Are you a Democrat? Are you a Republican? You pro-life? Or are you pro-choice? You support traditional marriage? Or do you think it is time for marriage to be re-defined? If we get nothing else out of this election cycle, it is clear we like our labels. Regardless if the issues are truly as clear-cut as we like to make them out to be, we like to know where we stand. We also like to know where our neighbor comes down on these issues. Labels give us confidence. They help us identify ourselves and others.
One of the most important question we can ask is “Who are my people?” The answer to this question give us our social identity and sense of belonging. As much as we want to think we are creators of our own destiny, how we come to answer this question shapes what we think of ourselves and our world. The answer to “Who am I” is found in asking “Who are my people?”
I am African-American. I am Asian. I am Latino. I am non-religious. I am Christian. These are our social identities. They are important to us. It is at the boundaries of these social identities that some of our most heated and complex conversations happen. These identity markers become our ticket at the ballot box. They become the reason we use words like “us” and “them” or “those other people” or “not my kind.” These identity markers help us create community. They can also be damaging and hurtful when used to exclude others from community.
In Luke 9:49-50 John, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, says, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” Do you hear what he is saying? Here is someone ministering in the name of Jesus but because he is not a part of the right community, John thinks he should be stopped. It doesn’t matter that he is doing the right thing. He is not part of the right group. Jesus responds, “Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.” Jesus is saying that he may not be a part of the right group but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t do the right thing. This is a great reminder for all of us who are tempted to demonize fellow Christians who happen to be voting for a candidate that you don’t represent.
Just after this episode, Jesus sends some of his followers to prepare for his arrival in a village of Samaritans. The Samaritans refuse to accept Jesus. As a response, James and John, two of Jesus’ disciples, say, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them” (Luke 9:54)? Followers of the one whose message is love are asking, “Do you want us to kill them?”
The disciples were shocked that Jesus would talk to a Samaritan woman. They complained that mother’s brought their children to Jesus to be blessed. And here, they wanted to call fire down from heaven and turn the town into a pile of ash. Of course, the first disciples were good Jews. And the first century Jewish faith had clear markers on what distinguished someone as clean and unclean, pure and impure, godly and ungodly. You were Jew or Gentile. If you were Gentile, you had no place at God’s banquet table.
But something changes. Something happens that disrupts the disciples understanding of social identity. In a few weeks we will be looking at the first church council meeting in Acts 15. It was a called meeting by church officials to determine if Gentiles could be a part of the church without going through the Jewish conversion process or if they needed to first go through the ritual of becoming Jew. Can Gentiles stay Gentile and worship the covenant God of Israel? The council determined that they could remain Gentile and worship God as it was made possible through Jesus. They send a letter to the non-Jewish Christian communities explaining their decision. The letter begins, “The brothers both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers of Gentile origin in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings” (Acts 15:23). This simple greeting is hugely revolutionary. For the first time the word “brother” is used by Jewish men to refer to non-Jewish men. Some scholars suggest this is one of the few places in first and second century Judaism that Gentiles are referred to as belonging to a Jewish social identity without becoming a convert to Judaism. By referring to the Gentile believers as “brothers” the Jewish-background church leaders are saying they belong equally to the same social group. The Jewish believers see the Gentile believers as having identical standing in Christ while allowing them to hold on to their Gentile identity.
Something happened. Something allowed the early followers of Jesus to see the world in a different way. A few years before they were ready to call fire down from heaven for those who were different and felt it was their place to remind Jesus of his Jewish identity. But now they are ready to redefine the question, “Who are my people.”
Pentecost. Pentecost happened.
Post-resurrection band of believers have regrouped after the violent death of their leader, his resurrection, and his ascension into heaven. With a head count of 120 including the original eleven, with the replacement of Judas chosen, they wait in Jerusalem. Whatever the band of followers were thinking when Jesus told them to wait for the Spirit’s coming, you can bet they were not expecting what they got. What they got was a fear-induced, adrenaline-pumping, wind-tossed, fire-seized, smoke-filled experience. A gale force wind and tongues of fire sends chaos through the streets. A Pentecostal tent revival gets confused with a college frat party.
The streets of Jerusalem were lined with people celebrating the Festival of Weeks. From the Greek word for fifty, the festival eventually became called Pentecost. It occurred fifty days after Passover. The festival celebrated the gift of the harvest. It later came to be recognized as the celebration of the anniversary of the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. People came from all over. The city filled with different nationalities of Jews living in Diaspora. A cacophony of languages rang through the streets.
The Spirit’s arrival marks the turning point in the mission of Jesus. It fulfills the promises he made to his disciples that they would “receive power” and be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The Spirit of God visits and says, “You think resurrection was something? Wait until you see what’s next.”
The book of Acts is not a story of a cluster of creative individuals who set out to start a new religion. It is not a story of a group of men who should be working in the branding and marketing department of Apple. It is not even a story of people who were sitting around trying to decide how they were going to keep the story of Jesus going. They didn’t know what they were going to do. They didn’t have a plan. They didn’t have an agenda. Gathered in that room we have a group of people who loved Jesus and knew him to be something special. But beyond that they just wanted to survive another day.
This was God’s miracle. It was a miracle the disciples could have never comprehended. Now, suddenly, they are speaking in many languages and people from every corner of the world are hearing the good news of Jesus. Nobody in their right minds would infuse this band of confused and fearful men and women with power. Nobody except God.
Peter, the one who denied Jesus, is now filled with the Holy Spirit and is ready to speak. He interprets this event as fulfilling the book of Joel’s prophecy of the coming salvation on the day of the Lord. He recites the prophet, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, 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” (Acts 2:17-18).
Power, boldness, and an injection of supernatural determination was given to the church at Pentecost. But the real miracle was that at Pentecost the church was given a word to say to the brokenness of the world. A word unlike any other word. Sons and daughters were given a word to speak that is stronger than death. Old men given dreams to share of hope deeper than despair. A word given to all God’s people, men and women, old and young, that in the power of Christ’s resurrection there is life.
The miracle of Pentecost is a word spoken to the world. A word that the world is desperate to hear. It is what unifies and brings together the church. Jesus told those early disciples you will be my witness – you will have a word to speak. It is the word that God is reconciling himself to the world. God is rescuing the broken. God is setting the captive free. God is releasing the prisoners. And God is doing it all through the power of the Spirit of Jesus. The Church is the Church when it gives witness to the presence of God in the world.
A rushing, mighty wind roars through a crowded room, and tongues of fire are placed on each one. A Pentecost of tongues explodes in witnessing to the name of Jesus. Three thousand souls that day were stirred and added to the church as they believed the Word.
The Holy Spirit gives us a new way of being human in community. Through the Holy Spirit the question “Who are my people,” is answered by a community centered on Jesus. The community functions as God’s witness to the world. The Church is at its best when it is united in giving witness to Jesus through the power of the Spirit.