One day the American mainline church got out of bed to make a pot of coffee and read a dignified newspaper. This was a typical morning routine for the mainline church, since reading about current events and having knowledge about world happenings is one of its favorite hobbies. And so the church stepped into the kitchen and turned on the coffee pot.
As it waited for the water to heat, it dusted off the top of the books in its library and straightened the linens on the alter. But while this was happening an unexpected noise cut through the relative silence of the room. It was the phone. The American mainline church picked up the receiver. On the other end of the line was a woman. She didn’t introduce herself, but instead got straight to the point: “Oh, hi! Uh, I was wondering if, um, you had anyone in your community that prophesies or witnesses to visions?” The church gulped, wondering if this was a prank call. “Um, no, ma’am, we’re really not in that business.” “Oh, I’m sorry,” the lady replied, “I thought that I had reached a church.” “Oh, yes!” the church quipped, “It is I who is speaking.”
“Hmm,” the lady paused, sounding a bit disappointed. “Thank you, church…but could I, um, speak to someone else?” The church was miffed. “Well, I suppose I could connect you to our theological education pastor, if you would like to discuss scholarship on the prophets.” “Nah, I don’t want to talk about past prophesies, I need a new vision.” “Is the Holy Spirit anywhere around?” “Who!?” the church asked, confused. “The Holy Spirit, the women responded. “Is the Holy Spirit anywhere close by?”
The mainline church tapped the tip of its tasteful dress shoe on the kitchen floor. It had never received this question. The mainline church spoke about the Holy Spirit in worship and in many of its creeds and official statements, but what would it actually mean for the Holy Spirit to be in the church? Did that even make sense? The church needed some time to think this over. “Ma’am, I’m going to take down your number and I’ll be back in touch.” “Okay, sounds good.”
So having jotted down the woman’s number, the mainline church hung up the phone. The coffee pot was now boiling over on the stovetop, but the Mainline Church did not care at this point. It was troubled. This woman’s question had come out of left field. “Is the Holy Spirit there?” the mainline church repeated aloud, trying to scoff at the question. But there was something sincere about the lady’s inquiry that left a pit in the stomach of the church. The church began to drift off into further reflection and, for some reason, it recalled from a church history class the words of an early church bishop, Irenaeus, who once said in one of his sermons, “Where the church is, there’s the spirit of God. And where the Spirit of God is, there is the church in all grace.”
This morning, we continue on with our Eastertide reflections about braving the wilderness that comes with resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus is a game-changer for the world and our living. In light of Jesus being raised from the dead, what are we as followers to do? In hopes of meaningful discernment, we are spending some time this Easter tracing the steps of those first followers as they made sense of post-resurrection living. Our scripture passage this morning picks the story up at the end of the Apostle Peter’s very first sermon on the day of Pentecost; a day celebrated as the beginnings of the church, for on that day—for the first time following Jesus resurrection—the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples.
It was morning, and the disciples were all together in one place, when suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability (Acts 2: 1-4). What was happening was nothing short of miraculous. But the Apostle Peter, he had come to know something about the miraculous, ever since the day he and his brother Andrew dropped their fishing nets on the shore of the lake to follow Jesus of Nazareth. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said to them, “and I will make you fish for people” (Matt 4:19).
And fish for people they did. Peter and a growing band of disciples soon learned more about this unique form of fishing that Jesus had promised. They watched as he spoke to poor migrants, putting his gentle touch on lepers, stopping in the middle of a trip to visit someone plagued by the dark or the demonic. Serving alongside Jesus, these disciples learned what he cared about, and where he found God in humble and broken places. This Jesus, he was filled with the Spirit of God—able to perform many miracles because of the power with which God filled him. Indeed, this was a new sort of fishing, for Jesus’ call was to cast nets of a new kind: a word of promise; a word repentance, forgiveness, and new life to anyone who would believe.
