“The World Out There” – A Pentecost Meditation

One of the requirements that I had to meet when completing Drivers Ed in high school was 6 hours of driving.  Some of this was done in a simulator but I still had to get in a car and do some actual driving.  Because of my schedule, I did this driving after school with a Shelby County Deputy Sheriff as my instructor.

Each day, I would meet him at the car, and he would tell me to just start driving.  Now, because my family had just moved to the Memphis area, I did not know a whole lot about the area, so I drove on the roads I knew.

For four days, I left the high school, dropped down to Stage Road and headed east toward the intersection of Stage Road with Austin Peay and Jackson.  When I got to the intersection, I would turn right onto Austin Peay and drive out to the Naval Air Station at Millington and then turn around and drive back home.  It was a straight road with one turn, no stop signs, probably one traffic light, and virtually no traffic. 

So it was that on my last day of driving, as I prepared to make my usual right hand turn onto Austin Peay, the Deputy told me to make a left hand turn onto Jackson.  This was territory into which I had never gone; I had no idea what I might encounter in the ways of stop signs or stop lights or other traffic.  But I made the turn and headed into the unknown territory of Jackson Avenue.  And as we approached the first of two bridges, the Deputy told me to take a right and go under the bridge.  This would allow me to turn around and head for home.

Clearly, what the Deputy was doing was getting me used to traffic and driving in unfamiliar situations. 

One can only imagine what the people gathered at Jerusalem on Pentecost must have thought when they were told to take the Gospel message beyond the constraints of Jerusalem.

Clearly, they knew that there was a world beyond the boundaries of their daily lives.  The list of various nationalities that were there on Pentecost tells us this.

The Roman Empire had built a network of roads to connect the empire.  They had built the roads to allow the rapid transport of military units to maintain the Pax Romana, but these roads would also allow Paul and the other disciples to take the Gospel message from Jerusalem to the other parts of the Empire.

So those gathered knew that there was a world outside Jerusalem but that would not tell them how they would be received when they presented the Good News.

Did they remember the story of Abram and Sarai leaving the Ur valley for an unknown land with only a promise that it would be a good land?  Or did they fear the consequences of leaving home and becoming enslaved like the sons of Jacob who traveled to Egypt?

Tradition tells us that 11 of the 12 disciples (Matthias having been chosen to replace Judas Iscariot) would meet a violent death.  Only John Zebedee, the Beloved Disciple, would die a natural death, though in exile on the island of Patmos.

In addition, we know that there were internal conflicts among Christians about the nature of Christianity.  At first it was an internal dispute that focused on the nature of Christianity, but over the years we would see the original church split into the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches which was later followed by the Protestant Reformation and further splits in that the various denominations we have today.  Internal divisions in the church seem to be a part of our faith tradition but these divisions were never about the mission of the church, but it always seemed to focus on the how and not the why.

The tradition of taking the Gospel message to the people is also very much a part of our Methodist tradition.  It was the Methodist circuit rider who took the message to the people of first the thirteen colonies and then the newly formed states. We see the results of those efforts today.  Many of the United Methodist Churches in the Hudson Valley were once a stop on a circuit. 

Circuit riders had to be young, in good health, and single (since marriage and a family forced preachers to settle in one area and leave the traveling ministry). Unlike their counterparts in other denominations, Methodist circuit riders did not have to have a formal education. Leaders of the new church wanted educated, trained circuit riders, but they wanted even more to spread their ministry to people on the frontier who needed Christian guidance.

Circuit riders rarely served longer than one or two years in a circuit before being appointed to a new circuit. This gave the preachers an opportunity to reuse their sermons and to perfect their delivery. It also kept them from growing too familiar with the local people and wanting to settle down.

Life was not easy for a circuit rider, partly because living conditions on the frontier were harsh. Often, a stormy night was described as so bad that only crows and Methodist preachers were out.

We can only imagine the troubles and turmoil that the early circuit riders went through. Five hundred of the first six hundred and fifty Methodist circuit-riders retired prematurely from the ministry. Nearly one fourth of the first eight hundred ministers who died were under the age of thirty-five. Over one hundred and twenty-five itinerants were between the ages of thirty-five and forty-five when they died: and over half of the eight hundred died before they reached thirty! About two hundred traveling preachers died within the first five years of their entrance into the ministry and nearly two thirds died before they had preached twelve years.

The traveling minister in the Methodist Church was noted for his self-sacrificing spirit. He endured hardships in the ministry which few men of the present age can fathom. Richard Hofstadter, the widely respected American historian, once stated,

“The bulwark and the pride of the early American Methodists were the famous circuit-riding preachers who made up in mobility, flexibility, courage, hard work, and dedication what they might lack in ministerial training or dignity. These itinerants were justly proud of the strenuous sacrifices they made to bring the gospel to the people.”

It was their devotion to God and America that kept them going. It was a demanding life, as one early preacher wrote,

Every day I travel, I have to swim through creeks or swamps, and I am wet from head to feet, and some days from morning to night I am dripping with water. My horse’s legs are now skinned and rough to his hock joints, and I have rheumatism in all my joints. . . what I have suffered in body and mind my pen is not able to communicate to you.

