Sermon delivered by David Hughes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., on May 31 2009.
Before April 11th of this year, few people if any outside of Blackburn, Scotland had ever heard of Susan Boyle. But on April 11, in a manner of speaking, lighting struck Susan Boyle.
Unless your head’s been buried in the sand, you know that in April this 48-year-old Scottish lass, appeared on the television show, “Britain’s Got Talent,” England’s version of our “American Idol.” When this pudgy, frizzled-haired, matronly woman strode on to the stage and said her dream was to become a famous singer, everybody in the audience, including the judges, rolled their eyes and struggled not to laugh.
But when Susan Boyle opened her mouth and began singing, “I Dreamed a Dream” from the musical, Les Miserable, nobody was laughing. A beautiful voice emerged from the rather homely face of this woman, and the audience was stunned. In short order, the crowd began screaming cheers for Susan Boyle the way crowds used to cheer the Beatles and Elvis Pressley. When Susan finished singing, even the judges rose to give her a standing ovation. Afterwards, the normally restrained judges gushed over Susan’s performance, and voted unanimously to send her forward into the contest.
But that wasn’t the end of it. In short order, a video of Susan Boyle’s performance was uploaded on the Internet web site known as “You Tube.” That video has now been watched by people all over the world some 220 million times, and video experts predict this clip will soon be the most watched video of all time, making Susan Boyle one of the most famous people on the planet!
Lightning didn’t literally strike Susan Boyle. But even if it had, it would scarcely had as much effect as that electrifying performance of April 11 had on her life, which will never be the same.
Two thousand years ago, lightning struck not one person but a group of people in much the same way, and the world has never been the same. On the Day of Pentecost, lightning struck the early church. We're told that Jesus’ disciples and just over a hundred other believers were assembled in one place in Jerusalem. They weren't partying like most of the thousands of Jews from all over the world in town to celebrate the Jewish Festival of Pentecost. Pentecost was a holiday designed for celebrating both the harvest of the fields and the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai.
But those Jews who also happened to be followers of Jesus weren’t celebrating. No, they were waiting and praying behind closed doors, for what they did not know.
You see, fifty days earlier on the day we Christians now call Easter God raised Jesus from the dead. Soon after Jesus appeared to his disciples and remained with them for forty days, teaching them further about the Kingdom of God. On the fortieth day, Jesus took his leave from the disciples and ascended into heaven, instructing them not to leave Jerusalem until they had been baptized with the Holy Spirit. So for ten days running, the 120 believers Jesus left behind had been sitting on their cans in Jerusalem, feeling down in the dumps about the departure of Jesus and totally bumfuzzled about what would come next.
Then, without warning, lightning struck. Not literally, of course, but figuratively: Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Too bad there wasn’t “You Tube” in those days! Somebody could have recorded the events of Pentecost, and that uploaded video would be the most watched of all time—along with the video of the resurrection!
On the other hand, many churches today may be relieved we don’t have a video record of that early, Spirit-filled, Acts 2 church. You would think most modern Christians would look back on the fire works of that first Day of Pentecost with envy, and on a surface level, many do.
But on a deeper level, we're not so sure we want the sound and fury of a genuine Pentecostal experience. It's too nerve-wracking. And it might mean that we would have to change our lives to accommodate the fullness of God. Some cynic has said that if it were up to most of its members modern churches would have on their steeples lightning rods instead of crosses in memory of that time when lightning struck the early church and as protection against it ever happening again.
Many of you still remember the day when we had a weather vane rather than a cross on top of our church steeple. Personally, I’m glad a cross now sits atop our steeple because I believe with all my heart God wants to strike our church with Pentecostal lightning.
Suppose we began to pray for a Pentecost lighting strike here. Suppose we invited, with no reservations, the power of the Holy Spirit to blow through our lives. What would our church look like?
I want to answer that question in a different kind of way today. With the help of a book written by Ronald Holheiser entitled, The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality, I want to talk about what our church would not look like if God suddenly struck us with Pentecostal lightning, and the winds and flames of the Spirit roared through this place.
Holheiser writes quite a bit about ecclesiology, or the nature of the church. And on this birthday of the church, it’s appropriate to review God’s hopes and dreams for the church. Before anything else, Holheiser says, the church is the people. Ministers and buildings and organizations and moral codes are all secondary. The church is first and foremost a community of people gathered in a very particular way around a very particular purpose.
Now speaking of people, many Christians assume that churches are like social clubs, made up of like-minded individuals who gather on the basis of mutual compatibility. And they would be wrong!
Look at the group of 12 disciples who first gathered around Jesus. They were not at all compatible! They came from different backgrounds and temperaments, had different visions of what Jesus was all about, were jealous of each other, and were, as scripture reveals, occasionally furious with each other. They may have loved each other, in the biblical sense of that word, but they certainly didn’t always like each other.
