And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind.
When I came back from sabbatical last year I came back determined to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of. There were a lot of assumptions there. First, the assumption that the pandemic was over, which it wasn’t, not then, and isn’t, not yet. Secondly, the assumption that I would know what Jesus would be proud of and what he wouldn’t. And finally, the assumption that I could build such a church, which I can’t, at least not without your help. But when I came up with this sermon series called “Building It as We Fly” I was thinking that those founders of the early church probably didn’t know much more than we do. They were like Orville and Wilbur Wright at Kitty Hawk, trying to invent heavier-than-air flight, conducting experiments, and having to make a lot of adjustments along the way. So, Peter, who was there on the Day of Pentecost when the Spirit came and the church was born: did he know what he was doing? And Paul who went from place to place preaching the gospel and planting churches: did he know what a church was supposed to be? Still, I want us to go back and take a closer look at these “inventors” of the early church to see what we might learn from them about building a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of, and I want to begin with Peter.
In the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus is surprised, and pleased! He says, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father, who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter—the Rock—and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” That’s a comforting word, isn’t it? Sometimes it feels as if the church is right up against the gates of Hades. But what about Peter, “the Rock”? When Jesus begins to tell his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering Peter pulls him aside and begins to rebuke him. “God forbid it, Lord!” he says, “This shall never happen to you!” And five verses after he has called him a rock Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan! You have become a stumbling block to me. For you are not thinking the things of God, you are thinking the things of men.” I once preached a sermon on this passage called “From Solid Rock to Stumbling Block.” How did it happen? Peter started thinking the things of men. It makes me think that if we want to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of we have to be careful not to think the things of men, which might include money, success, power, influence, and other things you could name.
So, was Peter “the Rock,” or was it his confession of faith? When Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” did Jesus think, “Yes! I could build my church on faith like that! Peter’s mind may change from one moment to the next, his ways may be impulsive and unpredictable, but his faith is as solid as a rock.” I think about how, when I baptize people, I don’t ask them if they believe that Peter is the foundation of the church, I ask them if they believe that Jesus Christ is Lord. If I asked them to sing it rather than say it they might sing, “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand.” Including Peter. He was sinking sand. I know some of my Catholic friends would disagree; they think of him as the first pope. But if you read on in the Gospels you will find that on the night Jesus was betrayed Peter became so fearful for his own life he denied Jesus three times. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak. And yet his faith was rock solid and Jesus knew it. He knew he could build on a foundation like that. How about you? How’s your faith? If we are going to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of it’s going to take a lot of that.
I mention Peter because he features so prominently in today’s reading from Acts, chapter two. But the story begins a good bit earlier, sometime between Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and his ascension into heaven. It was during those forty days, Luke tells us, that Jesus “ordered [his disciples] not to leave Jerusalem but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’” He ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, and so, after he went up to heaven, they came down from the Mount of Olives and went back into the city. It seems like a small detail, but it’s not. These were men of Galilee. They had come to Jerusalem with Jesus, and for Jesus. But now that Jesus had returned to the Father they had no real reason to stay, except that Jesus had told them to. So, they did, and I’m guessing it was Peter, the leader of the group, who led the way.
How do you build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of? Maybe you start by doing what Jesus’ disciples did: they obeyed his clear command. Let me remind you that the five essential ministry areas of this church are built on five clear commands of Christ:
- Worship, because Jesus told us to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.
- Compassion, because he told us to love our neighbors just as much as we love ourselves.
- Community, because he told us to love one another as he has loved us.
- Invitation, because he told us to make disciples by baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit.
- Formation, because he told us to make disciples by teaching them to obey everything he commanded us.
I sometimes ask our members to picture heaven as a big, white fleecy cloud with five ropes hanging down from it, and then I say, “These are the five ropes, these five essential ministry areas: worship, compassion, community, invitation, and formation, and if each of us grabs a rope, and we all pull down together, heaven will come to earth, or at least it will come a whole lot closer.”
So, yes, we build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of by doing what those first disciples did: by obeying him. He told them to go into the city and wait for the promised power from on high and they did, but did you notice they didn’t only wait? In Acts, chapter 1, it says that when the disciples returned to Jerusalem they went to the upper room where they were staying, and they devoted themselves constantly to prayer! I’ve looked, but I can’t find where Jesus told them to do that. In Luke 24 he says, “Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” In Acts, chapter 1, he “ordered them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait there for the promise of the Father.” He ordered them to wait, he told them to stay, but he did not tell them to pray. They must have come up with that on their own. Maybe they waited for a few hours and when nothing happened they began to say, “Come, Holy Spirit. Come, Power from on high. Come, you Promise of the Father!” Just as you might start praying for the bus to come if you’d been standing at the bus stop for more than an hour.
