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Sermon for May 31 – Pentecost

Speaking Of Life 2027 | And that End is Love

No better place is the phase “better together” embodied than within the church. We are each given gifts, not to use for our own self-promotion. God calls us out of ourselves and into relationship, with himself and one another. He calls us into a deeper and richer life as we work out the Christian life in community.

Program Transcript

Speaking Of Life 2027 | And that End is Love
Greg Williams

Most of the writing we have from Paul addresses issues coming up in the churches he planted. In the Corinthian letters we have dialogue with a fledgling church in a complex, cosmopolitan city.

And many times in his letters, Paul addresses the phenomenon of tongues—called glossolalia in Greek. The important history here is that glossolalia—at least speaking a semi-coherent language in worship—was common in the surrounding cults in the area.

Those who had this experience were considered the elite. One of Paul’s major issues was dealing with one-upmanship and ego wars that resulted from this. People used this gift of the Spirit as a way to bump their social status and pull the spotlight over to themselves.

Paul writes:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 1 Corinthians 12:4-7 (ESV)

Notice that Paul is writing about the many gifts given—everything from administration to healing to tongues. And he gives the same reason—the one purpose— for them all: the common good. All the gifts are given by one Lord for the good of the Body of Christ.

In the very next section of this letter, Paul writes what is commonly referred to as “The Love Chapter.” We’ve all heard these words at weddings: “Love is patient, love is kind…” And while they work for weddings, they weren’t written about romantic love. These verses, like the spiritual gifts, describe the love and connection of the community, which is at the heart of his letters to believers in Corinth. The gifts are to be used in love—and all for the good of the church community.

While many like to focus on their individual gifts, God calls us out of ourselves and into relationship. He calls us into a deeper and richer life as we work out the Christian life in community.

As humans, we naturally pair off. Any odd number makes for the old cliche of the “third wheel.” We start in-crowding and excluding and cliquing up—the more people, the worse it gets.

Isn’t it amazing then that God is three in one? That the center of reality is a trinity? This miraculous relationship is the nucleus of everything and is fundamental to who God is.

The church in Corinth, like the church today, was distracted by the gifts of the Spirit which were given as a means to an end. And that end is love.

I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life

Acts 2:1-21 • Psalm 104:25-35, 37 • 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 • John 20:19-23

The theme this week is the Spirit at work. Our sermon, Pentecost: Babel Undone, is based on one of the readings of the day. Pentecost is the story of the giving of the Spirit and the birth of the church—when the confusion of the Tower of Babel is healed. In Numbers 11, the Spirit is at work through Moses and other leaders of the community. Psalm 104 describes the awesome work of the Spirit of God running the world. 1 Corinthians 12 tells about the work of the Spirit in the church community—many gifts given by one Spirit. In John 20, we see Jesus imparting the Spirit to his disciples. In John 7, Jesus tells them about the Spirit who will come like fountain of living water.

Pentecost: Babel Undone

Acts 2:1-21 ESV

Read or have someone read Acts 2:1-21 ESV.

The story of Acts 2 occurs during what was called the Feast of Pentecost. Luke says “devout people from every nation under heaven” were in Jerusalem celebrating this festival, which had political, religious, and ethnic symbolism in layers. What you did on Pentecost and what you thought about it defined who you were, said what you believed and what you practiced, connected you with your history and your faith. And the symbolism would grow thicker and deeper in color after the occurrences of this particularly strange morning.

One of the places to look when trying to understand the Bible’s long history with language occurred centuries before this wild, disorienting morning at Pentecost. It was centuries before, in that part of the Bible where they don’t even name any characters; they just tell a story.

