Sunday, May 27, 2007

What God Had in Mind at Pentecost

Texts: 2 Thessalonians 2:13-15; Acts 2:1-41

I’VE GOT AN IDEA. Today is Pentecost, but it’s also Memorial Day weekend. You might have a family get-together in the works, and maybe you’re looking for a fun new game to play.

Well, how about the game of Rewrite the Bible? What you do, you take a Bible passage and you and your group make it say whatever you want it to say.

The game’s been around for years! The writers of books like the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Judas had fun with it centuries ago. President Jefferson played it in the late 1700s; he cut all Jesus’ miracles out of the Gospels and left only the moral teachings. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons played it in the 19th century. In the last twenty years or so, the liberal scholars of the Jesus Seminar have had a good time voting on what they think Jesus really, truly said vs. they say the Church made up later. So you see, it’s a really popular game.

So why shouldn’t Presbyterians play, too? So let’s take our reading from Acts, and play a few rounds!

Round 1: "When the day of Pentecost came, the disciples were all together in one place. They discussing Jesus’ death and resurrection and how those events related to the old Scriptures.

Then Peter stood up and said, ‘Brothers, Jesus did command us to tell people they should believe that God raised Him from the dead. I suggest we come up with a Bible-based proof that will convince everyone.’ The disciples said, ‘What a good idea!’ So they studied and debated the Scriptures and several weeks later, their proof was done. It was a beautiful thing. Not only was the argument infallible and logical, it was excruciatingly faithful to Scripture. The strictest rabbi in Jerusalem couldn’t’ve picked a hole in it.

"So they took this beautiful proof of the Resurrection out into the streets (which weren’t crowded any more, since the Pentecost holiday was long past). They went up to people and stared debating the Scriptures with them. A few people said, ‘Yes, that sounds interesting. I’ll have to think about that some more.’ But most people said, ‘That’s beyond me,’ or ‘Stop beating me over the head with the Bible’ and kept on walking. So the disciples went back in the house frustrated and resumed their discussion. Maybe they’d try proving the Resurrection again later. Not today."

Wasn’t that fun? All right, Round 2: "When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place, talking about how wonderful old days, when they walked with Jesus. Gosh, they missed Him! How secure and beloved He’d made them all feel! Then, gradually, something like a warm tropical breeze began to steal into the room. They saw what seemed to be goosedown duvets settling softly over each of them. All of them were filled with an overwhelming sense of well-being-- just as they’d felt when Jesus was with them.

"Then Peter roused himself and said, ‘Brothers, this must be the Comforter Jesus told us He would send! Don’t you feel comfortable? I sure do!’ The disciples all agreed-- they felt so comfortable they promptly lay down and fell sound asleep. And not even the noise from the Pentecost crowds in the street could disturb their slumber."

That version really made me feel good! But let’s play Round 3. It could go like this: "When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. They remembered that Jesus had commanded them to tell others about Him and His resurrection. But, well, the authorities had crucified the Lord for being offensive. The disciples really didn’t want to risk going out and being offensive, too!

Finally, Peter said, ‘Come on, brothers! Sure, Jesus was crucified, but then God raised Him, right? Didn’t it change our lives when we all saw Him risen? Did it make us feel good? We had that experience! Nobody can argue with that! So let’s get out there and tell people about our experience!’

"So some of the disciples bravely followed Peter into the street. They picked out some pedestrians who didn’t look threatening and said, ‘Um, I’ve seen Jesus of Nazareth risen from the dead. It really changed my life. Would you like a wonderful life-changing experience like that, too?’ And they were right-- nobody argued with them. No, people simply said, ‘You’re deluded,’ or ‘Don’t bother me.’ And several evilly suggested that the disciples had better stop talking about that rabble-rouser Jesus, unless they wanted the chief priests arresting them, too.

"So the disciples went back inside and locked the door and said it was too bad that the world out there didn’t want to hear about Christ risen from the dead. They prayed to the Lord, saying ‘Lord, we wish we could’ve got people to listen to your Good News. But you can’t blame us: We tried. We really tried.’"

All right, just one more round. How’s this: "When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

"Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. And by the time the disciples poured into the street, all the visitors and all the residents of Jerusalem were filled with the Holy Spirit, too. Even foreigners who’d never before heard of Rabbi Jesus were declaring that God had raised Him from the dead. Even the High Priest was proclaiming he’d just been saved by the blood of Jesus Christ.

"Then Peter stood up and said, ‘Hallelujah! Looks like we’ve got a real Holy Ghost revival here!" And they all began to have a wonderful praise and worship service that lasted for days. Nobody went back into their houses, for the news come in that the whole world had been converted by the Holy Spirit without the preaching of a single word. And in less than a week the Lord returned, the new heavens and the new earth were established, and they all lived happily and eternally ever after."

Well. We’ve just played four rounds of Rewrite the Bible. Do we have a winner yet?

No, we don’t have a winner. Nobody ever wins playing Rewrite the Bible. Still, everyone does it. The messed-up versions of Acts 2 I just gave you are common in Christian churches all over.

What’s wrong with them? To put it bluntly, they aren’t what God had in mind at Pentecost. Let’s take them apart and see what’s wrong.

