Among Presbyterians it’s hard to find a more quoted verse of the Bible than 1 Corinthians 14:40, which reads, “All things should be done decently and in order.” That phrase, “decently and in order” has become a catchphrase in the Presbyterian church. We crave a sense of decency and orderliness in our gatherings, in our worship, in our committee structures, and in just about all that we do. So it’s really no surprise that we quote that verse from 1 Corinthians so frequently. What’s surprising is that we so rarely quote the verse that comes before it. 1 Corinthians 14:39 reads, “So my dear sisters and brothers, be eager to prophesy, and don’t forbid speaking in tongues.” Well that’s rather inconvenient for us Presbyterians, isn’t it?
Try as we might, scripture won’t let us get away with just doing things decently and in order. We Presbyterians (and Christians in general) are constantly faced with the reality that the God we worship doesn’t always stay inside the lines. The gospel of Jesus Christ, the message of grace and forgiveness that comforted so many people who met him was the same message that upset and threatened so many who held religious authority. And yes, that Spirit of God that brought order out of chaos in the creation narrative is the same spirit that visits the disciples at Pentecost wind and fire, and turns the place upside down.
It’s hard for us to know what to do with Pentecost. On the one hand, we can try to explain it decently and in order. We can explain it as a custom borrowed from Judaism, a great festival in the church occurring fifty days after the Passover Sabbath. We can describe it as a special Sunday on the church calendar commemorating the “birthday” of the church. To many of us it’s “that weird Sunday when we call wear red to church for some odd reason.” All of these descriptions are true, but none of them really gets to the heart of what Pentecost is all about.
In our scripture reading for this morning we read about the events that we commemorate today. In the span of fifty days, the disciples had witnessed the crucifixion of their Savior and Lord, celebrated his resurrection, and stood in awe as he ascended from them. After that the disciples were essentially asking, “Now what?” At first they didn’t do anything all that remarkable. There was the matter of finding a new disciple to replace Judas Iscariot, and so they followed the very decent and orderly Jewish custom of drawing lots. The lot they drew named Matthias as the new disciple. There was no uproar. There were no damaged ballots or recounts or hanging chads. They were twelve disciples again. So… once again they said to one another… Now what?
According to the book of Acts they decided to gather together in an upper room in Jerusalem. There are several mentions of “an upper room” in scripture. It’s where Jesus met with them for the last supper. It’s where they had gathered and locked the doors after he was crucified. It’s where they went when they were afraid or uncertain. It was their safe place. So when they gathered there yet again on that Pentecost Sunday it was more or less business as usual. They were just following the church manual, you know? They were just doing what they knew to do. But what happened next was anything but business as usual. It was anything but decent, and anything but orderly.
It all began with the breath of God, God’s Spirit, when it roared through that place where the disciples were gathered. It shook the walls and rattled the doors. It blew over tables and chairs, and made casual observers dive for cover. Suddenly tongues of fire appeared on the head of each disciple. It was all-out explosion of God’s holy power. And to top it all off the disciples suddenly began speaking in tongues, literally speaking in other languages, telling the world about all that God had done. That was Pentecost, and that is the event that we commemorate today. I dare say that to us Presbyterians that sounds about as indecent and disorderly as it gets.
You’ve probably heard the story about the Presbyterian church in which the preacher made his first point, and a visitor sitting in the back of the sanctuary said out loud, “Amen, brother.” People turned around in their pews and looked at her curiously. When the preacher made his second point, she said, louder this time, “Oh yes, preach it. Preach it!” More stares and consternation and discomfort in the pews around her. When the preacher got to his third and concluding point, the woman stood up, raised her hands in the air, and yelled, “Praise God Almighty. Thank you, Jesus.” One of the ushers came over to her and said, “Ma’am, is there something wrong?” “No,” she answered. “I just have the Spirit.” “Well,” he said, “you certainly didn’t get it here.”
How do we good, decent, and orderly Presbyterians respond to Pentecost? How do we make room for God’s wild and unpredictable Spirit in our carefully managed lives? Is it possible to live as a Pentecost person and a Presbyterian? Now today I am not going to attempt to make sense of Pentecost. I’m not going to try to analyze it until it seems manageable, because it shouldn’t be. We should all leave church today, on Pentecost Sunday, wearing our red and feeling at least a little unsettled about things. This is not meant to be a comforting sermon. What I do want to do is to give you just one way in which I think we can all apply the message of Pentecost Sunday to the world in which we live today.
