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What A Way To Start A Church!

Sermons on the First Readings
Series III, Cycle B
What a way to start a church! It's certainly not the typical format for new church development. Where is the planning committee, the fund-raising, the arm twisting, the real estate deal acquiring the land, the faithful few who volunteer from other churches to give the whole thing its initial push? Not everyone has the personality to start a church from scratch, but Paul did. "I planted, Apollos watered," says Paul (1 Corinthians 3:6). Some preachers are just good at planting churches and getting them started.

My dad was good at starting churches. I remember when he started a new church development in 1955 in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, with all those services in an elementary school gym until the first building was built and all the enthusiasm as everyone worked together with a common goal. My mind is a newsreel of church picnics, smiling faces, high hopes and hymn sings, of groundbreaking ceremonies and the burning of notes as building after building went up over the years. But there was nothing like this in Acts 2. Just a mighty wind, some tongues of fire, some speaking in tongues, a great disturbance, and lots of excitement. What a way to start a church!

What happened here, anyway? Three things to be exact. The first one was this: God came unexpectedly, which of course is nothing new. God seems to make it a hobby of sneaking up on the human race when no one is looking except those with the faith and the heart to recognize God in their midst. Look at how God comes in the oddest forms -- a burning bush, a tongue-tied stutterer named Moses, a child with a slingshot, and a babe in a manger.

Here is this little band of frightened disciples whose leader has gone off and left them; they are stunned, confused, and unable to figure out what to do. They're about to give up, saying things like, "We're never going to get this thing started, never going to get it off the ground. It's never going to grow!" Then along comes God unexpectedly when no one is looking.

That's just the way God is. It's like the story of the little boy by the name of Angelo, who lived in the small town near a South American border, who one day crossed the border and came back with a wheelbarrow full of sand. When the customs inspector got suspicious and asked him what he was smuggling in the sand and the boy replied, "Nothing," the customs officer made him pour out all the sand and sifted through it before he was permitted to go on.

The next day, the same thing happened; then the third day, fourth day, and so on. Weeks, months went by. Every day, the inspector said, "I know you think I'm going to get careless someday, Angelo, and you're going to smuggle something across but as long as you bring sand, I'm going to make you pour it through this screen. So don't ever think you're going to get by me."

Angelo kept coming for five years, each day appearing with his wheelbarrow and each day the customs people poured it out, sifted through it and found nothing. One day Angelo did not show, but everyone heard how that he had prospered, bought a big house, and opened a thriving business. One day, years later, the inspector who'd retired met Angelo on the street and asked him how he had become so prosperous when he had spent so much time hauling sand across the border and there was never anything in it. Angelo smiled and said, "My friend, during those five years, when you were paying so much attention to the sand, I smuggled 1,593 wheelbarrows into this country!"

Surely this little story is apocryphal, but in a way it makes a point that lies at the heart of the Pentecost experience: namely, we grow so accustomed to thinking of God in a certain way and looking for God in a certain form that we're caught completely off guard as to who God really is and where God can actually be found. The disciples had their preconceptions and were no doubt shocked beyond words when the Spirit came upon them when they least expected it. The fact is, the God of Pentecost is the same God who came at Christmas and rose on Easter morn and who keeps appearing unexpectedly in our lives.

This story is not only about starting a church but starting anew in our Christian lives. Perhaps you have been through a difficult time. Someone you love has come and gone the way Jesus did for the disciples. You're confused and disoriented, and along comes God totally out of the blue. Perhaps God has been there all the time smuggling little bits of grace into our lives in ways we never imagined. The Spirit did it.

When I was doing graduate work at the University of Pittsburgh, one of my professors, a galloping atheist and gleeful secularist, didn't despise Christianity, but saw it as wishful thinking for the weak and the old. He had us studying Billy Graham and Adolf Hitler side by side as examples of mass persuasion. He always offered fascinating rhetorical analyses of various movements and famous speakers in history. One day he came into our graduate seminar looking a little awestruck and said, "I can't believe it. Last night Billy Graham spoke in Korea to a gathered audience of two million people. I can't believe it. It's the first time it's ever happened in recorded history. Now I have exhausted all the plausible rhetorical and sociological explanations for this phenomenon from Aristotle to Kenneth Burke and find it is totally unexplainable. Graham himself says it's the power of the Holy Spirit, and I have concluded that he must be right!" Three thousand new members in a single day! Why? Because God came upon them unexpectedly when no one was looking. What a way to start a church! What a way to jumpstart a tired and worn out Christian life.