In this strange tale, humanity was somehow of one tribe and one language, and was moving east. This is not long after the flood, so perhaps the world was still recovering. Here humanity was moving together, and they decided to build their own city. As it says in Genesis 11 (I’ll just read it to you):

Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth. (Genesis 11:4 ESV)

So the building of the great tower began. Up and up, story after story, humanity’s pride was building its way to the heavens. Here we have one of these early examples of when we try to do our own thing—when we trust in our own edifices and defenses rather than God’s provision. These are people probably just a few generations away from the great flood; they are perhaps promising themselves that they will never be that helpless again, that they will get in this little cocoon and be safe. But God saves them from this:

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” (Genesis 11:5-7 ESV)

And so their language was confused and they stopped building the tower. The tower was the Tower of Babel. It was a monument to the confusion and brokenness that comes from humanity trying to do things in their own power. What was one family was now broken into many tribes; what was one language, now shattered into many tongues.

Now we fast forward who knows how long later, through the wars and conquests and bloodshed that resulted from this division, through millions of people from these thousands of tribes that have killed other people just for their accent, the color of their skin, their heritage. They killed with clubs, then spears, then swords—fast forward through blood, fire, and vapor of smoke. Fast forward through the world of Babel. Fast forward until you get to a small room on a crisp morning where a group of anxious believers in some new faith were praying together.

Pentecost was a common festival for Jews at the time to celebrate. It commemorated the giving of the Law. This is something Jews celebrated as a basic element of who they were. Pentecost was the day—fifty days after Passover—that Moses was given the law by God on Mount Sinai.. The Greek word pentekoste means “fiftieth.” So the various religious locations in Jerusalem would have been crowded by people celebrating that commemorative holiday.

At the same time, this was also an agricultural holiday, coming at the end of the wheat harvest. So there were pilgrims all over the city that day. It was a time of feasting, remembrance, and deeply meaningful celebration of what it meant to be God’s people.

There are echoes here all over the place, great centers of meaning that shed light on what is going on during the day of Pentecost. The Tower of Babel, the giving of the Law on Sinai, the feast of the harvest—of the life’s blood of survival. Many spotlights through the centuries are gathered on this time, so the day is rich with meaning.

And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. (Acts 2:2-3 ESV)

This is the wind of God coming through—the wind that hovered over the waters, the Spirit that inspired Joseph to be able to interpret dreams. That which had only come through once in a great while before, that presence of God that came only in moments in the past and only to a few chosen people, is now there among everyone.

The energy of God’s presence here among them, and among us now. Again, another spotlight is cast on this—the Spirit of God filling and making alive. Who can tell me where that comes from? Adam, the first man, being blown into by God, who breathed into him and made him a living being. Here is the re-creation of humanity by the Spirit of God.

In this story, the painful division of the Tower of Babel is undone. [verse 5]

Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. (Acts 2:5-6 ESV)

Each one was hearing them speak in his own language. This was probably one of the temple courtyards, which would have been like an airport on a feast day. Different languages, different dialects, a cacophony of different human sounds. And suddenly there is the sound of one message in many languages. They begin to hear the gospel of Christ meeting them right there where they are.

In the original story—the tower of Babel—human pride results in the splintering and shattering of relationships. In this story—the re-creation of God, the re-doing of humanity—there is a unity of message. There is harmony, even in the many languages spoken here. God meets us where we are. God the Spirit descends into these many languages —themselves a result of sin and pride—and meets with the people who are there.

The miracle of Pentecost wasn’t just in the weird phenomenon of people speaking other languages, it was in the fact that the good news wasn’t just the property of one race, or one language, or one way of being human, but now available to everyone! Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams and your young men will see visions! God meets the people where they are.

Let’s take a minute to talk about the phenomenon itself—speaking in tongues, or the thousand-dollar Greek word: glossolalia. This is the main thing that trips people up at this point in the narrative here—what in the world are they talking about?

A few things about glossolalia. There are different types of tongues—in some instances as in this one, it is other languages being spoken miraculously, and in other instances in Scripture, it is a semi-coherent language that may sound like noise to us.

