This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 5/23/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: Acts 2:1-42. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
Today is Pentecost Sunday. Seven weeks after Easter, Pentecost is the day that Christians celebrate as the birth of the church, the day when the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised came and filled his disciples with wisdom, power, and boldness. It was a day when thousands came to faith in the Lord Jesus, and became a new community in him.
Pentecost isn’t a holiday that Christians made up, of course. It had been a Jewish festival since God brought them out of Egypt. It’s one of the celebrations that God commands Israel to observe in the Torah.
We Christians know this festival by the name Pentecost, which is a Greek word that means “fifty.” Called by its Hebrew name, Shavuot, this festival falls fifty days after the Passover. It commemorates the giving of God’s law to Israel at Sinai.
Just as Passover celebrates God’s physical salvation of his people from slavery in Egypt, Shavuot is a celebration of God’s spiritual salvation of his people. By giving them his law through Moses, God made those who were not a people a holy nation. Those who had been powerless slaves to Pharaoh became a people blessed and set apart by God.
Shavuot is a reminder that physical liberation is essential, but not sufficient. Spiritual liberation must occur. We must have an inward encounter with God, coming into a living relationship with him, if we are to be truly free. God did not create us for liberty without holiness. God has called us, his people, to a whole new way of life. One where we are weaned off the false Gods of the world and given power to live as a nation of priests – following the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night.
In the old covenant, it was the law of Moses that made this possible. The statutes and rules given by God, written down on tablets of stone. The festivals, the sacrifices, the distinction between clean and unclean – these were all ways that God was preparing Israel for a life of holiness – set-apart-ness – creative difference from the fallen world that God would redeem through them.
It is not an accident that Jesus was crucified in the season of Passover. Passover is the remembrance of how God saved the people of Israel with a mighty hand and outstretched arm, smashing Pharaoh’s army and parting the Red Sea for his people. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was an even greater triumph, bringing salvation to all of humanity, liberating us from all the Pharaohs of the world, freeing us to worship God without fear and be remade in his likeness. In Jesus, all people – Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female – can finally become truly whole, truly holy, integrated and complete, just as God intended from the beginning.
In the cross of Jesus, God parted the Red Sea one last time. God tore apart the barrier between God and people, the curtain in the Temple that separated the Holy of Holies. God broke down the ultimate dividing wall, making himself available to all people directly. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God triumphed once and for all over the power of sin, death, and the devil, and brought us all out of the grasp of Pharaoh, Caesar, and Mammon. It was a new Exodus, made available to the whole world.
But the journey wasn’t complete yet. Just as the people of Israel made their way to Mount Sinai to receive the law, the people of God in Jerusalem were about to receive the new law, the fulfillment of the law: the presence of the Holy Spirit. Filling them. Transforming them. Creating in them a new humanity in the image of Jesus Christ.
The day of Pentecost, Shavuot, is about that spiritual liberation. It’s about the transformation of heart and mind that comes after passing through the Red Sea of terror and death. It’s about the new creation, a new life in God – nothing like the life that came before.
Because now we are his. Now we are his holy people, set apart and different from the world. A people knitted together so tightly in the Holy Spirit that we have become one body in Jesus. One flesh. (No wonder Jesus so often used marriage imagery to describe the kingdom of God.) One Lord, one faith, one baptism. One heart.
This transformation that took place in the lives of those one hundred and twenty disciples that morning was so intense, so powerful, that it raised a ruckus in the city of Jerusalem. These friends of Jesus couldn’t be ignored.
They were filled with life, and truth, and power. God gave them words to speak to all the people present in the holy city for the festival – people who had come from around the whole ancient world. The Holy Spirit gave them words in the many and varied languages of those who needed to hear the message.
And they heard it. Thousands of them. It says that on that day alone, three thousand people came to have faith in the Lord Jesus and become part of the disciple community, the body of Christ.
