Art and Photo by Cynthia O’Connell

Acts 2: 1-21

Glebe Road United Church, Pentecost Sunday 2022

“This is the church,
It has steeple.
Look inside,
And see all the people.”

This little poem with hand actions may be familiar if you attended church as a child, maybe you learned it in Sunday school, or this might be your first time hearing it. It is a simple way to explain what a church is. Today is Pentecost Sunday, often called the birthday of the church. A good time to answer the question, what is a church?

One of the early church definitions of a church is, 

“A community of people who have gathered to worship, have fellowship, to serve, and to witness about the work of God.”

The story of acts is another source to define the church. It begins by telling us that the disciples are gathered in Jerusalem, post resurrection. They are at a crisis point in this new emerging faith, it is not yet a distinct religion, but can be seen as a sect of Judaism that believes that Jesus is the messiah. 

We hear in Acts how the Jewish diaspora from many lands are in Jerusalem for Shavout or Pentecost known in English as the Feast of Weeks. While it is sometimes referred to as Pentecost due to its timing after Passover, “pentecost” meaning “fifty” in Greek, since Shavuot occurs fifty days after the first day of Passover. It is not the same as the Christian Pentecost. In the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures Shavuot marks the wheat harvest in the Land of Israel (Exodus 34:22) and according to the Jewish sages, it also commemorates the anniversary of the giving of the Torah by God to the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai in 1312 BCE.

This is the context of the birth of the church, in the ordinary practice and gathering of the faithful something extraordinary happens; the holy spirit comes to disciples and gives them what they need to fulfil God’s mission, the ability to communicate to a diversity of people. 

This sudden ability is so fantastical that some people assume they must be drunk. But Peter quickly corrects them by turning to scripture, to the words spoken by a prophet Joel. Remember for these disciples Jesus is the fulfilment of the law, is the promised messiah, they have been transformed by their experience of the resurrection. Peter continues to preach to his fellow Jews quoting more scripture and learn that as a result of this fantastical moment and birth of the church some 3000 people joined this new movement 

As leader in the church this is inspiring and intimidating. 3000 people? After one sermon? It can also be disheartening – we get excited if someone new joins our service on zoom or in person. What do we take from this fantastical story, what makes us as church?

The story begins with they were all gathered at one place, well that certainly is not always true for the church today, because of technology we can gather together in many different places. Let’s go back to that early definition of the church: 

“A community of people who have gathered to worship, have fellowship, to serve, and to witness about the work of God.”

I want to focus on that last one to witness the work of God, as that is what I think this is what scriptures are pointing to. About Peter and the disciples witnessing sharing their experience and stories about the work of God in their lives and the world. 

What does a witness do?

They give testimony. 

When I say the word testimony in a religious context it may bring to mind many different emotions or images.  Maybe you are someone passionate about your faith and feel comfortable or perhaps even called to share that faith with others. Maybe you are someone who has been on the receiving end of faith sharing and have felt coerced or pressured to believe something that you just don’t. Maybe you imagine some kind of stereo typical tv preacher calling people up to testify and believe. Maybe you remember the dedicated faith of your parents or grandparents getting up every Sunday morning to attend church or perhaps in another faith tradition.  

I think one of the biggest challenges facing the modern church is this issue of testimony and witness. How do we witness to a modern world that is so different from that first church, with all the baggage of 2000 years of- if we are honest – some truly terrible things done in the name of God, Jesus and the Church? Now I am making a huge assumption here, that witness is part of what we are to do as a church. Perhaps you think we should stick to those other things, worship, fellowship and serving. But what if we were to tell you that the problem is not with the idea of sharing our faith but how we understand what faith is? 

Let me explain. A year a go I thought it would be helpful to read a book for the current needs in the church with reference to the adoption of technology. The book is called Engaging technology in Theological Education: All that we can’t leave behind by Mary Hess. There were some really interesting things in the book about the use of technology in churches and in theological education. However, the thing that most stuck with me was Hess’ observations about this idea of witness and mission, and going out to testify, the way Peter did at Pentecost.

Hess says “we are drawn into mission not because we seek to impose our beliefs on others but because we know, deep in our souls, that we can only really know what we believe with as wide and deep a matrix of knowers as possible.”

Let me repeat that: 

“We are drawn into mission not because we seek to impose our beliefs on others but because we know, deep in our souls, that we can only really know what we believe with as wide and deep a matrix of knowers as possible.”

Too often we think that testimony, or witness, is about taking what we know or believe about God, and Jesus, wrapping it up in whatever is the new fad in the church and giving it to someone else so that they have the same thing we do. The problem with this is that we treat faith, or worship as a technical piece of information that we have to communicate to others so that they will have the same information as us. We treat it like a commodity that we have to sell or repackage until people want because it had bad PR in the past.  This is not the church, we are not a commodity, and our mission is not to sell our faith. It is to be in communion with other believers, and others who don’t believe the way we do. The church can not be the church without others, without a diversity of people, without that matrix that Hess speaks of.

Let’s return to the scripture in Acts, how was the church born? When the Holy Spirit came and the disciples were able to speak to others – yes who were fellow Jews – but from a variety of countries with different languages and similar but different cultures. And how did the church grow again after? When non-Jews joined, Gentiles, and added their experiences and belief to the matrix.

I, and we cannot fully know who God is alone, the church is and never has been a body of one.  It is not a solo endeavour. The story of Pentecost tells us we cannot be the church without others, but also we cannot be the church without the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the one who gives us the tools we need so we can be in communion with others, this can be an incredible thing but it also is a challenge to make space for others, for difference. We know the church has failed in the past and present to be the church of Pentecost this why need the Holy Spirit. The song of faith one of the doctrines of the The United Church of Canada says this about the church and the Spirit;

“The church has not always lived up to its vision.
It requires the Spirit to reorient it,
helping it to live an emerging faith while honouring tradition,
challenging it to live by grace rather than entitlement,
for we are called to be a blessing to the earth.”

For we are called to be a blessing to the earth.

So look at your hands, your body, and look at your neighbours hands and body and remember:

“This is the church
A community of diverse people
They witness in many places
Some with a steeple.”

Categories: Sermons