Meditation on Acts 2:1-21
The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, Ohio
Pastor Karen Crawford
Today, on Pentecost, we had planned to welcome into membership our Confirmation students, who have been gathering on Wednesday nights since January. Our plans have changed, but I am not going to say that it’s bad news.
Let me tell you the story of Confirmation this year. We went from meeting in person at the church through the middle of March and then by Zoom video conference in April and May. We plan to meet through June and July, as well. I have actually been planning for the class since last summer or early fall when I ordered the new curriculum from the PC (USA), Big God, Big Questions. Unlike the former curriculum from our denomination that focused on creeds, confessions and catechetical questions, this program encourages the students to ask their own “big” questions and pay attention to how different people draw on their faith and experiences to answer them in diverse ways. Wow! That’s a change from when you and I went through confirmation and had to memorize the books of the Bible, the Lord’s Prayer, the 10 Commandments and Apostles’ Creed, not to mention catechetical questions.
Looking back, I think what a shame that my church had the opportunity to nurture my faith and encourage me to develop all my God-given gifts and talents for the Lord and His Church, and they missed their chance. Instead, the program became an exercise in memorization of archaic words that I didn’t always understand. I never had the feeling that the pastor really wanted to get to know any of us. He didn’t meet us where we were; he never asked what we believed. He just told us what we were supposed to believe.
Since teaching my first confirmation class in 2011, my goal has been to get to know each of the students and hear their stories. I want to open God’s Word to them, help them to know Jesus and show them they are loved. I want them to know the Spirit that is living and breathing within them and leading them in God’s will, so they don’t have to be confused or afraid. I want them to feel accepted and heard. My hope has always been that confirmation would be a safe place to say just about anything, without being judged.
A big part of the class is wrestling with the questions the students will be asked when they are confirmed, tentatively in August. The topics we discuss include, “How do we know and trust God?” “What is sin and how do we turn from it?” “Who is your Lord and Savior?” “What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus and to show Christ’s love?” And, “Will you devote yourself to the church’s teaching, fellowship, prayer, and the breaking of the bread?”
The emphasis is on growing in faith and seeking to apply it to our lives, through all our relationships– with one another and with God. While I use a prepared curriculum as a guide, what we do, mainly, is share stories. We have a guest speaker, usually from our own congregation, but we’ve had others, too, including Ben George, Susie Stout, and my friend, Cindy Bottomley, a longtime youth leader in Florida. Our guest speakers are ordinary people, because God uses ordinary people like us! I want the students to know that being a Christian, while always an adventure, is different for every person. Each one of us has a distinctive calling and different gifts the Lord wants to use.
The challenge is to trust the Spirit to reveal God’s will as we seek to follow Christ every day.
Our Acts reading today starts, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place”—and it’s really hard not to stop right there and say, “Wouldn’t that be nice? If we could all be together in one place, gathered for prayer, fellowship, worship, and to wait on the Lord?”
But then, we have to remind ourselves that there were no church buildings in the first centuries of Christianity. Followers of Jesus gathered in homes for worship, fellowship, and the breaking of bread. Of course, with Jesus, they had gathered around the tables of the wealthy and the poor, on mountainsides, fields, and valleys, in fishing boats and walking along the shore, on the road to Emmaus and in gardens, at night.
Jesus was never limited by place or anything in this world. Death could not hold him; he rose from the tomb. The Risen Christ went through locked doors to be with his followers, hiding from the world. The Spirit will never be limited, either, by place or anything in this world. As Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3:8 about his need to be reborn from above, “The wind blows wherever it pleases,” he says. “You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
The Spirit in Acts has the power to change the disciples’ hearts and minds and unites them in mission to the world. The disciples, who lack formal education, suddenly speak in tongues they have never known and are emboldened to share the gospel with the very people who had cried out for Christ to be crucified. The Spirit changes their hearts and minds, too, stirring them to listen to the Galileans, led by Peter, a flawed and ordinary man. This is the disciple whom Jesus had rebuked, who walked on water but fell in from lack of faith. He is the one who betrayed Jesus three times, but then is charged by the Risen Christ to feed his sheep and tend his lambs, meaning care for and build up his followers, the Church.
