Last week we left about twenty-five people in a home, sitting together and praying and reading scripture and eating together and remembering Jesus together. They were grieving and in shock and not quite able to believe what they had experienced. They had witnessed Jesus’ violent death and his amazing resurrection and then they stood there while he had risen up into heaven until he disappeared into a cloud. They had hunkered down together in that house to sort it all out. They did that quietly, in secret as much as possible, because they still had every reason to fear for their lives.
We even know the names of the people who were sitting in that house in Jerusalem together. They were Jesus’ mother Mary, and his brothers James and Judas and Joseph and Simon. The women were there in that room, who had supported Jesus financially: Mary Magdalene, Mary the wife of Clopas, and at least two other Marys, Salome, Susanna, Joanna, and Jesus’ aunt, and perhaps others. His eleven disciples were there, too: Peter, John, James, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, Simon, another James, and another Judas. They have been sitting in that home for fifty days now, and others have joined them – about a hundred others, and all of them are trying to sort out what they had experienced: Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension.
And then they witnessed yet another amazing, mystifying event. As they were sitting in that room, praying and reading scripture and talking about Jesus, they heard a terrifying sound. We who live in the Midwest would call it the sound of a tornado. And as they looked around at each other, they saw little flames of fire dancing around on each other’s heads. And the next thing that happened is that people began running to that home from all directions from all over the city of Jerusalem. Good Jews from other countries who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Pentecost holiday, fifty days after Passover. These good Jews were from all the places we have seen on the map in your bulletin.
But let me pull back from the story a bit and answer some questions that you might have. Maybe you are wondering what the Jewish Holiday of Pentecost was. The feast of Pentecost was similar, in some ways to our Thanksgiving Day. It was the day that Jews for hundreds and hundreds of years had celebrated the first wheat harvest, and gave thanks to God for rain and sun and good growing conditions which made the harvest possible.
And now let me explain to you how all these good Jews got to places like Cappadocia and Pontus and Asia and all over what’s now Greece and Turkey and North Africa. Imagine that there is a successful businessman in Jerusalem. His business is going well, and prospering, and he’s ready to expand his business, and let’s say he has three sons. He sends one of them to start up a branch company in Cappadocia and another one to start up a branch in Pontus and the third son he sends to do business in Alexandria, let’s say. And these three brothers take with them some of the employees from Jerusalem to help them start up the new branch office, and their families, so that pretty soon you have little Jewish communities in all of these places all over the Mediterranean Sea – even stretching all the way to Rome. So that during Jesus’ life time there were one million Jews living in Alexandria, to give you some idea. Out of a total population in Alexandria of eight million people.
These Jews form little Jewish enclaves wherever they are. They worship together in their synagogues wherever they live and they read scripture together and they practice their faith together, and eat Jewish foods together, and celebrate the Jewish holidays. Some of them have returned to live in Jerusalem and the rest of them make it back, as often as they can, to celebrate the holidays in the temple in Jerusalem and check in with the home office in Jerusalem. But they speak the languages of the countries where they have been living.
So are you getting the picture here – that around Passover time and fifty days later there are a whole lot of Jews from all over the world, in Jerusalem, home for the holiday. The streets in Jerusalem are clogged with folks from all over the world, speaking all kinds of languages, and all the hotels and all the possible rooms for rent are booked solid.
So these good Jews, these guests in Jerusalem from as far away as Rome – they follow this loud noise they have heard. And they come to the house we’ve been talking about and they are amazed to find these one hundred and twenty people, talking. They are simple people, mostly from a rural area, and they have never traveled outside the country, as far as we can tell, and here they are - speaking eloquently in the languages of Cappadocia, and Pontus and Asia. And these visitors conclude that the whole lot of them must be drunk, at 9 o’clock in the morning.
But Peter stands up and begins to speak. He has spent all that time thinking about Jesus and reading the scripture and trying to make sense of things, AND he has just received the great power of the Holy Spirit. He stands up and speaks with far more eloquence than you would expect from a simple fisherman from the northern part of the country. And in the speech that we did not read this morning, he tells, point by point, how Jesus performed deeds of power and signs that God did through him. And that according to the plan of God, the Jews handed him over to be killed. But that God raised him from death, because God was stronger than death and that he has been lifted up to heaven to sit at God’s right hand. And now he has given us the Holy Spirit which he promised us. And then, said Peter, very persuasively: this Jesus whom you killed is our Messiah. He’s the one you’ve been waiting for all these years, and I’ve got the scripture passages to prove it to you.
Now none of this is any surprise to any of us, who have heard this from the time we were little children in Sunday School. But it was the first time that the whole story of Jesus’ life and deeds and death and resurrection and ascension was put into that simple framework. That fisherman from Galilee – that simple, sincere, but rough around the edges guy, who loved and followed Jesus – he got it. He put it all together and he preached it. And because of the power of the Holy Spirit through Peter three thousand people were baptized and received into the brand new Christian Church, which was born that day.
Now maybe you are thinking that that’s a very nice little story that happened about two thousand years ago in a place thousands of miles from here. So let me tell you – or let me remind you – what’s happening at North Kent Presbyterian Church these days. Just last week we celebrated that this congregation paid off a debt of over $400,000. Back in 1999 the church borrowed this money for the completion of an addition and in March you paid it back two years ahead of time. That happened because whole lot of you gave generously to make that possible. That this congregation will have a fine building for the years ahead. And that sure looks to me like what the prophet Joel was talking about – that old men are dreaming dreams of the future.
We have been having a series of guests here lately – Dr. Todd Cioffi and his students, and Rev. David Milbourne. Dr. Jack Stewart has spoken with a small group of us and he’s coming back next month to talk with all of us, and Eileen Best from the Presbytery Resource Center was here with some very good ideas. We’re in the process of having some very good creative follow up conversations based on what they’ve said. Several of you have had insightful comments. And it all sure looks to me like what the Prophet Joel talked about – that young men and women are seeing visions of what may happen here.
The Christian Education committee got together a few weeks ago and they took a look at the list of the children who are a part of this church in one way or another and they checked out some curriculum and they said to each other “Hey, we could have a summer children’s program here!” And it will happen, starting on June 14. And it sure looks to me like the Prophet Joel – and God’s Spirit being poured out all over this church.
And I have to tell you this: sometimes I just sit at a session meeting, quietly, listening and watching and every once in a while I get this huge grin on my face as I listen and watch. I hear the elders discussing a whole lot of very good things and hearing reports of the good things that have happened. And there’s a positive energy in the room and lot of spirited conversation and there’s respect and a very cordial spirit around the table and there’s even a lot of laughter. I say to myself and I say to God, and sometimes I even say to them “It’s the Spirit of God sweeping through this place like a strong, fresh breeze.”
Because Pentecost happened two thousand years ago in a place thousands of miles from here. And it’s still happening today, in Rockford, Michigan.