Friday, May 13, 2016

Pentecost: Spreading Spirit Seed

Laurie and I recently purchased a bird feeder.  It was advertised as “squirrel-proof”.  It wasn’t…

The Kingdom of God is like a bird feeder
overflowing with seed...
The feeder was supposed to close under the squirrel’s weight thus allowing only birds to feed.  Well, the squirrels wouldn’t be deterred.  They figured a way past the barriers to get to the tasty food within.  In fact, the little varmints were so tenacious they even broke the plastic rendering the barriers pretty much useless. Sigh. Back to the drawing board…

Mark’s Gospel records a scene where some people bought their sick friend to see Jesus.  When they got to the house where he was, they found a “barrier” between them and Jesus—a crowd of onlookers prevented them from reaching him.  But like the squirrels at our feeder, these men weren’t deterred.  They stopped at nothing to get to Jesus, literally digging through the roof and lowering their stricken friend into the house so he could be close to Jesus—Mark 2:1-4.

The Message of Jesus is even more tenacious than a squirrel at a bird feeder; it will do its best to break down every human barrier we try to impose to bring all people closer to God.

That’s sort of what happens as the Church was born and begins to spread, which we celebrate each year on Pentecost Sunday.  This is the story that Luke tells in the Book of Acts; it’s volume two of Luke’s saga, the first being his Gospel account of the life of Jesus.  Christianity begins as a sect of the Jewish faith and Luke tells the tale of its rapid expansion throughout Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the EarthActs 1:8—knocking down barriers every step of the way.

Luke begins Acts where the Gospel left off—see Luke 24:45-53.  The last “scene” of Volume 1 is “replayed” to open Volume 2—kind of like a TV cliffhanger.  The believers have gathered for the Ascension of Jesus. His last words to his disciples is that they should return to Jerusalem and wait…  He assures them they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comesActs 1:1-11.

Come Holy Spirit, Come... (Acts 2:1-12)
Ten days after Jesus ascends, if you will, the “bird feeder” overflows with Spirit seed in Jerusalem.  Luke describes how the Holy Spirit floods the space where the believers are gathered on the day of Pentecost, a long-standing Jewish festival celebrating first fruits—Acts 2.  The Jewish believers “eat their fill” of the seed and then go forth from that place to spread it.  The Message of Jesus is proclaimed throughout Jerusalem.  More and more people become followers of The Way.  The rulers and authorities of the city are threatened by the growth of “the Church” and begin to persecute the believers. 

Maybe we could view the persecution as “squirrels” and the disciples as “birds” forced to leave the “feeder”. Luke tells us that, following the stoning of Stephen—Acts 7:54-60—the believers began to face “severe persecution”—Acts 8:1.  Many of the disciples flee Jerusalem, but as they go, they carry Spirit seed with them and scatter it as they go throughout Judea and Samaria. 

According to Luke’s story, Spirit seed radiate out further and further from the mother Church in Jerusalem.  The first seeds reach “Samaria” via Philip, who began preaching and baptizing there.  Peter and John hear the news and come to investigate.  The believers receive the Holy Spirit and we have the so-called Samaritan PentecostActs 8:14-17. 

A while later, Saul, the same man who stood and watched approvingly as Stephen was stoned—Acts 8:1, and who had been the most zealous persecutor of the early Church, has a transformative experience on the “Road to Damascus”—Acts 9:1-19—after which he becomes Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles. Immediately, says Luke, he begins spreading Spirit seed in Damascus—Acts 9:20.

A believer named Barnabas takes Paul under his wing and brings him to Jerusalem to meet Peter and the other Apostles.  In order to vouch for Paul, Barnabas must cross “barriers”.  He steps out in faith and trusts this man who not long ago wanted to kill him—and all his friends.  This must have been an awkward meeting, the former persecutor standing before the leaders of the fledgling Church.  (Oh, to have been a fly on the wall for Paul and Peter’s first meeting.)

Peter and Cornelius (Acts 10:44-48)
In Acts 10, the Spirit prompts a Roman Centurion from Caesarea named Cornelius—i.e., a Gentile believer—to send men find Peter in Joppa. Almost simultaneously Peter experiences an intense vision, after which the men arrive at where he is staying.  Peter invites the men to lodge with him, which would violate “boundaries” for a proper Jew—Acts 10:23.  Later, when Peter goes to Caesarea to visit Cornelius, he presumably stays at Cornelius’ home—Acts 10:33. As Peter is speaking to Cornelius and his friends about his vision Luke says that the Holy Spirit fell upon them—Acts 10:44-48.  This Gentile Pentecost experience has a profound impact on Peter. He begins to realize that “God shows no partiality” and that “even the Gentiles” are included in God’s Kingdom.  I also have to wonder if God used this experience to help convince Peter of the legitimacy of Paul’s calling to be Apostle to the Gentiles.  (Peter seems to struggle with consistency in living this out, which brought him in to conflict with Paul—Galatians 2:11-14.)

At my church, we are currently doing a sermon series on the life of Paul based on Adam Hamilton's book: The Call.   The story of this "long distance" Apostle to the Gentiles is fascinating to study—and to look for connections between Paul's story and our stories.  Paul would go on three (possibly four) missionary journeys visiting numerous cities throughout the Roman Empire spreading Spirit seed everywhere he went.  Communities of Christ followers were established at most of the places he travelled.  Paul returned to some of these places several times in the course of a few years.  Eventually, Paul made it to Rome, where a community of Christ followers began.  (He may have travelled even further to the east toward Spain, though there is some debate about that.)  Either way, it is believed that both Peter and Paul reached the end of their earthly sojourns in Rome, but not before the Gospel reached “the ends of the Earth”, by which Luke probably meant the city of Rome.  The symbolism of the Kingdom of God gaining a foothold in the capital city of Caesar’s Empire would not have been missed by his first century audience.

Of course Rome, or even Spain, really wasn’t “the ends of the Earth” was it?  No, it was really just the beginning of the journey for the Way of Jesus.  In a sense, Pentecost has never stopped happening.  What Jesus began, and Peter, Paul, and the other Apostles continued, has carried on for over 2000 years.  Every time the gospel was proclaimed in a new place, seed kept spreading propelled by the wind of the Spirit, until eventually the seed literally circled the globe.  

Whether we grew up in Church, or came to faith just yesterday, or even don’t know if we believe yet, every one of us are here today because someone spread Spirit seed to us.  Our calling as followers of Jesus is to, in a sense, write the "next chapter" of Acts, spreading Spirit seed wherever we go.

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