Acts 2:1-21 with John 7:37-39
Since we have already all had cupcakes, I don’t need to remind you that this is the Birthday of the church. Pentecost is the day we honor and celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit among the Jesus community. It is the day that the fledging followers of the Jewish Jesus begin to grow and define themselves as a separate group, a new religious movement. It is the day that a fire came among the people, the good news was spread far and wide, and the Christian church was born. Certainly a day worthy of a little cake and frosting.
But to tell the truth, there is something about our celebration that rings a bit hollow. Like someone getting up there in years, the church has had a lot of birthdays now. Think of your own life. Few adults I know are as excited to see another birthday as they were when they were children. Olivia will be 8 next weekend and the excitement in our household is palatable. We have been talking for months about what she wants for her birthday and you can feel it like electricity in the air. When I turned 39 last April there wasn’t nearly the same amount of energy. In fact, the older we get, the more our birthdays are less of a big deal. Those first 21 years are awesome, and then we hold back on the celebrating until it becomes meaningful again like 80, 90, or even 100.
So imagine the church celebrating a birthday today; it’s been like 1,984 years give or take a few. The church is getting up there in years, and just like we do, it seems to be slowing down a bit. We certainly don’t seem to have that spunk and vigor that the writer of Acts describes on this Pentecost birthday. And so while we might enjoy a bit of cake, the celebration itself sometimes rings a bit hollow.
And yet, here we are anyway, and the question is why. The answer, I believe, is in that small reading from the gospel of John. We are here because we are thirsty. It’s the last day of the Fall Harvest festival and Jesus announces to the crowd that those who have thirst should come to him. It’s a bit of a play on words as the festival included a water ritual but the point is clear. Jesus has what will quench our thirst.
I think all of us can get in touch with the idea of a thirsty human spirit. Our world wears us out. We are parched, we are dry, and we are wandering lost in a desert of false gods and misinformation. We are thirsty for meaning, we are thirsty for truth, and we are thirsty for love. We are thirsty for connection with each other and with our God.
In the gospel of John, Jesus promises that our thirst will be quenched with the gift of the Holy Spirit. The writer of Acts describes that moment with the day of Pentecost. Our thirst is quenched not with water, but with fire. We are burned, we are cleansed, we are fed, and we are sent out to feed others, to make connections with others.
In the Pentecost story, the people are given a gift of language. Not babbling tongues of glossolalia described by Paul and experienced in the Pentecostal traditions; but actual language. The people speak the languages of all those gathered from near and far, and connections are made, community is formed, and the church is born.
I love that the church is based in connection. The early disciples don’t ask folks to conform to their tradition, rather they go out into the world and conform to the traditions of others. You don’t learn the language of the church. Rather, the church learns the language of the people. Outsiders like Elamites, Parthians, Asians, and Arabs don’t learn the language of the Jews to become the church. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jews learn the languages of others. The church is made when we conform, when we humble ourselves, when we strive to learn about others so we can make those connections that we are so thirsty for.
This may seem like a stretch to you but I am sure you can find examples of this in your own life. I am reminded of my relationship with my children. They are big fans of a Lego cartoon show called “Ninjago” which I am truly not interested in. And yet, I learn the language of “Ninjago” so I can follow the adventures of Cole, Jay, Kai, and Zane with them. This is a way I learn another language, a way I conform to make connections. Similarly, when in Malawi I picked up a few small phrases. Haltingly offering a “Muli Bwanji”, “Zikomo”, or “Yewo” to those I meet is a way to conform myself and to make connections with another. When we take the time to learn the language of another, we are rewarded with the community that we are so thirsty for.
In the reading from the gospel of John, Jesus says that “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow living water.” Those who receive the Holy Spirit, those who are part of the church community, will be able to share this Spirit with each other. We will be able to quench the thirst of others, with the connection that flows from our hearts.
Now in my study this week, I noticed that the Greek doesn’t really say “heart” in this passage, it actually says “belly.” A better translation of this verse is “Out of the belly of him, will flow rivers of living water.” This idea of “belly” really got to me. Ages ago when I studied the Korean martial art of Tae Kwan Do I learned that the source of my power was in my belly. If I was going to punch or kick with enough force to break a wooden board I needed to harness my belly power. So it makes sense to me that out of my gut, out of my core, out of the center of my body, will flow the water that will quench others. Out of my belly comes the power of connection that I form with God and with other people. This idea really works for me, as I think of my faith as the core of who I am, and my belly; not my mind, not my heart, my belly is my true core.
What does that feel like for you – to imagine the center of your faith down in your belly instead of your head and heart? How does it frame your ideas of relationship to other people to consider that a connection in the belly? Perhaps those Pentecostal tongues of fire, were really a fire in the belly, urging the early believers to forge deeper connections with others.
This Sunday of course, we are celebrating new connections as we welcome new members into our midst. People everywhere are thirsty for God, they are thirsty for connection, and that thirst has led some people into our midst. We have been eager to share with others the joy of our faith and so we thankfully celebrate this opportunity to reach out. Today is a great day for us to make commitments to learn the private languages of these new folks in our midst. Let us conform ourselves to them, and seek opportunities to learn and grow together. Let us share the fire for God that lives in our bellies as we make connections here in the church community.
The power of God is always the power to surprise us. I am sure that as the early church community gathered together in prayer that Pentecost morning, they had no idea what was about to happen. They had no idea what God was about to do in their midst. They could not imagine the fire that would be placed in the bellies, urging them to go out into the world and learn new languages to form new connections in the name of Jesus Christ.
So too, I am sure you had no idea that you would be leaving this place this morning thinking about your belly. Though the church may feel old and boring some days, we still have that fire in the belly. We still have that opportunity to learn new languages and to make new connections. We still have that chance to share our joy of faith with others, to announce to the thirsty people of the world that we have the living water; we have the fire of faith, deep within our core. People are thirsty for meaning, for love, for truth, for God, and for community. Here in this church, we have the power to quench that thirst with the gift of the Holy Spirit. I charge you to go out in the world this day, and embrace that fire in your belly. Learn new languages and share your faith with our thirsty world this day! Amen.