Not everyone who hears the message on Pentecost come to believe—just as there are many unbelievers all around us. God doesn’t force himself on us. All are called but not everyone responds. But those who sneer at the disciples still notice something different about them. They seem too happy, all of a sudden. They are acting as if they are drunk, which of course they are not, as Peter quips. “For it is only 9 o’clock in the morning,” he says. This happy that they feel is the joy of the Lord, a gift of the Spirit.
This same Spirit lives within us and dwells in our midst, my friends, wherever or however we are gathering– in person or electronically, by phone or letter. Let’s not put limitations on the Risen Lord who had no trouble going through locked doors to be with his disciples. This same Lord unites us in His Body by faith, though we may not be worshiping today in the building at the corner of 4th and Chestnut Streets. Let’s not limit the Spirit that, when it came on Pentecost, came as a violent, rushing wind and fire, and filled not just one room but the entire house. Thousands of people became believers that day. The Church was born.
If I have learned anything these months of pandemic, it’s that we have to trust in the Lord—when things are going well AND when nothing seems to be going right. We trust in Him when we are comfortable—and when we are way beyond our comfort zones. We have to trust the Lord for the future of the church, knowing that it may be very different than the past. Let us keep in mind the Great Ends of the Church when judging our faithfulness to Christ’s call to us today. Our Book of Order says the Great Ends are “the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; the promotion of social righteousness; and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.” To be faithful to the Great Ends may mean changing the way we have seen our church—and confined it to what happens inside a building. The Lord wants us to go out and bring His salvation to those who aren’t in our circle of friends and acquaintances. The Lord wants us to speak up for what is right, for justice, and be peacemakers, when others choose chaos and strife.
God will answer our prayers in surprising ways. God answered my prayer about confirmation, though it wasn’t how I expected. I remember saying to one of the parents that I wished I had more time with the students. I remember being worried, at one point, if the spring sports were going to take some of our students away. By the end of March, confirmation by Zoom was one of the few if any activities on their schedule and an important connection to friends, their church and pastor, and the outside world. We will never forget the Confirmation class of 2020, meeting during COVID-19.
The Spirit is calling us now to listen for a fresh Word—all of us ordinary, flawed human beings whom God wants to use. Don’t be surprised when we speak and witness in a different way to reach more people. The Spirit wants to fill us to overflowing, refresh and renew us and remove our fear. The Spirit wants to empower us to do more for the Kingdom—go way outside our comfort zones, speak up when we would rather be silent. The Lord wants us to experience more joy and reveal His love.
I know how you feel – how you long to return to the church building and be with your brothers and sisters in the faith. Me, too. Maybe more than you! But I know the Lord is calling us to stay where we are, for now. Be safe, and keep reaching out to each other in all kinds of ways, encouraging one other. And keep on waiting, hoping and praying, like those first followers, trusting in the promises of God.
For the Spirit is going to come, once again, like a rushing wind and fire to do its work of transformation in us—the Church. Because we would never change on our own. And we couldn’t change ourselves if we tried.
I look forward to the day when we will be like they were on Pentecost—all together, in one place.
Let us pray.
Holy Spirit, fall afresh on us. Cleanse us. Renew us. Melt and mold us. Make us to be like your Son. Give us the mind and heart of Christ. Right now, the world is a confusing place, with chaos, anger, disease, and violence. Help us to work to reveal your Kingdom, here on earth, working for peace, health and healing, tranquility and order. Guide us by your Spirit so that we know your will every day. Give us courage to obey—to go when and where you want us to go and stay when you want us to stay. Let us listen to your voice, though your commands are different than what the world may be telling us to do. Grant us wisdom to make good decisions for our families and ourselves each day. Protect us, watch over us, and keep us safe. Heal the sick and lift up the downhearted and grieving. Help us to be patient as we wait until it is your time for us to gather as your Church, all together in one place. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.