As the preacher continued, he tells why he suffered as he did,

But this I can tell say, while my body is wet with water and chilled with cold, my soul is filled with heavenly fire, and I can say with Saint Paul, ‘But none of these things shall move me. Neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy. (“Nothing But Crows and Methodist Preachers”)

Enoch George, who later became a bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church, said that serving the Pamlico Circuit (NC) in 1790 and 1791, he “was chilled by agues [malaria], burned by fevers, and, in sickness or health, beclouded by mosquitoes.”

The lifestyle of the early Methodist traveling preacher perished with the settlement and growth of the nation; however, their dedication remained an inspiration to every generation.

The one thing that ties our circuit riding forbears to the disciples in Jerusalem is/was the presence of the Holy Spirit that empowered them to go out into the world, relying on local travel knowledge as accurate maps did not exist, and not knowing who or what they may encounter.

We no longer have the traditional circuit riders but there is still a need to bring the Gospel message to the people.  And while we may know the territory into which we will take the Message, at times it is just as inhospitable as anything our circuit riding forbearers or the first disciples ever encountered.

If you have been following the news of the UMC, you know that the General Conference scheduled for 2020 was postponed and is not scheduled to meet until next year.  And the primary topic for this General Conference will be whether we as a faith can continue to be known as “United Methodists.”

There are those who call themselves “United Methodists” but whose words, thoughts, deeds, and actions reflect a more fundamentalist and legalistic approach.  They are requesting/demanding that radical changes be made to the nature of Methodism.  These individuals will say that they are reforming the United Methodist Church and returning it to its Wesleyan roots.  But while John Wesley was attempting to reform his church, the Anglican Church, and he never intended to create a new church, these “reformers” are intent on destroying the present United Methodist Church.

As Reverend Paul Chilcote noted in “5 Reasons to Stay in the United Methodist Church, (https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2022/04/15/5-reasons-to-stay-in-the-united-methodist-church-by-paul-chilcote/; see also Why Stay? – Stay UMChttps://www.stayumc.com/about/), their words sound more like something a Baptist would draft, not the words of a United Methodist. 

I will be so bold as to say these individuals are not interested in the Gospel but power.  They want to tell us what to believe and how to believe.  They want to tell us who can preach and who can come into the sanctuary.  And, if you should choose to defy their edicts, they want to take you to an ecclesiastical court and then banish you from the faith.

We know that John Wesley initially favored a faith with a legalistic and structured approach (why do you think we are called Methodists?).  But it was an approach that did not work, and it was only when John Wesley went to the Chapel on Aldersgate Street and accepted the Holy Spirit that the movement that became known as the Methodist Revival began to succeed.

Notwithstanding differences between denominations, the fundamental message of Christianity remains the same.  As Clarence Jordan noted,

“It seems to me that we Christians have an idea here that the world is tremendously in need of. When we’re tottering fearfully on the brink of utter annihilation, looking so desperately for hope from somewhere, walking in deep darkness, looking for one little streak of light, do not we Christians have some light? Can’t we say, ‘Sure, we know the way. It’s the way of love and of peace. We shall not confront the world with guns in our hands and bombs behind our backs. We shall confront the world without fear, with utter helplessness except for the strength of God.” – Clarence Jordan, The God Movement, The Substance of Faith

A few years back it looked like I might have to leave the denomination.  But I made the decision to stay.  In part, it was because I could see no other denomination where I might fit in.  But the decision to stay lie also in what the denomination had done for me.

As a chemist, I know how to answer questions that deal with how things are done; as a Christian, I seek to answer questions about why.  In that regard, I had pastors who taught me, guided me, and helped me find the answers to the questions I was asking. 

Without their teaching and guidance, I may never have understood the nature of God’s call or realize that one day some years later I needed to do more than simply say that I am a Christian and a Methodist. 

Three hundred and fifty years ago, when John Wesley and his friends began what became known as the Methodist Revival, the conditions for a violent revolution in England were present.  It is a matter of the historical record that the Methodist revival, which began after Aldersgate, prevented the type of violent revolution that swept over France at the same time. 

And in today’s world marked by more violence, where wars are waging and poverty, homelessness, and sickness are more and more part of our lives, where people are excluded because of their race or identity, more and more people are asking “why”. 

Where will those seeking answers to their questions find them? 

We are being called.

As Pentecost approaches, we are being called.

We are being called to help people find answers to their questions of why? 

We are being called to answer the question, “Where is God in the world out there?”

We are being called to take the Good News into the world out there. 

We are being called to tell the world out there that there is a better way, a way of love and peace, a way where all succeed, where pain is relieved, where injustice is overcome, where repression is banished to the 11th level of Sheol, never to escape.

We are being called to go outside our comfort zone and into the world out there.

We are being called.

Yes, it was scary when that Deputy Sheriff told me to “turn left at the light” and go into unknown territory.  But I trusted that he knew what he was doing.  He had watched me drive for four days and knew what I could do.

Those gathered in Jerusalem two thousand years ago were told to wait until the Holy Spirit had come and empowered them.

