The whole world was there. Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem, Luke tells us, AND it was Pentecost. As Passover was to the exodus, Pentecost – the Greek name for the Festival of Weeks – became the celebration of the giving of the law to Moses on Sinai, and its annual observance pointed to the renewal of the covenant.1 And everyone was there: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia… fifteen nations listed, symbolic of the whole world.2
What I don’t know is how many of them heard what had happened involving Jesus of Nazareth during Passover, fifty days earlier. I imagine some of them had heard about the pitiful parade his disciples had, waving palm branches, all the while columns of Roman military were coming through the gates on the opposite side of the city. Jesus had caused problems, knocking over tables in the Temple, preaching and teaching right in their faces. It wasn’t wise to stand in the Temple complex and look at the religious leaders and the civil leaders propping them up, and tell them that it all was going to come tumbling down – that the empire, ruled with brutal force, the greed and conspicuous consumption all around. He was either stupid or crazy, most people said, trying to tell them that life was about something different, that a new kingdom – this was borderline insurrectionist language – God’s kingdom, was breaking in.
I don’t know how many had heard about his arrest later that week. Or the interrogation by Pontius Pilate, the beatings. Some heard he had been crucified, on a hill, with a couple of thieves. But by now I imagine most of them had forgotten. One scholar notes that by the year 70 the Romans were crucifying 500 people per day.3 What was there to remember about one guy that mattered?
But a handful did remember. Because we are used to feeling, in some way at least, like the insiders, I think we often forget that the Jesus story was barely a blip on the radar screen for most of the world. But this small group was strong, filled with hope. Jesus, after he had been crucified so brutally, had been raised, they knew it, and had appeared to them on a handful of occasions – first to some faithful women, then to others, then others still. It wasn’t much, but this hearty band was convinced he was alive, convinced enough to keep sticking together. As the book of Acts begins 40 days has gone by since that first Easter morning. Luke, our author, begins by reaching back to the Ascension, adding a charge to the disciples as they watch him taken up. The rest of chapter 1, as we talked about last week, is a meeting of the nominating committee to fill Judas’ spot on the session. Matthias is added to the team. And then, they wait. Will Willimon writes: "The community, rather than taking matters into its own hands, getting organized and venturing forth with banners unfurled, has withdrawn to wait and pray. The next move is up to God."4
Who knows, that Pentecost morning, whether they were slowly waking up and preparing breakfast, or if they were on their knees in prayer, but from heaven – Luke is clear from the beginning where this chaos is coming from – the sound, rushing, violent wind, filling the entire house where they were sitting. Layer in the echoes of fire and wind from the Hebrew Scriptures, from the winds blowing over the waters in creation to the people following a pillar of fire through the wilderness, and we have a dramatic scene. A tongue rested on each of them.
Then they EXPLODE into the world. This moment, maybe more than any healing Jesus had done in some small village, maybe more than any of the events of Holy Week, was when people from all over the known world began to take notice. The Holy Spirit sent them rushing out of that room, and all of the sudden folks who spoke all sorts of different languages and didn’t understand each other all of the sudden could. They didn’t then speak the same language, their differences remained, but they heard the disciples speaking, and understood. What started as a small Jewish sect was becoming something big, and broad, for all. But even as they rush out some were quick to be cynical. Others sneered, Luke writes, mocked, jeered, and said, "They are filled with new wine." They must be drunk. This is ridiculous.
It was this question, first asked of those disciples, which made me wonder if the church has gotten a bit too tame. I can’t remember the last time the church was accused of being drunk, completely unreasonable, filled with new wine? I want to be clear I am not trying to be flip, because alcohol and alcoholism is all over the place, and serious. I bet everyone in here has someone in their family who is fighting that battle. It is important that the church be a community that takes tending to our brothers and sisters seriously when the disease that is alcoholism rears its ugly head. It is not a laughing matter.
I am talking about the church behaving in a way that makes the world wonder if our head is screwed on correctly. The thing is, I fear that instead of any of those things, the world simply doesn’t wonder about the church at all. The religious landscape in the US continues to change, according to a massive survey released week before last by the Pew Research Center. Pew found the number of Americans who describe themselves as Christian dropped almost 8 percentage points, from 78.4 percent in 2007 to 70.6 percent last year. During the same seven-year period, those who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or "nothing in particular" increased from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent. "These changes," they write, "are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups. While the drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, it is occurring among…all ages. The same trends are seen among whites, blacks and Latinos; among both college graduates and adults with only a high school education; and among women as well as men."
Gary Hall, Dean of the National Cathedral, sees two trends. One of them is the increasing trend towards secularism in Western culture that really began after World War II in Europe, and it’s taken America awhile to catch up. The second has to do with the church itself and the church’s declining credibility as a place for people to pursue their spiritual questions. One of the things that the survey says pretty strongly is that the people who are religious continue to have very strong desires to pray, to do important social justice work and community work with people, but they don’t see the church as the place to do that.5
Now I think the church needs to respond to the gospel more than it needs to respond to a survey, but it’s clear the church has lost much credibility in terms of being a place that people see that matters, that affects change that is good for the world. I think I’d rather them accuse us of being drunk than not accuse us of anything at all, assuming our irrelevance. Which begs a pretty good question: What kind of ridiculous things ought we be doing? It starts with small things, like a bunch of you giving up time on Thursday or Saturday to clear away brush on our new land, or giving your time to drive for Meals on Wheels, to volunteer at the shelter, tutor a kid. Those things are maybe a bit unreasonable when you have other things to do, but not really to the level to being accused of drunkenness. Volunteering all week out at Vacation Church School, which is always the hottest week of the year, is closer. Heading out on a summer trip, to sleep on a gym floor somewhere in Rutherford Country, to help fix up someone’s house you don’t even know, is closer. Planning a trip to Haiti is pretty solid grounds for an intervention. We are attempting to tackle some of these bigger questions in our strategic planning process, and are thinking really seriously of working with community partners to start an afternoon program for neighborhood kids out of either our present facility or one we build. That would be a little crazy, and terribly inconvenient, I mean, it would cause problems for parking and put wear on our building, and it wouldn’t likely be for OUR kids anyway, right, I mean, for neighbors we don’t even really know? Or maybe the height for drunkenness is realizing that the children of our neighborhood ARE our children, their families ARE our families, and that the Spirit of the Risen Christ binds us all together, whether we like it or not?
I’d love for you to spend a little time this week, maybe even this long Memorial Day weekend, thinking about what kind of ridiculous thing God might be nudging you to do. But not because you’ve been drinking too much. Peter tells us why. That the God who made the heavens and the earth has broken into this world, and rushes into even the most locked of rooms, taking those who are most afraid, and sends them out, powerfully, in love.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Boring and Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004), p 369. See Exodus 23:14-17; 34:18-24; Deut. 16:16, then Deut 16:9.
2. This note comes from the Rev. Andrew Foster-Conner’s paper on this text at The Well, 2008, Kansas City.
3. Crucifixion, Believe: Religious Information Source.
4. William H. Willimon, Interpretation: Acts, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1988 ), p 27.
5. America’s Changing Religious Landscape, Pew Research Center. A couple of helpful NPR articles: Losing Faith: A Religious Leader On America’s Disillusionment With Church and Christians In U.S. On Decline As Number Of ‘Nones’ Grows, Survey Finds