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Church Just Happened
The Day of Pentecost

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
June 8, 2014

Acts 2:1-21 [link]

 
 

In a way, the story of Pentecost is a ghost story.  It’s about the coming of the one the King James Version refers to as the “Holy Ghost.”  And although it isn’t a scary story, the church has been haunted by it ever since, because in all these intervening years there has never been another day like that one.  I’ve been in some wonderful worship services, but I’ve never been in one where the Spirit came with a sound like the rush of a mighty wind, where tongues of flame appeared over the head of each believer, or where they all began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them the ability.  And I’ve preached a lot of sermons, some of them good ones, but I’ve never preached a sermon like the one Peter preached on that day, when 3,000 people came down the aisle afterward asking to be baptized.  So, I’m haunted by this story every time I get up to preach, and the church is haunted by this story every time it gathers for worship.  Something happened on the Day of Pentecost that hasn’t happened since, not like that anyway, and it makes us wonder:

Is something wrong?

When I think of Pentecost I often think of that story from Genesis, where God makes a man out of clay from the riverbank, and then breathes the breath of life into his nostrils and the man stands up, a living being.  On Pentecost I picture God breathing the breath of the Spirit into lifeless body of Christ so that the church stood up, a living entity.  But these days I sometimes wonder if the breath has gone out of the body of Christ.  The church—in this part of the world at least—seems to be gasping for breath.  Outside the churches of the global south, or the churches of charismatic expression, it’s been a long time since anyone heard the sound of rushing wind, or saw tongues of flame, or heard people speaking in other languages.  And it’s been a really long time since 3,000 people came down the aisle.  Some of our churches remind me of that time Paul asked a group of believers if they had received the Holy Spirit and they said, “We didn’t even know there was a Holy Spirit” (Acts 19:2).  

But there is.  I don’t mean there was, once upon a time, on the Day of Pentecost: I mean there is, now, a Holy Spirit available to all believers.  I’ve been preaching from the Gospel of John the last few weeks and one of the things Jesus said to his disciples in those chapters was that he would ask his Father to send another helper—the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth—who would be with them forever (John 14:16).  And when he prayed for them a few chapters later he prayed not only for them, but for all those who would believe in him through their word.  And that’s us.  If Jesus told his disciples he would ask the Father to send them a helper who would be with them forever, and if he made that promise not only to them but to all who would believe in him through their word, then he made that promise to us.  And I believe Jesus is as good as his word.  I believe we have the Spirit.  But we don’t always seem to be aware of the Spirit we have.

So, let’s do a little awareness raising exercise:

In 1 Corinthians 12:3 Paul says, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”  It’s one of the reasons we ask baptismal candidates to profess their faith before we baptize them, and it’s one of the reasons we ask them to say, “Jesus is Lord.” We want to know that they are being led by the Spirit, and not just by peer pressure or church policy.  The tradition goes all the way back to the time of Paul, when those who were baptized said those same words.  I don’t know if they said them before or after they were baptized, but there would be a powerful symbolism in saying them after.  Imagine, as Paul did, that baptism is a sort of a death and burial of the “old you,” and imagine that when you come up out of the water you take the first breath of your new life in Christ.  Imagine breathing in nothing but Holy Spirit, and then, as you exhale, saying, “Jesus is Lord!”  “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Spirit,” Paul claimed, and he may have had that very moment in mind.

But let’s try it, all you baptized believers: breathe in the breath of the Holy Spirit and then say, “Jesus is Lord.”  Can you do it?  Can you say it?  Paul would say that if you didn’t have the Holy Spirit you couldn’t do it, couldn’t say it.  I’ve heard certain radio preachers claim that unless you can speak in tongues you don’t have the Holy Spirit, but that’s not what the Bible says, and that’s not what Paul says.  He claims that if you can say “Jesus is Lord” it’s because the Holy Spirit is already in you, working through you.  What if we started with that assumption: that the Spirit is already there, already at work, and then began to look for evidence of the Spirit’s activity?  If you breathe on a mirror the mirror fogs up: it is evidence of your warm, moist breath.  But what could we do to see the evidence of the Holy Spirit?  What mirror could we breathe on?

Let me ask: how many of you have one of these, a smart phone? (holding it up).  You can breathe on this and see evidence of your breath, but there are a lot of other things you can do with it.  When I turn on my smart phone and type in the security code it shows me lots of colorful symbols of all these applications I can use (or “apps” as we call them).  I have an app for the weather, an app for the time, an app that takes pictures, and I have this app that looks like a little bird.  Anyone know what that one is?  Right: Twitter.  If you go to the company web site you will learn that “Twitter is an online social networking and microblogging service that enables users to send and read short 140-character text messages, called ‘tweets.’”  But what that really means is this: if I’m doing something that I want other people to know about I can open up that application on my phone and tap out a short message and send it into cyberspace just like a bird, sitting on a limb, tweets it’s birdsong into the air.  I did it a couple of weeks ago.  I was in Minneapolis, listening to Barbara Brown Taylor preach, and I couldn’t help myself: I tweeted.  I tapped out, “Listening to Barbara Brown Taylor preach,” and sent that message into cyberspace.  And just like you can hear a bird tweet if you’re close enough, the people who are close to me got that message even though most of them were hundreds of miles away. 

Some of them were even a little jealous. 

