Acts 2: 1-21
This morning we have two very important things going on as a part of our worship service. The most obvious is that today is Confirmation Sunday. For a lengthy time Emily, Ange, Matthew, Amy and Lilli have gone through careful instruction with Jenny and me in the basics of the Christian Faith. We’ve used the doctrine of the Scriptures as taught in Luther’s Small Catechism as the basis for our instruction, and they have learned about the faith that they will confess as their own today. It’s a big day! In some cases, you have friends and relatives that have travelled a long ways to be here.
While Confirmation Sunday is a big day in the life of our Lutheran congregations, that’s not the only big event we remember today. Today is also the Day of Pentecost.
In our reading from Acts 2 and the Gospel reading from John, we hear about the promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the fulfilment of it in Acts.
This morning, we’re going to look at that first Pentecost, and see why it’s such a big deal to us today, and why that event can give our confirmees a lot of confidence as they go out living their lives in the Christian faith.
Sometimes Pentecost can be one of the days of the church year that some may say that Lutherans are out of touch with. Some, even from within our wider church say that we don’t talk enough about the Holy Spirit, that what we believe, teach, and confess is dead, that we’re not “alive” like other churches seem to be. And I spose talk of the Holy Spirit in regards to tongues of fire, and strange languages can be confusing and even misconstrued. So sometimes we do decide that it is easier to not really talk about Pentecost, or what happened on that day.
Well this morning, we are going to talk about Pentecost, and we’re going to talk about the Holy Spirit, but we’re going to see how the Holy Spirit truly works, and what it has to do with our confirmees, and with us. To start off with, let’s discover what the Holy Spirit’s work is. It has been 10 days since Jesus had ascended into heaven. Just prior to His ascension into heaven, Jesus told his disciples to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit, who would empower them to be Jesus’ witnesses in Jerusalem, all of Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. They spent that time together, devoting themselves to prayer and meditating on the Word that Jesus had given them.
Then it happens. A sound of a rushing wind filled the room where the Disciples were. A pretty extraordinary event I would think! But there’s more. Next, tongues of fire descend over the disciple’s heads. Pretty impressive and needless to say, it’s going to grab a LOT of attention. This is all taking place at the Jewish Pentecost festival, which was one of the major festivals Jewish men were expected to return to Jerusalem for. So you have devout Jews from every tribe and place in the city. This sets the stage for what happens next.
The apostles come out, and start speaking in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. In other words, the disciples come out, and they start speaking other known languages. Languages that they had never spoken before, and so understandably the Jews who where there were saying “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? So how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” It’s obvious something big is going on! They’re telling the good news about Jesus to all of these people in the language that they can understand! This isn’t the kind of “speaking in tongues” that is on the radar these days, but as in the scripture here, “tongues” refers to speaking in known languages that hearers can understand. In the midst of all of this, Peter gets up and starts preaching a sermon. He tells them that what is going on is the fulfilment of a prophecy in Joel, and points them to Jesus, the one that they had put to death, who was the long awaited Messiah.
Later in the chapter, we’re told that Peter’s audience is cut to the heart by the preaching of the law, and ask what they are to do. Peter tells them to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins, and that this gift was for them, and their children, and for all who were far off, everyone whom the Lord would call to himself. Then we’re told that 3,000 people were baptized and added to the church that day, and that they continued to gather around the apostles’ teaching, and the breaking of the bread, in other words, they gathered around the preaching of the Word and the Sacrament of Holy Communion on a regular basis. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved!
Quite a day and you can read into the text a lot of fervour and zeal in those early Christians. That had to have been an exciting day to be a part of! 3000 people heard the Gospel preached to them in their own language, believed, and were baptized. When we compare that, life at our little Lutheran Church’s seems to be pretty dull, and because of that, we maybe led to despair sometimes and wonder if we have the Holy Spirit like other churches do. So, do we have the Spirit at St. Marks and St. Johns? And are we allowing the Holy Spirit to work?
To find the answer, let me ask you a couple of questions. What are we missing from that day of Pentecost? Well, we didn’t have a loud rushing wind fill the building this morning. And as I look out at the congregation, I don’t see any tongues of fire dancing atop anyone’s heads, and I doubt you’ll see that when our confirmees publically confess their faith in the Rite of Confirmation. But what do we have? The furniture you see in the front of this church will give you that answer. You see the pulpit and lectern, where the Word of God is read from and proclaimed to you, telling you that we have the Apostles’ teaching, the Word of God that is read and proclaimed. You see the Baptismal Font, telling us the same baptism that was given to those 3,000 people that day is given here. And, you see the altar, where we receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper: the body and blood of our Lord.
So if you ask me, we have what’s necessary to forgive sins and bring eternal life, we have Word and Sacrament. You see, when something big happened in God’s plan of salvation in the Bible, He kicked it off with something special: at the crucifixion, darkness covered the land, the temple curtain was torn in two, and the earth shook. At the Resurrection, the stone was rolled away. Here at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit that Jesus had promised the disciples would come in the Gospel reading arrived, it is announced with the rushing wind, tongues of fire, and the gift of languages. Those things didn’t give forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. God’s Word, Holy Baptism, and Holy Communion did and still do. Those are the means that the Holy Spirit worked through to bring people to faith, and to strengthen the faith of those who already believed. So could it be?
