beginning of the church
The Feast of Pentecost
Joel 2:21-end, Psalm 145, Acts 2:1-11, St. John 14:15-31
Many Tongues Became One
My dad was a sprout during the Great Depression. His family fared better than most. His dad worked as a superintendent in the Texas Company oil field just outside of town and he remained gainfully employed throughout that dark period.
They lived in West Columbia, Texas, home of the fightin’ Roughnecks, which is just across the river from East Columbia.
When Dad was 8 or 9 it became the custom for his mother to give him a nickel each Saturday night – assuming he had been reasonably well behaved and had tended to his chores. That nickel would cover both admission to the movies and the price of a candy bar.
Dad would meet up with a couple of his pals and they would head over to the Bijou Theater on the main drag and take in the show.
One summer night, one of the boys had a better idea. He’d heard about a regular Saturday night event that promised to be a better show. And not only that, they could keep their nickels in their pockets because it was free.
So the three boys headed for the big tent on the edge of town where the Pentecostal church met. They held their service on Saturday night because this was the Texas Gulf Coast and the summer days were hotter than blazes.
The Pentecostals also rolled up the bottom edges of their tent all the way around so that any breeze that might stir wouldn’t go to waste. That gave three puckish boys an opportunity to flop on their bellies and peer inside.
The Pentecostal preacher was a fellow named One-Arm Brown. He had transitioned from his previous career as a bootlegger after he lost an arm in the course of a high-speed chase. A revenuer got off a lucky shot that sent the bootlegger skidding off the gravel road and into a tree.
This unfortunate incident limited him to the point that he felt compelled to withdraw from the bootleggers’ guild and move on to the related field of preaching. He reckoned that both jobs were about making people feel better during those difficult days.
Well, on this particular night as the boys looked on, the praise band got to playing and the preacher got to preaching and before long some of the folks appeared to enter a state of frenzy. A comely lass of about 17 became so ecstatic that she fell off of her chair and began to roll around in the center aisle.
As she did, the hem of her skirt began to ride up higher and higher. The widow Jones, who was seated right there on the aisle, reached down to pull the young lady’s skirt back down in the interest of propriety. Whereupon Reverend One-Armed Brown held up his one arm and bellowed, “Desist, Sister Jones, desist. And let her glory shine.”
Dad and his buddies were quite faithful in their Saturday-night church attendance for some time thereafter. The only downside for Dad, I suspect, was that the service at the Presbyterian Church in East Columbia, where his mother dragged him every Sunday morning, got even more boring.
And so as we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost I pose the question: Is that how God the Holy Spirit operates in His creation?
Pentecost is the day on which the Holy Spirit erupted in the creation and breathed out salvation on 3,000 souls in Jerusalem, the day on which God inaugurated the church as we know it and understand it and live it today.
We have our concerns – well-founded concerns – about the state of God’s church in our place and time, but perhaps this is a day to see the glass as half-full.
I read a story recently that provides some perspective. The 18th century was a time of indifference and even apostasy in England. A pastor named Samuel Wesley was the father of two sons, John and Charles.
One day he told the one, “Charles, be steady. The Christian faith will surely revive in these kingdoms. You shall see it, though I shall not.”
John of course heard of that conversation and he recalled it years later when, standing at his father’s grave, he preached to a great multitude. England did see revival, and much of the credit for it goes to Samuel Wesley’s two boys, who spooned their gospel tonic into an ailing church in both England and America. We are reminded once again to walk by faith and not by sight.
If we inhabit an age of the eclipse of the church, so have many others. But from every eclipse the church has emerged and will emerge more resplendent than before. If a spiritual gloom has descended upon our own time, it affords us an opportunity to turn up the flame of our faith in God.
This was the way of St. Augustine.
From the time of the fathers the church has seen Pentecost as the reversal of the Tower of Babel. At Babel, one language became many; at Pentecost, many languages become one. In the instant the church was born, she spoke with one voice.
This is the power of our God. In this power – in His power — are our strength and our hope. In this power – in His power — is the reason we shall not lose heart. We are His church, and the gates of hell will not stand against us.
At Babel, God confused the tongues of the nations; at Pentecost He reversed the confusion. At Babel, God scattered the people in judgment; at Pentecost He distributed the people to publish the gospel to all the nations.
At Babel, the people used language to advance a human agenda; at Pentecost, language became a sign to declare the power of God. At Babel, disunity radiated outward as when a stone causes ripples in a pond; at Pentecost, people flew together as iron filings to a magnet.
Our God is ever merciful. In the Garden, he drove man out so he could not continue to eat from the tree of life and live forever in his sinful state. At Babel, He drove man away, delaying judgment on the City of Man and affording His creatures an opportunity of repentance.
Only God could tolerate the sin of His creatures; only God could provide a remedy for it. After the great flood, when God looked down and saw that sin was once again rampant on the earth, He called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees to begin to form a people for His holy name.
Later He would send a man, born of a woman, born under the law, to complete the work. This man, after His resurrection from the dead but before His ascension into heaven, would commission His apostles, or messengers, to “make disciples of all nations,” going “to the end of the earth” to take the gospel to every nation, tribe, tongue and people.
But wait, He told them, until you receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. They received that gift on this day, Pentecost, the 50th day after the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which was celebrated at the time of harvest. In God’s economy the harvest of grain would ever thereafter trigger the memory of the harvest of souls.
Even back in the day of the prophet Joel, God had promised to send His people a Helper. The Son would pray to the Father, and the Father would send this Helper. Of course, not everyone is astute enough to recognize a helper when the Father sends one. I recall one soul who did.
This woman received a call at work informing her that her daughter was sick. On her way to the school, she stopped at the pharmacy to get medicine. When she got back to her car she found that in her haste she had locked her keys inside.
