Fire Alarm

Fire Alarm

Acts 2:1-21

by Daniel Harrell

Pentecost is the birthday of the church, but it didn’t start as that. It began back in Exodus when God commanded a party to commemorate the wheat harvest. It was all about celebrating the ingathering of grain, though Jesus wold allude to a different kind of Pentecost to come, a plentiful harvesting of people for God’s kingdom. Pentecost means  fiftieth, marking the fiftieth day after Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. If you remember the Exodus story, you remember that as God led Israel out of their Egyptian captivity, he instructed them to leave the leaven out of their bread as they packed for the trip. There was no time to wait for the dough to rise. But once safely settled in the Promised Land, there was no need to rush anymore. Now they could relax and enjoy—just like a holiday weekend.

The reason for fifty days had to do in part with the importance of Sabbath and the number seven. Sabbath happens on the seventh day, Pentecost on the seventh week after Passover. Seven hearkens back to creation and completion, Sabbath hearkens to rest, satisfaction in a job well done and enjoying the fruit of labor. Seven and Sabbath both focus on God from whom all these blessings flow. However, the fact that Pentecost itself actually occurs on the fiftieth day, that is seven Sabbaths plus one day (if you’re doing the math), meant that Pentecost fell on the all important eighth day which in Jewish reckoning was a marker for heaven itself. Pentecost previewed Kingdom Come, New Creation, Jubilee, Glory Land, Eternal Rest and the Completion of all hope.

Jews from all over the world made the Pentecost pilgrimage to Jerusalem to offer the first fruits of their wheat harvest in gratitude for God’s goodness and promises. With plenty of wheat and plenty of time, Pentecost was a feast of leavened bread. It was time to haul out the yeast. Jesus compared the kingdom of God to yeast—a little bit permeates an entire batch of dough and raises it up. Here in Acts, Pentecost provided the backdrop for the Holy Spirit to leaven a small batch of believers into a huge loaf large enough to nourish the world.

The Spirit makes a dramatic Pentecostal entrance: a hurricane force wind, fiery tongues flying around everywhere, Jews from various lands hearing the gospel spoken in their own language. Most would have picked up on the point. God had showed up with wind and fire throughout the Old Testament, though that had been a long time ago. Wind was a classic sign of the Spirit, blowing unseen with power wherever it will. Fire was a sign of holiness, destroying what is impure for the sake of refinement, redeeming the messes we make of our lives with the heat of grace, welding God’s people into a unified body. Fire and wind make for the Holy Spirit whom Jesus promised would come once he had gone. The prophet Joel had seen it coming even before. The Lord would pour out his spirit on all flesh one day, such that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Here, the now fired-up apostle Peter announces that the name of the Lord is none other than the name of Jesus. Salvation is found in the one they buried like wheat in the ground, only to have him rise up and become the bread of life. Harvest time is here. Jesus’ resurrection on the third day (which was also an eighth day, the day after Sabbath) signaled the start of new creation. Pentecost, an eighth day, marks our participation in it. “Very truly, I tell you,” said Jesus, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Jesus is the grain of wheat. His church is the fruit.

It’s one reason we call new churches church plants. They are often so full of energy and fire, just like Pentecost itself. Research shows that if you want to grow a church, start a church. Church plants grow at a rate almost ten times stronger than older, established congregations. People participate more willingly, invite friends more eagerly, experience their faith more deeply. Unfortunately all the energy present at the beginning inevitably ebbs once the necessity of upkeep encroaches. Churches that grow add staffs and budgets, build buildings and parking lots, such that maintenance soon takes precedence over mission. You got to pay the bills. You got to fix the leaks. You have to raise money to keep the ministry going since everybody has grown to expect it but not as many volunteer to help anymore. All the new people who used to volunteer are off at the new church down the street.

While in North Carolina visiting family this month, I listened as my grandmother bemoaned the demise of her little Quaker church, fretting like many of her generation over the dearth of younger people in attendance, young people who, frankly, are unlikely to ever show up. Her concerns brought to mind an idea I heard at a local church planters conference recently. What if churches plants came with expiration dates? What if when a church started, it planned for both its ground-breaking and grave-digging? Set an expiration date just far enough in the future to accomplish a specific mission, or at most, satisfy the spiritual needs of a single generation–just long enough time to get folks baptized, married and buried. Set an expiration date and you wouldn’t bother with a building because you’d need those resources to accomplish your calling. Know the date of your funeral and churches would generate a critical bucket list of ministry. Time would be of the essence. Staff would stay lean and hungry. There would be no concern over mission creep. And you’d never fret over whether enough young people attended because young people would represent the next generation and the next church. One church would die in order for a new church to rise up, keeping the church as a whole fresh and vital and ever-resurrected and ever-creative, anticipating life to come. Just like in the New Testament, an imminent expiration date would build an eschatological urgency into a congregation’s life.

Eschatological urgency is evident here in verse 20. Peter talks about the “the sun turning to darkness and the moon to blood.” These were stock images of Judgment Day, the Last Day (eschatological means “having to do with last things”). But rather than doom and dread, Peter refers to the last day as “great and glorious” because that’s the day Jesus comes to make all things new. Looking forward to that last day, the last thing the first church needed was to become too established (even though that’s what eventually happened).