I remember that first summer when a District Superintendent asked to me lead a series of churches for ten weeks.  And while I may not have known it at that time, I have come to know that every time I stepped up to the pulpit, I did not do it alone, for the Holy Spirit was there with me.

And as we go into the world out there, we know that we do not go alone.  We go with our friends, and we go empowered by the Holy Spirit.

The world out there awaits the Good News, so go in peace, and take the Word.




Notes on the history of circuit riders –

“Into the Wilderness: Circuit Riders Take Religion to the People”, Jordan Fred, Jr., Spring, 1998 (https://www.ncpedia.org/anchor/wilderness-circuit-riders)

“Methodist circuit-riders in America, 1776 – 1844, William A. Powell, Jr., 1977 (https://scholarship.richmond.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1836&context=masters-theses)

References within

Elmer T. Clark, Album of Methodist History (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1932), p. 107.

Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Vintage Books, 1963), p. 95.

Methodist Revival and the non-English Revolution



http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/367 disputes this notion



Some Post-Pentecost Thoughts

 I am once again reminded that I don’t like open time.  Even with the thought that Isaac Newton developed his ideas on gravitation and calculus during one episode of the Black Plague in England (which is perhaps ironic for me as my first major scientific work dealt with Newton’s Law of Gravity) and William Shakespeare did most of his best writing in similar periods, for some reason I do not find the same spark of creativity. 

But that is not to say that I haven’t been thinking and in the coming weeks, I will have to not only be thinking about what I am going to be writing but I will have to put some effort into the research phase of writing as I look at the history of our favorite hymns. 

But, let’s step back a day or two on think about Pentecost and what it means for the coming days. There were three points made in the Lectionary for Pentecost – common languages, skills, and community. 

When I was in high school, I planned on taking three years of German.  But this plan was quickly cast aside when we moved from the Denver area to the St. Louis area and then to the Memphis area.  The high schools I attended in Missouri and Tennessee did not offer German and I was not interested in taking Spanish, French, or Latin.  So, the plans of my freshman year were cast aside. 

That’s not to say that I don’t have a “foreign language”.  My interests in computer programming would provide the basis for meeting the language requirement for my doctorate at Iowa as I used my proficiency with SPSS to meet the language requirement (and produce my first set of professional papers). 

The idea of a foreign language being part of one’s doctoral program goes to the idea of being part of a community.  For many years, German was the language of science and mathematics because much of the ground-breaking work was done in Germany.  But over the years, the language of the lab became English and the demand for German dropped.  But the development of computers suggested a new language, that of computers, as the means for communication. 

There is still a need in science and mathematics for traditional methods, but computers offer ways to assist those traditional methods.  And it was through computer-based communication that several of the papers that I wrote with Marcin Paprzycki and George Duckett were produced. 

On Pentecost, many individuals, from various places around the Middle East, had gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of the Harvest.  One can only imagine the chaos of that time and place as people found it impossible to communicate with each other.  But when the Holy Spirit came, it suddenly became possible for the visitors to Jerusalem to understand the Christians and each other.  And though there were many different individuals, from many different lands and backgrounds, through the Holy Spirit, a new community was built.  It was a community of believers, using the skills and abilities to meet the needs of the community. 

If we fast forward to today, we find that the idea of the community of believers is being tested, tested perhaps to the breaking point.  Can Christianity or any of its denominations, survive a time when many who identify themselves as Christians demand that believers accept what they believe as the absolute truth. 

Can society survive when the search for truth, a process that requires many different skills and, often, people working together, is questioned.  It strikes me than the greatest resistance to the search for truth often comes from people ensconced in their self-contained bubbles, impervious to change and new information? 

Can society survive when, while we speak one common language, are unable to understand what others are saying?  We see the same object but, at the same time, we do not see the same object. 

We are at a crossroads and we must decide which way we are going to turn.  One way leads to the Kingdom of God and the other leads away.  What Pentecost tells us is that we must turn as one community, working together, using all the skills we have, finding many ways to communicate.  If we declare that our way is the only way, we may find ourselves going in the wrong direction.  But if we see that we are a community of many believers, then we will find the right path. 

“Civis Christianus Sum”

This will be the “Back Page” for this coming Sunday, June 9, 2019, Pentecost Sunday (Year C).

On 26 June 1963 President John Kennedy spoke to the people of Berlin.  In his memorable speech, in which he spoke against a wall that separated families and stopped people from seeking freedom, he said that the proudest boast two thousand years ago was “civis Romanus sum” or “I am a citizen of Rome”.  It was a claim that allowed Paul, as a Roman citizen, to move around the Mediterranean, preaching the Gospel message.

I was born in 1950 in the hospital on the post known as Fort Belvoir, Virginia.  As such, I am a United States citizen.  Had I been born one hundred years before, in 1850, I would have been considered a citizen of Virginia first and a citizen of the United States second.  It would take the Civil War to change the meaning of “the United States” from a plural meaning to a singular meaning.  I have noticed that there are many today, North and South, who still identify themselves with their home state rather than this country.  And had I been born 200 years before, in 1750, I would have been born a British citizen, though many in Britain at that time would have considered me a 2nd-class citizen.

And while my citizenship may be a factor of my birth; by baptism, confirmation, and choice, I am a follower of Christ and, thus, a citizen of God’s Kingdom.

