Visited by the Spirit

Visited by the Spirit

Acts 2:1-21

I have always had a high regard for someone who can tell a really great story. You know, like a novelist who can use the printed word in a masterful way to create a piece that, when you read it, makes you think hard and deep about essential issues of life. Or, a speaker who mesmerizes the crowd and transports you to another place by almost taking you by the hand and leading you through sights or smells that paint a striking picture and, in the end, make his point crystal clear.

And it seems to me that one thing that separates a decent communicator from a masterful one is the ability to use symbolism and to use it well. Some of us just come straight out and say it . . . others, those who are deeply gifted, draw us in, in such a way that we don’t even know we’re engaged. They communicate on levels we don’t anticipate, until we are suddenly aware of things we never knew before.

Think, for example, of one of the greatest filmmakers of our time: Steven Spielberg. He’s known for using the symbol of a rainbow in every one of his films . . . a symbol that depicts hope. Go back and watch ET and look for that rainbow.

One of Spielberg’s most powerful films is Schindler’s List, his 1993 movie about the Holocaust. He uses dramatic symbolism throughout the entire movie, and after you watch it you will feel emotionally drained. But he starts the film with such a moving symbol.

The film’s opening, one of its few color scenes, shows a close-up of a hand lighting two votive candles in a pre-war Polish Jewish family’s home on a Friday night Sabbath. After the singing of a prayer, the family vanishes from view and the two Sabbath candles burn down. In a close-up shot, the candle’s soft glowing flames burn out, sending a wisp of smoke into the air. If you only saw the opening credits, you would be moved on a very deep level, because you instinctually know the gravity of the story ahead.

Tongues as of Fire © Jan L. Richardson Used by Permission

Tongues as of Fire © Jan L. Richardson
Used by Permission

This morning as we read the account of the Day of Pentecost in the book of Acts, we know almost immediately that we are reading the work of a masterful storyteller . . . the symbolism throughout the entire account should take us beyond the actual events of that day so long ago, and usher us in to a new way of thinking about what it means to be the church.

It all starts like a really good novel . . . you can almost feel the anticipation in the first phrases: “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! Tongues 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 . . . .”

Listen to the words: suddenly, rush, violent, filled, began to speak . . . this is the language of anticipation, indicating that you and I had better hold on tight because something big is happening here. It went beyond whatever happened in that room the first Day of Pentecost and Luke, the writer of the book of Acts, clues us in by using such language and powerful symbols: rushing, violent wind, fire, speech. Luke wants us to know this was a big deal, so he’s becoming the Steven Spielberg of the New Testament, bringing in these evocative symbols of a visit…from the Spirit.

We’ve been hearing their story these past weeks, the stories of Jesus’ first disciples, emboldened by a visit from the Spirit, and setting their minds to building the first church. Today’s reading from the book of Acts, right here, is where it all began.

Try to imagine the scene: aside from being emotionally traumatized, the disciples were probably physically and mentally drained. They’d gotten their way of life down to a science, this nomadic experiment of following Jesus. Now everything was different and none of them could imagine what that would look like.

All of the sudden, the Spirit meandered in with a breeze, then a stronger gust, then a wind that was whistling and howling through the rooms of the house, whipping through robes and mussing hair, blowing scrolls all over the place and upending furniture.

The Spirit then became a fire, coming down out of heaven, settling on the heads of everyone present. They’d been looking for some help, some idea of how they might take next steps to build a church. And help they got; but it wasn’t the kind of help they’d expected.

Instead of order and institution, who showed up but the untamable Spirit of God, rushing in uncontrolled and breaking down barriers?

When all this happened the city of Jerusalem was in the middle of a huge pilgrimage celebration called the Feast of Weeks. Scholars are in disagreement about what the religious significance of that celebration was for the Jews of Jesus’ day, but practically speaking I imagine it was something like Mardi Gras is every year in New Orleans: hotels were full, restaurants were crowded, the streets were filled with all sorts of pilgrims from all over who had made the annual trek to the holy city to celebrate. Lots of litter along the roads; crowds of people to push your way through whenever you try to go anywhere; cacophony of music and voices and languages filling the air. Okay, like New Orleans and like…New York!

