We live in a zero-sum world. If I live here, you must live somewhere else. If my team wins, your team loses. If you own something, I can’t have it, too. For every person going up the ladder of success there’s someone else who’s heading the opposite direction—or even being pulled down by those scrambling for the top. There’s only one first in line. And while a Supreme Court justice supposedly once said that your freedom to swing your arm stops where the other guy’s nose begins, the truth is almost everything we do affects those around us, making it easier or harder to do and be what they want. We can’t all be the best, all have the nicest toys, all live in the largest homes, all be the most famous.
Another name for this winner-take-all atmosphere is—sin. Jockeying for the best position, protecting what’s ours by whatever means necessary, stocking up on provisions while our neighbor is in need: these are all versions of selfishness, of perverted love, and of refusing to heed God’s commandments. But it’s almost impossible to imagine a world without them.
Try to imagine an alternative. What would it take to live in a world where you getting the job you need doesn’t mean that someone else’s family spends another night worrying about how they’re going to make it? What would need to change in order for us to stop worrying about whether strangers or people who look different than us or who speak another language or who come from other lands are going to change the way we live? What would the world be like if we stopped pouring money into ways of protecting ourselves, if we stopped living in fear of losing what little we have? What would it take for us to believe that we can have unity without uniformity?
To the cynic and the pragmatist, a world where such things are possible is at best a naive dream, at worst a dangerous distraction from reality. But on Pentecost, that is the world the Holy Spirit calls us to enter. It is the world the Spirit makes possible and empowers. And the name of that world is—church.
Pentecost is full of dizzying sights and signs: tongues of fire dancing, a mighty wind rushing, languages from all over spoken miraculously. For centuries Christians have sought to duplicate these sights and signs. And over the ages the Spirit has shown up in extraordinary ways. Right now one of the fastest growing parts of the church is the global Pentecostal-Charismatic movement. But if we focus too much on the sights and signs themselves we will miss out on the deeper meaning and new realities that Pentecost creates for those of us who follow Jesus Christ. If you read Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, you’ll find evidence of people who focused too much on the sights and signs. And, like the book of Acts, Paul’s letter calls us to live in the depths of the new reality of the Spirit, and not just at the surface.
You see, Pentecost begins in Acts 2:1, but Pentecost does not end at Acts 2:21, where this morning’s reading stops. In Acts 2:1 the disciples, the eleven who had followed Jesus and Matthias, are still living at the edge where the old world and the new world meet. They have met Jesus after his resurrection; they have witnessed his ascension into heaven. They know the reality of the new world has invaded the old world; they know that death has been defeated. But they are still waiting. They’re like runners crouching at the starting line, muscles tense, eyes ahead, alert for the signal to begin the race.
And that signal comes, as electrifying as any shot from a starter pistol. The Spirit descends on them, and they’re off. They have been primed for this moment, and they are ready to go. What does “go” look like? It’s preaching the gospel in languages from around the world. No language is greater than any other. The gospel will not be bound to Greek or Aramaic or Hebrew but is preached in Latin, Farsi, Arabic, Spanish, Hindi, Mandarin—who knows! A new world has begun, a world where unity is not uniformity. You no longer need to feel divided, separated by languages you did not grow up speaking. You do not need to raise artificial walls or create “my language only” zones in order to feel included by and connected to others. In this new world, difference does not mean better or worse, inferior or superior. Difference is a gift of the Spirit.
In this new world, the disciples preach the gospel of Jesus Christ with boldness. Peter, who ran from Jesus in Gethsemane and denied him in the courtyard, takes the lead. He has been filled with the Holy Spirit; he has been filled with Perfect Love; and he has no fear. He preaches directly to those who have come to Jerusalem for the festival. Our reading ends with his defense of the disciples—no, really, we’re not drunk—but just a few verses later he tells the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. He doesn’t need to hide; he doesn’t need to protect himself. Everything he has now has come from God, so nothing can be taken from him. He is off and running in this new world. He is on the go for Jesus Christ, moved by the Holy Spirit.
And he is not alone. The Spirit personalizes this new world for every follower of Jesus; your calling, your role, and your gifts are not the same as Peter’s. But, just a few verses later, we read that these new Pentecostal Christians aren’t divided by the variety of their gifts. They share them, and everything they have, with each other. If one was in need, the others sold what they had to help. Luke tells us that they “had all things in common” (Acts 2:44).
The church is meant to be the new world living inside the old world, breaking up old patterns and ways of living, introducing new life in the name of Jesus Christ. This is why the Holy Spirit comes: the Spirit moves us, unites us, burns in us as the grace we need, the gift we must have, to live in this new world. It is a grace we receive in the sacrament of baptism, a grace that revives and sustains us at the Lord’s table. And if we wonder why we do not see the sights and signs of the first Pentecost, or why we are not blessed with the numeric growth of the early church, it may well be because we have refused to live in the new world of the Spirit, because we have given in daily to the old world and its ways.
Of all Christ’s people, we Methodists should be especially concerned to live in this new world, to live as the church. On this very day, May 24, two hundred seventy seven years ago, the Spirit opened this new world to John Wesley, our spiritual father. Wesley talks about his “heart strangely warmed” and his feelings of trust in Christ and release from his sins, but how he felt is less important than how he lived after Aldersgate Day. He preached, recklessly, in fields and towns, wherever he could find someone to listen, as if he had nothing to lose. He rode, tirelessly, on horseback around England, collecting funds for orphanages and schools and widows. And in an age that was suspicious of any groups that met without official approval, he organized bands and societies and classes for followers of Christ to gather, support each other in prayer, and hold each other accountable to life as the church, to life in the new world of the Spirit, of Jesus Christ the Son, and of the Father.
Is Centre a congregation ready to live in this new world, ready to reclaim our Wesleyan heritage, ready to live as the church in Forest Hill? I’ve seen some hopeful signs, but I’m not sure we’re there yet. And until we arrive, I add my voice to the chorus of saints who for ages have prayed: Come, Holy Spirit, come!