She spied an old rusty coat hanger on the ground. She had heard of using a coat hanger to pop the lock, but even as she picked it up she thought, “I have no idea how to use this.”
She bowed her head and asked God to send a helper. In less than five minutes a beat-up old motorcycle pulled up. The rider wore a scraggly red beard and a do-rag. He got off of his motorcycle and asked if he could help.
The woman said: “Oh, yes, please, my daughter is sick. I’ve locked my keys in my car. I must pick her up. Can you use this hanger to unlock my car?”
The biker said, “No problem.” He walked over to the car, and in less than a minute the door was open. The distraught woman hugged him and through her tears of gratitude she said, “Thank you so much! You are a very nice man.”
The biker replied “Lady, I am not a nice man. I just got out of prison yesterday. I was in for car theft.”
The woman hugged him again, sobbing, “Oh, thank you, God! You even sent me a professional!”
Now, that’s discernment.
One thing the Holy Spirit would teach us is that there is no true unity among men if not through God. The vertical relationship must always precede the horizontal. The Holy Trinity is the model for all relationships.
Each of its three Persons has a role and the roles harmonize perfectly. Even when one submits to another – as when the Son does the bidding of the Father even at the cost of His life – none becomes less than the others.
Instruction of this sort defies human understanding . . . and it is the way of ordering all relationships in our once and future state, in the garden and in glory. It seems so foreign to us because we dwell today in the City of Man, and man’s government looks nothing like God’s.
God imposed it on His creation, when Jews from all points of the Diaspora, or dispersion, had assembled in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast. It arrived with the force of a “rushing mighty wind.” Not for the first time did God act by way of a wind. Not by chance is the word for “breath” and “wind” and “spirit” the same in both Hebrew and Greek.
At Pentecost, the “mighty rushing wind” and “divided tongues, as of fire” — do you recall the burning bush? — brought God’s remedy for the rifts between man and God and man and man that sin produced. Man dedicated the Tower of Babel, the house sin built, to the premise that man can unite with man while freezing God out.
The Psalmist would refute this notion:
“Unless the LORD builds the house, they labor in vain who build it . . .” (127:1).
But by the day of Pentecost sin-stained contractors, their languages still confused, would be erecting myriad towers in the hope of ascending into the heavens of their own might or bringing God down to serve them in their realm.
The church God inaugurated on that day is His gift of a halfway house for His people, a shelter from the anarchy of the City of Man while we await communion in the City of God. This is where St. Augustine can abet our understanding.
In the fifth century Alaric led the Goths in the sack of Rome, by this time the capital of a Christian nation for more than a hundred years. The barbarian invader appeared to be pulling a vast darkness down on 11 centuries of civilization and culture.
Pagans and even nominal Christians attributed the catastrophe to that upstart religion called Christianity and predicted the ruin of the entire world. Augustine, instead of joining in the cacophony, sat down to compose his classic “The City of God.”
This city of the Christian church rises out of the ruins of the civilizations of this world and survives all manner of chaos and tumult. One day, her King will return to take up His throne and rule over an eternal realm of perfect justice and peace.
Meanwhile, we who are the subjects of this King have the privilege of looking upon this City of God with the eyes of faith and glimpsing our future home. We have the further privilege of serving our King in preparing the world for the transfer of the City of God from heaven to earth, of proclaiming to the nations separated at Babel the solution God effected at Pentecost. Augustine wrote:
“If pride caused diversities of tongues, Christ’s humility has united these diversities in one. The Church is now bringing together what that tower had sundered. Of one tongue there were made many; marvel not: this was the doing of pride. Of many tongues there is made one; marvel not, this was the doing of charity.” So wrote Augustine.
In Jerusalem, the Jewish authorities had prohibited certain prayers, including the Shema – “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” — in foreign tongues. Now the Jews of the Diaspora hear the praises of God sung out in the languages of the territories whence they came.
In Old Testament times, when the Spirit of God took control of a man, he prophesied. Here, in like manner, the people prophesy, but in tongues.
This is not the ecstatic utterance Paul will address in 1 Corinthians but known languages spoken by those to whom they are unknown. And those who prophesy are not Jerusalem sophisticates but a rabble from the back woods of Galilee.
Three thousand of the visitors will take their testimony to this mighty act of God back to their own lands and launch the process of disseminating the gospel throughout the nations and to the very end of the earth. These are the firstfruits of the church . . . not a church for the Jew only but for those of every nation, tribe, tongue and people.
By the power of God, disunity has become unity, chaos has conceded to order, darkness has shriveled before the light.
Why, then, do we look out today upon the gathering gloom?
Robert D. Putnam is a scholar who studies American culture and who focuses his work on communities. He wrote a book titled “Bowling Alone” that describes a sociological phenomenon in which more and more of our countrymen are bowling alone.
What was once a social game, to which people congregated in leagues, is turning into a solitary activity. Bowling, of course, is not Putnam’s real concern. His interest is in the disconnection that characterizes our culture more and more. He notes that it has invaded the church as well as the bowling alley.
His observations appear more faithful to the reality we see around us than the notion of a church that is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic,” as we recite each Sunday – with emphasis on the “one.” In an age of proliferating denominations, epidemic divorce and families rent asunder, how can we find the unity of the promise of Pentecost?
We will see it if we look through the eyes of Samuel Wesley, who peered beyond his own demise and saw an England restored to worship . . . if we look through the eyes of St. Augustine, who stood with feet firmly planted in the City of Man and caught the vision of the City of God.
We will not stumble if we walk by faith and not by sight, if we walk not in our own strength but in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Lord has built this house, His church, and the Lord does not labor in vain. Amen.