Sermon: Why does this church exist?
Scripture: Acts 2.1-15
Preacher: Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location: First Pres Fort Lauderdale
Date: June 9, 2019, Pentecost
Today is the Church’s birthday; not our particular church mind you but the Church of Jesus Christ throughout the world. Pentecost is the day we pause to remember how and when the Church came into being; it’s also a day we learn to see why it even exists.
The resurrected Jesus has ascended and returned to the Father’s side in heaven; so as not to leave us alone, Jesus sends his holy breath, the very Spirit of God present during Creation of the cosmos and the world. The Spirit is not just given to individual people but is first given to the whole community of gathered disciples in the church. The Spirit gives Church it meaning, purpose, and power. Listen to our Story in Acts 2; I’ll be reading from The Message version of scripture. Hear the Word of the Lord!
2.1-4 When the Feast of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force—no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them.
5-11 There were many Jews staying in Jerusalem just then, devout pilgrims from all over the world. When they heard the sound, they came on the run. Then when they heard, one after another, their own mother tongues being spoken, they were thunderstruck. They couldn’t for the life of them figure out what was going on, and kept saying, “Aren’t these all Galileans? How come we’re hearing them talk in our various mother tongues?
Parthians, Medes, and Elamites;
Visitors from Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia,
Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia,
Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene;
Immigrants from Rome, both Jews and proselytes;
Even Cretans and Arabs!
“They’re speaking our languages, describing God’s mighty works!”
12 Their heads were spinning; they couldn’t make head or tail of any of it. They talked back and forth, confused: “What’s going on here?”
13 Others joked, “They’re drunk on cheap wine.”
14-15 That’s when Peter stood up and, backed by the other eleven, spoke out with bold urgency: “Fellow Jews, all of you who are visiting Jerusalem, listen carefully and get this story straight. These people aren’t drunk as some of you suspect. They haven’t had time to get drunk—it’s only nine o’clock in the morning. 
We find a group of disciples gathered together during the Jewish Festival of Pentecost which occurs from fifty days after Passover. It was one of the major Jewish festivals during the year and good observant Jews made the effort to go to Jerusalem to celebrate. Our text indicates the Jews gathered in Jerusalem came from all the known major parts of the world from the north, east, south, and west. Jesus’ disciples were there as well. Though all were Jews, they came bearing the cultural reflections of the place they came from; i.e. Jews coming Italy will have speak in their language as those who came from modern day Iran would speak with a different language.
Add to this international group our band of Jesus’ disciples from Galilee. They are a group of what we would call simple country folk who worked the land or their first century blue collar job. They were good people, strong people but perhaps not the best or well-educated folks in the city at the time. Think of it like going to Disney during Christmas break. You’ve got people from Hong Kong, Tokyo, Moscow, Rome, Egypt, London, Toronto, Brazil and then there’s this group of Clewiston, Florida. The disciples were from Galilee, a Clewiston of sorts of the first century.
I bring this all up because we often misunderstand what happened on that first Pentecost. We hear this text and we are tempted to think the first disciples began to talk in what our Pentecostal friends describe as ‘tongues’ – an ecstatic unrecognizable form of speech but this was not the case at all. Our scripture tells us that in effect, the gathered church composed of folks from the backwater town Clewiston, i.e. Galilee, began to declare the mighty works of God in other people’s languages like Italian, Egyptian, Asian or Arabic. Our text says the disciples began to speak in the specific languages and dialects of those guests who were visiting Jerusalem at the time from all over the known world. Those first disciples were not speaking gibberish; they were describing what God has done and is doing in ways those in the culture could hear and understand.
The result from culture was at first total shock and bewilderment! Aren’t these guys and gals from Clewiston? How is it they are speaking perfect French, Italian and Arabic? This doesn’t make sense! Surely they’ve been hitting the sauce a bit early and are drunk! There is no other way to explain this! Peter finally speaks up and declares, “It’s not yet time for the 9:30 service; these people are not drunk on cheap wine but are full of the words of God that seem amazing to you!” Peter reminds them in verses 14 and 15, “Y’all listen carefully and get the story straight!”
Did you hear that? Peter tells them, he’s telling you and me, “Y’all listen carefully and get the story straight.” So do we hear it? Do we get it?
