May 19, 2024 – Spirit-Filled People Regenerated

Acts 2:1-18

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound 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.

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. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”  All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Fellow Jews and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.  No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

‘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.

Even upon my slaves, both men and women,

    in those days I will pour out my Spirit,

         and they shall prophesy.

Spirit-Filled People: Regenerated

My children love to hear their origin stories.  They like to ask questions about what it was like when I was pregnant with them—about all the wacky cravings and mood swings they instigated—and they also love hearing about their births (with age-appropriate levels of detail, of course!) The girls love to hear about how quickly they arrived—less than three hours with Iris!—and they like to hear about how Mama and Daddy felt when we first held them, and how we got little glimpses of their personalities even in just those first few minutes.  And I understand why they find this so fascinating: I think there’s something really meaningful about hearing other people tell us about the parts of our stories we can’t remember ourselves.  Because it proves to us that we did indeed exist before our own memories begin, and it reminds us that we’re part of a bigger story; that our lives intersect with others; that we’re all bound together as part of a family. 

Today is Pentecost Sunday, and this is the day where we as Christians remember our origin story!  This is the birthday of the Church! It’s the day where we remember how the Jesus movement began to multiply and spread; how it went from being a small offshoot of first-century Judaism and grew into a worldwide movement that has touched hearts and changed lives all around the globe.  And part of the reason that the Church has grown and spread—the reason it has been able to transcend national boundaries over the last 2000 years—is because Christianity was a diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual movement from the very beginning.  And that is exactly what today’s story is all about!

Our Scripture reading this morning opens with Jesus’ disciples gathered together in Jerusalem for a Jewish harvest festival called Pentecost.  It’s been 50 days since the Resurrection, and Jesus has ascended into heaven…and now, the disciples are waiting.  Waiting for whatever is supposed to come next; waiting for God to show them how to continue their ministry when Jesus isn’t physically by their side.  And they know that something is supposed to happen, because just before Jesus’ arrest, he told his followers that he would send them an Advocate…a helper; someone who would care for them and show them the way.  So now they’re waiting for this Advocate to show up, and I wonder if they realize that the arrival is about to totally knock their socks off and change their lives.

Because that’s exactly what happens!  The disciples are gathered in Jerusalem, along with thousands of other Jews from all over the Roman Empire, and suddenly a wind rushes into the house where they’re staying.  The Bible says that all of the disciples are filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit, and that they begin to speak in new languages, so that every passerby from every nation in the known world is able to hear about Jesus in his or her own tongue. 

And naturally, this spectacle draws some attention from the crowds gathered in Jerusalem.  How can this be, the people ask.  How is it that a bunch of peasants from Galilee are suddenly fluent in every language that exists in the Empire?  How is it that people from all over Africa and Asia and Europe are able to understand what these ragtag prophets are saying?  Every single one of us can hear them talking about God’s deeds of power! 

Some naysayers in the crowd assume that the disciples must be drunk.  Which I find kind of hilarious, because my observation in college was that intoxicated people generally don’t experience a sudden uptick in their linguistic abilities…i’s generally quite the opposite! And the disciple Peter is equally unimpressed by their assessment, which leads him to utter a great line that I feel like always needs to be shared on Pentecost: he says “Folks, these people aren’t drunk! It’s only nine in the morning!”(Let it never be said that the Bible doesn’t have a sense of humor!)

And Peter goes on to explain that what’s happening is a fulfillment of the prophecy spoken by the prophet Joel. God’s Holy Spirit is being poured out into humanity, old and young, male and female, slave and free.  So in other words, this is the Advocate that the disciples have been waiting for—it’s the Spirit of God, taking up residence in their midst!  That’s what Pentecost is about: it’s the arrival of the Holy Spirit, and it’s the people of God becoming a Church that transcends language, nationalities, and borders. 

And here’s the Good News: we are people of Pentecost!  Us, right here, today!  The Spirit that inflamed the hearts of the disciples 2000 years ago is the same Spirit that is at work in us today!  And as United Methodists in particular, we are part of a deeply Spirit-filled tradition!  John Wesley, the Anglican priest who launched the Methodist movement almost 300 years ago, was deeply convinced that Christianity was full of untapped potential; that if we would just open our hearts to God without reservation and if we would just accept all the Holy Spirit has to offer us, we would have the power to change the world once again.

Wesley talked about the Holy Spirit like this: he said that when the Holy Spirit comes into the life of a believer, “we are inwardly renewed by the power of God. We feel “the love of God shed abroad in our heart…producing love to all [humankind]…expelling the love of [worldly wealth and pleasures] together with pride, anger, self-will and every other evil temper.”  In other words, he says, the Holy Spirit takes our sinful, selfish, human minds and transforms them into “the mind which was in Christ Jesus.”  So that’s what Methodism is all about: it’s about being transformed by the Holy Spirit; being so filled with the love of Jesus that we break down barriers and live the Gospel with the same zest and zeal as those men and women did at Pentecost! 

