2When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
If ever there were a day made for North Decatur United Methodist Church, it is Pentecost, this story of the Holy Spirit coming down like a rush of wind and tongues of fire and the disciples speaking in different languages. This is one of the things I love at NDUMC: this is a multicultural church. We’ve got folks from the far reaches of the globe, and people who grew up and lived their whole lives in Decatur. And we’ve got this in common—this place, on this corner, in which we worship this God and carry out this mission.
And it sounds lovely, almost poetic, this idea of us all coming together around this one mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. I wish it were that easy. Certainly there is more that unites us than divides us, but you’d be hard-pressed to tell that, when you turn on the news and see pundits and politicians who think of themselves as perfectly rational people screaming at each other like children.
It must have felt like that to the disciples, to have this glorious experience of the holy spirit, this experience of God’s own spirit rushing in like a mighty wind and then to find themselves surrounded by flames, which are nice to look at if you ignore all the other properties of fire, like the fact that it is hot, that it consumes, that it burns.
And then they had to figure out how to continue to be a unit when each of them spoke a different language, and it makes me think back to the last General Conference of the United Methodist Church, our every-four-years denominational gathering, in which there were so many people who spoke so many different languages that business almost ground to a standstill. People had to speak so slowly as to allow all the different translators to translate that just about nothing got done. It’s difficult living in a diverse community, but you knew that already, because if there were ever a day made for North Decatur United Methodist Church, it is Pentecost, the birthday of the church. From the very beginning, diversity was God’s plan.
You know what my best argument is for the existence of the Holy Spirit? That we are still here. That the church still exists. That two thousand years after the ascension of Christ, despite our differences and despite the crusades and the shady politicians masquerading as clerics and the human sides of things, we are still here, still worshiping after all these years.
It’s pretty amazing, when you think about it, on this birthday of the church, that we’re still at it, that we’ve reached the point where there are nearly 2000 candles in our cake, and we’re still alive. I don’t know of anything but olive trees and the church that can live that long. I mean, we may have division, and we may argue, but you’ve got to give the Holy Spirit some credit for smoothing out the fine lines and wrinkles and keeping the joints working at the ripe old age of two thousand.
It’s why I get so frustrated when I hear of people who say that the business of being church is too difficult: that they’d rather go experience God in the sunset, or whatever. And while I like sunsets, too, because my heart is not, in fact, three sizes too small, I’m just bored by the whole spiritual but not religious thing, because while God is in the sunset, sunsets aren’t really testament to the work of the Holy Spirit. The church is. It may be difficult, but that’s why I find the work of being the church so exhilarating: because we’re doing something difficult that God sustains even though we’re sometimes apt to act a fool.
And it’s why I get frustrated when people dump on the church, like we’re some antiquated organization for people with nothing better to do. You’ve heard all of this before: why bother with a place that asks for 10% of your money, takes up lots of your free time, and makes you go to meetings about things like whether to allow guns on campus. It’s much easier to NOT be the church than to be the church. And yet even though the body of Christ is populated by humans, it still exists. We haven’t killed each other yet. That’s proof of God, in my mind.
And I’ll tell you what really gets me. It’s why I get frustrated when the agents of division hide behind the banner of faithfulness to say that the Holy Spirit is not enough, that we really need to divide the church. This is the argument that real faithfulness requires purity rather than breadth of love, as if instead of trusting the Holy Spirit to speak in many different languages, it had been the case that the Holy Spirit made everyone to speak the same language. That’s not the story, of course, but you’d be hard-pressed to know that when you hear some of the craziness that comes out of church life today.
I mentioned this in the email I sent out earlier this week to the church’s email list, so if you got it, you know about this already, but there is a group of 80 United Methodist pastors from across the country, including a couple here in North Georgia, that has released a statement saying that the things that divide us are too strong for the things that unite us. The issue they pointed to is the issue of homosexuality, which we all know can be a really contentious issue. This group of 80 influential pastors says, you know, we’re hopelessly divided, so we might as well just split into two separate denominations, one liberal and one conservative, just claim irreconcilable differences and figure out who gets the kids and then go on our way.