Round 1 starts out all right. The disciples want to convince the crowds of Jesus’ resurrection by using proofs from the Old Testament Scriptures. But they do it without the Holy Spirit. They do it on their own, in their human wisdom. You try to preach Christ without the Spirit behind you, nobody’s going to care. Nobody’s going to listen. The Word doesn’t work without the Spirit!

But thank God that’s not the way it really happened on Pentecost. No, the Holy Spirit drove Peter and the others out onto the street and by the power of the Holy Spirit the inspired word of the prophets became the inspired word of the apostle.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter proclaimed the word of truth concerning Jesus Christ. Crucifixion was and is a horror and a disgrace. But as Peter preached the crowd began to understand that for Jesus the shame of the cross was God’s way of preparing him for the glory of resurrection. It was the Father’s vindication of His servant. Again the Spirit leads Peter to quote from the Scriptures, this time King David’s words in Psalm 16. He quotes, "You will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay." By the Spirit Peter applies these words to Jesus Christ. And through Psalm 110 Peter declares that this crucified Man Jesus was now sitting in triumph at the right hand of God.

The Jews there in the street knew these passages. But now on Pentecost, with the Holy Spirit behind them, people understood for the first time what those Scriptures really meant. The Spirit had always spoken through the prophets. But now He was unstopping the people’s ears so they could hear and respond to what the prophets had to say. The Word of God had always been living and active. But the people’s spirits were dead, and now the Spirit was bringing them to life. They accept Peter’s declaration that Jesus is alive and approved by God, and that He has ascended to God’s right hand on high. They trust the word preached to them, that God has made this Jesus, whom they crucified, both Lord and Christ.

Without the Holy Spirit, our hearts are dead. Without the Holy Spirit, the Word of God is a dead letter to us. But with the Spirit, the Word is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword. Together, the Spirit and the Word give life. This is what God had in mind at Pentecost.

But what about our Round 2 version, the Holy Spirit as divine Comforter? Okay, I was exaggerating. I’m sure that nobody here really imagines God the Holy Spirit as a spiritual duvet. But don’t we act like it sometimes? Don’t we sometimes think that if we have the Holy Spirit in us, He’ll insulate us from any spiritual struggle or moral anguish or pain?

Then when we go through trouble, we feel He’s let us down.

No, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians, it is in and through our troubles that the Holy Spirit brings us the comfort of Christ. How does He comfort us? Actually, by uniting us to Jesus and His sufferings, so we can be united to Jesus and His resurrection! The Spirit confirms our Lord’s promise to be with us and keep us forever. He reassures us that whatever we have to go through in this life, our loving heavenly Father will work it out for our ultimate good, because the Spirit has called us to belong to Jesus Christ, according to the Father’s purpose.

Friends, there is no Holy Comforter for Christians who seek only to be comfortable. But if you will call upon the Spirit whom God has given you, He will be there, whatever you might have to suffer. He will uphold you, refine you, and bring you through to triumph and joy. That is what God had in mind by giving us His Spirit at Pentecost!

But what’s wrong with our Round 3 version of Rewrite the Bible? That’s the one where the disciples went out and told people about their experience of the risen Christ. This is the one that good-hearted Christians are most likely to fall into. What’s wrong with telling unbelievers about our experience?

Nothing. Just don’t confuse it with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our salvation experiences might be a way to get an unbeliever interested. But your experience or mine isn’t going to save anyone. What saves is Jesus Christ and what He accomplished on that bloody cross 1977 years ago. What saves is the Word of Christ preached and proclaimed. What saves is the Holy Spirit working on hard human hearts and convincing them that Jesus really is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and no one comes to the Father but by Him.

God never expected Peter and the others to go out into the street or into the world armed only with their experiences. He gave them the Holy Spirit to lead them into all truth, to build them up in the Word. To give them courage and hope when the authorities said they could either shut up about this Jesus or die. I couldn’t face violent death for the sake of my conversion experience. But with the Holy Spirit working in me, for the sake of Jesus Christ crucified and risen, I believe I could. That is what God had in mind at Pentecost!

But what about our final round? Gosh, the Holy Spirit gets all the glory there!

And yes, God could have sent the Holy Spirit all at once on everyone in the world. He could have convinced all mankind instantly that Jesus is the Christ and everyone should bow down to Him.

But He didn’t. Instead, He chose to spread His gospel message by the foolishness of preaching. He willed that His gift of the Holy Spirit would be spread throughout the world by the witness of His Church. Yes, that same weak, stumbling, sinful church we’re part of today. Not very efficient, maybe. But God likes to use bodies as well as spirits to get His work done. God the Son came to us in the flesh as Jesus Christ. He proclaimed His salvation by the mouth of His apostles. And now He spreads His salvation in the flesh by His Spirit-filled Church-- that is, you and me.

That’s what God had in mind at Pentecost: The mighty deeds of Christ are recorded in His Word, and proclaimed by His Church-- all under the blessing and power of His Holy Spirit. Christ, Scripture, Spirit, Church: There is no separation. This is the way He calls people to Himself. That’s the way He did it at Pentecost. This is the way He does it now. This is how He calls us to do it in His name until Jesus comes in glory. Alleluia, amen.