This is the graph that everyone was talking about last week. In a nutshell, it confirms once again what we’ve known for years. The percentage of Americans who identify themselves as Christian is shrinking while the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as religiously unaffiliated is growing. This is happening irrespective of denominational identity. That means across the board, membership in Christian churches is declining.
Now there are a few different ways we can respond to this. One possibility is that we blame the culture around us, labeling all of those religiously unaffiliated people as godless and immoral, and in particular we could criticize millennials. Millennials are the youngest generation of adults and the group most likely to be religiously unaffiliated. This is also the group that consistently describes their church experience with words like “judgmental”, so I’m doubtful that judging them more is going to make them feel more connected to Jesus. But that’s just one possibility.
Another possibility is that we can analyze the surveys, compile all of the data, and seek to really understand why this is happening. It’s the decent and orderly approach. We could also proceed with business as usual, pretending that it will all work itself out and the pendulum will swing back in the other direction soon enough. On the other hand, we could devote all of our time and energy into making church bigger, flashier, more exciting and more appealing to everyone. Maybe the next big church thing will come along and it will be something so fantastic and amazing that people from all generations will flock to the church to be a part of it.
Those are all possibilities, but I don’t think any of them is a particularly good one. On this Pentecost Sunday I think it’s worth remembering that when the disciples were searching, when they were wondering “what’s next,” when they were looking out on a culture that didn’t really know who Jesus was at all, and when they were maybe even content with business as usual in the face of an uncertain future, God came in and literally blew the roof off the place. God set them on fire and set them to action, and the primary way that God did it was by giving them new languages to speak. Think about that for a minute. All of those people in the community surrounding that upper room didn’t witness the Pentecost event and say, “Wow! That wind was crazy!” or “Wow! They were on fire!” What they said, and what was the most remarkable to them was that they heard the good news in their own languages. They said, “Wow… I understand them… They are speaking to me.”
We are surrounded by a culture of Americans who are not being spoken to or listened to. They are religiously unaffiliated, and they consistently say that the church doesn’t mean anything to them. We can lament that. We can find someone to blame for that. We can ignore that and we can even carry on with business as usual. But the hard truth is that if all we seek to do is gather in our safe place, our upper room, and conduct “business as usual”, we are missing the heart of what God has called us to do. Every one of those people who checks the “unaffiliated” box on the religious survey is a child of God, just like you and me. And when we look at surveys like the one on the screen here, we should see a tremendous opportunity to share the love of Christ with them. We don’t need to be the next big thing. God has already done the next big thing. It’s already here!
A pastor colleague of mine tweeted this week, “I’m convinced that in the Church today, we need less spotlights, fog lights, and formulas, and simply more humility and dependence on the Holy Spirit.” He’s right, I think. We are already a part of a life-changing mission in which the world is turned upside-down, and the people of God speak to each other and to the world in the language of Jesus: grace, forgiveness, love. Nothing is bigger or more radical than that. Even during those times that we are gathered in our upper rooms wondering what’s next, God is already blowing down the doors, calling us out into the world to share and work, to love and to serve. That’s a language that can be understood anywhere.
Several years ago we sent a mission team from our church to Guatemala, which involved building not one, but four Habitat Houses in a week. We began our week there in worship, but the church where we gathered was little more than an extended roof on the back of a very modest home. It felt strange because it had no walls, and the people were unfamiliar, and we couldn’t understand most of what was said, but near the end of the worship service we sang a hymn together that was in Spanish, but the tune was instantly recognizeable. That hymn changed everything for me. Suddenly I felt as though I was in the midst of brothers and sisters rather than strangers. After worship they fed us, and served us, and hugged us. It was a language that we all understood. In the days that followed we worked very hard, hauling cinder blocks, sifting sand, mixing cement, laying block, and doing everything else that a Habitat House requires. Our attempts to speak to them meant little, but by the end of the week those houses meant the world to them. The fact that this group of strangers from America cared enough to come to them and serve them in Christian love was the only language that mattered.
That’s the work of God’s Spirit, and that’s Pentecost. It’s a hymn with new words but a tune that we’ve all heard before. It’s a church with no walls where the wind can blow through. It’s meeting, and serving, and loving those around us and letting Jesus speak through our words and our actions. It’s opening our doors and our mouths, yes, but also our hearts, our minds, our hands… That even those unaffiliated with church would meet us and think, “Wow… I understand them… They’re speaking to me.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.