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ACTS WEEK 2: Unquenchable Fire - Community & The Holy Spirit



  • Sermon Focus: The role of the Holy Spirit in establishing and guiding the early Christian community.

  • Description:In our second week, we explore the Spirit-filled transformed life of the early Christian community. What does a genuine, Spirit-led community look like today? How can we better open ourselves to the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in our communal lives?

  • John Wesley Sermon: “The New Birth”

  • Theological Connection: Discuss John Wesley’s notion of “social holiness” and the communal aspects of sanctifying grace.

  • Life Connection:In the age of social media, explore what an authentic Christian community looks like.


Scripture: Acts 2:1-4, 37-45

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven, like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak… When the crowd heard this, they were deeply troubled. They said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter replied, “Change your hearts and lives. Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away—as many as the Lord our God invites.” With many other words he testified to them and encouraged them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation.” Those who accepted Peter’s message were baptized. God brought about three thousand people into the community on that day.


SERMON:

If I had to name the single most important moment after Jesus ascended into heaven, I would have to say without question, “Pentecost.” The great day when the promise of the Holy Spirit became real in the lives of the followers of Jesus. You may be very familiar with this story. After Jesus was taken up, the disciples returned to Jerusalem and were gathered, focusing on prayer and trying to discern what their next steps should be. I imagine that even after seeing the risen Christ, talking with him, eating with him, hearing him explain the reality of God’s kingdom, the disciples might have still felt a vacuum—a certain emptiness—as they tried to make sense of all that had happened and all that was still to come. Then, as the text tells us, “Without warning, there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force—no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them.” (Acts 2:2-4, MSG) 


Something new, amazing, and extraordinary happened: the disciples—who were deeply grounded in the customs and ways of their society, culture, and nation—began to speak the native language of others, enabling the good news of Jesus Christ to be heard, understood and received by new people. As a non-native English speaker, I have a deep appreciation for this text because I have an intimate understanding of what it takes to master another language and speak in ways I can be understood. But even after 22 years of speaking English, I still face daily moments when I realize I still have much room for improvement.


In my childhood church, I often heard a captivating tale about an American missionary who embarked on a journey to Brazil to share the gospel with indigenous tribes. The missionary, who spoke little Portuguese, wisely hired an interpreter to assist him in communicating and organizing speaking engagements. As they traveled together from one village to another, the missionary couldn't help but notice that his simple messages seemed to be transformed into elaborate tales, using many more words than seemed necessary. Puzzled, the missionary finally asked why the translations were so lengthy. With a straight face, the interpreter replied, 'Oh, I'm just making what you say sound better!'


I know when we read this text, many of our minds might go to the idea of the great gift we would enjoy if we could speak another language without taking years of practice. But if we look at this miracle not as an end to itself but as a means to something greater, we can realize the continued invitation of the Holy Spirit to us today. The coming of the Holy Spirit enabled the disciples to move beyond the work of translation, that is, attempting to make their understanding fit into somebody else’s reality. They moved into the work of interpretation, which allowed the Living Word to penetrate the hearts of others in ways that could be clearly heard and understood. As a commentator explained, “The Miracle of Pentecost is less in the hearing and much more in the speaking.”(1) Pentecost is a call to move beyond the shallow barriers we imagine exist so that all people can receive the good news of Jesus Christ.


Speaking plainly, the coming of the Holy Spirit, with a fire that transforms but does not consume, brings a new reality into play. This reality is one where those who were once separated from the good news of Jesus were no longer disconnected. The barriers of language, ethnicity, social status, or anything else that prevents people from relating one to another now have vanished. The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, speaks of this reality by asking, “How can a person call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:14-45, NRSV)

God’s work in the lives of others, just as in our own lives, requires cooperation, and the good yet terrifying news is that sometimes that cooperation depends on us and our willingness to be representatives of Christ to others.


