Scripture: Acts 2:1-21
I’ve told you before that back in 2012 and 2013, I made two trips to Kenya, in East Africa. I went there to teach indigenous United Methodist pastors—to teach them the basics of church history, Wesleyan theology and doctrine, and things related to liturgy and our Book of Discipline. Kenya was a former British colony and many of my students—about a hundred in all… many of them spoke English quite beautifully, but even the best English speakers in the classes only spoke English as a second language… and some didn’t speak it at all… Their first language was Swahili. Which meant I used an interpreter.
I enjoyed the experience! But it took a little while to get the hang of it… to learn to speak a sentence, or even a half-sentence, then to pause, then to allow my words to be translated… and then continue.
And things went great… except that one time when I was asked to preach a sermon during a Sunday morning Kenyan worship service. For whatever reason, I was using a sermon illustration that included the word “sandwich”… sandwich… a perfectly normal word… only… Kenyans don’t eat sandwiches, or if they do, they don’t have a word for it!
So I was in the middle of what I’m sure was a Spirit-filled, passionate, life-changing sermon when all of a sudden, things came to grinding halt… because my interpreter, and my audience, didn’t understand what I was saying! It took a couple of awkward minutes before a native speaker in the congregation was able to get my point across to the people. Oh brother!
As my experience proves, translation is difficult business. So what happens when you need to communicate the most important words—which is, the gospel of Jesus Christ—to people who don’t know your language? That’s precisely what the Holy Spirit is up to in today’s scripture: enabling about 120 Christian men and women, all of whom spoke Aramaic as their native language and maybe only Greek as a second language… to enable them to speak the gospel in dozens of different languages—all for the benefit of Jewish pilgrims who came to Jerusalem from all over the Roman Empire to celebrate the Festival of Weeks—which in Greek is called “Pentecost”—fifty days after Passover. No interpreters needed. The Holy Spirit made sure they heard the gospel in their native languages.
Today’s sermon is about this kind of work of the Holy Spirit. And I want to make three points that emerge from today’s scripture: The first is related to the confusion that we often have about the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The second is about the primary reason we Christians are given the Holy Spirit, which is to fulfill our commission—the Great Commission. And the third point is change: The Holy Spirit transforms us—and this transformation is perhaps the most important way we fulfill this commission.
So… Confusion, Commission, and Change.
But let’s talk about our confusion first: When we talk about Pentecost, and being filled with the Holy Spirit, and the gift of speaking in tongues, we immediately think of a Christian tradition known as Pentecostalism. The Pointe, for instance, just down the road, is a Pentecostal church. And if you go there, as I have, you will likely hear someone in the congregation at some point say something that you don’t understand.
Nothing I’m about to say in this sermon, I hope, will be interpreted as disrespectful to Pentecostals. Because I have great admiration for the Pentecostal tradition—and Chad Smith is great; he’s my second favorite preacher in town. But when I was a teenager, my first two encounters with Pentecostals troubled me.
And I want to talk about the first encounter now, and come back to the second one later.
Here’s the first one: I bagged groceries at Kroger in high school, and I met a fellow bagger there whose name was Elbert. I was just an ordinary Baptist kid growing up, and Elbert was the first Pentecostal Christian I ever met. One day, when we were on break together, he asked me if I had ever spoken in tongues. I said “no.” He said, “Oh! So you haven’t yet received the Holy Spirit.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about! My church taught me that I had received the Holy Spirit. And they were right to do so, because the Bible teaches that we receive the Holy Spirit when we first believe in Jesus and are born again! So I didn’t know what Elbert meant when he said I hadn’t received the Holy Spirit.
Of course, I’ve long since learned that Pentecostal churches often teach that the gift of the Holy Spirit is a “second blessing,” which happens at some point after someone receives Christ and is born again. In other words, many Pentecostals—not all—but many believe you basically have to repeat the experience of the disciples in today’s scripture… as a necessary sign… in order to prove that you’ve received the Holy Spirit!
To say the least, we Methodists don’t believe that!
So the next time Elbert saw me at work, he handed me a booklet published by some Pentecostals called The Bible Way to Receive the Holy Spirit. I read it. The author talked about how, if you haven’t spoken in tongues, these are things that “you need to do”—steps you can take, prayers you can pray, exercises you can perform—even something about opening your mouth and loosening your tongue or something. It was weird, to say the least.