They heard the message that Peter and the apostles preached. About the messiah who came and was crucified by the people who he came to save. About the way that God raised him up, and in his resurrection conquered death once and for all. They heard the message: that the time of salvation was here at last, for any who would embrace the message.
They heard. And it says that “they were cut to the heart.” They could sense the presence of the Holy Spirit on these disciples of Jesus, who had been clothed with power from on high. They felt the resurrection power in their midst, just as clearly as you can feel heat radiating from a bonfire. The burning bush was back again. Sandals off! Everything had changed.
And those who heard the message and experienced the presence asked the apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”
What should we do?
Peter said to them:
“Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”
Repent. Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, into the name of Jesus Christ, so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
It all comes together. Jesus began his ministry with John the Baptizer by the river Jordan. A ministry that was a call to repentance, pure and simple. Change your life! Embrace God’s call to holiness and justice! Abandon your hopes for greatness as the world measures it, and cling to the promises of God.
That was the message of John the Baptist: An invitation to join the flight from Egypt. An invitation to make our way through the Red Sea, through the waters of repentance. To trust in God’s promise and power to save.
We have experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit. What should we do?
Repent. Be immersed into the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of our sins, and we will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Come to the waters. Come to the edge of the Red Sea. Pass through and enter the desert of transformation with our God. Embrace God’s physical liberation – the practice of righteousness and justice – resurrection! – and you will receive the Holy Spirit: the power of God who gives all truth, love, and ability to do the will of God.
What should we do? What are we, as Berkeley Friends Church, to do with this call that we have from the lips of the apostles and from the heart of God’s Spirit?
For those three thousand who came to faith in Christ on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem, their whole life had led them to this moment. They knew that in the presence of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, nothing could ever be the same. They knew that the world was about to turn. The only choice for them to make was whether they would turn in God’s direction. Would they stay behind in Egypt, or would they risk the desert with the pillar of fire and smoke to guide them?
What will we choose?
Do we recognize the moment we are in? There is no time but this present time. This is our day of visitation. The Holy Spirit is here for us. “The promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” Will we embrace the promise of God? Will we trust him?
It’s not too late. Repent. Be immersed into the name of Jesus Christ. Receive forgiveness. Receive the Holy Spirit. We can become something new in God.
We have to. The present form of this world is passing away. Something new is coming. The world is about to turn.
Repent. Be immersed into his name. Receive forgiveness and transformation.
What will that mean for us? Where is the pillar of cloud and fire going to lead Berkeley Friends Church? When he makes all things new, what will we become? What will happen to us when we pass through the waters?
We don’t have to worry about that now. God has a plan for us, just like he did for Israel. Just like he did for the early church. God has a plan to bless us and make us a blessing to the world. We don’t have to make it happen. For now, just turn around. Repent. Be immersed. Receive the Holy Spirit.
In the words of George Fox, from his Epistle X:
“Stand still in that which is pure, after ye see yourselves, and then mercy comes in. After thou seest thy thoughts and temptations, Do not think, but submit, and then power comes in. Stand still in that which shows and discovers, and there doth strength immediately come. And stand still in the light, and submit to it, and the other will be hushed and gone, and then content[ment] comes.”
We have already received salvation in the cross of Jesus. We have participated in the liberation of Passover, the flight from Egypt, the journey through the Red Sea. Through his resurrection, Jesus has conquered the power of sin, death, and the devil. Pharaoh has been undone. We have been set free.
Now comes the journey to Sinai. We are in the desert. Nothing stands between us and the holy mountain, the endless love of God. Will we dare to approach?
We have heard the message. We know what God asks of us. We have received the promise of the Holy Spirit. God is present with us – we are his people, and Jesus stands in the midst of us.
Do we want to be led? Has the message cut us to the heart? Are we asking God, with a broken heart, “what should we do?”
What should we do? God, you are here. Lead us. Guide us through the desert. Make us the people and the community that you created us to be.