Title: The miracle of communion (Pentecost)
Date: May 31, 2009
Texts: Rom 8:22-27, Ac 2:1-21
Author: Isaac Villegas
I’ve been thinking a lot about Ben’s sermon last week, his sermon on Ascension. And the more I think about it, the more it makes sense that Jesus goes away, that he ascends to the Father, that he goes to heaven. I can believe that. It’s easy to believe. I mean, the absence of Jesus is quite clear. We see it all around us, right? Nobody needs to prove it to me. Just read the paper, or watch the news, or listen to the radio. Basically, if you are a human being, you know the world is messed up and Jesus isn’t doing much about it. He must be gone—ascended, away, out of the picture.
But then what is Pentecost all about. While Jesus goes up to heaven at ascension, something comes down at Pentecost. “Suddenly” the text says—“Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind.” Heaven comes down to earth and blows through the room like a rushing wind. This heavenly wind, Acts says, “filled the entire house where they were sitting” (v. 2).
Now while all of this is exciting stuff, there’s some danger going on here. “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them” (v. 3). God’s fire isn’t something to be messed with. Remember what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah. They were inhospitable to strangers, to three foreigners, and God burned the place up with fire from heaven. Lesson: hospitality to strangers is important to God.
But it’s the fire that we are talking about here. God’s fire, flames from heaven. Spectacular. Something to get excited about. There’s another story in Luke about people getting excited about God’s fire. Jesus and the disciples want to pass through a Samaritan village. But the villagers refuse. In response to their inhospitality, James and John ask Jesus if they should send fire down from heaven to consume the people—just like Sodom and Gomorrah. The disciples want to use God’s heavenly fire to punish people. But Jesus rebukes them. This fire is dangerous. Jesus won’t let the disciples use it.
So, when these flames come down from heaven on Pentecost, the disciples are at the edge of danger. But this time the heavenly fire doesn’t destroy anything, there’s no punishment for inhospitable people; instead, the fire creates a group of people that is open to everyone—and that’s the church.
With the fire comes the Holy Spirit who enables the disciples to speak in different languages. People visiting Jerusalem from all over the world hear the invitation of the gospel in their own language. Acts makes it a point to list all the peoples and languages so we can get a sense for how expansive this invitation is—Parthians, Medes, Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Rome… everyone, Jews and Gentiles.
That’s the point of the list. Everyone is invited to join this movement of God. And that’s basically Peter’s interpretation of the event when he quotes the prophet Joel: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh”—emphasis on the all. And then skipping to the end, “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved”—again, emphasis on everyone.
Pentecost is a communication miracle—the miracle of communication that opens up to everyone, different people, different languages. And the point of all this communication is an invitation. It’s not some kind of exciting experience that comes and goes. That’s not it at all. The point is that all these different people are invited to fellowship with one another. This is the miracle of communication that leads to the miracle of communion—people coming together, foreigners becoming family, strangers becoming friends.
What happens after the sermon is the point of it all. Pentecost is only the beginning. It starts something. Communication leads into communion. This is what happens: Acts 2:41f.
Complete strangers start hanging out together. They devote themselves to fellowship, to being with one another. People open their homes for grassroots worship services—breaking bread, talking about Jesus, praying. And they share their stuff with anyone who needs it. The miracle of communication that happened on Pentecost birthed a miracle of communion, of fellowship.
And I say miracle because its hard work to get together all the time; it has to be the Holy Spirit who makes it possible. There’s lots of traveling between here and there. And I’m sure it takes some effort to keep up with whose house everyone will meet at next. Acts tells us that they eat every time they get together, but leaves out the fact that eating requires making food. There’s a lot of food to prepare—remember, these are daily communion meals.
Theologians like to come up with what they call “marks of the church.” They narrow down the few practices that need to happen for church to happen. Different churches have different lists. Stuff like: there needs to be some public reading from the bible, there has to be a sermon, and Communion (or Eucharist) needs to be celebrated.
If I were to pretend to be a theologian and come up with the two most important marks of the church according to Acts 2, they would have to be prayer and food preparation.