Look at the people the Spirit of Christ appealed to on the day of Pentecost. Luke, the author of Acts tells us there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound (of wind and speaking in tongues), a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans. Then how is it each of us hears them in our native language?”
Then Luke proceeds to name 15 different language and people groups, all of whom heard the followers of Jesus declaring the wonders of God in their own tongues. Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
I bet they did! And the truth is, we’re still asking that question. Because the truth is, we in the 21st century are consciously or unconsciously looking for churches full of people who think and live and look just like us. And we get frustrated with church when we encounter people who are quite different from us, some of whom may not even like us and, truth be told, we struggle to like them.
I hope all of us want our church to grow. But here’s the Pentecostal question—would you still want our church to grow if the new people were different from us rather than just like us? The Spirit of Jesus Christ that struck lightning 2000 years ago clearly wasn’t interested in building social clubs of mutually compatible people. The Spirit of Christ was and is eager to form community among very different people who stand arm in arm not because they always like each other, or because they always agree, but because they love each other in Christ.
The second thing a Pentecostal church is not is a holy huddle. If you want to see a holy huddle at work, read Acts 2:1—When the day of Pentecost came, (the followers of Jesus) were altogether in one place. That verse sounds innocent enough, until you realize Jesus’ followers were huddled together behind locked doors out of fear of being discovered or even executed for their faith in Christ.
Holy huddles may look like close-knit communities, but they are not. They are physically together under one roof, but what really unites them is fear of the unknown, fear of the world, and common fear does not a Christian community make.
The sad truth is, many churches resemble holy huddles of people who fear the world beyond their walls. So they talk and make friends only with themselves, serve only themselves, preach and teach only to themselves, and then congratulate themselves on maintaining a fine Christian church.
Sadly, many churches are driven not by the bold Spirit of Jesus but by a spirit of timidity and fear. And when fear has the last word, God’s dream for us has little chance. If Susan Boyles had let fear have the last word, she never would have left her little Scottish hamlet and stepped on to the world stage. If the disciples had let fear have the last word, they would never have left the Upper Room. They might have formed a little chapel and offered regular chapel services. But the disciples never would have spilled into the streets of Jerusalem sharing the gospel in various tongues. And Peter never would have stood to preach the first sermon of the Christian church. And the church would never have been born.
Lately, I’ve been seeing signs here that the wind and the fire of the Holy Spirit are rustling about our church. I heard the Pentecostal wind blow when we opened our doors for the homeless. I heard it again a few days ago when we voted to partner with the Street School of Winston-Salem in our 6th Street property. And I hope to hear it again this fall when we devote a season of time in our church to learn how to walk across our rooms, and streets, and schoolyards, and office buildings to share the good news of Jesus with others.
Now, you might think, in view of the evangelistic mission launched at Pentecost, that a Pentecostal church is essentially a task force organized around the mission of sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ to the whole world. That’s what many of us Great Commission Baptists have believed. And we would be wrong!
Task forces and teams organize around a common mission or task. And that’s great. In fact, we need effective teams and task forces. But brothers and sisters, churches are more than task forces organized around for a common task, and church members are more than co-workers.
Ultimately, we don’t gather around a task. We gather around a person. And his name is Jesus. Here’s the deal. When Jesus was physically alive, he built a community around himself. After his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus instructed that community with his teaching, and empowered that community with his Spirit. And the church at its Pentecostal best will always gather not around common interests, beliefs, fears, or even tasks. The church at its best always gathers around the person of Jesus present in the Holy Spirit.
Imagine a woman named Betsy who throws a party. Betsy has a heart of gold, and doesn’t have an ounce of prejudice in her body. She invites to this party persons of every stripe and background: moderates and fundamentalists, Democrats and Republicans, Tar Heels and Demon Deacons, black and white, rich and poor, Rush Limbaugh and James Carville.
Given the mix of the crowd, there’s an understandable undercurrent of tension in the room. But people go out of their way to be respectful of one another for one reason—they all love Betsy. Take Betsy out of the picture and they start nipping at each other in a hurry. But keep Betsy the dominant focus, and out of devotion to her this motley crew of people actually behaves like a close-knit community.
Two thousand years ago the signs and wonders of Pentecost were strong winds, tongues of fire, and speaking in strange languages. Six weeks ago when Susan Boyle first stepped on stage the wonder was a voice that seemed to fall from heaven. What if the signs and wonders of the 21st century church are congregations so filled with the Holy Spirit and unified around Jesus that they consistently not only loved each other but broke out of their holy huddles to love and serve others?
Talk about electrifying!