But even more importantly… Does that sound like the experience that these disciples had in today’s scripture?
No… For one thing, notice the word “suddenly” in verse 2. What the disciples experienced just sort of happened to them at a time they couldn’t predict! They were not in control of it at all! Unlike my Pentecostal friend Elbert, they had no book to read, no steps to follow, no exercises to perform… It all just sort of happened to them.
Even more, if my friend Elbert—and the author of that book I read, and so many of our Pentecostal brothers and sisters—are going to use today’s scripture as a template for what must happen to all Christians when they receive the Holy Spirit, then most Pentecostals don’t pass the test, either.
Why? Because their experience of speaking in tongues is not like the experience of Acts 2!
Remember what I said at the beginning of the sermon? The gift of tongues in Acts 2 enabled everyone in the crowd to understand what these Christians were saying. When Pentecostals speak in tongues,literally no one understands what they’re saying… unless someone is present to interpret… because they have what the apostle Paul calls the gift of interpretation.1
When Pentecostals speak in tongues, they are doing what the apostle Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. This is the kind of speaking in tongues that is a separate spiritual gift—given to only some Christians—and it’s like a private prayer language known only to God and his angels. And if someone uses this gift in a public setting, like a worship service, Paul insists that they need someone who has the gift of interpretation to interpret what they’re saying for everyone else.
You can read more about this gift of tongues 1 Corinthians chapters 12 and 14. Just know that there are plenty of Methodists, even some in this church, who regularly speak in tongues, as part of their private prayer life. And it’s awesome if you have that gift. But that’s not what Luke is describing in Acts chapter 2.
Finally, some Christians can get so caught up in these dramatic, supernatural experiences of the Holy Spirit that they lose sight of theprimary reason the Holy Spirit fills Christians in the first place: to equip and assist and empower us Christians to perform the same ultimate task we see Peter and these 120 disciples performing in today’s scripture: which is, to bear witness to Christ, to glorify Christ, and to fulfill the Great Commission.
And this brings us to Point Number Two: God gives us the Holy Spirit—and remember: he gives the Spirit to everyone the moment they first believe; there are no second-class Christians. We all equally receive the Spirit… but God gives us his Spirit primarily for the sake of our mission in this world.
After all, at the end of Luke’s gospel—which is Luke’s prequel to the Book of Acts—Jesus tells these disciples to “stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” And what’s the purpose of this power? Acts chapter 1 verse 8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
The Holy Spirit does many things for us, but it’s no exaggeration to say that his primary purpose is to empower us to carry out this mission—this Great Commission.
And y’all know this… I’ve talked recently about some ways in which we can fulfill the Great Commission, but I want to say something new from today’s scripture… which I haven’t said before. After the Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples in the Upper Room, they spill out into the streets. We’re not completely sure where they go next—Luke doesn’t tell us… But it might have been the outer courts of the Temple. Regardless, they attract a large crowd of people who gather to hear them—so many, in fact, that before the end of the day, Peter will preach, and three thousand people will receive Christ. But notice verse 7: “And they were amazed and astonished, saying, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?’”
“Are not all these Galileans?”
How did these Jewish pilgrims know that these disciples of Jesus were Galileans?
Well… On the night that Jesus was arrested, Peter was in the courtyard of the high priest. Remember? And a servant girl and some others ask Peter if he’s one of Jesus’ disciples. And he denies it. Matthew 26:73 says, “After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you too are one of them, for your accent betrays you”—his Galilean accent, in other words!
The crowd asked if they were Galileans” because the Galilean accent was what we might call a country accent… many people in the crowd were from big cities, cosmopolitan areas, like Jerusalem itself—these were well-educated elites… these were professionals… they had the equivalent today of masters degrees, law degrees, doctorates… They were well spoken. And they certainly didn’t talk like Galileans.
For them, Galileans were country bumpkins or rednecks or hicks—you know, like people from Lavonia. So this crowd of people judged these disciples by their accents: “Are not all these Galileans? How are these country bumpkins able to do this? We have certain expectations about what Galileans are supposed to be like… how they’re supposed to live. And this is not what we expected! Why are they so different?”
So do you see… What impresses people in the crowd is not simply the miracle itself, but the fact that these Galileans are part of the miracle. These Galileans were different from others. They noticed the difference.