The disciples had been told that the Spirit of God would come upon them. And on this day of Pentecost, it arrives in full force. The scripture does not define the exact nature of the Spirit, but rather describe the type of power that came with it. It say the Spirit was like the wind of a storm. It was like a tongue of fire on each of their heads. Maybe you recognize this fiery imagery. It was a fiery bush that called Moses to confront Pharaoh. A pillar of fire that led Israel out of the wilderness, fire that came down at the command of Elijah before his opponents, fire that cleanses the soul of the psalm writer, fire in the bones of Jeremiah that compels him to speak a difficult message to the people. You know, it’s the universal hope of all people, that God will pick someone else, especially when it comes to the call of prophecy and proclamation. But on this day, that Spirit of God which burns and sets ablaze rests on Peter and the other 11 disciples (now called “apostles” in Acts).
And so Peter unflinchingly stands amongst the crowd, and with the power fo the Holy Spirit, he is now compelled to tell the whole truth about what is happening, unabridged. “Israel, you have made a dire mistake; the people of God have made a critical error. The messiah was here—right here in river city—and you were clueless. He was crucified and no one can escape culpability for that. But there is good news. For Jesus was raised from the dead and is now exalted at the right hand of God. And there is forgiveness of sins in Christ, and there are new possibilities for the lives of those who will take this message to heart. If you repent and are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ your sins are forgiven; and you, too, will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Our scripture says that many who had heard this were cut to the heart by what Peter had spoken. And just like that, many were baptized into Christ because of this message. 3,000 were added to their numbers that day. Now, how’s that for church growth!? This monumental increase in the ranks of Jesus’ followers presented a new and different challenge. Can’t you visualize the first board meeting of Christ’s church; trying to figure out how best to order the community of faith and its daily living; to imagine its structure and processes in effort to most effectively grow and live out the this gospel news. Alas, Peter and the other leaders did not have the luxury of trendy church growth seminars and consultants that we have today.
But you know what they had? They had the teaching of Jesus. They had recollection of the fellowship they had shared in ministry with Him. They knew the importance of breaking bread and praying together. And so the devoted themselves to these things. But you know what else the church had? At the center of this first church, at helm of their efforts, undergirding all of this was the Holy Spirit. The one that had been promised by Jesus when we said, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever” (John 14:16).
The road of discipleship would not prove easy for the apostles and the early church. The apostles would continue to be at odds with the authorities of their day, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, the church would go on to brave the wilderness of living into a new thing. And in claiming the power of the Spirit, they would prophesy and cast visons—not of some far-off time, but about what mattered—right here, right now—to bring the kingdom of God ever closer and so that the rest of creation might come to know the good news that had given them the power to have life and have it abundantly. Girded with the Holy Spirit, the apostles stood up in the face of hardships, sufferings, even death, ready to cast the nets of gospel truth.
I can only imagine that the early church at times yearned for something less intense. I can imagine that Peter may have, at times, longed for the comfort of his old net back on the Sea of Galilee…and it’s certainly all too easy, when faced with challenge, to revert back to “the way we used to do it.” But I wonder, can you really ever go back when you have witnessed resurrection? Is there any holding back when we show up to the Spirit of God in our midst? And is there any limit to the good news that we can share with the world should we choose to tap into that Spirit?
Friends in Christ, you are called and qualified for the work of being church in this present moment. So, go back out into the world, church. To the places where Mary’s son plucked you up from your old fishing grounds; in the dusty, tired corners of your life, and asked you to cast a different kind of net. Go back out into the places where people cry, and labor, and wonder if their wounds will ever be healed. Go out where people live, and strain, and find difficulty being free. Go out into the normal, humdrum, everyday hangouts where people carry the weight of their failures. Go back out to brave that wilderness.
But go out as if you are not alone. Instead, may you go out awakened to the Holy Spirit that will work in and through us. For our God is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us (Eph 3:20).
The American mainline church picked up the phone and dialed the number that it had scratched onto the morning paper.
“Good afternoon,” the woman answered. “Yes this is the church calling you back in regards to your inquiry about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Well, I have good news for you…”