First thing to know, at least this second phenomena was common in other religions at the time. Christians didn’t invent tongues. Paul had to deal a lot with some of the ego battles and other things that resulted from the use of tongues, because it meant in pagan society that you had a high status and center stage.

Tongues was never meant to feed someone’s ego or make for confusion. It was meant for the community to be lifted up. There are Christians all over the spectrum on this issue, and the worst thing we can do is let it divide us.

I’m not going to tell the Holy Spirit how to do his job. If he wants to make people speak in a language I don’t know, then that is his business. If he wants to work quietly through the gifts of administration and spreadsheets and budgets—that’s his business, too. The message here is that the Spirit of God blows where he pleases. We just need to be the ones willing to catch the breeze.

Let’s look at another of our interpretive spotlights. Centuries before, Moses had gone up to the mountain to receive the Law for the people of God. The Israelites had just been freed of Egypt and were out in the wasteland, and then were told what it meant to follow God, to be his people, in the giving of the law.

So began the Israelite way of knowing God—following laws and rituals that made them God’s holy people, and once a year sending one priest into one small room to be in God’s presence.

But the promise had always been in the wings, as spoken in Jeremiah:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 33:31-34 ESV)

Moses had been given the Law. Moses had gone up to the presence of God and come back down with the word of God. So a succession of high priests went into the holy of holies to represent the people in the presence of God. But now, as predicted by Jeremiah, the law is written on their hearts, on our hearts. Continuing in Acts:

And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. (Acts 2:3 ESV)

Now the Spirit of God is within each believer! Now there is no temple that we go to, but we, as the fellowship of believers, are God’s temple! We don’t have to send just one person on just one day in just one place, but all have that place within each one of us, and our high priest is always with us. From the least to the greatest—old men and young men, men and women, slave and free—all have the Spirit of God within them.

And so the church was born. The confusion and brokenness of the Tower of Babel were made into harmony and one gospel for all people everywhere—God meeting us where we are. The giving of the Law was brought to its fulfillment by not just dwelling in the temple exclusively, but dwelling in us as believers—the holy of holies in our hearts.

A few questions to take home with us today:

  • How do you see church? It’s interesting here that just before the Spirit comes on them, they are all together in unity, and just after the Spirit comes on them, they are all together in unity. The Spirit doesn’t gift them with individual religious experiences they can just groove on by themselves, but with a supernatural harmony expressed in relationships.
  • How do you see the Spirit? Our default is to tell the Holy Spirit how to do his job. What we see here is the explosive proof that the Spirit moves how he wants and when he wants—our job is to pay attention.
  • Have you been drinking? Such a great conversation here! They accuse these people of being drunk, and Peter says, “It’s only 9 am!” [Verse 2:15]. But bear this in mind. Are we so indulging and enjoying the life of the Spirit that people think we’ve been drinking? Most of the time, people think the church is full of sleepy self-righteous folks, and they’ve too often been right. Would people mistake our church services for a party? Would they accuse us of being drunks and partiers like they accused Jesus?

Small Group Discussion Questions

Questions for Speaking of Life: And that End is Love

-watch video to start

  • Do you know what your spiritual gifts are? How have they been used to build up the Body of Christ?
  • Has God ever used a relationship to make you more like Christ? How has working out relationships made you a better, stronger person?

Questions for sermon: Pentecost—Babel Undone

  • Have you ever heard several languages spoken at once? What was the effect?
  • We talked about how the giving of many tongues at Pentecost was the “undoing” of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. How is Pentecost like the healing of the tragic story of Babel?
  • The many languages speak the one message of the gospel, telling us this message belongs to all peoples, all backgrounds. Have you ever seen the church connect people from different parts of society or cultures? How do these connections help heal the world?
  • In verse 13, the people think the disciples are drunk. Do we so enjoy ourselves and have such a unique joy in our community that people mistake us for a party? Should they?

Quote to ponder:

“Grace is the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world… until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ears.” ~~Robert Farrar Capon

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