Citizenship in God’s Kingdom does not depend on where you were born or who your parents were or how much money you might have or your sexuality; it simply depends on whether you seek God.  As a Citizen of God’s Kingdom, my duty is not to select those who can enter but to help those seeking God find their path.

The people who gathered in Jerusalem on Pentecost two thousand years ago were many and varied, yet surrounded by the Holy Spirit, they become one.

Pentecost did not shut the doors to God’s Kingdom; rather it opened it up.  Our challenge is to say to those who, this day, would seek to close that the doors that the doors will be opened and we will be there to open them.

~~Tony Mitchell

Thoughts On Pentecost Sunday

A Meditation for 15 May 2016, Pentecost Sunday (Year C). The meditation is based on Acts 2: 1 – 21, Romans 8: 14 – 17, and John 14: 8 – 17 (25 – 27.

Today is Pentecost Sunday, the time when the Holy Spirit came to those gathered in Jerusalem some two thousand years ago. And on this Pentecost Sunday, 2016, representatives of the United Methodist Church are gathered in Portland, Oregon, for the 2016 General Conference. I cannot help but think that, from all that I have read and heard, what is taking place in Portland cannot be, in any sense of the thought, be comparable to what transpired in Jerusalem two thousands years ago.

On a day when those gathered were united by the Holy Spirit, why are we so intent on dividing the people? Are we, as it is written in Genesis, all created in the image of God? Why is it that some people, who insist that some people do not fit that definition.

And why, when the Holy Spirit opened both the minds and spirits of the people, are so many intent on closing minds and diminishing spirit?

Why, when Jesus pointed out that He was the fulfillment of the Law, are so many people intent on maintaining the law, even when it is clear that the law is both discriminatory and out-of-date.

On this date, when the church became the church, why does it look so clearly that the United Methodist Church is soon to be simply a footnote to history.

Is it more important to maintain what we have or is it more important that we look at how to make the Gospel message reality in today’s and tomorrow’s society? Shall we deny the reality of today simply to maintain an illusion of reality?

We who have answered the call of Christ to walk with Him and who have opened our hearts and minds to the Holy Spirit are challenged today to not simply keep the Spirit that we celebrate today alive but to take it out into the world. Our task is not to shut the door on those unlike us but, as Jesus outlined it when He began the Galilean ministry is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, help the stranger, the widow, the orphans and relieve the wants of the world.

“What Are We Supposed To Remember?”

This is one of those unique weekends where Memorial Day and Pentecost Sunday are celebrated on the same weekend. On Pentecost Sunday, we remember the birth of the church and on Memorial Day we remember, though honor is perhaps a better term, those who have served this country in the past.

And yet while one of these occurrences is supposed to celebrate life and the other celebrate death, I am not entirely sure today which one is doing which. On this Pentecost Sunday, we hear not of the birth of the church but rather its death and on a day when we are suppose to honor and remember those who have died in service for this country, we seem to be more concern about having another war or continuing the wars in place.

If anything, this weekend should celebrate life. We need to remember those who have died so that others may live and, then, we need to work on ways to make sure that we do not use wars as a way to ensure peace and freedom. I do not think that those who have died believed they died in vain but I also believe that they felt the world would be safer because of what they did.

We need to remember what those gathered together in Jerusalem on that first Pentecost were doing then and find ways to keep doing it today. It is noted in the Book of Acts that they shared all they had, without exception, and they made sure those who had no resources, including those who might be called non-believers, were included. They gathered together in love and their numbers grew because of that.

But today, the money that society spends on destruction and death is far more than what is spent on construction and life. And when I think back to the way life was 100 years ago and 50 years ago and see that not much has changed – we worship war and inequality, the rich seem to get richer and the poor remained oppressed, I have what it is we are supposed to remember this weekend.

I hope that what we remember this weekend pushes us to ensure a better world and not one where war and inequality are the way. What I fear is that unless we resolve to make Pentecost an ongoing expression of our faith, of people living together and sharing all their resources, then we will have more burials of young people who died to ensure that peace and freedom continue will continue.

“A Convergence of Time, Place, and Ideas”

Mediation for Pentecost (Year A)

8 June 2014

The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 2: 1 – 21, 1 Corinthians 12: 3 – 13, and John 7: 37 – 39 (note in the text I that used John 20: 19 – 23 in preparing these notes).

I have noted on a couple of occasions in the past that June 6th is an important date in my life because it is the birth date of my youngest daughter, Meara Lee. As I wrote on my Facebook page, “There are no words that I can write or say that express the joy she and her sister have brought to my life.”

But June 6th has another meaning to me, one that I seldom thought about since I was more interested in the completion of the process that started on that date. Still, any process that is finished has a beginning and it was on June 6, 1966 that I began my college career by enrolling as a first quarter freshman in the High School Honors Program at Northeast Missouri State Teachers College (now known as Truman State University).

For the record, I was only 15 when this happened and just completed my sophomore year in high school. After the summer session was over, I would go to Memphis, Tennessee, where my family had moved while I was in school and begin my junior year in high school at Bartlett High School. I would return to Kirksville the next summer and then the summer after I graduated from high school to complete my freshman year and begin my sophomore year in college.

