Scripture: Acts 2:1-21
I have a question for you. It’s not a trick question, but the answer I’m looking for may not be obvious to everyone. If you want to see God’s “face,” what are you supposed to do? Another way of asking the question would be, How does God intend to reveal himself to people who don’t know him?
Some might suggest the Scriptures, and that’s certainly one important way God reveals himself, but it’s not the answer I’m looking for. If your answer is along the lines of ‘through people’ or ‘through people like you and me,’ then you’re getting hot, as the saying goes. The answer: If you want to see God’s face, you’re supposed to look at the Church. Outside of the Bible, it’s always been God’s intention to reveal himself to the world through the Church. Ideally, one should be able to look at the Church and behold God!
Does my conclusion surprise some of you? Maybe you might even disagree? I think we can all agree that the Church as we know it often fails to reflect the love and grace that comes to mind when we think of Jesus, right? Sometimes we do, but often we don’t. If God is one, but the Church has split into hundreds of different denominations, that doesn’t seem very congruent. If you’ve been a part of a local church for a while, then you’ve probably come to the realization that we’re full of broken people, and broken people tend to hurt others from time to time. And if you ever thought that there’s no politics in the Church, then I’ve got bad news for you! So, sure, I can absolutely understand if there are some who would push back on the idea that God would be visible and knowable through the human organization called the Church.
So, how did I come to my conclusion? Because of some basic truths that we Christians have come to believe in very strongly. Let’s start with who we are.
There’s a term we often use to identify the collective worldwide Church: The Body of Christ. Altogether, Christians from all over the world, regardless of denomination or worship style or even differences in certain believes and practices, are referred to as the Body of Christ. We’re one, single body, or entity, comprised of individual persons who profess faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Together, we’re the body and Christ is the head of the body. So, that’s the first basic truth Christians believe, which has to do with who we are.
The second important truth has to do with who Jesus Christ is. Scripture establishes two important facts of Jesus Christ. First, the New Testament, especially John’s writings, affirms that Jesus is the divine Son of God. And then along with that, it affirms that Christ himself is the truest representation or portrayal of God. Paul makes this point very clear in Colossians 1:15: “The Son is the image of the invisible God.” The author of Hebrew affirms this same point when he says, “The Son is the light of God’s glory and the imprint of God’s being” (Hebrews 1:3). And, of course, the strongest testimony of this truth comes from Jesus himself when he boldly declares, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
Let’s put these truths together.
Because Jesus Christ is the Son of God and as such is the visible image of the invisible God, AND because the Church is the visible Body of Christ in this world, THEN it must be that the Church is the visible image of the invisible God! At least, that’s the way God designed it to be.
By God’s design, we the Church, the Body of Christ, are intended to be the one organization in all the world which reflects God love, and grace, and light, and hope. When a local church is cooking on all its burners; when the members of the congregation are emotionally and spiritually healthy; when the mission is clear and understood and agreed-on and supported by all, but especially the leaders; and when the mission drives the ministry; THEN I believe that a local church stands a much better chance of fulfilling God’s design to be a visible “face” of God in their community. What I want you to know is that while there are unhealthy congregations and unhealthy Christian leaders who don’t reflect God’s face very well, there are many which are healthy and DO reflect God’s face.
So, what is it that makes it possible to be a healthy community of faith and wonderful reflection of God to those who don’t know him? Quite simply, it’s because of Pentecost! Or, more honestly, because of what Christians now call Pentecost. Pentecost was and still is a Jewish celebration called the Feast of Weeks. The Feast of Weeks is a harvest celebration commemorating God’s provision for his people, and it happens 50 days after Passover. The word ‘Pentecost’ is a Greek word which means “50th.” The event described in Acts 2, which Barb read earlier, took place during the Jewish Feast of Weeks. And because this event was so significant to the early Church, we embraced its Greek terminology and made it our own, unique holy day.
What happened was, at some point that morning mighty sound flooded the entire city of Jerusalem. It came from all directions and was all-enveloping. Those who heard it later told Luke that it sounded like the howling of a fierce wind. And even though the sound enveloped the entire city, it somehow seemed to be focused on a particular location, which happened to be where Jesus’ disciples had gathered to celebrate the feast. It’s interesting to note that Luke describes what came upon them a the sound of a mighty wind, and not an actual blowing wind. Anyway, when the locals heard this intense sound echoing through the city, many of them left their homes to investigate what was happening. Their search eventually brought them to where Jesus’ disciples had gathered, and before long, a large crowd had formed.