The church needs people who are always learning how to pray and always coming up with new recipes—good food to share. This is very much an earthy spirituality—make food and eat it with people, and pray.
Like I said earlier, this fire is dangerous. And what happens at Pentecost is dangerous. It’s dangerous because you can’t choose who you want to invite, you can’t choose who you want to open your life to, you can’t choose who you fellowship with. Think of the dangers and inconveniences that come with inviting strangers into your house. Didn’t our parents teach us to be afraid of strangers?
But if anyone heard the invitation, the host would invite her into his house and give her a seat at the table. That’s dangerous. This isn’t just friends getting together for a good time. The fire of the Spirit comes with dangers. But that’s nothing new; after all, Jesus gets killed when he follows the leading of the Spirit.
Now, I’m sure you all can think of plenty of ways this story speaks to our lives. There’s plenty here to inspire us to change our lifestyle. Think about through what it means to prayerfully open your life to God’s Spirit of fire that pushes us into hospitality, even when it makes a mess of your life. Somehow, the mess is what salvation is all about; it is heaven come to earth.
If at Ascension Jesus goes to heaven, then at Pentecost the Holy Spirit brings heaven to earth. And with the Spirit comes Christ’s presence in a new way. This is where I feel the challenge of Pentecost—that heaven has come to earth, that these are the last days where, as Joel prophesies, God’s presence is permeating all things, where God’s Spirit breathes new life into our deaden existence.
That’s hard to believe. Evidence seems to speak the contrary. It’s hard to see how this place, how my life, flows with heavenly reality. Godforsakenness, I can see that. Absence of Christ, I can believe that. But Pentecost insists that we take second look at our lives, to stare at reality for a bit longer, to have patient eyes.
To believe in Pentecost is to believe that heaven has come, that Jesus is here, that the Spirit is at work. And this kind of belief is not something you decide to do in your head. There’s a lot of Christianity out there that insists that faith is all about a conviction you have in your head, a decision you make in your mind—that God exists, or that Jesus saved us. It’s all very theoretical and rational—a faith for intellectuals.
And this isn’t only a Christian tendency. It seems to be an American thing, and maybe even a Western trend. Spirituality has to do with deciding to think positively, to believe good thoughts about yourself, to convince your mind that alternate realities are available if you think hard enough, or exercise the right meditative skills. Now all of this focuses on what you can do with the powers of your mind.
But Pentecost shows us that Christian belief, Christian spirituality, happens to your whole body. Your mind follows your feet. Decisions come after something happens to your life. A new consciousness comes when you have to figure out what to do with the mess of people all around you and concrete responsibilities of mutual care—feeding people, praying for needs, sticking around when some folks start getting annoying, or sticking around when the excitement wears off and life gets boring, mundane, ordinary.
That’s what it means to have faith. The story of Pentecost, which is the story of the beginning of the church, begins and ends with people hanging around, waiting for something to happen. They are gathered together in the upper room, just because that’s what Jesus told them to do before he left.
Then the Spirit comes upon them—which, by the way, wasn’t something that they had to believe in first; it all just happened, and it happened to their bodies… their minds followed their feet, and their tongues. And then that miracle of communication creates a re-gathered and renewed community. Only then, after all that, comes the decision of faith, the decision of belief.
And the decision is simply this: to make food and eat together, to break bread and share a cup, to pray for one another, and to stick around even when you are annoyed and bored, and to clean up after a mess of people invade your house. And then to invite them to come back. That’s faith; to decide to return, to reunite, to come back, because that’s where the Holy Spirit sustains our life, because that mess is what salvation feels like, and what heaven looks like.
Pentecost means that Jesus now comes when the Spirit brings people into fellowship, into communion. Salvation isn’t about knowledge. What you think in your head won’t save you. Instead, we believe in a saving relationship. And to believe in this saving relationship is to let your mind follow your feet—you have to lean into this relationship, to slowly and patiently live into it. It takes time, ordinary time, to grow into the saving life of Jesus made present in his body, in you and me, ordinary folk doing ordinary things, like eating and praying.
We can’t see it now; We can’t see the heaven at your fingertips. But that’s ok. As Paul says in our passage from Romans, “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
We wait for it with patience.