Central United Methodist Church
“The Day the Church Caught Fire”
Pastor David L. Haley
Acts 2: 1 – 21
June 12th, 2011
It was Sunday morning, September 11, 2005, 7 am. I was putting the final touches on my sermon, while Michele was in the shower, getting ready to play for the early service at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in West Chicago, her home church for 15 years.
Just then, my fire pager went off, with a shocking announcement: a structure fire at St. Andrew Lutheran Church. On my way out the door, I stuck my head in the bathroom and yelled to Michele I didn’t think she was going to have to play, because the church was on fire.
The fire was in the roof, a large space in a church, and hard to get to and extinguish. It went to a fourth alarm, with five being the maximum, but after about two hours of firefighting, it was finally out. I went to the Chief and asked if I could leave, to go hold my church’s Sunday morning worship service. Fortunately, I had time to go home and take a shower. It was a day neither Michele nor I nor the good people of St. Andrew Lutheran Church will ever forget: “The Day the Church Caught Fire.” It has – for our friends at St. Andrew Lutheran – been a long and difficult journey back.
I always think of this on Pentecost Sunday. (Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of the words “church” and “flames of fire.”) Pentecost was another day the Church caught on fire, in a more constructive and less destructive way, with implications still powerful for us today.
Up to this point, the followers of the now ascended Jesus had done what Jesus told them to do, which was not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for the promised Spirit, so they spent their days in the temple worshiping God, waiting. It must have been depressing: Jesus was gone and only a few were left. If it had only gone on like that, it’s questionable whether we would be Christians today. But if they thought they had problems then, those problems were about to be replaced with a MUCH BIGGER problem.
On the Feast of Pentecost, Greek for 50 days or 7 weeks after Passover (what a coincidence, that’s where we are today: 50 days after Easter!) they were going through the motions, when, as though on fire, the room lit up. There was a sound like the rush of a mighty wind, and it was as though flames of fire danced over each person’s head. With or against their will, they began speaking in many languages, not gibberish but the languages of those gathered in Jerusalem for the festival. Hearing this, those people came running.
There was much confused discussion, but nobody could figure out what was going on. They kept saying, “Aren’t these all Galileans? How come we’re hearing them talk in our various mother tongues?” Their heads were spinning; they couldn’t make head or tail of any of it. They talked back and forth, confused: “What’s going on here?”
The quickest explanation was the simplest: they were drunk! Yep, that early in the morning, charged with WWI (worshiping while intoxicated.) They were intoxicated, but with Spirit, not spirits.
Explanation was demanded, and everybody looked at Peter. So he spoke: “Fellow Jews, I apologize, I don’t know what’s gotten into us. We don’t usually – actually – we’ve never acted like this. We apologize for interrupting your coffee; please, head back to McDonald’s, there’s nothing to see here.”
Of course, that’s not what he said. What he said was, “Listen carefully and get this story straight. These people aren’t drunk as some of you suspect. They haven’t had time to get drunk — it’s only nine o’clock in the morning (ha, ha, ha). No, this is what the prophet Joel announced:
“In the Last Days,” God says,
“I will pour out my Spirit on every kind of people:
Your sons will prophesy, also your daughters;
Your young men will see visions, your old men dream dreams.
When the time comes, I’ll pour out my Spirit
On those who serve me, men and women both,
and they’ll prophesy.”
If we could stop action right here, you have to wonder what Peter the fisherman would have said, if you had told him three years before that one day he’d be preaching in Jerusalem. Seeing how he swore when he denied Jesus, I think we know what he would have said.
This was something, said Peter, that had been a long time coming. “This is that,” he said, prophesied by the ancient prophet Joel. It was them the coming of the Spirit, promised by Jesus. For us, it serves as the birthday of the church, and the celebration of the third person of the Trinity, God the Spirit.
It’s been said that God’s Spirit is the “shy” member of the Trinity, but you wouldn’t know it from this story. This story reminds us that the Spirit does not always arrive as a still, small, voice or a faint stirring in the heart. Pentecost reminds us that the Spirit’s power is not always subtle, fragile, or polite, but sometimes electric, atomic, volcanic, causing further problems for shy people such as us.
In the end, Luke tells us that in that one day, 3,000 people signed up to become followers of the Christ. And so the church, previously going nowhere, exploded out into the world with a boldness and courage and compassion they didn’t know they had. From this time forward, again and again, the Spirit would propel the Church forward, in spite of their hesitations and limitations, breaching previous boundaries and barriers, reaching not only Jews but Gentiles, not only in Jerusalem, but as far away as Rome and beyond. As we say, the rest is history. We sit here today because of what happened then.
Very interesting, you say, even exciting! But sitting here in my pew today, what could it possibly mean to us, to our church, to me?
Throughout the history of the church, there has been this ebb-and-flow between order and Spirit. The early church, as we read in the book of Acts, was open to a dynamic and fluid way of operating, based upon its theology and experience of the Holy Spirit. Where to go, what to do, how to worship, who should speak in worship, what should be said, who should lead, how the community should be led, how to relate to outsiders, who should relate, what to say – these and many other matters seem to have been handled through reliance on the power and direction of the Holy Spirit. With this Spirit-led freedom came tremendous gains in shattering religious and cultural patterns, including crossing the Jew-Gentile barrier, making advances toward sexism, and moving people toward radical sharing and away from selfishness.
By the time of the later New Testament writings, such as the Pastoral Epistles, that fluid Spirit-driven freedom was giving way to a more hierarchical and structured church life. Structures were established for everything, including teaching, worship, leadership, and decision-making. In about 1700 hundred years, John Wesley and the Methodists would come along, who would organize everything.
But, throughout history the church has rarely been without a voice for a more radical reliance on the Holy Spirit. Whether in medieval mysticism, the radical wing of the reformation such as the Quakers, or in the emergence of a full-blown charismatic/Pentecostal movement in our own time. The fastest growing movement in the global church today is Pentecostalism.
Why? Because the Christian faith without the Holy Spirit is a lot like a swimming pool without water; you have a lot of form and structure but no function. Frankly, we have been trying to swim in that pool for far too long.
Once again, the church is inside, a slow and shy minority in a pluralistic and polyglot society, surrounded by people from everywhere. We may have our problems; but are we ready for the problem the Spirit desires to create: pushing us “out there?”
Will we be like the pre-Pentecost church or the post-Pentecost church? Will we remain hidden in our buildings as a perpetual remembrance society of Jesus, or – with the Spirit’s leading – will we explode out into the world, inviting people of all cultures and languages – immigrants, from wherever they have come, to unite in the praise of God and in words and deeds of love and service to our neighbors, whoever they may be?
According to St. Paul in 1st Corinthians, every believer – each of us – is gifted, spiritually equipped with God-given gifts whereby we can serve each other for the greater good. Personally, I am clear my gift is not speaking in tongues. You may be clear your gift is not speaking in public. (Caution: that’s what Peter thought too!) I’ve been looking for years for those who have the gift of giving, and yes, I’ve found a few. Your gift may not be any of these, but there is something all of us can do, something we are good at, which, when joined with the Spirit’s power, can make a difference in the church and in the world. Pentecost challenges us, both as a congregation and as individuals, to trust the Spirit’s leading, and to locate, claim, and utilize our authentic voices and gifts to worship, love and serve.
As a conclusion and summary of what I’m trying to say, Professor David Lose and the people at Luther Seminary in St. Paul have put together a video, entitled, “It’s Pentecost.” Let’s take a look. You may view the video at YouTube here: http://youtu.be/rmweXyEeoBw