Beloved, Pentecost, the Church’s birthday, commemorates the moment in time when God instigates the birth of the Church. In a culture today that ignores the Church and its importance, in a culture today that if a person goes to church once a month and they considerate that faithful church attendance and service to God, we may be in real danger of missing the point of Church and why Pentecost is so important. Sporting events, beach trips, fishing trips or yard work take precedence over gathering in community to worship and serve God these days. America’s churches are dying because Christians have lost the understanding of what Church is about and what it’s for in the first place. “I don’t need the Church to have a relationship with God; I can do that by myself.” I hear that all the time and then am reminded why our world is as whacky as it is! How dare I say that, you think? You bet! The Church was birthed by God to bring life to a community, to a social structure, and a movement that seeks to tell others through word and deed about God’s mighty works in our collective life! It’s not solely about what God has done or is doing for ‘me’ but it’s about how the Spirit of God brings to life all our collective ‘selfs’ and weaves them into a powerful source of cultural leverage and community influence in the world through the power of the Church. Facebook and Instagram are just two examples of how we are making the story about ‘me’ as opposed to ‘us.’ It’s hard to change the world when we are snapping pictures of ourselves and stepping over those ignored or abused in our culture.
Beloved, why does the Church of Jesus Christ exist? Why did God breathe it into existence in the first place? God created the Church to be the living community of God in the world calling for and effecting grace, justice and humility for others. The Church exists to declare the mighty acts of God in our world in ways that our culture can hear and understand; the church exists when you and I join our individual spiritual giftedness for the mutual benefit for those around us. I will go so far as to say that for most American churches, we have lost our identity because it has been subsumed into the identity of the larger culture.
We have confused meaningful worship for Christotainment, and friends, let’s not forget that it can happen in both traditional and contemporary worship settings. We have confused Church growth with the size of church membership and budgets instead of the community’s commitment to grow in their knowledge of meaningful biblical study that is transformed into dynamic Christian service in the world. We have confused faithfulness to God with political affiliations and nationalism. It’s time for the Church to reclaim her identity given to her at her birth!
First, it’s an identity rooted and grounded in God first.
Second, it is an identity that shares the mighty works of God in a way that makes the world around us sit up and notice something is going on.
Third, it is an identity that takes on the characteristics of the Holy Spirit which is life-giving, unifying, wild, unpredictable and flipping status quo on its head while it lives out of a love for others that is intentional, willful, inconvenient, and Jesus-centered. It is a church who wraps it identity up in learning new cultural dialects in order to better speak and serve in a fast changing world. It’s a Church whose identity is not wrapped up in doing the things we have always done it but is searching for ways to get off the seat and out onto the streets!
Friends, what the identity of this Church, First Pres in Fort Lauderdale? Is our identity wrapped up in the perceived glory days of the past? Is our identity wrapped up in our buildings or property? Is our identity wrapped up in our worship and music ministries? Is our identity wrapped up in our pastors or leadership? God-forbid, no.
The last few months the Session has been wrestling with our church’s identity because it realizes our identity shapes who we are and what we will end up doing in the world. The Session wants this church to be known in the community for three spiritually driven personality traits. Called by God, we share the Good news, are an inspiring Christ-centered presence in this community, and we are about transforming our local community and beyond for Christ.
When I first moved here some 16 months ago, I would walk around the community and ask people, “What do you know about First Presbyterian?” Let me break it to you that what I heard was that we are known for putting on the big Christmas pageant with camels and all each year (no, that’s First Baptist) or for our preschool. It simply tells me we have some work to do. So the Session outlined for us this Spring what it hopes people will know us as from now on as we seek to develop our personality in this new swirly world. It’s printed in your bulleting and I want us to say what our identity is together. Five years from now when you and I walk around the town and ask people on the street, “What can you tell me about First Presbyterian Church?,” we will hear them say:
First Pres is a church called by God to SHARE the Good News, to be an INSPIRING Christ-centered presence in Fort Lauderdale by TRANSFORMING our local community and beyond
This is the identity given to the church at Pentecost centuries ago; it’s an identity we need to re-embrace. Amen.
Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Pres Fort Lauderdale
401 SE 15thAvenue
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301
© 2019 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.