Breath for the Body
A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist
May 19, 2013
The Day of Pentecost
Last Sunday Lee Hilbert surprised me by coming forward at the end
of the 8:30 service and asking if he could make an announcement.
I was a little disappointed.
I had thought that maybe, just maybe, he was coming to rededicate his
life to Christ or volunteer for the foreign mission field.
But then I remembered: Lee is chair of our personnel team.
That’s about as dedicated as you can get and, in its own way, it is a
mission. So I let him make an
announcement and he surprised me again by recognizing my fifth anniversary
as your pastor. He said some
very nice things that he really didn’t have to say, and you got to your feet
and applauded, which you really didn’t have to do.
I was moved, and at the 8:30 service had some trouble saying thank
you because of the lump in my throat and so, once again, thank you, thank
you, thank you.
It is a joy and a privilege to be your pastor.
If I’m remembering correctly my first Sunday with you was on Mother’s Day,
2008, but it was also the Day of Pentecost.
I tried to combine those two things creatively by preaching a sermon
called, “Who Gave Birth to the Church?”
But today we don’t have that problem; we can focus on Pentecost
exclusively. We can sing the
hymns and read the Scriptures and remember what happened on that first
Pentecost, when 120 believers were gathered in an upper room, and suddenly
there was a sound like the rush of a mighty wind, and tongues of flame
appeared above the believers’ heads, and they began to speak in other
languages as the Spirit gave them the ability.
We read that passage and tell that story on this day just as we read
the passage about Jesus’ birth on Christmas or tell the story of his
resurrection on Easter. But we
also want to know “so what?”
What does this thing that happened to those people all those years ago have
to do with us who live here, now, in 21st century America?
This is a story about the birth of the church, about how it came into
the world like most babies come into the world—with a good bit of noise and
commotion—but also how, when it sucked that first breath into its lungs, it
sucked in the breath of the Holy Spirit.
But that was 2,000 years ago, and according to some observers the church in
America, at least, is now gasping for breath.
It’s gotten old, and tired; there’s not much life left in it.
The Greatest Generation—which has always been so good about coming to
church, and giving, and serving—is dying off and the younger generations
don’t seem to have nearly as much interest.
I’ve heard from some of my colleagues lately that they are having to
come up with new ways to measure attendance.
For example, they might average 750 people in Sunday school from week
to week but discover that there are 1,000 people who come at least once a
month. Another church might
average 500 people in Sunday school but discover that there are still 1,000
people who come at least once a month.
So you have 1,000 people in both churches who consider themselves
regular attenders, but some come three times a month and some come only
twice. I would guess there are
some who come even less than that and still consider themselves regular
But let’s not judge. I’ve
talked to people who tell me why they can’t come every Sunday, and some of
their reasons are good ones.
They’re taking their kids to college, or caring for aging parents in another
state. Not to mention that the
40-hour work week seems to be a thing of the past.
Many of these are couples where both spouses work, where they come
home exhausted after putting in full days on the road or at the office.
Maybe one of them will think to pick up some Chinese takeout on the
way home or they will simply order a pizza.
And even when they’re home they’re not resting.
They are taking their kids to soccer, helping them with homework,
doing laundry, paying bills, and checking email before finally falling into
bed so they can get up and do it all over again.
I’m just guessing that when Sunday morning rolls around there are not
too many of them who say, “Yay, let’s get up and get dressed and go to
church!” And then they get
here, and instead of giving them an encouraging pat on the back the pastor
tells them to get out there and bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond,
And then there are the younger generations, which seem to be looking for
almost any excuse to stay out of the church.
In a book called unChristian
David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons claim that the younger generations think of
Christians as “hypocritical, homophobic, old-fashioned, out-of-touch, too
focused on making converts, too political, and too judgmental.”[i]
These young people might describe themselves as “spiritual, but not
religious,” and they certainly don’t have much interest in organized
religion, where somebody is going to stand in a pulpit and tell them what to
do, or what not to do. Why
would they want to go to a place like that?
This is one of the reasons Sunday morning worship attendance in
America has been falling off at such an alarming rate: the older,
churchgoing generations are dying off and the younger generations don’t go
to church. But maybe that’s
where we can find some good news in the story of Pentecost, because it’s not
so much about going to church as
it is about being the church.
I told someone last week I have a vision of this room packed with people
Sunday after Sunday, joyfully worshiping God; the offering plates
overflowing with generous expressions of their love; Sunday school classes
filled with people, eagerly studying God’s word, hallways jammed with
friends who are talking and laughing and hugging each other.
“It’s not just out there in Richmond that I want the Kingdom to
come,” I said; “I want it to come here, too, at First Baptist Church.”
And immediately we began to brainstorm about what we might do to make
that vision a reality. But then
I went to my study to work on the sermon, I opened my Bible to the first few
pages of Acts, and this is what I found: Jesus, telling his disciples that
they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of
the earth, but not until they receive power from on high.
