A Different Kind of Birthday Party

Bible Text: Acts 2:1-21 | Preacher: Rev.M. | Series: Non-Series | Good morning again church! Today is Pentecost Sunday. Now in a normal year, which let us be honest 2020 has been anything but normal, but in a normal year the Pentecost worship services of many churches would include a time with a group of blessed and energetic kids. A majority of pastors would address this lively bunch by introducing Pentecost as the birthday of the church. Some pastors and worship leaders would even lead their congregations in a heartfelt, although often slightly off-key, rendition of “Happy Birthday to You!” And it is within this metaphor of a birthday party that we might begin to understand some of the issues and challenges of this Pentecostal Scripture.

 

Now obviously the first challenge that smacks us right in the face is the reality we find ourselves in right now. Amidst our shelter-in-place and social distancing rules, this time of the pandemic leaves us maybe not feeling like a normal Pentecost Sunday. I mean, when you think of a birthday party you probably think of a group of family and friends gathered together to celebrate, and in-person. We cannot do that right now. And then when we think about a birthday party of course we think about birthday cake! And what do we do with birthday cakes? We put candles on them and then blow the candles out by a strong breath pushed across the cake. Yeah, we are not doing that right now either, masks or not.

 

But there are some other challenges with this scripture passage. For instance, one might wonder, “Just how long has God been planning this party anyway?” The poetry of Genesis chapter one describes God’s creative spirit blowing over the formless void, and then Genesis chapter two narrates the life-giving breath of God. Again, there is something ironic about all of these references to breath and breathing right now. Then later, the spirit appears in times of darkness and distress. While one group of the people of Yahweh sit in exile in Babylon and others gather the pieces of the shattered world of Israel, we have the prophet Isaiah promising the coming of one upon whom this spirit shall rest, this spirit of “wisdom and understanding,” this spirit of “counsel and might,” this spirit of “knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”

 

Then even later on, we find during the time of domination and abuse by the Roman Empire, oppression and judgment of the religious authorities, and elitism and slavery of the ruling class, amongst all of this we find Luke’s record of John’s promise of one who will baptize by the Spirit in John chapter three verse sixteen, and Jesus later affirms this in Acts chapter one, verse two.

 

And throughout all of this extensive planning of this Pentecostal party, the spirit of Yahweh weaves together the generations through a Spirit that brings life out of death and hope out of despair. I think it is easy right now for us to recognize the darkness and distress in our world right now. Even in this time of pandemic we continue to be witness to the growing gap between the rich and poor, growing manifestations of poverty and illness, growing divisions between nations and within economies, and of course the growing intolerance of any opinion or ideal other than our own. And even with this all going on, we are trying to celebrate our glimpses of the work of that Spirit, and we again await blowings of that fresh and life-giving Spirit.

 

Now after this long period of preparation, I think Yahweh’s guest list to this Pentecostal party probably deserves some attention. Who exactly are the “they” in Acts chapter two, verse one, who wait aimlessly in the upper room? Is this trying to say that the party is limited to the eleven male disciples that are listed in Acts chapter one, verse thirteen? Or might the party also include “certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus” as mentioned in Acts chapter one, verse fourteen? Or might other men and women who joined Jesus throughout his ministry also be present? In essence, the question of God’s guest list for this party raises the question of whether these Pentecostal disciples who become apostles are a fairly homogenous group of narrow representation, or whether in fact they are instead a larger group who embodies much more diversity in gender and culture.

 

Now these questions really become more and more important as churches and denominations continue the sometimes heated and divisive conversations about who may and who may not faithfully worship and serve in leadership positions. And our denomination is of course as many of you already know, not exempt from this reality. The interpreter’s understanding of this guest list might shed some light on the conversation about the inclusiveness or exclusiveness of what John Calvin refers to as the “priesthood of all believers.”

