The interesting thing about living in Florida when Pentecost rolls around every year is that it always comes during brush fire season. That makes it hard to regard fire as something positive. Not to mention the heat. I wonder how different the fire of Pentecost seems in the Southern Hemisphere, where people are moving from fall to winter rather than from subtropical spring to subtropical summer. Fire there must be a welcome thing.
Your ministers and lay delegates spent the past three days in Lakeland at the Florida annual conference. Since the meeting came right before Pentecost Sunday, the worship areas and the stage at the Lakeland Center were decorated with red, orange, yellow and gold, and the Bible study leaders and preachers all focused their remarks on some aspect of the Pentecost theme, “Witness with Power.”
By far, the most challenging remarks were made by the morning Bible study leader yesterday, Scott Smith, the young dynamic pastor of the Community of Faith United Methodist Church in the Davenport area. It was a new church start in the four corners area of Central Florida ten years ago. Some of our St. Luke’s families have become active in that church over the years.
The Bishop had asked Scott to lead a Bible Study on Acts 2, our scripture lesson today. Early on in his remarks, Scott said that he was somewhat offended by the overall theme for the conference, “Witness with Power.” He said, “What kind of a witness is it if it doesn’t have power already?” He said a good lawyer doesn’t put a witness on the stand who can’t be a good witness.
“Did you see the accident?”
“Well, I think I did.”
“What kind of car was it?”
“One with four wheels.”
“Was a man or a woman driving?”
“Yes, a man or a woman was driving.”
You don’t waste your time in court with a witness like that. Scott said that in a world where we are in the high stakes mission of transforming lives and bringing people to Jesus Christ, there is no witness unless it is a witness already empowered by the Holy Spirit. And then he lifted up that portion of the reading that I love the best: the part where the crowd in the streets thinks that all of the disciples are three sheets to the wind, that they are knee walking drunk: wasted, blitzed, lit, feeling no pain, TWI: talking while intoxicated! Peter observes that it is still about seven hours until Happy Hour two for ones, and that the whole lot of them are not drunk, but rather are high on the Spirit, not the spirits. I always mention this on Pentecost for the human element it brings into the story but I have never asked what Scott asked yesterday, “Why did the people think the believers were drunk?” He said, “Because they were uninhibited.” When you are drunk (so people say, I don’t know) you lose your inhibitions. That’s why you do dumb stuff like dance with lampshades on your head, sing awful karaoke, and say things like, “I love you, man.” (That would be men saying that, by the way. Women don’t get drunk. They just have “a little too much.”)
That really got me to thinking yesterday on my way home after Conference ended. Not about getting drunk, (although the frustration of three days of boring meetings could bring you to it!) but about what Pentecost power looks like when it makes a believer into a witness.
It is uninhibited, as Scott said. The number one fear people have is public speaking. I know how I could raise a whole lot of money for the Lord: put all of you on a rotating schedule to speak for ten minutes on a Sunday, then have a pledge amount you could make to get out of it! I know I have told you that I was so stage-frighted when I was in seminary that I successfully avoided taking a course in preaching. Go figure! I guess God wasn’t going to let that stop him from using me anyway.
Despite the natural fear anyone would have about speaking to someone else, in public, in a foreign language, about theology, about the bodily resurrection of a convicted, executed enemy of the state, despite that fear, with uninhibited abandon, they took to the streets. You gotta be drunk to do something like that!
When Pentecost power makes a believer into a witness it is unapologetic. In other words, it does not apologize for truth. A funny thing happens with language over the centuries. Words change their meaning. The word apology in Greek actually means “to speak for” something. Christian apologetics, as a discipline, is the positive defense of the faith. But the more contemporary use of the word implies an expression of regret for something wrongful or injurious. Pentecost power makes believers into witnesses who are unapologetic apologists. They are not sorry about their defense of the love of God in Jesus their Lord.
In the third place, Pentecost power is unrelenting. It never gives up, even in the face of, as Paul wrote in Romans, “persecution, distress, famine, nakedness, peril, or sword.” Scott reminded us that in Acts chapter 4 the preaching of Peter and John gets them arrested, and they are told by the very ones who had put Jesus to death to stop preaching in his name. Their witness has been so powerful that immediately preceding their arrest five thousand listeners had become believers. After holding the two in custody overnight, the chief priests and the elders threatened them and let them go. Peter and John went right back to their friends, called for a prayer meeting, and prayed, “God, you have heard how they threatened, us, now give us boldness to speak, to heal, and to perform signs and wonders in Jesus’ name!” And there was a second Pentecost, it seems, for the house began to shake and the believers were again filled with the Spirit. And they spoke the word with boldness. (Acts 4:31) They never gave up. As the apostles were killed one by one, others rose to take their places. The borders of the nations, the expanses of the oceans, and the unsophisticated manner of their speaking were no match for the unrelenting boldness of their witness.
And a fourth aspect of Pentecost power is that it is untied. One of the most common of the worship bulletin and newsletter bloopers in United Methodist Churches is the misspelling of United that spellcheck doesn’t even catch. It always comes out the “Untied Methodist Church.” It is always good for a laugh, but it’s also true. If the witness to Pentecost power is true it is a power that isn’t hitched to the post of predictability or tradition.
The thing that got to the Pharisees and Sadducees was that this Jesus and his followers were untying the things they had worked so hard to keep under control: like the love of God, the power of God, the favor of God, the blessing of God. But on Pentecost Peter said, “Look out folks, the horse is out of the barn! And the prophet Joel told you this was going to happen. The Spirit is going to come on anybody and everybody: sons, daughters, young men, old men, slaves, women. There’s no telling what’s going to happen next. This whole thing is coming untied!”
So here we are in St. Luke’s Untied Methodist Church. You already have the power to be uninhibited in your witness, unapologetic for your faith, and unrelenting in your boldness. Remember that the first miracle Jesus performed was the changing of water into wine. Maybe it’s happy hour after all!