“He ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem,” Luke says, “but to
wait for the promise from the Father” (Acts 1:4).
He seems to be saying, “Don’t try to do anything on your own.
You would only mess it up.
So, don’t go rushing off to the ends of the earth under your own
power. Stay in Jerusalem.
Wait for the power from on high.”
I think there’s a lesson for us in that.
Do you know how it is when we decide that we want to reach the world
for Christ, or even when we want to increase church attendance by 10
percent? We start making plans,
devising strategies. But Jesus,
who had just told his disciples that he wanted them to carry the gospel to
the ends of the earth, said, “Don’t do that.
Don’t make plans. Don’t
devise strategies. Stay.
Wait.” And to their
credit, that’s exactly what they did.
After Jesus had said his goodbyes there on the Mount of Olives, blessed
them, and ascended into heaven, they went back to Jerusalem.
“And when they had entered [the city],” Luke says, “they went up to
the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and
Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the Son of
Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James.
All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer,
together with Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” (Acts 1:12-14).
Luke tells us later that there were even more than these—about 120
altogether—and if you count the days between the Ascension and Pentecost you
realize that they must have been crammed into that upper room for ten days,
waiting and praying for the promised power from on high, and if you’ve ever
been anywhere with that many people for ten days you can imagine what it was
like. I once spent the night in
a homeless shelter, and I can imagine it was something like that, with
people sleeping practically shoulder to shoulder, stinking and snoring.
But on the day of Pentecost a breath of fresh air blew through the place,
with a sound like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled the entire room
where they were gathered. And
something like flames appeared over their heads and they were all filled
with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in strange, unknown tongues.
But as it turns out those tongues were known to the people who had
come to Jerusalem from every part of the ancient world, and who came running
when they heard all the commotion from that upper room.
They heard these uneducated Galileans speaking their own languages,
and telling them about the mighty works of God.
But others mocked those Galileans, made fun of them, and said they
That’s when Peter stood up and said, “No, these people aren’t drunk.
They’re full of the Holy Spirit!
This is just what the prophet Joel was talking about when he said
that in the last days ‘God will pour out his spirit on all flesh, and your
sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and
your old men shall dream dreams.’
That’s what’s happening.
These are the last days.” And
that’s when the crowd asked him, “Then, what must we do to be saved?”
And Peter said, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name
of Jesus Christ!” We usually
remember that part. And we
remember that 3,000 people were added to the church that day.
But we sometimes forget what Peter said next: “Repent and be baptized
every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your
sins, and you will receive the gift
of the Holy Spirit. For the
promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off,
everyone whom the Lord God calls to himself” (Acts 2:38-39).
In other words, we seem to miss the truth that this promise is for
us, that we, too, can receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, the promised
power from on high.
On the day the church was born it sucked the breath of the Holy Spirit into
its lungs, and it went forward on that power for days, for years, for
centuries. But these days the
church—in America at least—seems to be gasping for breath.
It needs something, but we’re not sure what it is.
And so we try to bring it back to life again through contemporary
worship, contemplative prayer, Evangelism Explosion, a focus on peace and
justice, when maybe what we need to do most is listen to Jesus.
“Wait,” he says. “Pray.
Ask my father to send the promised power from on high.”
Because Peter said this promise was not only for those people who
were there on the Day of Pentecost, but for their children, and for those
who are far off, and everyone whom the Lord God calls to himself.
And that would include us, wouldn’t it?
This may be the good news of this passage: that the promise is for us—the
promised power from on high—that it could enter even the church in America
as breath enters the body, and give it life, and make it strong.
Imagine our twenty and thirty-somethings seeing visions of the
church’s future, and members of the Greatest Generation dreaming dreams of
what yet might be. Imagine
those people in between who are so exhausted and distracted, being filled
with the Holy Spirit and using that burst of energy to change the world.
The secret of the church’s success is not some human plan or
strategy. It’s the Spirit of
God, first given to his people on the Day of Pentecost, but given to his
people in every generation since.
“Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit,” says the Lord (Zech.
4:6). That’s how the church
will succeed: by the Spirit of God, the breath of the Body of Christ.
How do we get that spirit?
First, we recognize our need, and then we ask the only one who can
give it. Jesus once said, “What
father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give
him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg will give him a scorpion?
If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your
children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to
those who ask him?” (Luke 11:11-13).
And so, let’s ask.
Shall we pray?
Father in heaven: if we asked for a fish would you give us a serpent?
If we asked for an egg would you give us a scorpion?
Here we are, asking for your Holy Spirit, knowing that it is as
necessary to the life of the church as breath is necessary to the life of
the body. Give it to us, as we
wait and pray, in the name of the one who told us to ask.
—Jim Somerville © 2013
[i] David Kinnaman and Gabe
Lyons, unChristian: What a
New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), pp. 29-30.