Could it be that what we’ve been doing in believing that the Old and New Testaments are the inspired, infallible Word of God, and that the Word, attached to water in Holy Baptism and bread and wine in Holy Communion, without gimmicks and fads attached to them, is exactly what those early Christians in Acts 2 were doing? Could it be that the problem isn’t with the Scriptures, or the doctrine that these young people have come to learn in Luther’s Small Catechism, but that the problem is with us, in wanting to squelch the Spirit’s work by our own emotions, ideas, or activity, looking for the Spirit in places He has not promised to be found?
Yet, some might say, 3,000 people were baptized after one sermon, without having to spend a year of careful instruction with a Pastor studying the doctrine of the Scriptures! Something powerful had to be going on! Well it was but let’s put it into proper perspective. Pentecost was a major Jewish festival that would bring many Jewish men into Jerusalem.
Historical record apart from the Scriptures tells us that Jerusalem’s population would swell to up to one million or more during such times.
Not only that, but the text tells us these were devout Jews, men who were well schooled in the Word of God, they knew everything there was about the Messiah expect one thing, his name. Now, if you do the math, if we have 1 million devout Jews in the city at Pentecost, and 3,000 of them hear the message proclaimed to them in their own language, and they are baptized, then that means 3 one-thousandths of one percent of the Jews in Jerusalem heard the message, believed, and were baptized. If you were to talk to a supposed church growth expert today with a statistic like that, they may call the Pentecost event a failure.
For you confirmees, today it is going to be easy to promise that you will remain faithful in the Christian faith. But, the tough part happens the moment you walk out of that door. Statistically speaking, half of you will eventually stop coming to church in your high school years. You’ll find the allure of sports, late Saturday nights with friends, or other things in the world to be more important than being strengthened in your faith in church where Christ is present with His gifts of Word and Sacrament. You’ll be tempted with this sin and that sin, and have the world tell you that what you learned in the Bible isn’t really relevant anymore. You’ll be tempted to look for God in places He hasn’t promised to be found. You’ll be tempted to turn your back on Word and Sacrament because they’re not flashy, or entertaining in the eyes of the world.
But, there’s a great danger in that! When you ignore these means that the Holy Spirit promises to work through, you are setting yourself up to be tricked in regards to the truth of Christ’s gifts. And eventually, you will risk being starved out of your faith.
But that plea isn’t just for our confirmees, it’s also for all of us here. Don’t go looking for the Spirit in places He has not promised to be. Sometimes, we’re tempted to fall into a phrase I heard as “Lutheran Shame”, in that we’re led to believe that our doctrine and practice isn’t all that exciting, and so we go and look at other churches, and see what they’re doing that seems more alive, and want to adopt their methods without first going to the Word of God to find out if they are scriptural or not.
We’re often tempted to believe that the Spirit won’t work through these means and try to come up with our own methods to cause the Holy Spirit to come and work. When that happens, we forget that the Holy Spirit works through means, that He has promised to work faith through the Word and the Sacrament when and where He wills. There are times and places where mission work is slow, and other times and places where it is fertile. Paul sometimes would preach, and have several converts, while other places; he would nearly be stoned to death.
In our world of instant gratification, it’s tempting to get discouraged in the church-and if you think of the struggles of our ancestors and their missionary activities into Northern Territory and PNG we could imagine it would have been tempting to have given up. But those early Pastors and Christians knew that the Holy Spirit works through the means of Word and Sacrament, and in God’s timing, congregations began from those seeds that were planted during that time.
Don’t get caught up in a statistical report, or a dollar sign to measure a church’s mission. We’re called to measure it by if that church or mission is proclaiming the Word of God in its truth and purity, and if the Sacraments are being administered to the Word of Christ, and let us repent when we use any other means to try to bring about the work of the Holy Spirit.
To confirmees today, while your confirmation instruction has ended, your life of hearing the Scriptures preached to you is only just beginning. I want to encourage you to continue to allow the Spirit to point you to Christ through the Word and through the Sacraments. Continue to come here on Sunday mornings, be fed through God’s Word and Sacraments, where the Spirit will convict you of your sins, and point you to Christ crucified, who through His life, death, and resurrection, has won forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation for you. Continue to read your Bibles at home and don’t be afraid to come by my office and ask me the tough questions. We’ll sit down together, and find the answers in the Word of God.
And for the rest of us, the Day of Pentecost is a challenge for us to remain faithful to the doctrine we have learned from the Scriptures. Be encouraged in that being a church that remains faithful to Word and Sacrament ministry, is being an Acts 2 type of church. Be encouraged in the knowledge that the Holy Spirit is at work here. Even though the means may not be that flashy, we have the promise from God’s Holy Word that the Spirit is here, through the Word, through Holy Baptism, through Holy Communion to convict us of our sin, and to point us to our Saviour, Jesus Christ, and to either bring us to faith in Christ, or strengthen our faith in Christ. What could be more exciting than that?
May God grant that to us for Jesus’ sake. Amen.