Nevertheless, on Pentecost, God did a new thing. The Spirit breathed new life into Israel’s established religious structures for the sake of a new start. “Everyone who called on the name of the Lord would be saved,”promised Peter, quoting Joel, but in order to call they needed to hear and in order to hear somebody needed to speak. Like with creation, God does a new thing with words. God redeems the whole world through Jesus the word made flesh. Here at Pentecost, the Spirit shows up as flaming tongues to stress the importance of the word now made flesh in the church. Up to this point, the disciples had been too scared to say anything about Jesus–they saw what happened to him. They kept quiet even after he rose from the dead–who was going to believe in a resurrection? But now, all fired up, Peter and the rest can’t keep their mouth shut.

Back in college I was something of a fired up, quasi-obnoxious Christian, much to the consternation of my fraternity brothers. The last thing they wanted to hear about was Jesus. He may have been a party guy in some respects, but his ethics put a huge damper on a college kid’s social life. Still, there was this one frat guy who was curious about my Christianity. We ended up reading the Bible together. His curiosity turned to skepticism curious. Not only was the Bible a strange book to read, but I was a strange dude to read it with. How could I be trusted? How could he know the Bible was right? How could he know Jesus was real? All very fair questions he asked over and over again. Several months passed and frat boy was no closer to belief than he was when we started, despite all the hours I had devoted to him. Certainly he knew more, but he was far from being convinced.

We took a break for the Christmas holidays, and when we got back together in January, he told me he’d become a Christian. He said he ran into an old friend who’d joined a church. He asked this friend, who wasn’t nearly as strange as I was, about his faith, heard him say the same things I’d told him, asked whether His friend knew me or if I’d set him up. Assured by his friend that we’d never met, frat boy figured there must be something to this Jesus since both his hometown friend and I couldn’t both be crazy so he decided to be a Christian too.

Naturally I was irritated by this. Here I’d put in all this work plowing a field and sowing seeds just to have some fly by farmer reap the ripe harvest. But this is how Pentecost designed things to work. It’s not about making individuals especially spiritual by means of a extra dose of charismatic power. Pentecost is about turning individuals into spirit-filled communities, unified and whole “bodies of Christ.” It was this unity of heart and mind between me and another Christian I had never met that convinced my fraternity brother, not my evangelistic cleverness. Peter, again quoting the Old Testament, will later describe the Spirit’s work as making us into “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

And having received mercy we freely give mercy–by word and deed. The chief sign of the resurrected Jesus’ on earth was not isolated miracles or people speaking in tongues, but whole communities of resurrection so radically different from the way the world did community that there could be no other explanation for it. We read how “they all spoke the word of God courageously, with boldness.” They spoke in the relentless voice of conviction and concern and grace and compassion, even in the face of rejection and resistance. We read how “there was not a needy person among them.” Everybody took care of everybody else. The church grew because that’s where healing and forgiveness and love and redemption and salvation happened. Mercy was their mission.

Years ago, I was frustrated with how the established congregation I served in Boston was stuck in a particular season of institutional preservation. For whatever reason, we’d lost sight of our mission. The wind had died down. Our flame had flickered. Concerned, I enrolled for some help at Harvard, of all places, where the late, great Catholic mystic Henri Nouwen was teaching a class on the spiritual life. One day in class, just before spring break, Nouwen described a relief project that was going on in Haiti that needed some extra workers and would anybody be willing to go down next week like tomorrow? A few student hesitantly raised hands, after which Nouwen pulled out this huge bucket and passed it around for the rest of us to fill up with money to pay for the travel. It was so radical.

I decided to try it back at my church. Digital photography had just emerged, email was becoming popular, and I was in touch with some Bolivian missionaries I’d met on a previous mission trip who I knew could use help. They were working to get scores of abandoned and abused children off the streets of La Paz where they were growing up sleeping in sewers, uninhabited buildings and under store-front awnings. I threw out the invitation to go down to Bolivia and help out, passed a bucket to raise the cash, sent dozens who emailed pictures once there so the rest of us could see what was going on and pray for them. Among those who went down was a young doctor named Chi who became so fired up for this cause that he stayed on. Our church got behind him, helped him build three orphanages, and saw scores of children saved from an otherwise hopeless future. The project grew further into an independent non-profit organization. More volunteers got involved, engaging in research to better understand the individual needs of the children and working toward more preventive interventions, building creative partnerships with families and communities to enable them to better raise their own children rather than abandon them to the streets.

While visiting families this month, I received an unexpected call from this organization, now fifteen years old and called Kaya International (from the Bolivian word meaning tomorrow) informing me that they wanted to honor me with an award. They heard that I was going to be in Boston and would Dawn and I and Violet be willing to come to their banquet? We agreed and soon found ourselves sitting at the MIT Faculty Club overlooking Boston listening to the remarkable testimony of a young man from Bolivia, also named Daniel, who was one of the first kids we had saved from the streets fifteen years before. The reward I received was for being the “grandfather” of this mission, for being the one who got the whole started. Once I got over being referred to as a “grandfather,” I was overwhelmed by the honor. I’d only planted a few seeds. It was so many others, fired up the the spirit, who nourished the soil and reaped the harvest.

This is how Pentecost designed things to work. It’s not about making any  individual especially spiritual by means of a extra dose of charismatic power, but rather about turning individuals into spirit-filled communities, unified and whole “bodies of Christ” whom having received mercy, share that mercy as Jesus on earth, eagerly and urgently until Jesus itself finally returns again to make everything new once more.