The second thing that happened was that the church caused a disturbance unexpectedly. Clearly something happened that day. We're not exactly sure what. But it was kind of wild and swashbuckling and hard to explain, a little like a Men's Renewal Conference I attended a few years ago. I've never seen anything like it. It was a male bonding experience where men go out in the woods. It was a combination of beating drums, Rotary Club, a Friday night fraternity party, Moose Lodge, and one of those fly-fishing, "Hey, it doesn't get any better than this!" commercials. Imagine the deafening sound of nearly 500 men from all over Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana singing "Be Thou My Vision" at the tops of their voices.

It reminded me of being in the mission fields in Taiwan, China, India, South Africa, and Russia. In Taiwan, the prayers of the people consisted of everyone praying out loud at the same time. I encountered the same thing in Russia with Pentecostal Presbyterians worshiping in a bomb shelter three stories below ground in the Ural Mountains. In China, there was so much noise and disturbance in a huge church in Qingdao that the neighbors complained to the government authorities who told the complainers to go visit the church because it might be good for them. Christians in India can get pretty noisy as well with all their enthusiasm, but it is even noisier in South Africa. I preached in a black township church in Guguletu on the outskirts of Cape Town where the people beat their Bibles with their bare hands to provide percussion and set the rhythm for the hymns. The glow on their faces was overwhelming. Clearly something had happened to them and they just couldn't keep quiet about it any longer.

Think of that first Pentecost. There was a big disturbance with lots of commotion. The world said, "They must be drunk!" But Peter, a real have-sermon-will-travel kind of guy, said, "No, they can't be drunk. It's only 9 o'clock in the morning. But now that I have your attention, let me tell you about Jesus Christ." Now here's an interesting model for evangelism. No revival or crusade with thousands stumbling forward to "Just As I Am," but instead the church does something startling in the community and the world says, "What are you doing over there?" And the church responds, "Let me tell you about Jesus Christ."

When churches make a decision to feed the hungry and help the poor in their communities, it's amazing how many non-church types sit up and take notice. Some of them even sign up to serve stew or help counsel people who are struggling with financial responsibility and interviewing for jobs. I've seen it all over the country. Invariably, these altruistic do-gooders will ask the crucial question: "Now tell me again why you do this?" And like Peter, church members have their opening -- "Let me tell you about Jesus Christ." Or if we don't want to be that explicit, we can treat it the way Philip did with Nathanael and simply say, "Come and see. Come to church Sunday morning, or come to this Bible study or check out this class, and see for yourself."

What a way to start a church! First, God came unexpectedly. Second, the church caused a disturbance that made the world sit up and take notice. Third, the people came together in a way they had never done before.

It's always amazing to me how God brings us together -- people with different languages, different political persuasions, and different theological ideas. God's goal is to remind us that we have "one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all." I remember climbing Mount Sinai years ago. I started at the bottom at St. Catherine's Monastery at 3 a.m. with hundreds of pilgrims from all over the world. We made our way to the top in the dark by flashlight. We arrived just in time to watch the sunrise on top of Mount Sinai. Around me I heard at least nine different languages. The Middle East may be the melting pot of the world with enormous political differences, but something broke down the barriers so dramatically that morning that suddenly we could understand each other as we watched the sun rise with huge smiles on our faces. We were listening to each other in a new way for the first time as on that first Pentecost. The Spirit had burned away our differences with tongues of fire.

I saw it again in a class I taught at Princeton Seminary in the early 1980s. It was like a small United Nations all rolled into one. There was the black South African Anglican priest who had come to America to take these courses and knew he would go to prison when he returned because that was what happened to any black who left the country and came back before the fall of Apartheid. There was the French Roman Catholic who was a socialist and a supporter of Mitterrand. There was the Australian with his drawling accent from "down under." There was the Canadian who had spent the first five years of his life in Scotland and could shift in and out of a Scottish accent at will. There was the student who thought he was Robert Schuller. There was the charismatic who loved Jesus and none of us loved Jesus quite enough for him. And, finally, there was Jeb Stuart Magruder, former White House aide and Watergate defendant, who had spent his time in prison and was still wrestling with the guilt over whether or not he had the right to stand in a pulpit and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Everything was represented there from the seats of power to the depths of poverty.

One day the black South African stood beside our table in the dining hall and visibly shook. "It's okay, David, you can join us," I said, to which he replied, "This is first time I sit to eat with whites." The earth kind of moved beneath us. Every day we got into arguments over theology and politics. Magruder got into it with the French Roman Catholic over the common market and the charismatic got into with all of us because we didn't love Jesus enough, but little by little, day by day we began to come together. Why was it that we could eat together, talk together, and live together? Because everyone was there in the name of Jesus Christ.

What a way to start a church! God appears unexpectedly. The church causes a disturbance and gets the world's attention and finally the people begin to come together in a way they had never done before. What a way to start a church! No wonder it works -- it's God's way, not ours. Amen.
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