Easter Sermon Series 2016 - Week Seven Preaching Notes
Key Word: Witnesses
Notes for Acts 2:1-21
This week, as we celebrate Pentecost, we come to the final and probably most familiar membership vow:
“To faithfully participate in its ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness.”
Since the word “witness” was added by an act of the 2008 General Conference and is not actually in our present hymnal, I thought it would be not only important to draw attention to this fact by focusing on this word, but also very appropriate for Pentecost.
So often when congregations think of Pentecost they associate it with the birthday of the church of Jesus Christ. They may sing “Happy Birthday” and have balloons and cake and a party atmosphere to make the day special. And while there is technically nothing wrong with celebrating the birth of the church on Pentecost, the problem with focusing only on Pentecost as a birthday celebration causes the day to suffer the same fate most other birthday celebrations: it puts the focus of the day entirely on those being celebrated—that is, those who are already members of the church.
The story of Pentecost was not told to celebrate those who were already disciples of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples who had gathered in Jerusalem as Jesus had instructed not simply to remind them that he was still with them, but rather, for the purpose of empowering and equipping them to be witnesses to the grace of Jesus Christ for those who had not yet heard the Good News of his saving love for them!
Pentecost is one of the oldest feast days the church of Jesus Christ has celebrated, second in importance only to Easter as a high holy day for the early church.
This is a wonderful fact of history that we as a church need to recover and reclaim! Can you imagine if we took Pentecost as seriously as the early church did and through our celebrations said to the whole world, “Pentecost is more important than Christmas!” Because if we look to history, that is true!
Many of us lament each year that the Advent season has become for the secular world a time to prepare for Christmas primarily by shopping and decorating and baking special foods and gathering as family. The season which began for Christians as a time of penitence and reflection—a kind of “mini-Lent”—has been almost completely co-opted by secular interests, especially those generated by the retail industry.
Easter is rapidly becoming the same way. This year I was amazed by the pictures posted on social media of the piles of loot that the Easter Bunny brought to the children of some of my friends. I admit to going overboard on the Easter candy for my own children all those years, but it was never a gift-giving occasion for our family. I know this is changing though. In my local pet store there was an Easter Bunny and a photographer in the store for weeks leading up to Easter, so families could have a picture taken with their pets sitting on the Easter Bunny’s lap. I must admit, I was a little shocked! (But not as shocked as my dog, who growled furiously at the Easter Bunny and refused to get near it.) Is Easter in danger of suffering the same fate as Christmas? Will it be mostly a secular holiday, completely co-opted by market values?
I realize in some ways I have lost my way here and “gone chasing after that rabbit” as they say, but as I try to find my way back to the original trail, let me just reiterate that Pentecost is a festival day that has its roots in an annual feast held by our ancestors in the faith, the Jews. The roots of the Jewish festival of Pentecost (the feast of weeks, or Shavu’ot) comes from Leviticus 23:16 (NRSV), where it says, “You shall count until the day after the seventh Sabbath, fifty days, then you shall present an offering of new grain to the Lord.” It is a time of great anticipation in which observant Jews count the days from the second day of Passover to the day before Shavu’ot (harvest). The purpose of the counting is to remind observers of the connection between Passover and Shavu’ot: Passover, which freed the Israelites from physical bondage in Egypt, and Shavu’ot, which redeemed them spiritually from bondage to idolatry and immorality. And so it was for this feast day that people from all of these different places, all of these different cultural and language and ethnic groups had come into Jerusalem: to make an offering of new grain in remembrance of the freedom and redemption they have been given through the covenant.
It was Paul who picked up on this festival and “co-opted” it for Christians, if you will, to become a day for followers of Jesus Christ to celebrate and commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit to form the church: “Now if the ministry of death came chiseled in stone tablets, came in glory. . . how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory?” (2 Corinthians 3:7-8, NRSV).
And so Pentecost came to commemorate the day when the Spirit of Christ came to rest on the disciples and all of other people who had gathered in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost, as the story is told in our reading for today. It is the day that the Spirit came to live in the body of Christ on earth, the church.
The day of Pentecost was a day of transformation for many people as they heard the Good News of Jesus Christ proclaimed for the first time and in ways they could really understand, ways that made sense for them, for their lives and their circumstances. It was a life changing message for people, many of whom became converts and were baptized.
As you look around your congregation on Pentecost and consider that this is the day of all days in the church for proclaiming the good news to people in your community who have not yet heard it, consider why there are fewer visitors on this day than there were on Easter or on Christmas. I realize I am making an assumption here, but I want to challenge us all to really think about how we can reclaim the importance of this day, not just for our members, but for our larger witness in the communities we serve.
What can you do to make Pentecost the day that you as a congregation witness about Jesus Christ to your neighbors who do not yet know his saving love? How can you spread the good news on this day? How can you faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by your witness to others? What can you do to bring visitors in? Or, better yet, how can you take the good news out to the places where people are already gathering? How can you grow your witness of the ministry of all believers so that all of the people who live around you, especially those who are not believers, will be able to hear about the love of Christ in a way that they really understand, a way that speaks their language and makes sense for their lives and their circumstances?