Happy Birthday, Church! That's right, today is our birthday! Today we celebrate the day the church was born by the power of the Holy Spirit! Today we celebrate the day when God's power exploded through the church and officially began its mission of making disciples.
Thousands of people were in Jerusalem celebrating the day that God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. Disciples were gathered together in a house. Suddenly, it happened. Wind and fire swept through the disciples. Everybody was amazed and astonished. Many thought a fraternity party was taking place even though it was only 9 o'clock in the morning. A huge crowd gathered around Peter as he preached and said, "God has given us the Holy Spirit!" Three thousand people confessed Christ and were baptized. Boom--the church was born! Happy Birthday, Church!
Now, if we were really serious about all of this, those of us who attend worship on Pentecost Sunday would wear party hats and blow noise makers. We would pass out cake and have a big party. Pentecost really should be the third great holiday of the church, next to Christmas and Easter. But most churches treat it as just another Sunday. This says a lot about the attitude of the modern church.
I remember being invited to a birthday party. It was for one of the kids in the church I served. They had the party at home and invited a bunch of kids over. It was quite a scene. They had a big blow-up jumpy contraption in the front yard. They hired a clown to make funny balloons. The place was saturated with decorations and banners. There were excited kids running all over the place.
I was sitting in the living room watching all the excitement. I was smiling, remembering the excitement of my birthday parties when I was a kid. As I sat there eating cake, I struck up a conversation with an older man sitting next to me. He was the birthday boy's uncle. He didn't look too excited to be there. He said something about it being too noisy, the kids being too exuberant. Then he looked at me and said, "It's funny. When you are young, you get excited about your birthday, about life and all that is ahead of you. But as you get older, there seems to be less to get excited about. And when your birthday comes, you just get reminded how old you are. People keep saying 'Happy Birthday' to you. There's really nothing happy about it."
Well, you know preachers. We can find sermon fodder anywhere. I thought about that conversation with the man at the party and came to the conclusion that it is a living parable for how the modern church views Pentecost. Too many of us sit back and observe the story of Pentecost like a noisy party from the past. We understand it. We know it is a part of our history. But we would just as soon eat our cake and go home and take a nap. There may have been a time for all that enthusiasm, wind and fire, but we are civilized Christians now and we are careful not to get carried away.
Some cynic has said that, "If it were up to most Christians, churches would have lightning rods on their steeples instead of crosses in memory of that time when lightning struck the early church and as protection against it ever happening again!"
Many Christians want just enough religion to be comfortable, to be respected, to feel good about themselves, but not so much that it shakes up their routines and changes their way of living. Many Christians want the benefits of the Holy Spirit without having to experience much of the Spirit. Many Christians want to go to the dance without having to dance. So, many of us read about Pentecost and the power of the New Testament church and smile and then put it back on the shelf next to our favorite novels and DVD's and go back to our lives as usual. Such exuberance is kid stuff, the stuff of movies and myth. After all, you have to be careful with this kind of exuberance. And if there is one thing that many modern Christians are, it is careful.
You can't really blame us for being careful. There's lots of weird stuff that goes on in churches that aren't as careful. I recall being invited by a friend of mine to go to his church. I was in high school. They met in this warehouse. We sat down and the service began. It seemed like a normal service. There was a worship leader who led praise and worship. People were singing and enjoying worship. Then the preacher got up, and he was rather exuberant. Then he became more exuberant and started to speak in tongues. It sounded like gibberish. Then the lady next to me started to speak in tongues. People around me started to work themselves into a frenzy. Soon the whole row in front of me was on the floor shaking and writhing. I wanted to call an ambulance for them, but my friend informed me that they were fine. He said they were "slain in the Spirit!" I said, "Slain in the what?" He said, "The Spirit." I said, "Well, I've got the Spirit too, but it never wanted to hurt me."
I was terrified and told my friend I needed to go to the bathroom. Not really. I waited outside until the service was over. The next day I brought my Bible to school and showed my friend where it says in Scripture that if you speak in tongues in church there must be a translator. Otherwise it is just showing off. I quickly told him that there are many gifts of the Spirit and speaking in tongues is down on the list. We really do have to be careful with this Pentecost business.
I remember sitting in an administrative board meeting at another church. A youth had come to the meeting to propose a plan for evangelism for the whole church. He had gone to some conference on evangelism. He heard a dynamic speaker, bought some literature, and was all excited to get the church to evangelize in the community. When he was called on to speak, he said that if a handful of members went door to door in the community, we could reach a certain percentage of people for Christ. The chairman of the board quickly told the kid that they were not that kind of church: He said, "We don't go door to door bothering people." He said, "Son, we have to be careful about how we present ourselves to the community." We really do have to be careful with this Pentecost business, don't we?
