Most Christians could not imagine having a year go by without celebrating the holidays of Christmas and Easter. It is understood by all Christians, no matter how long or short their relationship with God and the church has been that no Christian calendar is complete without the observance of these two events.
Christmas is the event that celebrates the birth of Jesus and the beginning of His ministry of redemption on earth. Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus and God’s ultimate victory over sin and death. If I were to announce that our church was not going to observe Christmas and/or Easter anymore, you rightfully could say we would be turning our backs on events that are central to our understanding of what it means to be Christians and what it means to belong to the church.
Wouldn’t it seem that something essential was missing from our lives as Christians if we did not have an Easter and a Christmas pageant? Can you imagine going an entire year without hearing about there being no room in the inn when Jesus was born or not hearing, “He is risen, indeed!” as the pronouncement of His resurrection? Imagine a year with no poinsettias and no Easter lilies. Imagine a year with no songs such as “Silent Night” or “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” I would submit that it is absolutely impossible to understand the meaning of the Christian faith without observing and understanding Christmas and Easter.
However, there is a third holiday, a third observance, a third sacred event that is just as central to our understanding of what it means to be a Christian and what it means to belong to the church; though most Christians do not celebrate this event, and many never have heard of it or know little or nothing about it.
That third event is called Pentecost Sunday. This third great day in the Christian calendar is rooted in the story in Acts 2 and celebrates the day when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles who were gathered in a room in Jerusalem. Before Pentecost, those men were hiding from the public for fear that what had happened to Jesus might also happen to them. After Pentecost, those frightened men had become suddenly and miraculously equipped and empowered to carry on the ministry Jesus had begun—in the very city of Jerusalem where Jesus recently had been put to death.
Some people mistakenly believe the observance of Pentecost has meaning only for those members of the Christian family who call themselves Pentecostals. The truth is the history of the Christian church stretches back more than 2,000 years, while the Pentecostal movement did not emerge in its fullness until the Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles, Calif., at the turn of the 20th century.
Pentecost Sunday is 1,900 years older than those Christians who call themselves Pentecostals. In other words, observing the Day of Pentecost is no more a possession of Pentecostals than observing baptism is the possession only of those who call themselves Baptists. Pentecost, as baptism, is a gift God gave to the whole church, the whole body of Christ.
Pentecost began as and remains one of the major holidays on the Jewish calendar that occurs 50 days after Passover. The word Pentecost literally means “50th or 50th day.” For Jews, Pentecost was the time when they celebrated the first harvest of the agricultural year. It was a time when they gave thanks to God for what the land had produced and for what their labor had yielded.
For Christians, Pentecost marks the birthday of the Christian church, the day when Peter preached and in response to that sermon there was also a harvest of 3,000 souls converted.
Remember I said Peter preached the first sermon about Jesus as recorded in Acts 2. This is the same Peter who 53 days earlier had said about Jesus; “I never knew Him.” This is the same Peter who had nothing to say about Jesus when someone asked him directly if he was one of the followers of Jesus. Peter, on the Day of Pentecost, stood before a crowd of the same people he once feared, yet he boldly declared the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Going further, Peter stood before many of the same people who had shouted, “Crucify Him,” on the day Jesus stood trial before Pontius Pilate in the city of Jerusalem. Now Peter declared in no uncertain terms the Man they had ordered to be crucified was, in fact, the Son of God. How did Peter go from being frightened to being fearless? How did Peter go from being cowardly to being courageous? How did Peter go from denying Jesus to defending Jesus before the very same people in the very same place?
Peter did not simply change his mind; Peter himself was changed. Something happened to Peter and to the other 10 apostles, as well to set them on fire for Jesus Christ to such a degree that it was soon said about them, “Here are those who are turning the world upside down” (
Pentecost marks the outpouring of the Holy Spirit by which human beings are equipped to do the work of God. We are not by our own natural resources going to save the world, establish God’s kingdom or usher in what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often referred to as “the beloved community.” If any of these things does happen, it will be because we have acknowledged, embraced and moved under the power and conviction of Pentecost and the work of the Holy Spirit.
Consider these three events this way: If Christmas marks the birth of Jesus, Pentecost marks the birth of the church; if Easter marks the day when Jesus was raised from the dead, Pentecost marks the day when that message about Jesus began to make its way to people and places all over the world. Of course, the church and the world do not treat Pentecost as they do Christmas and Easter. For instance, there are no Pentecost sales, no Pentecost tree, no Pentecost pageant; and I have never heard of the Pentecost Bunny.