Here’s what Luke tells us happened. First, after hearing the sound come upon them, probably getting louder and louder as it got closer, they then saw something. My guess is that what they saw was probably indescribable, most likely because they’d never seen it before. So the best they could do was compare it to something they did know, which was fire. They said that when the sound filled their room, each of them had what appeared to be a flame of fire dancing above their heads.
At some point, then, each of them began to speak aloud in a language other than their native language. Acts 2:5 says they began to “speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.” Based on what Luke tells us a few verses later, the “other languages” they spoke were human dialects, not a spiritual tongue. I believe what Luke describes is different than what we usually associate with “speaking in tongues,” which is the utterance of a spiritual, heavenly language which requires someone with the spiritual gift of interpretation to interpret in order to know what’s being said. But in this case, what they were speaking was understandable by the those who’d gathered there. According to Luke, that crowd represented at least 15 different regions, each with their own languages and dialects. And when they listened to the disciples talking, what they heard was their own language. The person from Phrigia heard them speaking Phrigian. The person from Rome heard them speaking Latin or Greek. And so on. And in whatever language they heard, what was the message that came through clearly? They were declaring the mighty works of God! (v. 11).
So, there’s the sound of a fierce wind which blows through Jerusalem. It fills the room where Jesus’ disciples have gathered to celebrate the Feast of Weeks. At which point they notice that everyone in the room has something that kind of looks like a fiery flame of some sort dancing above their heads. And then unprompted and maybe even a little bit outside of their control, they realize they’re talking in a language they don’t know. All the while, a crowd has gathered outside the house, and they’ve somehow made their way out there. And as they keep talking, it slowly dawns on those listening that they’re each hearing them tell of God’s wonders in their own native tongue.
When the disciples were accused of being drunk, Peter stood up and preached his first sermon. He told them that what they were witnessing was the fulfillment of a prophecy spoken by the prophet Joel. And before the end of that day, roughly 3000 people professed faith in Jesus.
I wasn’t there that day, so I can’t say firsthand what exactly happened. But what we do know is that on account of a small group of people—people just like you and me, broken, hurting, grieving, questioning, joy-filled, happy, sad, (and so on) and committed to following Jesus—on account of them, 3000 people were moved and came to faith in Jesus Christ. I don’t know what those 3000 people saw in that small band of Jesus-followers, but clearly what they saw and heard spoke to them deeply in hearts, and they responded accordingly.
Now, it goes without saying that everything that went down that day was ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit. That morning the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit just as Jesus had said would happen. And through their praising and prophesying, and Peter’s preaching, the Holy Spirit came upon the people as well. But who was the vessel through whom the Spirit worked? The Church, that’s who!
When the Holy Spirit blew into town that day, the Church was born. On that first Pentecost day, Church v.1 was just a dozen or so people. But before the end of the day, the Holy Spirit updated and installed Church v.2, which was and additional 3000 people. And from there, the Church grew daily.
Why? Because despite their brokenness as individual persons and as congregations (the Corinthian church is a testament to poor emotional and spiritual health of a congregation), Jesus Christ was present within them and around them through the Holy Spirit. And he worked through them to accomplish God’s purposes.
So, today, we celebrate the birthday of the Church, the Body of Christ. And what we really celebrate is God’s love and grace and mercy. Because the truth is, despite the failings of the Church on account of our humanness, God is still at work, changing and transforming lives, and even entire communities, through us, his designated “face” and body on earth. We know we’re not perfect; not even close. But that doesn’t invalidate the fact that God birthed the Church into existence for the sole purpose of revealing himself to the world through us. And today, despite our shortcomings, the Church continues to have a great impact on the world. Here’s how Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, puts it.
“The Church worldwide is the most culturally and socially diverse community on earth. Day by day we conspire to follow Jesus by serving, forgiving, and creating beauty. Around the world we seek to educate, liberate, and advocate for those who have no voice. The Gospel has inspired artists from Michelangelo to Aretha Franklin, activists from William Wilberforce to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., scientists from the physicist Sir Isaac Newton to the geneticist Francis Collins.”Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury
And so, as God’s people gather around the world today to celebrate our beginning, let’s give thanks to the Lord for our beautiful, multicultural, intergenerational family. May God revive us, sanctify us, and unite us once again. May he forgive our many sins and make us holy as he intended us to be. May he set our hearts on fire again with the good news of the Gospel. And may the Church be the clear and healthy “face” of God in every community. Let’s pray.