A colleague of mine was assigned to a new church. He was just out of seminary; feeling excited about what God was calling him to do at his first church. It was an older church, but they had lots of young people moving into the area. My friend felt led to reach those young people and grow the church. So he decided to start a more modern edgier worship service for young people. He got a team of people together and made plans. Members of the church who were musicians volunteered to play. A bunch of media equipment was donated. They set a start date and began publicizing it around the community. About a week or so before the very first service, my friend found the donated drums, speakers, and guitars piled up outside his office. On top of the pile up was a note from concerned members of the church. It said, "Dear Pastor: If you continue with this newfangled service, we will write the Bishop and tell him you are incompetent and not fit to serve our church." Well, he continued with the service. A year later, he was voted out of the church. We have to be careful with all this Pentecost business, don't we?
He didn't like the direction the church was going. He felt it didn't have much life. It wasn't doing the things that a church ought to be doing. It wasn't praying enough and serving enough. It wasn't studying the Bible enough. So he, led by the Spirit, started all of these small groups in the church. Lo and behold, they started to catch on, got all fired up, started to change things and shake things up. And the leader of this crew started to speak all across town. He lifted up the gospel and all these people listened to him and responded. They received Christ. He was the talk of the town. Well, his church was none too pleased with all this excitement and exuberance, with all this change. They got annoyed with this group in the church and their leader. So, what did the church do? They wouldn't allow him to speak in worship anymore. His name? John Wesley. The group? Methodists! We have to be careful with all of this Pentecost business, don't we?
We have become real good at putting a governor on the Spirit of God. We have become rather skilled at stifling the Spirit when it doesn't line up with our whims and fancies or it threatens to inconvenience us. The Spirit is strong, but it doesn't force itself on anyone or any church, so it will go only as far as we allow it.
Thank goodness, right? Because it's much easier running the church on our own, without being bothered by the Spirit, isn't it? I mean, a church can survive quite a while keeping the Spirit at bay. All you have to do is be organized, be nice, be civilized, be careful, find a good speaker to tell nice stories, play good music and you are on your way with being pleased with yourself with all you can do with your church. Sure, there is only so much you can accomplish without the aid of the Spirit, but at least you look good. At least, you're in control.
In 1983 Australia threatened to take the America's Cup from the United States. The United States had retained the coveted cup of yacht racing for years, but that year Australia mounted a serious challenge. Australia and the United States were tied with one race to go. The day came for the final race. Scores of people came to watch the race. Television cameras from all over the world were there. The boats were ready. The crews were ready. The yachts pulled into place at the starting line. All was ready, but there was no race! Why? There was no wind. In yachting, no wind means no race.
It's true, you know. Nothing happens without the wind. Did you know that in the Bible the Hebrew and Greek word for Spirit literally means "wind"? The great preacher Fred Craddock says, "I cannot describe the Holy Spirit. I cannot explain the Spirit of God. Jesus said it is like a mystery, like the wind. You don't see the wind, and yet you know when it comes and when it goes."
I used to love looking at this big palm tree on a golf course. Every time I passed it I would admire it. Then one day I passed it and it had fallen to the ground. I was upset and said, "I wonder what caused that?" And someone said, "The wind."
I once knew a man who hated the church. He told everybody he didn't believe in God. He said that religion was for weak people who couldn't stand on their own two feet. Then one day all that hardness crumbled to the ground. His heart was changed. He started going to church and he never stopped going. I don't know what happened! Someone said, "It's the wind."
I heard about a church that was about to close its doors. It was old and tired. One day all these people starting coming to the church. It started to grow. I asked, "What happened?" And someone said, "It's the wind."
There I was 16 years old, minding my own business. I was playing tennis, getting crushes on girls, telling jokes, having fun. I was sitting in church with my parents and sisters. We were passing the mints, playing tic tac toe, and writing notes about where we wanted to go to lunch. Then this man got up to preach. I had never heard anyone like him before. I was inspired. Next thing I know I am shaking his hand at the back door of the church telling him I want to be a preacher! Me, a preacher? What happened? What caused that? You know what I think it was? The wind.
Let us pray. Eternal God, may the guidance and power of your Holy Spirit fall fresh upon us so that we will be empowered and inspired to share your love with the world without fear and without reservation. It's in Jesus' name that we pray. Amen.