Whatever else you might say about that I believe that if we are going to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of we might have to do what they did: we might have to pray for that power from on high. We actually did this once. We got people to sign up to pray for the full ten days between Ascension and Pentecost, just like those early disciples. I can’t remember if we got someone to sign up for every hour, but that was our goal: to have ten days of uninterrupted prayer, asking the Father to send the Spirit Jesus promised to the disciples. Another year we read through the entire Bible in those ten days, each person signing up to read a certain section, to listen for the voice of God, and to write down what they heard so we could share it with the entire church. Neither of those things resulted in a Pentecost experience like the one recorded in Acts, but both of those things were honest efforts to trust God, rather than our own wisdom or power.
That’s what those first disciples were doing: they were in that upper room trusting, praying, listening, waiting, when suddenly there came from heaven a sound like the rush of a mighty wind (the Greek word is pneuma, which can mean “wind, breath, or spirit”), and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” And something happened to Peter. This formerly fearful disciple, too timid to speak to a servant girl, suddenly found himself standing before a crowd of thousands and telling them that what they were witnessing was nothing less than a miracle. “This is what the prophet Joel was talking about,” 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. Even upon my slaves, both men and women; in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy,’ says the Lord.”
You know the rest of that story: by the end of the day 3,000 people had been baptized. But after all that, when those disciples finally sat down to supper, exhausted from all that baptizing, their arms too tired to lift a fork, they must have wondered, “What just happened? What was that? What are we supposed to make of all that?” “Well,” Jesus might have said, “You’re supposed to make a church.” And they did. And now, nearly two thousand years later, this is how we remember the Day of Pentecost, as the birthday of the church. Those first disciples did everything they were supposed to do: they started with a solid foundation of faith; they obeyed the clear command of Christ; they went back Jerusalem where they waited and prayed; and then—a miracle happened. The Spirit came, that promised power from on high. Without it the church would never have been born, and without it we will never build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of. But where, in these days, will we find the Spirit?
“On May 13, 1900, Wilbur Wright wrote a letter to Octave Chanute—his first letter to the eminent engineer—asking for advice on a location where he might conduct flying experiments, somewhere without rain or inclement weather and, Wilbur said, where sufficient winds could be counted on, winds, say, of 15 miles per hour. The only such sites he knew of, Chanute replied, were in California and Florida, but both were deficient in sand hills for soft landings. Wilbur might do better along the coasts of South Carolina or Georgia. Wind was the essential, the brothers had already come to appreciate. And clearly, if ever they were to succeed with what they had set their minds to, they must learn—and learn from experience—the ways of the wind.”
That’s a quote from David McCullough’s book, The Wright Brothers, and I love it. “If ever they were to succeed they must learn from experience the ways of the wind,” it says. And so they ended up going to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, because that’s where the wind was.
If we are going to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of, we too may have to go where the wind is. I can almost hear someone volunteering after worship, “Look Pastor, if you need me to go to Kitty Hawk I could do that. I would be willing to spend the summer on the Outer Banks.” No. I’m not talking about wind; I’m talking about Spirit. In John 3 Jesus tells Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it will, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” And then he implies that it’s the same way with the Spirit. You can’t see it, but you can see what it does. People can be moved by the Spirit as the leaves of a tree are moved by the wind. So, where is the Spirit blowing in our time?
- Church is always a good place to look for it. When the people of God come together, when we are all in one place as the disciples were on the Day of Pentecost, waiting and praying for something to happen, something just might happen. I’m glad you’re here.
- But in these days I’m wondering if the Spirit can also move through the fiber optic cable that brings us the Internet. Those of you watching online may be able to tell me. Can it? Does it? And if so, will it be important to keep that in mind as we try to build a post-pandemic church?
- And finally, the Spirit may be moving outside these walls in other ways, among people we don’t even know, haven’t yet met, and might not think to include. If that’s where the Spirit is, then maybe that’s where we need to be, at least some of the time.
I don’t know. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on where the Spirit is moving these days, and how we could go where the wind is. But what if, when this pandemic is finally over, we sit down and ask ourselves, “What just happened? What was that? What are we supposed to make of all that?” And what if Jesus says, “Well, you’re supposed to make a church, a post-pandemic church, a post-pandemic church that I could be proud of.
“So, what are you waiting for?”