This is dangerous business, sowing division. So a few of my clergy colleagues decided to put together a statement of unity in response to those calling to split the church. We figured, oh, surely, this won’t be too difficult. Let’s write a unity statement.
Let me tell you. While it is the case that there is much more that connects us than divides us, it is likewise the case that it is much easier to talk about the things that divide us than the things that connect us. Our divisions in the church tend to mirror our political discourse, which is a problem because we’re supposed to be people not of earthly kingdoms, but of the Heavenly kingdom. In this room, of course, we’ve got folks on all sides of the debate, and it’s not even really a debate. It’s a family matter, because we’re not talking about some ethereal issue, some hypothetical thing. We’re talking about people, so maybe we ought to take a deep breath and talk to each other, which is all well and good but for the fact that it’s the talking that’s difficult. It would be much easier if the Holy Spirit came as tongues of fire and made us all agree with one another. But that is not what happened.
What happened was that the Holy Spirit came down as tongues of fire and made everybody speak in different languages, speak in different tongues, and so the vision of the church we get in scripture is not of being of one mind, but of diversity, of tension, of different perspectives and people, for the more diverse the group, the fuller the picture of the face of God.
I mean, if agreeing on everything is the point of being a Christian, why go to church at all? Why be about the business of disagreeing and struggling and figuring out how to live together? It is much easier to sit at home and agree with yourself. And yet it is the case that if we leave out the voices of those traditionally considered conservative or the voices of those traditionally considered liberal, we are missing out on part of the face of God. We are reminded in living together that the focus on social action and community work is to be balanced by evangelism, by sharing the good news of Jesus Christ in a world that desperately needs to hear it.
I want you to know that the senior pastors of well over 110,000 United Methodists here in North Georgia have united to stand against division. Living together under the same tent may not be easy when there are many issues over which you disagree, but I’m convinced that it’s what the Holy Spirit would have us do, because we were not given the gift of the spirit so that we could all agree. We were given the Spirit so that we could represent the diversity of God’s kingdom, so that we could speak in different voices of the same savior.
I mention this all to you for this reason: it is one of the Bible’s great messages that we are stronger when we are together. When you get fed up with those conservative people or those liberal people, remember that God loves each of us and calls us each to be true versions of ourselves, in community with one another. But it is not just about going along for going along, unity for the sake of unity. That would be enough, but there is more at stake, because Jesus tells us in the Gospel lesson that when we work under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, when we serve God as the church, the very authority to forgive sins will be given to us. Did you catch that little bit at the end of the Gospel lesson? Jesus tells the disciples that if they—if we—will live in the presence and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, if we will model the Body of Christ, we will accomplish God’s purposes on earth.
I will end with this. North Decatur, you’ve got a lot to teach the world, because you do this better than most. You understand better than most the fact that our differences give us resiliency, that our disagreements are evidence of passion in the same direction and not proof of fault lines in the church’s tectonic plates. And you know what? I think this very thing is key to who God is calling us to be. This isn’t my vision—it’s God’s vision, for it was in the works long before I got here. I don’t think God is calling North Decatur United Methodist Church to any one way. I think God is calling North Decatur United Methodist Church to be proof that the Gospel is strong enough to overcome our divisions, and in fact, it is strong enough to NEED those differences to give expression to the depth and breadth of God’s love. We have a unique opportunity here on this corner, with the North Decatur suburbs on one side and Clarkston on the other, to offer God’s love to all kinds of people because we are, at the core of this church, all kinds of people. Some of us are wealthy, some of us are poor, some of us are young, some of us are old, some of us are gay, some of us are straight, some of us are black, some of us are white. And what a witness to declare that despite all those differences—and, indeed, become of them—we are the Church of Jesus Christ, created by God and sustained by the Holy Spirit. On days when it feels like the dividers might win, remember that rushing wind and those tongues of fire, because I don’t know of any better evidence of the power of the Holy Spirit than the fact that all of us—Parthians and Medes, Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, men and women, young and old, rich and poor—all of us are still here after all these years.
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability, and thanks be to God for that. In the name of Creator, Christ, and Holy Sustaining Spirit, Amen.