -Pentecost Sunday
I didn’t see any rabbits at the store this week. Nor any lilies in baskets and not even one single Santa greeted me at the store’s door. No, this holiday doesn’t have any secular partners. Pentecost-themed candies have never really caught on and neither have any Pentecost-esque party games. No flaming piñatas to hit, no foreign-language board games to play. The world outside these doors has never really taken to Pentecost and that’s just as well. Other folks wouldn’t have much use for it anyway because this is a holy day that is all about the Church.
Think about it: after Good Friday, there was still no Church. After Easter morning, still no Church. After Jesus ascends, no Church. It is not until today, when the “day of Pentecost had come” that we finally have the Church. There were people of faith before that but they’d never been called in this way before. It was only after that wind of the Holy Spirit burst through the windows and the flames rested on every head that they were given their call and then given the power to answer that call. People spoke in languages that were strange to them but the people could still understand, and, in that moment, they learned that this movement was about a lot more than the folks gathered in that single room. It was about the Partheans and the Medes and also the Laotians and the Scots and even the Americans. This really is no holiday outside these walls because Pentecost is about the power and vitality and Spirit-filled experience of the Church.
And the holiday can even make us feel a little bit bad too. It is hard to hear this passage, with its fire and voices and rush of Spirit, and not feel a little inadequate. We want to hear the wind and we want to feel the burn of that flame. As a Church, we have felt the Spirit’s work but not like it is described here, with languages and such ecstasy that people would assume we were drunk. That is just not very Presbyterian! We can wonder: if we don’t experience that kind of flame-kissed moment in Church, does that mean we aren’t worshiping? Does it mean that God doesn’t work like that anymore? Does it mean we aren’t his Church?
But that is not the message of Pentecost at all. Let’s not let the bells and whistles distract us to what happened on that day. What happened at Pentecost is that we found out the Church is incredibly important. It is important to God and to his plan for this world. So important that he sends his Spirit into it to give it power. And, Pentecost shows us that the Church is this close to Christ. Before he left this earth, Jesus promised not to leave us orphaned but to give us his partner, our Advocate, the Spirit. When the Spirit comes into that room, we learn how very close this gathering of people are to Jesus.
Churches in every age and place have experienced it in many ways, and the small differences do not matter because Pentecost does remind us of the Church’s incredible power and vitality and that it is not just human-filled but it is Spirit-filled. This passage in Acts was not written so that we would feel inadequate! It was written as a letter of encouragement FROM the Church TO the Church to be strong and joyful and resounding in hope because this endeavor is not our own. What can look like ordinary moments and motions are not simple or ordinary but part of the great work that God is doing in this world. And for reasons only he knows, he chooses to do that work through the Church. This is a gathering that changes peoples’ lives. It is a gathering that changes the world. It always has and it always will. That is the power and meaning of Pentecost.
It is curious to note that any one of the people in the room that day might have had a certain coin in their pockets. It was a common coin of the time. It had Caesar’s profile carved into it and a tongue of flame was resting on his head. The coin’s message was clear: Caesar is our anointed one. Caesar has been filled with power. Caesar is, as he loved to proclaim at the time, the Son of God. That very coin was probably in a pocket or two that day when tongues of flame sat upon the heads of fishermen and tax-collectors, of back country people and illiterate nobodies. Why do you think God did that? To show the world that these were real children of God. That they were the anointed ones; that they were filled with power.
What is the sign in our own lives that we are God’s children? What are the flames above our head that show other people we have been changed? I think we can see the answer in how Peter describes Jesus’ life to the crowd in his first sermon. He says that Jesus was crucified and killed, but that God raised him up and “freed him from death because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” I think that’s it. That’s our flame: Jesus is no longer held in the power of death and we show we are the Church when we don’t live held in its power either.
As the Church, we are held in a much greater power than anything else that would drag us down, that would tear us apart, that would work to end us. It is as simple as that: as the Church, we are not any regular kind of organization that needs to worry and fret about its survival. For this is not our endeavor alone. We were created by the Holy Spirit of God and so we will not be held by any other power than the power of Spirit. All death-dealing powers can step aside. It is the great gift the Church is to each one of us and it is the great gift the Church can be for the world.
I remember a woman telling me a story of her little church in Iowa. A member of that church found out that her neighbors had just been told terrible news. They were a young newly-married couple who had moved to this small town for work and now she, only in her 20s, had been diagnosed with a horrible cancer. They didn’t know anyone, they weren’t religious and family lived a time zone away. The church member shared with other members how much she felt for this young couple and, as a congregation, they agreed to feed them every single day until the woman’s chemo and treatment were complete. For months they came: with casseroles and soup. And, as these visits continued they got to know the man and the woman. Soon they were offering to pray with them. Every day. For months.
The woman, blessedly, went into remission and returned to her full strength. But when the woman was at her weakest, you can imagine how much their families called. How much they begged them to come home to them. And when they called and when they begged, the couple simply said: we cannot leave. They said: we cannot leave our Church.
Let us never believe that the Church has no power or that we are not important. We have the Spirit’s power and we are the most important thing in the world to Jesus, who is the Savior of this world. Many of us could share the tales of how the Church cared for us, how they taught us about God’s love, how, through it, we learned whose power holds us
There is a famous anecdote of the great reformer Martin Luther. He felt that demons from this world and the next were threatening him. Death-dealing powers were seeking to take him down. When this would happen, he would shout out, “But I am baptized!” Other monks would hear him shouting it in the hallways and corridors, defying demons to taunt him in the face of his baptism. We could say the same on this day, about our baptisms and about our church. When others would want to hold us in their power, we can shout, “But I am the Church!”
No Santas needed here today. And no rabbits either; this day is for us: for you and for me and for Christ’s Church which is held in the Spirit’s power. Amen.