I had no idea what I would be getting myself into or what paths my life would travel when I went to Kirksville that summer day some 48 years ago, nor what would happen when I told Dr. Wray Rieger, Dean of Students and my adviser that summer, that I would major in chemistry.

What is interesting, at least in terms of today being Pentecost Sunday, is there never has been an occasion while I have been either preaching or writing blogs where Pentecost occurred on June 6th and only four times where there was a day or two difference between these two events.

And I suppose that I should wait until such time that does occur but the events of this day and age suggest that I should not wait. If June 6th marks the beginning of a journey, so too is Pentecost.

Pentecost may be considered the birth date of the church, for it was on this day that the Holy Spirit came to the people gathered in Jerusalem per the instructions of Jesus Christ. But birth dates can quickly turn in counting mechanisms and that, if you will excuse the pun, make things rather old rather quickly.

But Pentecost was and is more than simply the birth of the new church. It was the beginning of a movement, a movement that would change the world in ways that no one could foresee or even imagine. And with all the talk in the church today, especially in the United Methodist Church, about the impending death of the church, perhaps we need to think about what we are doing for tomorrow rather than counting the days from last year or the years that have passed by us rather quickly.

If we are to look to the morrow and begin again the movement of the church and this denomination, we need to realize at least two things from the Scriptures for today.

First, no matter where the people came from, they were speaking a common language. They understood each other rather clearly and when you consider the tone of the words in the reading from Acts, they were rather surprised that they were able to do that. Differences between people in terms of nationalities and cultures quickly disappeared.

For me, the problem today is that we no longer speak a common language. Oh, we may all speak English but the words we use often times have multiple meanings. And I think at times, we stretch our sensibilities to get the words we use to mean what we want them to mean.

Second, there seems to be a movement to make everyone in the church identical, no matter what side of the issue each person may stand on. And if you don’t stand with me on this issue, then you stand against me and I don’t want you in my church. What was it that Groucho Marx said, “I do not want to belong to any organization that would have me as a member.”

Paul points out that the people of God have been given many gifts and the assumption that I get from that is that we need as many individuals as possible to insure that we have all the gifts we need. For it is only when we have all the gifts are we able to function as a whole community.

If we choose to cast someone out because they don’t have a special gift or perhaps because we already have that gift, then we risk causing the community of believers to fail.

In the Gospel reading for today (I mistakenly used John 20: 19 – 23 instead of the regular Gospel reading – John 7: 37 – 39), Jesus asks the disciples what they will do if they do not forgive the sins of others. What are we going to do if we say to someone that they don’t meet what we consider the qualifications of our little club?

I know where I stand as to the future of this church and this denomination. I also know that there are many people who do not feel the way that I do and I sometimes wonder why that is. I also know that many of the beliefs and thoughts about people that so dominated the discussions in this denomination almost two hundred years ago were wrong and we have changed. What bothers me is that we are doing the same thing today. And if our judgements prove to be wrong, what shall we say to those whom we rejected today?

Let’s look at Pentecost as it was some two thousand years ago – the beginning of a process, a movement and let’s go out and change the world as we are supposed to be doing.

“The Sound Of A Great Wind”

Here are the thoughts for Pentecost Sunday that I presented at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen on May 18th. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 2: 1 – 21 (I used the Cotton Patch translation), Romans 8: 14 – 17, and John 14: 25 – 27.


When you grow up in the South, you learn real quick the signs of a possible tornado. In Georgia, for example, it is said that you should listen very carefully when the wind goes silent.

In Missouri, they will tell you that a tornado is probably eminent when the sky is green.

And every person who has ever survived a tornado will tell you that you will never forget the sound of a tornado as it roars by your house.

And whatever the signs might be, you learn quickly to heed them and to know what to do if one should come. Unfortunately, we were reminded of this with all of the death and destruction that took place outside the Dallas/Fort Worth area this past week.

As we view the destruction that took place in Texas and which will undoubtedly see again through this summer, we can begin to imagine what the people gathered in Jerusalem must have felt when they heard the roaring winds that Clarence Jordan described as a tornado.

And surely they must have thought they were in the midst of a summer thunderstorm when the room was filled with fiery bolts of lightning.

And what did those outside the room think as they rushed to see what was happening, imagining death and destruction but finding celebration and rejoicing? We know that they were confused and convinced that those who had just experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit must have been drunk.

Here were all these people, gathered from every part of the world, speaking in their own language and yet understanding what everyone else was saying. It was a reason for rejoicing, a reason for celebration.

Peter will speak of the prophecy of Joel and how the young will once again have visions of the future and the old will again begin to dream. He will speak of the new community that begins on this day.

For those who remember, there was once a time when all the people of the world basically spoke the same language. But their own pride, their own greed, and what the Greeks called hubris lead them to build the tower of Babel and seek to be the same as God. God, perhaps rightly so, created the different languages to separate the people and force them to find new ways to work together.

Our history tells us how well we have done in that regard and how well we understand the cultures and personalities of other countries.