 

Now, just as with many birthdays past a certain age, this one includes the myriad of smiles and joy, questions and regret by both participants and observers. At the beginning of the story, we can probably imagine the disciples moping in their state of abandonment, or perceived abandonment, not for the first time. These disciples walked with Jesus for up to three years before the evil powers steal him away on the cross. And then, through the miracle of resurrection and God’s grace, he reappears and walks again with them, but only to again abandon them, or at least perceived abandonment, at the ascension. So now they wait, disappointed once again.

 

Now as the story progresses, we can probably sense a feeling of jealousy and inadequacy creeping into the questions of the “devout Jews” according to verse five, who all wonder why they are not invited guests at this party. I think we can also understand the tension of the “crowd gathered” mentioned in verse six, as they experience with awe and cynicism the sudden communicational versatility of these brothers and sisters. And by the end, the disciples are faced with uncertain future of ministry in an unwelcoming world while being separated from one another and from the corporeal presence of Jesus. Even in the midst of the wilderness of these celebrations, these people live the fear of transitions that have begun, and the changes already realized.

 

And I think many of us know this same fear. Some of us are transitioning from the challenges of childhood to a whole new set of challenges that accompanies raising families and planning for futures in a world full of unpredictable economies and unequal access. Heck, right now we are trying to plan for futures in a world that has been turned on its head with this pandemic and we now are using terms like social distancing and shelter-at-home. I also believe that others of us are beginning to realize that while some things in our lives, like maybe the pews we used to sit in, do not change, our world sure does. They may be mourning the loss of the church, the community, the family, or the constant stability that they once loved. See that is the thing, times of life transition come with both promise and hope, as well as with fear and mourning, and we experience all of it.

 

Then, finally, after the preparations and the guest invitations, after the mourning and sense of loss, after all of that, we celebrate that at this party, folks get to take away some incredible party gifts. Some of these disciples have been training for this time for up to three years as they learn by their mistakes and Jesus’ examples, through the challenge of parables told and crosses to be borne. Now this birthday party has more the feel of graduation party. The promise of the Spirit is finally fulfilled, and the disciples receive their authentic voices, voices with which they will enter an unwelcoming world, preaching and living the love of Jesus.

 

Now I will openly admit that this narrative I have painted for you can make it challenging for any of us to find the Spirit within ourselves and to locate, claim, and utilize our authentic voices, gifts, and skills with which we are called to love and serve. But it is also important to recognize the truth that we cheapen the Spirit and the gifts if we reduce them to dwelling exclusively within the individual. This Spirit that swept through the house gifted more than those disciples at Pentecost and the disciples with whom we ministry today.

 

That same Spirit has been loosed into the world. And it is moving. It is loose and its creative and life-giving power is now the gift of families and communities, of churches, and of nations. Now, in all of this, the relevant question becomes not just “How will I respond to these party gifts of the Spirit?”, but also, “How will we respond to these gifts?”

 

We know that God loves us and has blessed us with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit that empowers us to go into the world and share the Good News of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit who lights in us a fire that can never be extinguished, not by any earthly power or force. I do not know about you, but when I think about that I get excited! I get goosebumps! God loves me, and you, and everyone enough that God sent Jesus to save the world and the Holy Spirit to guide us to share that Good News to the very ends of the earth, without prejudice or partiality.

 

So, who is ready to go? I mean I know with the shelter-in-place and social distancing that question seems strange maybe, but there is more than one way to “go” into the world. Who is prepared to stand up with me today and say, “Yes! I will go and share the Good News”? Because that is what we are called to do. God has stood by humanity from the very beginning and empowered those people there that day by pouring out the Holy Spirit on them. And God still does that here today. God’s love and devotion have never wavered, it has never faltered, and it has never stopped. So, go. Go out to the world and share the Good News with everyone you encounter. Let God use you to be a reflection of the love and grace that God offers to us. Love won and will always win. Share God, share Jesus, share the Holy Spirit, and share love. Amen.