And here’s the Good News: the same Holy Spirit who was present at Pentecost is with us today, moving in this congregation, this community, and this world—and we are called to partner with that Spirit!  As Christians, we are called to live differently; called to live lives that are overflowing with the spiritual fruit we talked about last week—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control!  We are rooted in God, connected to Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, and this is the fruit that we are called to bear in our lives! 

And this fruit should make people take notice, just like they noticed the disciples in today’s story! Now granted, we may not be astounding our neighbors with a sudden display of fluency in Mandarin or Swahili, but they should be astounded when they witness the depths of our love, the wideness of our welcome, and the openness of our arms.  They should see the evidence of the Spirit in our lives and go “Wow, see how those Christians love each other?  See how their words are infused with kindness, and see how generous they are with their time and resources.  See all the ways they make the world a better place.  Wouldn’t we all like to be a little more like that?” 

I mean, that’s where the fruits of the Spirit should naturally lead—and in fact, that’s exactly why the early Christian movement spread like wildfire throughout the Roman Empire!  Because it was abundantly clear to everyone that Christians lived differently!  There are all sorts of historical records that show that people flocked to Christianity because it offered the kind of love and grace and support that nothing else at the time could.  Christians were known for risking their lives to care for sick neighbors during disease outbreaks.  They were known for giving up their riches in order to care for the poor.  They were known for honoring women and giving them a degree of voice and power that they couldn’t find anywhere else, and they were known for welcoming enslaved people into their ranks and treating them with dignity, as equals.  Those first Christians raised some eyebrows, and they were often scorned by those who held earthly power…but through the power of the Holy Spirit, and through their fruitful, courageous, ostentatiously grace-filled actions, the Christian movement spread and grew and ultimately changed the world.

And I have to tell you: I yearn with every fiber of my soul to see that kind of power at work in our world today! I yearn to see hearts and lives changed, and I yearn to see churches around the world so overflowing with the fruits of the Spirit that hearts and lives catch fire everywhere you look.    And honestly, it grieves me to know that the popular perception of Christians today is so different than it was back in our earliest days; that at least here in the United States and among younger generations, many non-religious people identify Christianity not with love and grace, but rather with exclusion and judgement and hypocrisy.

And when I see people saying things like this online, or when I hear other people my age talk negatively about their experiences with the church, it’s tempting to want to debate and defend and say “Hey, not all Christians! We’re not all like that!”  But right now, on Pentecost, I find myself wondering if that’s not actually the answer.  Maybe we’re not supposed to just defend our faith; maybe we’re actually supposed to live it!  Maybe we’re supposed to be so on fire for God and so plugged in to Jesus and so fueled by the Holy Spirit that our lives overflow with love and peace and joy, and maybe we change people’s hearts and minds not by what we say but by how we live, and how we love.

What do you think that would look like?  If we decided to go back to the ethos of the Early Church; if we decided to go back to the Spirit-fueled, countercultural way of living that set our spiritual ancestors apart?  What if we decided to claim our identity as people of Pentecost, and what if we chose to live as Spirit-filled people?  Well, that’s what we’re going to pondering over the next few weeks, and we’re starting by going back to the basics—to the communal practices that fueled and sustained the early Church, and kept the first Christians connected to the Holy Spirit.

We’ll be starting today by going back to the baptism liturgy and remembering our identity as baptized believers as we lift up our prayers for the church and the world…and this is the perfect starting point for rooting ourselves in the Spirit, because through the waters of baptism the Holy Spirit unites us: with Christ, and with God’s people.  Through baptism, we are called to become co-workers with the Spirit; called join in the Spirit’s ministry throughout the world.  Then next week we’ll be looking at healing as a work of the Spirit—and we’re not just talking physical healing;  we’re talking mental and emotional and relational healing as well.  We’ll remember how the earliest Christians prayed for one another, anointed each other with oil, and cried out for healing with one united voice.  And then finally, on the first Sunday of June, we’ll talk about the ancient Christian practices of reconciliation and hospitality; of welcoming the stranger.  We’ll talk about breaking down the walls that divide us, and inviting everyone to the Table of Christ as a beloved sister or brother. 

Friends, we are people of Pentecost.  We are people of the Holy Spirit!  Let’s remember this, today and every day, and now, let’s take a moment to come to the waters of baptism to remember our identity in Christ, and then let’s light candles and pray for the power of the Holy Spirit to renew us and restore us and revive us in love. Thanks be to God, and Amen!  ~ Pastor Emily Cannon