And so it is on this day, this Pentecost, that people have come together and the Holy Spirit gave each one the ability to hear others and speak to them. It brought back the sense of community that was torn apart so many years ago but which Jesus sought to build during his ministry.

Howard Snyder points out that Jesus probably gave as much or more to building a community of disciples as He did proclaiming the Good News.

He did this because it is in the community where individuals can grow in faith. Our task today is to recognize each individual’s responsibility before and to God (and not God’s responsibility to the individual as many people think) and recognize that we gather as a community so that Spirit can grow in all who gather together. (adapted from The Community of the King by Howard A. Snyder)

Pentecost will have no meaning for us if we see the church as a collection of saved souls and not as a community of interacting personalities.

Paul wrote to the Romans about the life we received when we came to Christ,

This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?” God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know we are going to get what’s coming to us—an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we’re certainly going to go through the good times with him

We have said before and we will continue to say that this time together on Saturday mornings was never meant to be just a meal but the beginning of a new community.

Jesus told the disciples before He ascended into Heaven that He had shown them the way to the Father and He would send the Holy Spirit to give the ability to show others the way.

The challenge before us is perhaps daunting but not impossible.

For some, it is to help the church today regain the sense of community that it once had. It means tearing down the walls, both physical and spiritual, that keep people apart. It means seeing worship in a new way, offering new opportunities for people to come to Christ.

For others, on both sides of these spiritual and physical walls, it also means removing the barriers in their own lives that keep Jesus from being a part of their lives.

Today is the day 2000 years ago that the church began. It began as a community, a community for all, not just some. It was community that offered to all, not just some, the Hope and Peace that is Jesus Christ.

Today, in 2013, we celebrate that community of Christ and we invite all who seek Him to join this community today.

And They Gathered Together

Here are my thoughts about Pentecost Sunday. I know, I know, it should have been posted two days ago but I was occupied with other matters and getting this piece up was not a priority.

My first thought about Pentecost this year, especially when I read the translation, was that maybe we shouldn’t be thinking about the birth of the church. The problem when we do that, think about the birth of the church, we don’t adequately think about the church then but rather the church today. That makes the church way out of date and hardly relevant to any discussion today.

The church that developed two thousand years ago was not the structured church of today, though I would hazard a guess that many people today don’t realize that.

The church that began was more of a community, a collection of individuals each with particular gifts, all working together for the good of the church. They received these gifts, these talents from the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit that brought them together on that first Pentecost.

It was the Holy Spirit that allowed the various people who had gathered together that day and it was the Holy Spirit that allowed each person to speak to each other, even if they were of different nationalities or spoke different languages.

I recall one of the commentaries that I have used saying that this moment, when everyone is able to understand what others are saying, reverses the moment that we became different peoples, nationalities, and races during the building of the Tower of Babylon.

It would seem that today we have forgotten this commonality and have regressed to the separation of peoples and nations. I find too many churches where a particular task is one person and one person’s alone. They “inherited” the task and it will be theirs until such time as it has to be passed on. And quite honestly, this is one of the main reasons that people leave the church or don’t join. They see a hierarchy in place and you have to wait your turn, no matter if you have some good ideas or not.

As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, we are more interested in calling our own shots. We want our churches to be separate enclaves, where everyone is the same and everyone fits the same mold. We know no longer look for ways to work together or to build the church.

And that takes us away from what this day was and should be about. Yes, we should celebrate the birth (and if your church was like mine, celebrate those who have been a part of the church). But it should also be an occasion to think about where we are, as a church, right now and how are we going to make sure that we are around next year and perhaps 50 years from now.

Can we go back and look at what the early, the real early church was doing, and see what we can do to make that possible today?

Can we again look at the skills and abilities of each person and find a way to utilize those skills? Can we make sure that we utilize the skills of everyone and not just those who have, through time and perseverance, earned their “place?” This comes with a caveat though; don’t assume that just because someone is good at something that they will want to do that skill in church. Someone might come up to me and say, “You are a college professor so why don’t you start a Sunday School class for college students?” One of the things that many teachers don’t need these days is to have their day of rest become another work day. What other skills might a person have that often doesn’t get used?

If anything, Pentecost Sunday ought to be a day on which we consider what the early church did (and that would include our own particular church when it was first founded) and see if we are still doing whatever it was that cause the church to begin. And then we need to think about whether that is what we need to be doing now and for tomorrow.

Those who gathered together on that first Pentecost gathered together to receive the Holy Spirit and to be empowered to go out into the world to show the world what Christ had done for them and what Christ can do for each one of us. We probably out to gather together for the same reasons.

On That Day

This is the message that I presented on Pentecost Sunday, 15 May 2005, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 2: 1 – 21, 1 Corinthians 12: 3 – 13, and John 7: 37 – 39.

In every learning opportunity, there comes a time when you realize that you have learned something. You have been trying to learn something and it hasn’t been easy. But suddenly, without any forewarning, you find that you understand perfectly clear what it is that you are trying to learn. And the funny thing about it is that after you understand this new concept, it seems so simple and clear that you wonder why it seemed too hard in the first place. That moment of learning is known as the AHA moment.

It is really hard to define this moment in any other terms simply because the time and place are determined by the characteristics of the learner and what may be that moment for one will not be the same for another.