Speaking of “noticing the difference,” in one early letter from the second century A.D., a writer named Mathetes is trying to describe this strange new Christian religion to a powerful Roman leader named Diognetus, who was a pagan. The writer says these Christians are indistinguishable from us in so many ways: they dress like us, they talk like us, they eat the same food as we do, they pay taxes like us, they obey laws like us… in so many ways their behavior is the same. Except… And here I’m quoting directly from the letter: “They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring.”
Because, you see, whereas we have a crisis related to abortion in this country, in the Roman world if you had an unwanted baby, especially a baby girl, it was perfectly legal and acceptable to leave that baby at the city’s garbage dump to die of exposure, or to be taken into slavery. These Christians didn’t do that. The writer continues: “They have a common table, but not a common bed”—meaning, they share their food with one another, but they don’t sleep around. He writes: “They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all.”2
Notice: these early Christians, which Mathetes is describing… they weren’t consciously doing anything to impress these pagans with the way they live; they weren’t following any deliberate plan for evangelism or witnessing…And don’t misunderstand: I’m not at all opposed to following deliberate plans for evangelism. Those can be good and useful. But I suspect that all such plans will fall far short if people don’t at the same time see the tangible difference that Jesus is making in our lives.
This writer, Mathetes, was describing the difference: These Christians were loving Jesus and loving one another, because this was simply who they were.
They were different… and an unbelieving world took notice!
What about us? Are we different because we’re Christians? Are people noticing the difference that Jesus makes in our lives?
Oh how the people of Toccoa, Georgia, need to see the difference that Jesus is making in the lives of Methodists at Toccoa First!
I’ve talked in previous sermons about ways that we as a church can fulfill the Great Commission—things that we can do—but the number one way that we fulfill this commission is by letting people see the difference that Jesus Christ makes in our lives. Not so much by something that we do… but by who we are.
This is precisely why couple of years ago I guided our WINGS team to create this mission statement for our church:
Treasuring Christ Above All and Teaching Others to Do the Same.
I got the idea of “treasuring Christ” from the two very short parables that Jesus tells in Matthew 13:44 to 46. I memorized them:
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.
In both cases, the men in these parables give literally all they possess to acquire what? To acquire treasure. And in both cases they are happy to do so! Notice Jesus says of the first man, “in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” It isn’t hard for him to do this. Because it brings him joy; it makes him happier than anything else that he’s known in life. Once he finds this treasure, no one has to persuade him to pursue it and acquire it and do whatever’s necessary to attain it.
I’m all for rolling up our sleeves and getting out and doing hard work for Jesus… But how could we do otherwise if by doing this work we acquire more and more of this treasure! That treasure is worth more than anything else, so it’s worth the work! The work is nothing in comparison!
Reminds me of something my Uncle Nick said to me one time when I was 11 or 12. It was summertime, and nearly my only chore around the house back then was cutting the grass. And I hated it! And I complained about it to him: “I have to cut the grass!” And he said, “You don’t have to. You get to!”
But who was he kidding? I had to… because as I say, I didn’t like it at all.
But even then I saw the difference: If I treasured cutting the grass, or I treasured the results of cutting the grass, then it wouldn’t be much of a chore. It wouldn’t be something I have to do; it would be something I’d get to do… in order to receive treasure.
And the point Jesus is making in this parable is that being his disciple, being in a relationship with God through faith in Christ, loving Jesus, living for Jesus, glorifying Jesus, spending time with Jesus, this is a “get to,” not a “have to”… because Christ is by far our life’s greatest treasure. He’s supposed to be.
I don’t know if he’s here this morning, and I don’t mean to embarrass him if he is, but you know someone I really like? Buddy Lawson. He’s got this big warm smile, and to me, he radiates the love of Jesus. Buddy has an office across the street from my office. And I’ll often see him and say hello. And here’s something I’ve noticed about Buddy: When you ask him, “How’s it going?” be prepared for him to genuinely answer the question. “Hey, Buddy, how’s it going?” And he looks you in the eye, smiles that big warm smile, and says, “I’m having the best day of my life.” And guys, I could be wrong—and some of y’all know him better than I do, but I think he means it! Does he? I think he does!