Though it’s true that the folks crowding into Jerusalem that week shared an identity as Jews and gathered in from many places all over the region to celebrate the Feast of Weeks. The Jews in Jerusalem that day struggled to find commonality when they practically came from different cultures and very often spoke totally different languages.

And that backdrop helps us understand another curiosity of the situation. After the wind blew in and changed everything, the disciples started telling their stories of experience with Jesus Christ in all kinds of different languages—not “speaking in tongues” in an ecstatic, Hollywood way, but opening their mouths and telling their stories in real languages, the native tongues of all the folks in the crowd that day so that, in this strange city all of the sudden each person in that crowd was hearing her mother tongue.

Can you imagine how strange that was? Galileans, that ethnic sub-group from which most of the small group of Jesus’ disciples came, was known in the larger, extended Jewish community as the more provincial part of the family. Everyone knew that the people in Galilee spoke a rough version of Aramaic and not much else. No polished Hebrew or educated Greek down there; no one who came from Galilee had the education or the cultural awareness to speak another language well.

So, you can imagine the curiosity of what happened that day when the wind blew in. It would be like, maybe, getting out of your car at a gas station in, say, rural Arkansas (I know I’m going to get in trouble for this), and discovering the people behind the counter speaking with refined British accents or something.

No one could believe what they were hearing, these amazing stories coming out of the mouths of rough-hewn Galileans in languages from all over the world. There would be no more divisions by language and culture. There would be no more separation by class or position. There would be no safety of institution or constitution . . . they had been visited by the Spirit and somehow, miraculously, they became…the church.

A few years ago I traveled Lynchburg, Virginia, to speak at a gathering of 600 Virginia Baptist pastors. I was there to speak on a panel about revitalizing the modern church, to explore with other pastors and church leaders how we might “do church” in such a way that it is vital and relevant for modern folks.

Of course, this is a topic all of us church professionals love to discuss. We long for a prescription or idea, a formula or a structure that will make the church, this institution we love, alive and well in a society that increasing disregards its relevance. For three, two-hour panel sessions, I sat up front with two other pastors and fielded questions from the crowd.

What should we do, many asked, about the burning question of whether or not to install a screen at the front of the church? How should I handle the uproar over the use of drums in worship? What kind of building should we build to attract new members?

I didn’t have the answers to these questions, and, believe me, if I had I would not have been spending my weekend in Lynchburg, Virginia telling my secrets to 600 pastors who could just as easily purchase my slickly packaged program for church success!

In response to the increasingly frustrated questions from the audience asking for a plan or a formula or a fail-safe strategy, one of the other pastors on the panel told the story of how his church does ministry: he called it “a ministry of chaos.”

You could almost see the horror on the faces of those listening as he explained that his community was unified in their mission and vision; clear about who they were. With that foundation, the worked hard to be open to the direction of God’s Spirit, radically permission-giving as they discerned God’s call together. Anybody in their church who felt God’s direction leading them to try something new, a new kind of ministry within the church or within the community, was empowered to do that. Sometimes, he told us, ideas take off, like the basketball league for local youth, which has now become the biggest sports program in town and radically helped reduce the gang problem in their community. And sometimes ideas don’t work well, like a mid-day worship service that no one attended because there are not enough people working in the immediate neighborhood of the church.

When ideas take off, he told us, the church runs with them. When they don’t, the church stops them and tries something else. It’s always changing, ever-fluid, unified openness to wherever it is God’s Spirit might take them—not a collection of interest groups, but rather a ministry of chaos!

(I can just see it now: at the next meeting of the Church Council when I unveil my plan for a Ministry of Chaos!)

At the meeting where I was, one audience member got up to respond and said that, while he appreciated what that pastor was saying, he could not imagine how that would ever work at his church. He explained: life is so chaotic anyway. Our society moves at such a mind-numbing pace, asking us to change constantly, to learn new things and adjust all the time. How could he possibly ask his people to allow their church, the one hour of refuge and stability in their otherwise shifting lives, to change?