Today may be considered such a moment. It is that moment in time when the early church became immensely aware of the power of the Holy Spirit and the true meaning of the Gospel message. But there is a difference between one’s knowledge of the presence of the Holy Spirit in one’s own life and the sudden acquisition of knowledge.

The one thing that these two events have in common is that how one gains the knowledge, be it of the Holy Spirit or just “book” knowledge, is different. As Paul pointed out, each person comes to know the Holy Spirit in a unique and singular manner. And what one does with the acquisition is determined by one’s own skills, not by some common definition of utility and usage.

Now, it is entirely possible that you can go through life without learning the intricacies of some abstract concept. But you will know when the Holy Spirit has come into your life. It is also possible to go through life without having to use the knowledge of various abstract concepts but you will find that life is immensely different because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in one’s life.

Notice what happened to those gathered that day when the Holy Spirit came into their lives. “They spoke to each other in their own language yet were able to understand what the others were saying.” You can spend most of your life working to acquire particular concepts but the presence of the Holy Spirit is an immediate occurrence.

Finally, learning and studying will prepare you for that moment when things all come together but no studying or preparation can actually prepare you for that one singular moment when the Holy Spirit enters into your life. The one example that illustrates this is the degree of preparation John and Charles Wesley put into their efforts to become faithful followers of Christ.

But for all their efforts, all their studies, all their hard work, neither Wesley could truly say that they had found Christ or that Christ was a singular point in their lives. They both knew who Christ was but they did not know Christ in their own lives.

For John Wesley, the moment when the Holy Spirit came into his life is that moment in the Aldersgate chapel when he felt his heart “strangely warmed.” What John did not know was that at that moment when the Holy Spirit was changing his life, it was also entering and changing the life of his brother Charles.

Charles had accompanied John on the mission to Georgia and served for a time as the secretary of the Governor, James Oglethorpe. As was the case for John, this experience was a disaster for Charles and he returned to England in December of 1736 (John remained in Georgia until February of 1738). During the year apart from his brother, Charles was able to gain a measure of strength and self-respect. But it appears from history that Charles’ struggle to find Christ in his life lead to many illnesses. The Moravian missionary, Peter Bohler wrote “His brother [speaking of Charles in reference to John] is at present very much distressed in his mind, but does not know how he shall begin to be acquainted with the Savior.”

In the month of May 1738, the Wesleys were in London. Charles was recovering from a recurrence of illness in the home of some Moravians in Little Britain, not far from St. Paul’s Cathedral. Through the humble concern and sincere Christian testimonies of his hosts and others, Charles was deeply affected. God was truly dealing with him. Opening his Bible at Isaiah 40:1, the light of salvation shone upon him! His Journal entry for May 21st reads:

“I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ….. I saw that by faith I stood, by the continual support of faith…….I went to bed still sensible of my own weakness….yet confident of Christ’s protection.”

On the following day, Charles strength began to return. He also commenced what proved to be the first of some 6,000 hymns! The day after – May 24th – John himself found assurance of salvation during a meeting in nearby Aldersgate Street. Charles wrote of his brother’s experience:

“Towards ten, my brother was brought in triumph by a troop of our friends, and declared, “I believe.” We sang the hymn with great joy, and parted with prayer……….”

The joyful account is not complete without the hymn (UMH #342):

Where shall my wondering soul begin?
How shall I all to heaven aspire?
A slave redeemed from death and sin,
A brand plucked from eternal fire!
How shall I equal triumphs raise
Or sing my great Deliverer’s praise?

Exactly a year later, Charles wrote the more famous hymn, “0 for a thousand tongues to sing”, which he recommended for singing “on the anniversary of one’s conversion.”

For both John and Charles Wesley, that moment in time when they became aware of the Holy Spirit and Christ’s presence in their live was the changing point in their individual and collective ministries. As D. M. Jones wrote, “After this experience Charles Wesley was for a time at least lifted quite above all timid introspection and anxious care about his own spiritual state. It seemed as if this release was all that was needed to make him a channel for immense spiritual forces.” (http://www.christian-bookshop.co.uk/free/biogs/cwesley.htm)

It has been said that the church was born on this day some two thousand years ago. Because the people gathered that day opened their hearts and minds to the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, others were to come to know the same power and presence. And, as Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians, how the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is used by each individual in the church is unique and separate. But while unique and separate, put together the works of the individuals come together for the benefit of the whole church.

In bringing people into the church, we integrate church and culture. Unfortunately, in today’s society, we find a battle ensuing in this attempt. There are those who would place the culture under the auspices of the church and there are those who would rather the church just quietly go about its business and leave them alone. Unfortunately you cannot distinguish between faith and culture. You cannot separate the work of the church from the work of society.

It was the work of the early Methodists, preaching salvation by the Grace of God that changed England in the mid-18th century. It was the evangelical revival first started by the Wesleys and the early Methodist church that had a profound impact on stemming a revolutionary tide sweeping England. Conditions improved by changing the hearts of the people; the wealthy become more caring and lower classes more respectful and civilized.

