The transformation is incredible! In the Upper Room, on the eve of Jesus’ death, they are squabbling. At Pentecost a few weeks later, there is such power and harmony that the greatest revival in the history of the church breaks out!
We can understand what happened in the Upper Room. The disciples were human, like us. They had their little jealousies. Some of them had sharp memories for wrongs and insults. Some of them were aggressive and ambitious. They had learned that if you don’t promote yourself in this world, no one else will. They were jockeying for place and position in the kingdom.
“I deserve the place of honor,” said one.
“You don’t deserve anything,” said another. “I remember how you behaved that time in Caesarea.”
Jesus had to intercede. “The road to greatness lies through serving,” He said. “If you want to be great, then begin as a servant.”
It is much harder to understand what happened at the festival of Pentecost. All those people, gathered from many points of the globe. A spirit of solidarity among the disciples. No fussing or bickering. Only a witness to Jesus, and what God had done at the cross. And the Spirit of God fell upon them so mightily that the church ever since has celebrated what happened as part of its annual calendar of remembrance.
They had moved from quarreling to concert, from contention to unity. What happened? What would account for such a change? Luke, who reported both incidents, makes it perfectly clear. Between the Upper Room and the festival of Pentecost, between the quarreling and the unity, they had had two unforgettable experiences – the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
They had stood by and watched the Master, the one they had followed for years, the one with whom they had walked and worked and eaten and slept, the one who had been their Lord and teacher. He had been nailed mercilessly to a rough Roman cross and raised against the Judean sky. They had seen Him suffering on the cross. They had watched the life draining out of Him, His blood as red as beet juice flowing into the sand and rocks. And then they had been astounded by the news of the empty tomb, and by the risen presence of the man who had met them everywhere, now here, now there, and had told them He would never leave them, that His Spirit would be with them forever. That’s what had happened. The crucifixion and the resurrection had altered their lives forever!
It happens in every age, doesn’t it? A man is rough and unkind, cursing and drinking and beating the weaker persons around him. He meets the Savior, comes up against the crucifixion and resurrection, and his life and demeanor are totally altered. He is no longer at the center of his universe; God is. He is no longer abusive. He is thoughtful and kind. He changes. The old devil in him gives way to a new angel that moves in.
The same thing happens to churches. They become worn-out, self-centered, quarrelsome. People argue over the most inappropriate things. Then they remember the crucifixion and the resurrection. “God forgive us,” they say, “we forgot what it was all about!” And they change! Christ begins to live in and through them again. They stop asking what God can do for them and ask what they can do for God. They are overtaken by a spirit of love and gentleness, of peace and harmony and good will. They begin to whisper again about change and renewal, about doing the will of God. They remember Pentecost, and yearn for what happened then to happen all over again, in them.
What did happen at Pentecost?
I. The Spirit of God came upon all of those present.
They surely didn’t expect it. They were as surprised as we would be. Thousands of people, gathered for a religious celebration, the way we gather for Christmas or Easter, and suddenly, before they knew it, something life-changing had happened to all of them! It was so exciting that they acted giddy and drunk.
We wouldn’t want anything like that happening to us, would we? Not in this dignified sanctuary, with its elegant stained glass and hardwood reredos and magnificent pipe organs. Being “slain in the Spirit” is the sort of thing we associate with Pentecostals and charismatics, not with disputatious, intellectual Congregationalists. We pride ourselves on our self-control, our gravity, our individualism. We might call the ushers on anybody who got too caught up in the Spirit of God.
“You can do this sort of thing down on Hope Street,” we would say, “– down under the big sign that says ‘Jesus Saves’ — but you can’t do it here.” But, you know, I would like to be present one time where the Spirit did take over that way. What a remarkable, unforgettable experience it would be! Feeling the Spirit like the rushing of a mighty wind through the sanctuary, making the flames of the candles on the altar leap up high, sucking air, and rustling the antependia on the lectern and the pulpit, stirring the pages of our hymnbooks and Bibles — wow!
Annie Dillman says in Teaching a Stone to Talk that we ought to wear crash helmets in church, and strap ourselves to the pews, because we don’t know what a dangerous zone this is. I’d like to think she’s right, and that one of these days we’re all going to be surprised and overwhelmed by the coming of the Spirit. When it happens, well rewrite our personal theologies and compose some new hymns, and the preacher will throw away the sermon he has prepared, and we’ll all hug and weep and laugh, and we too will act giddy and drunk, because it will be unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before.
II. Another thing that happened at Pentecost was that they all heard each other.
The text says they all heard one another as if they were speaking the same language, when in fact they were speaking dozens, perhaps hundreds, of languages, from all the lands they represented as pilgrims to the Holy City. But the fact is, they heard each other.
That’s a miracle in itself, isn’t it? Not the part about the languages, but the part about hearing. It doesn’t happen often in the world. It doesn’t happen at the United Nations, and the United Nations is designed for hearing other people. It doesn’t happen in Washington, and Washington is supposed to have “an ear on the world.” It doesn’t even happen very often in the church, where people are supposed to care about one another so much that they listen with “the third ear,” the one in the heart.
