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By Bill White
Today, Pentecost Sunday, we often say we are celebrating the birth of the church. But as we celebrate, perhaps we can also mourn.
In Acts 2, the Spirit was poured out and thousands were baptized. These new believers “devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (2:42) and remarkable evangelistic fruit started overflowing—“the Lord added daily to their number those who were being saved” (2:47). Such incredible pictures of the early church. Like the birth of a child, there’s so much to celebrate.
Yet almost immediately the believers seemed more interested in settling into a megachurch than launching into mission. Six chapters later and they still won’t leave Jerusalem. Finally, the Lord graciously provides a massive persecution to pry their grip off of Jerusalem, expelling them into the nations that theoretically they existed to serve.
Pentecost, the cause of great joy, yet even from the very start the church resisted the Spirit’s call to reach across all the same barriers we resist reaching across today. I wonder if Pentecost also might be an invitation to pray corporately with David, “Surely I was sinful at birth” (Psalm 51:5).
Think about it. The resurrected Jesus had fired both barrels before the ascension—“Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18) and then in Acts 1:8, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth.” Jesus wasn’t subtle about his vision for us to cross every linguistic, cultural, racial, and ethnic boundary. But they stayed put.
Just like us.
To be fair, they were fine with letting the nations come to them. After all, people gathered in Jerusalem “from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). But then they didn’t go to the nations. It’s easier that way, right? We know this from our own experience, because if we let them come to us then we can stay in the driver’s seat. Those ‘outsiders’ would have to adjust to our culture. It’s the privilege of being chosen (forgetting the fact that there’s no ranking on the chosen list!).
In his Pentecost sermon, Peter hinted at the vision that all the different kinds of people in the world would come to be part of the family of God. He quoted the prophet Joel, that the Lord would “pour out my Spirit on all people” (Acts 2:17). All? That’s a big word, Peter. We use it today, often to take the edge off more radical claims. “All Lives Matter,” we say, which really doesn’t mean much at all. We like how it protects our status quo, because if we said “Black Lives Matter” then we’d have to actually do something.
Peter mostly manages to keep his generic “All Lives Matter” approach, staking his claim in Jerusalem. He doesn’t even let the persecution drive him out in Acts 8:1, so the Spirit moves on to use Philip, Stephen, Paul, Priscilla, and other B-team players to spread the news of the Resurrected One. By Acts 10, the Spirit does intervene, enabling Peter to say “Centurion Lives Matter,” and great things happen. Unfortunately this is the exception and not the rule for Peter and his cadre in Jerusalem.
To join in God’s work in the world, first Jerusalem has to be evacuated. The structures and systems and safety nets we’ve surrounded ourselves with – it’s time to let them go and follow the Spirit out of our comfort zones. Instead of institutionalizing our success, we’re invited to surrender it at every turn. Fr. Thomas Keating writes that
The spiritual journey is not a career or a success story. It is a series of humiliations of the false self that become more and more profound. These make room inside us for the Holy Spirit to come in and heal. What prevents us from being available to God is gradually evacuated.
From the Pentecost onward, God has wanted us to be available to cross all kinds of barriers with the love of God in the person and work of Jesus. Perhaps lamenting that original resistance will open our eyes to the same resistance in our own souls, our own congregations. Perhaps today we’ll receive his gracious invitation to evacuate our Jerusalems.