The fact that we have failed to understand or observe this day on the calendar does not change the basic truth this day holds for every believer. Unless you make room for Pentecost in your understanding of what it means to be a Christian, you never will understand your faith fully. Remember that in
Pentecost Sunday is the day we remember when and how that anointing took place. While they all were huddled in a room in Jerusalem behind locked doors and shuttered windows, they heard the sound of a rushing wind. What appeared to be tongues of fire seemed to settle over the head of each person. They began to speak in other languages, but what they were saying was understood clearly in the native language of each person gathered in Jerusalem that day. You see, the power of Pentecost was not the unknown tongues in which the apostles were speaking. The miracle was that people from every known region of the world were able to understand what was being said in his or her language.
It was immediately after the miracle of understanding that something else of equal importance took place: The work of the church in the world as an agent of reconciliation and evangelism began. I invite you to think about Easter and Christmas as events that involve Jesus as the primary actor. On Christmas, Jesus was born into the world and laid in a manger. There were no disciples present for that event. What do you and I do on Christmas that is central to the story? Nothing! On Easter, Jesus was raised from the dead with all power in His hands. Once again, there were no disciples involved in bringing that event to pass. There is nothing for us to do on Easter except celebrate and give thanks for the work Christ has done on our behalf.
On Pentecost, though, all of that changes—you and I are called away from our roles as spectators into the role of central characters in God’s work of redemption and salvation. As a result of Pentecost, we do not watch what somebody else is doing for God, but are being equipped by the power of the Holy Spirit so we can become actively involved in the work of salvation and redemption. That is what Pentecost is all about; it is the day Jesus officially transfers to His disciples the responsibility of spreading the message of salvation.
Pentecost is the day when God begins the process of converting the world to faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Most important of all, Pentecost is the day when God decided the way the world would be evangelized was not by the singular ministry of His Son, Jesus Christ, but by the anointed and empowered efforts of every single person who calls him or herself a Christian. The time for following Jesus as a disciple or learner is over, and the time to carry His message forth as apostles has come. Those disciples were no longer spectators; the time had come for them to do the work themselves.
Think about any event in your life when you began by watching what somebody else was doing, then suddenly the responsibility to work was passed to you. I can remember how easy it looked to slice the turkey on Thanksgiving Day when my Uncle James had the carving knife in his hands. He would explain to us younger fellows what he was doing, but all we were doing was watching. Then the day finally came when somebody made the wrong assumption that because I had watched somebody carve a turkey that I must know how to do it, as well. I just tore that poor bird up, and finally somebody else came along and did the job right. It is one thing to watch while somebody else does all the work. It is another matter to do the job yourself. However, that is what God called those disciples to do on the day of Pentecost.
Let me make several brief observations about Pentecost based on the two biblical texts we read today. First, we need to lift up and celebrate the role and work of the Holy Spirit. The purpose of Pentecost is to remind every Christian that even though Christ died for our sins and that by baptism we accept the forgiveness of our sins, there is something else each one of us needs to do.
We need to receive the Holy Spirit so we can do the work of discipleship that awaits each one of us. You cannot preach correctly unless you have received and depend on the Holy Spirit. You cannot pray, sing, serve or live correctly as a Christian unless and until you have been empowered and enlightened by the Holy Spirit, which first fell on the Lord’s apostles in Jerusalem on Pentecost!
Do you remember when God made Adam from the dust of the earth in
Do you remember the dry bones in the valley in
I love the Pentecost hymn that says:
“Breathe on me, breath of God,
“Fill me with life anew,
“That I may live as You did live,
“And do what You would do.”
The same message is found in the more familiar hymn that says:
“Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me,
“Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
“Melt me, mold me, fill me, and use me.
“Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.”
In both cases, we cannot do our work, employ our gifts or exercise our ministry areas until God has filled us and transformed us by the power of the Holy Spirit. However, once the Holy Spirit has come, we can have the same boldness, conviction and possibly the same results Peter had on the Day of Pentecost when 3,000 souls were added to the church at the end of his sermon. We need the power of Pentecost!