Hearing and not hearing are the stuff of real drama, aren’t they? I mean, when people don’t hear — when they don’t listen, and simply talk past each other without caring about what others intend — they get into conflict, and conflict is what fuels drama. Then, when they finally decide to listen and hear, the conflict is resolved and the drama comes to a happy conclusion. Think how many plays end this way, with people hearing each other at last.
Perhaps what the Pentecost experience was intended to say to us is that in the church, beyond all other places in the world, we are supposed to learn to listen to one another, to cherish one another’s feelings and opinions, as a foretaste of heaven itself, where everyone will be heard perfectly. Wouldn’t that be something? We might not be rich. We might not have great crowds. We might not sing very well. We might not look very successful in the world’s eyes. But if we could listen to one another, and love one another with our hearing, that would be something, wouldn’t it?
Maybe hearing one another is what led that crowd at Pentecost to the next thing that happened.
III. They shared what they had with one another.
They were so caught up in the Spirit and so happy with one another that they just opened up their purses and their homes and gave everything they had to the fellowship, holding it all in common for the good of the poor and helpless among them.
Can you imagine that?
Oh, there were one or two clinkers among them. A little farther along in the book of Acts, we read about Ananias and Sapphira, the couple who decided to hold out half of their goods. They were struck dead for lying about it. It’s a good thing God didn’t continue that practice in the church! But most of them enjoyed the blessing of sharing. They pooled what they had to the glory of God and the power of the kingdom.
That’s wonderful, isn’t it? You know, more churches have trouble over money problems than over anything else. People who can’t get along over money in their own families come to church and get upset about money at the church. But there wouldn’t be any problems over money if we all had the attitude of those folks at Pentecost and opened our purses and homes in the faith that God is going to take care of us anyway.
Do you know what happened at Pentecost as a result of all these things — the Spirit’s coming upon them, their hearing each other, their sharing what they had with one another?
IV. They grew as a church.
They had the biggest revival any church ever had. They exploded from being a few dozen members to having thousands of members, and all in a matter of weeks. Not even some of the fast-growing California churches could match their record of rapid development. The sense of power and excitement in their midst seized people, and the church simply mushroomed.
Numerical growth is of course not the only kind of growth, and a growth in spirit and understanding is also important. I liked something Rhodes Thompson said one night when he was talking to our Stewardship Committee about the old church he pastored in St. Louis. From 1970 to 1980, he said, “we grew from 250 members to 137 members.” Their church was in a declining neighborhood and many of their members were elderly and declining too. But they saw something happen to the quality of their fellowship and service that was a blessing to their souls. They grew in non-numerical ways.
The fact is, any group of people under the Spirit, listening to each other, and sharing what they have, are in a growth position of some kind with God, whatever kind of growth it is. God will bless His people when they fulfill the Pentecostal pattern in their spirit and patterns of operation.
We can approach our church’s business as so many isolated members, individuals grateful for an opportunity to speak our minds about the reports of our boards and committees, and about what we do and don’t like in the church. Or we can approach our church’s business in the spirit of Pentecost, knowing that God is waiting to bless our congregation with spiritual power and excitement. We can pray for the Spirit to come upon us. We can listen carefully and lovingly to one another. And we can joyfully share what we have with one another in the confidence that we are going to grow as a result of our prayers, hearing and sharing — no, we shall know that we have already grown through the experience we have had together! It is up to us.
But I challenge you to remember the early church and the vast difference we see in their fellowship — between that quarrelsome meeting in the Upper Room, when each of them wanted to get ahead of the others, and the wonderful experience at Pentecost, when they were all overcome by the Spirit. The difference between the two is accounted for by the fact that between the Upper Room and Pentecost they had the experience of the crucifixion and the resurrection. They were with Christ in His dying and they were with Christ in His being raised up. The whole experience of the church revolved around what God had done in Christ, and it ought to be the same for us.
An old physician who had gone as a missionary doctor to the hills of eastern Kentucky in the days of the depression told me about a new church building he had seen erected there. It was a simple, all-purpose room. A small choir loft in the chancel doubled as a Sunday school room during the Sunday school hour. Before the choir loft was a simple platform, and at the front center of the platform stood the white oak pulpit.
There were three chairs on the platform, one large one in the center and two smaller ones on the sides. The minister sat in one of the side chairs and the song leader sat in the other. Because no one ever sat in the big chair in the middle of the platform, someone wanted to know why they had it. That, explained the preacher, was “the Jesus Chair.” It was put there to remind the congregation whenever they gathered that the Lord Jesus was the unseen Guest at every meeting, at every worship service, in every situation.
The Jesus Chair. Maybe every church ought to have one. Then we wouldn’t worry about Roberts’ Rules of Order, because we would remember Jesus’ Rules of Order. Then we would be less like the disciples in the Upper Room and more like all those folks at Pentecost. The Jesus Chair would remind us of the cross and the resurrection — and they make all the difference in the world!