South Windsor Service of Christian Unity
January 21, 2019
Acts 1:4-8, 12-14, 2:1-2
Excerpts from MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
When you hear those two readings back to back…the beginning of the Pentecost story in the Book of Acts and a section of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail”…do you wonder, along with me, what happened to the church? What happened between the time the first Christian church which came together on fire speaking the same language by the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit, and the contemporary church, which Martin Luther King Jr. deemed a “weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound?” What happened between the rush of a mighty wind that filled the entire house where they were sitting and the church’s “silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are?” When did the church lose our Pentecost voice? And when did the church reduce itself to being satisfied with the status quo?
Tonight’s Scripture lesson from the Book of Acts tells us that Jesus’ disciples were in a room waiting for what Jesus called, “the power from on high.” After Jesus ascended to heaven, his command to them was to return to the upper room in Jerusalem and wait. Eleven disciples, minus Judas, the Mary’s and Joanna, Jesus’ brothers, Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea and assorted other believers. There was a large group of people, probably more than a hundred, just waiting.
They were all waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit. But most of the Pentecost story is devoted to the moment the Holy Spirit arrives. Not much of the story is devoted to what happened in those hours and days while the disciples and other believers were waiting for the Holy Spirit.
The Pentecost story illustrates a fascinating dynamic. I mean graduations, for example, are wonderful occasions. But all the education that leads up to the graduation is what actually makes the experience. Sometimes preparing for an event is more significant than the event itself…
I think it’s safe to assume those waiting for the Holy Spirit days didn’t start out comfortably. The disciples and other believers had issues with one another. They weren’t on the same page. They were still hurt, still a bit resentful, still playing the blame game. There was tension in the room and as a result they were divided in cliques. Each group held onto their own version of the story. Each group had talking points that helped justify their actions. And each group nursed their own wounds and slights, both real and imagined.
Among those disciples and believers there was some jealousy around who was closest to Jesus and who was more distant. Peter denied Jesus three times and then went back to fishing before he returned to the scene. Thomas doubted the resurrection until he saw the holes where they nailed Jesus to the cross. James and John argued amongst themselves about which one of them was the greatest.
In other corners of the room, Mary Magdalene was on her own without Jesus to companion her and advocate for her. Joseph of Arimathea gave his tomb for Jesus, but he was from the wealthy class and therefore automatically suspect. Maybe there were some brewing arguments between the disciples and Jesus’ family about who had the authority during this transition period.
A large group of Christians sitting around with different complaints and issues waiting for the Holy Spirit. Ten whole days they waited together in one upper room in Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit could have arrived the minute they all set foot in that upper room. But that would have short-circuited the Pentecost process…
The whole picture reminds me of the Christian church today. We’re busy celebrating our own denominations and traditions. We’re remembering and honoring our own histories. We’re busy performing our own rituals and administering our own sacraments. We’re all doing our own thing, each one of us in our own part of the room. Meanwhile all of us are waiting for the Holy Spirit to come and reconcile us with one another and with God.
Think for a moment what would happen if all the churches in the town of South Windsor were put on hold and each of us closed our doors and wound up in a room for ten days. No structure. No one in charge. No prayer books or hymnals or computers and no rules to guide us, except for the command of Jesus that we wait. How long do you think it would take for all of us to move out of our own corners, cast aside the things that separate and divide us and focus on all the things that bring us together?
That would surely be an unforgettable ten days. What would we identify as our common goals? Whose ideas would rise to the surface as guiding principles and would it really matter who got the credit? What grudges and misconceptions would we need to abandon? Who would we want or need to forgive along the way? And how would we handle the kind of divisive things Martin Luther King Jr. preached about during his lifetime. The xenophobia and racism and classism and homophobia and sexism and all the moral positions where we too often claim our own truth?
To be sure, the Holy Spirit arrived on the day of Pentecost with the rush of a violent wind and tongues of fire. But could it be that the Holy Spirit came a few days earlier when people began to move out of their own cliques and find ways to be of one accord? Experience tells me the Holy Spirit always shows up when people figure out how to stretch beyond their prejudices and differences.
One of the great manifestations of God occurs when Christians work side by side building community and seeking justice and acting out of love and honor and respect. Just like we are in this sanctuary tonight. So in the end, the question we as Christians should be asking isn’t just how we prepare ourselves to receive the Holy Spirit. The question should also be how we prepare ourselves to receive each other.
Talk about Christian unity. Amen.