Second, take a look at the crowd that was gathered on Pentecost, and then take a look at almost every church in this country. When we do that, we will see how far short we are falling from what I believe to be God’s will for the church. If you held a map of the world as it was known in the first century A.D. and then listened to the roll call of nations represented in Jerusalem on Pentecost, you would see that every known continent, race and ethnic group was gathered there that day.
Remember that Jews had, by this time, spread into every region of the world. On Pentecost, as on Passover and the other major Jewish holidays, some Jews returned to Jerusalem to celebrate by making a sacrifice in the Temple of Solomon. That is why there were people there from Africa, Asia and Europe. That is why Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Persians all were present in one place at one time.
God was doing two wonderful things at once: He was converting people who could take the message back to their respective countries and establish the gospel throughout the world; and perhaps more importantly for today, He was establishing a church that consisted of and welcomed people from every race and region of the world.
I am sure God hates the fact that in this city and across this country most Christians gather together for worship in all-white, all-black, all-Hispanic or all-Asian congregations. I am sure God hates the fact that the racism and segregation that still grips our society is strongest in the Christian church. How can the church be the light that draws the world to salvation in the name of Jesus when the world sees inside our walls the same ugly divisions as in the rest of society?
I agree with a recent article in Christianity Today magazine that asserted the work of the church will not be complete until the church itself reflects the same multi-cultural and multi-ethnic diversity God has placed within the world. Put another way, according to
By the way, the diversity God created is not limited to white people and black people or any other distinctions based on race or ethnic background. Diversity also is reflected in issues of social class, economic levels, educational and political points of view.
I see a dangerous trend occurring in the church today as evidenced by an increasingly strident tone that Christians direct toward one another based on their stance on various social issues. This stridency is not lost on the world. How can we win the world for Jesus Christ when we ourselves are exhibiting so much intolerance and anger toward any point of view other than our own?
We all would do well to heed the warning from Ronald Wells, who recently wrote, “repentance and forgiveness, not self-righteousness and defensiveness mark the way forward…One cannot claim principle only for one’s own side.”1 Pentecost points us in another direction, and we need to follow where the Holy Spirit is leads. It is seldom the case that everybody is wrong except us.
Third, Pentecost is the day when gender walls seem to come down. Peter said Pentecost is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel who said, “God will pour out His Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy…Even upon the menservants and maidservants in those days will I pour out My Spirit” (
We need to move beyond the idea that God cannot use men and women in the ministry of the gospel. Paul would go on to say, “In Christ there is neither male nor female, neither slave nor free, neither Jew nor Gentile” (
Finally, I want you to notice that when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, there are some people who might laugh at you or look funny at you because of what you might start to do under the influence of that power and anointing. When the Holy Spirit fell on the apostles in Acts 2 and they began to speak in foreign languages, some people accused them of being drunk. It seemed to the outside world as if they were babbling uncontrollably.
There are some people and some places where worship has become so structured, ordered and intellectualized that any room for the free movement of the Holy Spirit has been removed. If you dare raise your voice—or your hand—you are judged as emotional.
I recall when I first came to Antioch in 1987, I received a letter from a member of the church who did not like the fact that I was using so much emotion in my preaching and urging the use of emotion in music and prayer and worship. She told me that I should learn the benefits of “quiet dignity.” That was another way of saying, “shut up and worship in silence.” Can it be that the greatest challenge our church has had in maintaining its growth through the years is that we still are living in the time when Antioch was more known for its “quiet dignity” than for being open to the movement of the Holy Spirit?
I wrote back to that saint, telling her something along these lines: “I am sorry I offend you, but I am just operating under the power and anointing of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes that power can make you shout. Sometimes that power can make you clap your hands. Sometimes that power can make you preach what you had not written down on paper. You may prefer ‘quiet dignity’; but as for me, I will go with the attitude of our ancestors who wrote these words: ‘Every time I feel the Spirit moving in my heart, I will pray!'”
I invite you to celebrate the third great holiday of the Christian faith which is Pentecost. I invite you to open your hearts to receive the Holy Spirit. You may not always look or sound dignified, but that’s alright, because, “I’m going to shout when the Spirit says shout; I’m going to move when the Spirit says move; and I’m going to dance when the Spirit says dance.” I end by repeating these words: “Every time I feel the Spirit moving in my heart, I will pray!”