It would be nice if we could say that this was still true today. Unfortunately, evangelism no longer has the same connotations that it held for the Wesley brothers. One thing is true; opposition to the evangelism of Wesley is still true today. Both Wesleys were attacked by those claiming to be Christian.

Today, you have a chance to be one of three individuals. The first can be called a separatist. They have their Christian friends, their Christian music, and their Christian church. They wear their faith all the time but fail to relate to the world around them. They pride themselves in having a pure faith. But they fail to see that no one wants to hear about their faith because it is so completely irrelevant to the culture. When you challenge them to integrate their faith with their culture, they get a frightened look in their eyes. They don’t want to integrate the two because then they would have to give up control.

The second individual is a conformist. These individuals live a one-day religion, going to church for two hours on Sunday and then placing their faith on the shelf and living a life of the current culture for the remainder of the week. When it is needed, they bring their faith down from the shelf and wear it when it is convenient; they remove it when it becomes too uncomfortable.

The third type of individual would be called a transformist. Like both John and Charles Wesley, they sought to make faith a part of culture and used their faith to change society, not for the purposes of a self-proclaimed religion but rather for society. Such individuals understand that one cannot categorize faith, love for God, and love for people into separate and independent categories. Such individuals integrate their faith with their culture and their love for God with their love for people. (Adapted from The Journey Towards Relevance by Kary Oberbrunner)

The question for today is what type of person will you be? The world is a big place and each of us is just one person. That may well have been thought of those present that day some two thousand years ago. On that day, their lives were transformed and with that transformation, the world changed. On this day, we are offered the same opportunity to let the Holy Spirit come into our lives as was offered to the people hearing the Gospel message that we heard today. “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and let the one who believes in me drink. Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”

On that day some two thousand years ago, people’s lives were changed. On this day, your life can change just as theirs did.

“The Time Has Come”

This is the message that I presented on Pentecost Sunday, 23 May 1999, at Neon (KY) United Methodist Church. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 2: 1 – 21, 1 Corinthians 12: 3 – 13, and John 7: 37 – 39.

This was the last Sunday for me at Neon. I would leave for New York following the service to begin a new ministry with the Walker Valley United Methodist Church and a new life with Ann. But I left knowing that this small little mountain community church would continue and I hope that it is going well today.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven”

A time to be born and a time to die;

A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

A time to kill and a time to heal;

A time to break down and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;

A time to mourn and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and time to gather stones together;

A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to seek and a time to lose;

A time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend and a time to sew;

A time to keep silence and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate;

A time for war, and a time for peace (Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 8)

This passage from Ecclesiastes, assumed to be written by Solomon or someone known as the Preacher, was talking about the passage of time through the ages. It has always been one of my favorite passages from the Bible. I suppose that it is because it was one of the first folk songs to ever be a rock and roll hit. And I am sure that there are many people who sing this song who have no idea that it comes from the Bible.

The measurement of time has always been a challenge to mankind. While we can say for sure that it is 1030 a.m. on Sunday, May 23rd, the telling of time has not always been so precise. In John Wesley’s time, clocks were bulky and highly unreliable. For the people of Jesus’ time, time was measured by the hourglass and by noting certain events (as noted in the Gospel reading for today — “On the last and greatest day of the Feast”)

So it was that time was seen in terms of the passage of seasons and the completion of tasks. But there are times separate from seasons and tasks. Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” While he was referring to the early days of the American Revolution when things were not going good for the colonists, such a sentiment could be justly as easily expressed today.

We look around us and see countless examples of problems for which we feel there is no solution. We feel hopeless and unable to comprehend what is going on.

But, while there is not a lot that we as individuals can do, there is a lot that we as a church and a community can do. While we may think that Jesus spent most of his ministry preaching the Good News, the majority of His time was spent building a community. Jesus knew that if His work was continue beyond His time on earth, it would have to be through the community of believers.

Paul writes

The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free — and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

But for the body to function, it must be filled with the Holy Spirit. Throughout the time between Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension, Jesus told his disciples to stay as a group so that they could receive the Holy Spirit.

For without the Holy Spirit it is not possible to accomplish the great things Christ asks us to do. And without the community, there is no place to do His work.

The challenge is two-fold. As individuals, we must have a place where we can go to celebrate the presence of Christ in our lives. As a community, we must offer a place where others can see and hear what Christ is all about. And in this time when people are crying out for comfort and solace, the church must be ready to offer such.

But no matter how hard we might try, we cannot do it by ourselves. Paul noted that there are many different kinds of gifts and many different kinds of service. How we work can vary but it is only accomplished through the Holy Spirit. The miracle of Pentecost, what this day is all about, was possible because the people were filled with the Holy Spirit. As Paul noted also, no works could be accomplished unless each individual first received the Holy Spirit by accepting Christ as his personal Savior.

The Talmud, the Jewish commentary on the Torah, offers the following comment,

“In every age there comes a time when leadership suddenly comes forth to meet the needs of the hour. And so there is no man who does not find his time, and there is no hour that does not have its leader.”

The time has come. The offer has been made. Jesus said, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.”

Jesus offers to all who believe in him the gift of living water, the gift of the Holy Spirit. With the Holy Spirit in us, great things can be accomplished, both by individuals and by communities.