The pastor on the panel looked at that man and asked: “How could you not?”

How could you not?

“When the Day of Pentecost had come…”, right before they were visited by the Spirit, the disciples were gathered in Jerusalem doing some of the administrative work of the movement, you know, building a church. They had to get organized if they were going to combat the forces of Rome, and they were down one team member with the loss of Judas. So, as the disciples sat around in Jerusalem, you can almost guess what kind of discussion was going on.

First, someone, maybe Peter, would say: “I move that we convene the nominating committee to present possible candidates to fill the position vacated by Judas, because we know clearly from our constitution that there were 12 disciples put in place by Jesus.”

Then, probably John, might pipe up: “I second that motion.”

And you know they took a vote, because we learn that Matthias was elected to be the newest 12th disciple.

They were all about order and organization, but God had something different in mind for the life of the church. Just then, God’s Spirit paid them a visit and invited them to build a new kind of community, a community marked by radical welcome, nimble response, love-borne justice.

And perhaps like those first disciples, we are also about order and organization as we work to build a church, necessarily so. But the work of God’s kingdom in this world is never static. We are also people who have been visited by the Spirit, people who must keep ever present in our life together, the conviction that the gospel message is not contained in buildings or even weighted down perilously to tradition and order.

The gospel message instead is, well, it’s like wind or like fire . . . symbols of God’s Spirit, the true and essential work of the church, sometimes unpredictable, uncomfortable, even out of control. She can wreak havoc with Robert’s Rules of Order. She will display herself in strange, unconventional ways: with a true call to justice and peace; with radical love, especially for those who are not too lovely; with a variety of skin colors and languages and perspectives, all gathered together.

Today is the Day of Pentecost, the birthday of the church! And here in this place and far beyond these walls, is the gathered community of Christ—we are The Church!

We believe it. And we will live it with courage and boldness, because…we have been visited by the Spirit.


4 Comments on “Visited by the Spirit

  1. side note. I went to Lynchburg in the 60s as part of a voter registration drive after the poll tax and literacy tests were ruled unconstitutional. We were sponsored by the Lynchburgblack church and black community. I remember several of us staying with the local undertaker; how is that for new life. I always thought of ourselves as the Christian alternative of the Falwell movement.

  2. Dear Dr. Amy Butler,

    Honestly, I am more enamored by the first five paragraphs of your sermon than the 2nd chapter of the Book of Acts. Although, the swishing of the Spirit of God on the Pentecost is of extreme historical importance for the church, I found the narrative too out there, like something from a Steven Spielberg movie itself. This is not an experience I have in my Christian walk. It is too alien, too strange, and too weird even from the life of the church I attend where everybody claims, speaks in tongues. I feel sorry for the Pastor who is compelled to change programs and strategies on demand in order to reach out to people. You said he calls it a ministry of chaos. I hear burn out coming really quick. As it is often the case in a fluid organization like the church, chaos rules. For some reason, programs implode in a hurry in most churches I know. I wish that the Spirit of God would be more clear on what to do with Acts 2 than he/she was in Pentecost because Bible teachers always make this a template for any experience of the church. It sounds like you are suggesting that it should be a default position for the church when things are stale and lifeless. However, it appears that making it the gold standard for the modern church transforms the spiritual experience as something really, really scary that I don’t want the Spirit to swirl around me. This seems to me that the Pentecost is very much reminiscent of the sermon, Sinners in the Hands of Angry God, delivered by Jonathan Edwards where everyone scrambled to get out of the church for fear of unspeakable punishment waiting for them in hell. I wish the visitation of God’s Spirit is that of a good friend where he/she does not razzle-dazzle me with spiritual stuff but a nice and friendly chat and at times, he/she reasons and dialogues with me, just a reasonable conversation of two reasonable friends. No pyrotechnics, no drama colors the stage for God’s message to sink in.

    But I really like the first five paragraphs of your sermon.

    Danilo Reyes

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