On Pentecost Day, the disciples received a gift that enabled them to do this work in unexpected ways, enabling them to help others to be convicted of their sins and march towards becoming new creations in Christ Jesus. And that, friends, continues to be our invitation today. In his sermon “The New Birth,” John Wesley expresses that of all the doctrines of the church, two stand out as fundamental: the doctrine of justification and the doctrine of the new birth. By justification, Wesley means God's work in forgiving our sins, which is a crucial aspect of our salvation. And by new birth, he means God's work within us, renewing us to the original goodness in which we were created. This is not work that happens due to external pressure, clever arguments, or fear. This is a work of Spirit-empowered transformation that is enabled through our loving and faithful engagement with others—and, at times, others we would rather not engage. 


But because, in Christ, we are made a new creation, and because of the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we are called to move beyond our places of comfort and safety to the realities of the world. Our mission as the people of God is to continually proclaim the transformative good news of Jesus Christ to the whole earth. But do not be mistaken, this is not something that we can accomplish on our own. We must rely on the great power of the Holy Spirit, which moves in our lives, leading us to tear down the barriers that keep us away from one another. We must engage the world in a way that allows all people to hear the good news of Christ in ways they can clearly understand—we must be not translators of the good news hoping people will come to the same understanding as we have, but interpreters of it allowing others to make connections of their own with the One who calls all of us to himself.


It may be difficult to hear, but the story of the Early Church is truly a story of revolution that calls us to surrender ourselves to the all-encompassing, demanding, and, at times, conflicting movement of the Holy Spirit in our community and our lives. We underestimate the work God calls us to do when we reduce the movement of the Holy Spirit to some magical moment beyond reasonable explanation and not God’s decisive action, as foretold by John the Baptist and the prophets—an action of equipping the saints to continue the work of Jesus. A work that calls us to “preach good news to the poor, announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the burdened and battered free, and to proclaim with great conviction that God is doing a new thing here and now.”


Over the last couple of weeks, United Methodists have been reacting to the decisions of General Conference. Many are celebrating our denomination’s decision to become a more inclusive church through the removal of anti-LGBT+ language. Others are grieving what they perceive to be an abandonment of the historical faith. Some others are concerned about the legal challenges the church may face in nations where homosexuality is illegal. Others still are conflicted in mind and spirit, seeking to understand anew what it means to be faithful to God, their conscience, and the community of faith they reside in.


As you may know, I was raised in a very conservative wing of our Wesleyan Tradition, in a nation that still holds patriarchal roles as a model of faithful living—in the church and beyond. As a young child and teenager, my views of human sexuality were no different than those around me. My father was a Methodist Elder, my mother a Christian Educator, and both my grandmother’s evangelists in the church. Uncles and aunties were clergy and deeply involved lay people. We were the picture-perfect model of a Christian family. When I was about 10 years old, a cousin who lived in a neighboring state came out to his parents. He was beaten almost to death by his father. His mother, fearing for his life, packed a bag and sent him in the middle of the night to go live with my maternal grandmother—she lived a few doors down from our home. On hearing the news, my instinct, even as a child, was to be with my cousin, who was suffering not only physically but also emotionally. However, me and my siblings were forbidden from approaching him and this broke my heart. As a child, I had no language to express the cruelty of that command. But, in my heart, I knew that any God that would condone that type of treatment of a young child was not a God I was willing to follow. As an adult, I have had to work on deconstructing many of the prejudices I was taught as a child. I have had to reexamine my faith, not in light of what I was told is acceptable behavior, but according to the witness of the Holy Scripture and the example of Jesus, particularly his approach to those societies deemed undesirable. Today, I stand on the truth that through his earthly ministry, Jesus extended love, grace, and acceptance and allowed his divine power to work in the lives of all people so they would grow in love of God, self, and others.

I hold no judgment towards anybody who finds themselves in a different place than I am or disagrees with the position that the church should be a place of welcome for all people. Yet, I believe with all my heart that our job, as those called by God, saved by Christ, and endowed with gifts of the Holy Spirit, is to continually expand the table of Christ; to move beyond the barriers the world sets before us; to be representatives not of a God of judgment, but a God love, who in Christ, through the power of the power of the Holy Spirit continues to make all things new.

The reality of Pentecost in our lives is one where the Holy Spirit gets to perfect our thoughts and words so what we say may sound better and truly help others come to know the transformative love of Jesus. Amen.


(1) Jennings, Willie James. Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible) (p. 27). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.



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