But here’s one more thing you need to know about Twitter.  When you write a short message like that you can put it in a particular category, so it doesn’t get lost among the millions of other tweets that are going out.  For example, when I heard Barbara Brown Taylor preach I was at something called the Festival of Homiletics (a fancy name for a preaching conference).  We were encouraged to tweet, to send out those little messages about what was happening and to follow them with the hash tag “Homiletics2014” so that everybody would be jealous (and by the way, a “hash tag” is just another name for the old number symbol, the one with two lines going down and two lines going across).  Anybody who looked for that particular hash tag on Twitter would find all the tweets from the Festival of Homiletics.  I did that yesterday and found a tweet that said, “A good sermon should be one that you can tweet. #homiletics2014,” and that’s funny because a tweet can’t be any longer than 140 characters.  That would be a pretty short sermon. 

But sometimes it would be enough.   

I was thinking about how it would have been if they’d had Twitter on the Day of Pentecost, and if they had used the hash tag “churchjusthappened” (with no caps and no spaces).  Can you imagine?  Someone would tweet: “Mighty wind, flames of fire, unknown tongues. #churchjusthappened.”  And they would be right: church did just happen, for the first time ever, because we often think of Pentecost as the day the church was born.  It was the first time, but it certainly wasn’t the last.  Imagine:

  • Peter preaches that wonderful sermon, three thousand people respond to the invitation, he and the other apostles spend the rest of that day baptizing all those converts and when he’s finished a weary Peter pulls out his smart phone and tweets: “3,000 people baptized in the name of Jesus. #churchjusthappened.”
  • As he and John are going up to the temple a crippled beggar at the Beautiful Gate asks for alms.  Peter says, “Silver and gold have I none but what I have I give to you: in the name of Jesus, get up and walk!”  And he does.  He not only walks he leaps, he whirls, he dances.  John gets out his smart phone and tweets: “Crippled beggar dances at the Beautiful Gate.  #churchjusthappened.”
  • Philip climbs into the chariot of an Ethiopian eunuch to explain to him what he’s reading from the Book of Isaiah.  When they come to water the eunuch says, “Look, here is water.  What’s to keep me from being baptized?”  Philip baptizes him and when the eunuch comes out of the water, rejoicing, he dries his hands, grabs his smart phone, and tweets: “#churchjusthappened.  I’m a believer!”

And it didn’t stop there.  Church happened all the way through the Book of Acts.  It’s been happening ever since.  And sometimes all it takes is paying attention. 

If you have Twitter on your own smart phone, and you open the app and search for the hash tag “churchjusthappened,” you will find that some people have been paying attention already.  Here’s one from Mark Larson, dated September 3, 2012: “#churchjusthappened when 12 friends from Algeria, Nepal, Slovakia, China, and US have dinner and conversation.”  Here’s one from Melissa Brooks, dated two days ago: “#churchjusthappened when the Anna Julia Cooper school grads received new laptops 4 high school from private donors. #amazing.”  Here’s one from a guy named JohnB, dated July 19, 2012: “Watching baptism in the Pacific, a lady asked if someone had drowned. No, quite the opposite, it’s a baptism! #churchjusthappened.”  And the earliest of such tweets, dated June 4, 2012, when Jim Somerville said, “#churchjusthappened when I visited Oscar and Bertha Pitts at Lakewood Manor.”  It makes you think church is happening all the time, all around us, at least it is if you are paying attention.

So, this is what I want to ask you to do: in these next eight weeks, when I’m away on sabbatical, pay attention to all the ways church is happening, and if you have a way to do it, send out a tweet.  You don’t have to have a smart phone.  You can download the Twitter application for free and tweet on your desktop, your laptop, or your tablet.  If you don’t use Twitter use the “churchjusthappened” hash tag on Facebook or Instagram.  And if you don’t know what any of those things are you can do it with a pencil, on a Post-It Note. Start with the hash tag “churchjusthappened,” and then tell us what you heard or saw, and then stick it up on the bulletin board in the hallway.  Jess Ward, our Director of Communication and “Designated Tweeter” will take a picture of your card and send it out on Twitter where everyone can see it. 

I won’t be checking e-mail while I’m on sabbatical, and I won’t be returning phone calls, but I will be checking that Twitter feed called “churchjusthappened,” and I would love it if I found that even when I’m away from church, church is happening, everywhere, all the time.  I’d love to see tweets and pics from Marion, Alabama, when the youth are on their mission trip, letting me know that church just happened there.  I’d love to see them from Youth One, at Passport, in Charlotte, NC, letting me know that church just happened there.  I’d love to see them from the college mission trip to Salyersville, Kentucky, letting me know that church just happened there.  But most of all, I’d like to see them from Richmond, Virginia, letting me know that even when I’m on sabbatical, church is happening here: in the gym, in our Sunday school classes, on street corners, and in coffee shops.  I’d love to know that everywhere people are looking and listening for evidence of the Spirit they would find that church is happening, through us, the body of Christ in this place.

Will you do that for me while I’m away?  Will you be the eyes and ears and hands and heart of that body?  Will you breathe in the Holy Spirit and make sure that even when the pastor is somewhere else, church is happening here?  Here.  Let’s do this.  If you’re willing, raise your hands, I’ll take a picture, and just after worship I will send out a tweet that says, “The people of First Baptist, Richmond, commit to being the living, breathing body of Christ in this city.  #churchjusthappened.”

 
 
Jim Somerville 2014
 
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