Listen, anyone who knows me, by contrast, knows I’m not quite like Buddy. I’m just not the kind of guy who easily says I’m having the best day of my life. Temperamentally—personality-wise—because of whatever combination of nature versus nurture I grew up with—I’m not prone to be quite so cheerful; I’m prone to be slightly anxious; I’m prone to be slightly grumpy. If I’ve fooled you so far, just ask my family! They’ll vouch for what I’m saying.
But listen: When Buddy says, “I’m having the best day of my life,” I think that even I can relate to what he’s saying!
In fact, at Annual Conference in Athens a couple of days ago, I was having lunch with some clergy friends I haven’t seen in a few years. And believe it or not, when clergy friends get together, we don’t tend to talk about how everything related to church and ministry is rainbows and kittens; we tend to talk about the the various challenges that we face in ministry. There’s often a lot of griping going on, if you know what I mean.
After all, my clergy friends aren’t blessed to be in a church as perfect and wonderful as Toccoa First!
Anyway, we were talking about our various challenges, trials, and struggles. And I was listening and I’m like, “Yeah, I’ve been there, done that! Made that mistake!” After listening to all these complaints, I finally said, “This ministry work can be incredibly hard, I’m not denying that for a moment. But you know what? I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life! Praise God, I’m happier than I’ve ever been!”
For about 15 years of my Christian life as an adult—in much of my twenties and thirties—even after I started in pastoral ministry, I couldn’t say that.
But that’s changed! And that’s because of Jesus!
It’s because for the last twelve or thirteen years, Jesus has been changing my life… Enabling me to treasure him more than I treasure anything else. Enabling me to want Jesus more than I want anything else! That’s because of Jesus…
Or to put it another way: It’s because of the Holy Spirit—the very Spirit of Christ—who is living within me and… is ever so slowly… changing me. Making me into this person who treasures Christ more than I treasure anything else.
The Holy Spirit is not finished with me… not by a long shot… but, man… I’m better than I used to be! So maybe, unlike Buddy, today isn’t the best day of my life, but today is better than a typical day ten years ago, or five years ago, or even three years ago.
And that’s because of the Holy Spirit. And that’s Point Number Three: If we just keep believing in Jesus, his Holy Spirit will keep on changing us from within. He’ll enable us to treasure Christ above all, and we’ll find greater and greater joy and happiness in Christ!I’m living proof!
I began this sermon saying that I had two experiences with Pentecostal Christians when I was in high school. Elbert was the first Pentecostal I ever met. But the second also worked at that Kroger with me. Her name was Christy, and she said something to me I’ll never forget. We were having a friendly discussion about the differences between Baptists like I was at the time… and Pentecostals like her.
And she said something funny. She said, “I admire you Baptists. Y’all have a much stronger faith than we Pentecostals.” And I’m like, “Why?” And she said, “Because y’all never get to experience anything miraculous, anything supernatural… you never see the Holy Spirit do anything big and powerful in your life… yet you just keep on believing in Jesus anyway. That takes a lot of faith!”
She said that! Isn’t that funny?
I think you’ll agree that what she said about Baptists could also often apply to us Methodists. We’re not exactly the “frozen chosen,” but we’re not exactly dancing in the aisles in worship, either, if you know what I mean! No one’s getting “slain in the Spirit” or working conspicuous healing miracles or “prophesying very much”… around here. I’d be happy if that were happening!
But I knew even as a teenager that what she said wasn’t true for me: I mean, I’ve told you before about a few supernatural experiences I’ve had with the Lord… and there have been many more besides. I have been filled with the Spirit many times. And I have seen miracles. And I have heard prophecies and words of knowledge that came true. And I have seen unmistakeable evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in the world and in my life.
But let me tell you the truth: The best and most unmistakable evidence of the Holy Spirit’s power and work in my life, indeed, the greatest miracle he’s performed, is that he has changed me for the better… even me… stubborn and grumpy and angry and anxious and fearful and covetous and sinful as I am! He’s making me, even me, holy… It’s happening! Praise God!
And listen: Even if you haven’t had any dramatic outpourings of the Spirit in your life, the kind of inward change that he can make in your life through the Holy Spirit, as you trust in his Son Jesus… that will be a far greater miracle!
And as God works this miracle in you, I pray that people who aren’t Christians yet will see the difference he’s making! Amen!
- 1 Corinthians 14:27
- “The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus,” Early Christian Writings, earlychristianwritings.com. Accessed 10 June 2017.