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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Acts 2:1-21 “Receive”

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Last Sunday we did the first in a series of sermons for May called, “Steps of Faith.” Even I can remember the titles of the sermon this month, because they rhyme: Believe, Receive, Achieve and Reprieve. These are at least four steps of faith, not in any particular order, and they're not by any means the only steps of faith. You may be able to come up with more, which is great. But they have to rhyme. 

Last Sunday we talked about the ability to believe. Belief always begins at the edge of disbelief. You can learn about faith in church, but you really come to believe at the point when you're staring up at heaven and you don't know what to believe -- when you're astounded, when you're shocked, when your world has been rocked upside down. For example, we all know Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, but until we get into a mess and we're praying, “Oh, please Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, you know you've always been my Lord and Savior. Even though I may not have told you that very often, or, OK, never. But I've been meaning to. And now seems like a very good time because I could really use some help right now, please, because I can't believe what I've gotten myself into.” (I think God is perfectly fine with prayers like that. Say what you want, they're not boring. And I would guess God welcomes a little break from predictable churchy prayers.) Belief always begins on the edge of disbelief.

This week, we're moving from “Believe” to “Receive.” Last week it was a struggle for the disciples just to believe what they'd seen happen to Jesus, as he ascended into heaven before their eyes. This week, the disciples aren't so much about belief; this week they're in receive mode. We switch from “believe” to “receive,” from belief to... receif?

So fifty days after Easter, the disciples are all in a room together. Suddenly the sound like a violent wind comes from heaven and blows through the room like a hurricane. But wait, there's more. Then, they have a simultaneous vision. What seem to be like tongues of fire separate and came to rest on each of them. But wait, there's even more. Then, they begin to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit enables them. But wait, that's still not all. Did they babble in incomprehensible stutters and squeals? No. We know because people passing by began to hear. Parthians, Medes and Elamites. Mesopotamians, Judeans and Cappadocians. (It's a busy street.) Libyans, Arabs and Cretans. Thank goodness the Cretans heard them. All cretins should be in church. That's how we get ministers. Now it's time for the Cretans, Cappadocians, and Cyrenians to be amazed, to have their belief and disbelief crash together over what the disciples are doing. They're utterly amazed, the Bible says. They say, “Are not all of these Galileans? (Subtext: “They ain't usually this bright in Galilee county.”) Then how is it we all hear their preaching, in our native tongues?” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” The mystified Cretans are at last week's step of faith, believing, while the disciples are now receiving.

The disciples received the gift of the Holy Spirit. Actually, Jesus had appeared to them not long after his resurrection and had breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The disciples had been given the gift of the Holy Spirit weeks ago. It's taken until now for them to do something with it. Do you ever do that? Have you ever received a gift for say, Mother's Day, and then wondered what it does, or even, what it is? “Thank you for the lovely... microwave back scratcher. It'll go so well with the remote-control Clapper.” The disciples had the gift of the Holy Spirit, but had no idea how to operate it, until today, Pentecost. Which is when the Holy Spirit turned on automatically, and itself gave them gifts, whether they knew how to work them or not. And the gift happened to be, the gift of... what?

Most people will say the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost was the gift of speaking in tongues. There are a lot of churches that celebrate the ecstatic gift of speaking in tongues. I wouldn't last ten minutes in a church like that. But then again, I've never been to a church where they speak in tongues, so who knows? I'm Presbyterian. I'm not prone to ecstasy. Tongues are the gift of other churches, and I'm OK with that. 

However, the way I read Acts, it doesn't sound as if the the disciples are “speaking in tongues” the way they do it across town. The way I read Acts, it sounds more like the International Students' Dorm at UT. Now, I have been there, and it's amazing. You ride the elevator up and every floor is like a different country. The doors open, and you're in Africa. Next floor, you're in China. And every time they open you get this miraculous wind swirling around with all the smells and flavors of each ethnic cuisine – you just want to get a plate and go from floor to floor. You get the gift of hearing the voices and languages from around the globe, just by riding the elevator. So, the disciples begin preaching, and by the gift of the Holy Spirit, they're speaking of the native tongues of all the people in Jerusalem. Which to us would be like saying they were speaking in the native tongues of all the people in New York.

So, the first gift of the Holy Spirit, the way I read Acts, is the gift of translation. Translation. Translation of the word of Jesus Christ the Lord and Savior into all the languages of the world. The disciples received the gift of the Holy Spirit, and from the Holy Spirit they received the gift of speaking in the native languages of the world. But here's the twist. It doesn't matter if you speak one language, two languages, or a hundred languages if there's no one to hear you. It doesn't matter if the Holy Spirit, it doesn't matter if Jesus Christ himself teaches you fluency in a hundred languages if there's no one around to speak to. Greater than all the other gifts of Pentecost to the disciples is the gift of the Holy Spirit to the people who heard, and understood their preaching. All those Cretans and Cappadocians had their receivers turned on, and they picked up the signal of the Holy Spirit. And what did they do? They did exactly what we'd expect them to do, knowing about last week's step of faith. They went, “What are we supposed to do with this? What does this mean?” Just as the disciples were amazed when they saw Jesus ascending into heaven, so the people are amazed to hear about it. The people receive the signal. And their bandwidths just explode.

You believe in Jesus Christ. (You do believe in Jesus Christ, right?) That belief should mean the world to you. But your belief should have meaning to the world, too. The gift of Pentecost, the gift of translation of belief from one person to another, means that not only do you receive the gifts of God, but that you should be a transmitter of gifts to other receivers. It's the gift that keeps on giving. Because it's the gift of translation. You receive the Spirit in order to share the Spirit. That's the way the Spirit works. As you translate your faith into words and actions you help others receive what otherwise they might never hear. When you receive the Holy Spirit, it's not yours to keep; it's your to share, and share again, and keep sharing, even though the rest of the world might think you're crazy, as they did the disciples. Again, God's OK with that. God's able to do pretty good stuff, even with cretins.

I'm pretty sure that tongues of fire have never landed on your head. But the gift of the Holy Spirit has. You may not know it; you may not know what to do with it, but the gift of the Holy Spirit rests every bit as much upon you as it did the first disciples the first Pentecost Sunday. All they did was open their mouths, and the Holy Spirit made them understood. Any of you ever felt like it would take a miracle for someone to understand you? Here it is. Receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. And pass it on.