About a month ago my five-year-old nephew, James, was over, and he told my mother and I that it was time to go on vacation. He told my mom that she was going on an imaginary cruise for a few days, and he explained the luxurious time that she would have, eating ice cream and swimming in the pool. I figured that sounded pretty nice, and so I asked him where I was going on vacation. Knowing that I am a pastor, I suppose, James looked at me, as if I were just too silly and said, "You're going to heaven for the day, Auntie Jenny. I want you to meet God and Jesus." He took me into the other room and told me everything that he knew about God and, for the first time I found out that, at least in James's view, Jesus is quite the guitar playing rock star. Perhaps not what we have in mind when we think of God, Jesus, or vacation for that matter, but here was James, five-years-old, talking in his own way and on his own terms about his faith. A wise person once said, "Every journey begins with a single step."
So I have a question for all of you today. What is your first memory of yourself as a person of faith? For some of you it may be your own Baptism or Confirmation. For others it may be a Church School class when you were about James's age. For some of you it may have been something you found due to a time of tragedy or despair. For some of you it may be an experience that you had last week when something jarred you from the ordinary everyday and made you realize that there is something bigger than us in this world. Perhaps for some of us we are reminded daily that we are people of faith, either by conversations we have with others, things we see happening around us, or maybe even the questions that we continue to struggle with on our own personal life and faith journeys. Whatever your answer, we are joined here today to celebrate the faith that we have come to know and claim for ourselves. On this day, we focus on both the history, as well as the claiming and reclaiming of our faith as we celebrate the joy and excitement of both Pentecost and Confirmation Sunday.
I have a small prop with me this morning. It will show you all my true artistic ability…or lack thereof. Perhaps some of you can guess what these are….They are flames that have the verses from the story of Pentecost from the Book of Acts. The verses are unmarked, and it was the Confirmands' job one night to try to take them and put them in the proper order that would tell the story as you have heard it shared this morning. Thinking about that experience later, and the creative ways that the Confirmands found to figure out the order the verses went in, I realized that it is not far from what has happened to any of us on our own faith journeys. God has laid out a series of experiences for us and we have the difficult task of putting them in order…of making them make sense…of allowing them to inform our faith…what it is that we believe. Perhaps we do not have all the answers, but we do know the questions and together with the tools we have been given in the Bible, throughout history, through the Spirit, and the gifts in this community we have a good idea of where we might find some of the information. God has given us all of these gifts of the Spirit and has given us one another to share in this journey, to talk about and share this experience…just as the people in the early church were able to hear one another and understand on that Pentecost day so long ago, we all can hear one another and understand.
I have spent a good deal of time telling our Cofirmands that their experience in Confirmation Class has been merely a part of their journey. It is not an end, or a graduation, it was merely a step…a step that they took faithfully. As Christians we are not asked to do the difficult work of ministry and growing our faith in spurts or at only certain points in time, we are asked to continue to take steps along our journeys…to continue to ask the questions, to continue to share with one another, to continue to grow each and every day.
Truly the spirit is in this place today. And what an appropriate day it is, as we celebrate the amazing act of God and gift that was given on the day we now know as Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit was gifted to the early believers and brought with it understanding, growth, and renewed strength of faith. As positive and non-chaotic as that might sound, I think we need to look a bit at the story of Pentecost.
In looking through some different sources I saw many different artists' ideas of what that day may have looked like…about what the apostles might have looked like as they received the amazing gift of the Holy Spirit. In many of them the apostles' were seated at a table in beautiful robes, and a glowing yellow light was shining through on them. Now I don't know about you, but that is not the image that I get when I read the story of Pentecost in the Book of Acts. Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit was, as one scholar put it, "a 'happening'…something unplanned, unexpected, unorganized, yet vivid and exciting." We can envision a large group of faithful Jewish people gathered to celebrate the end of the Festival of First Fruits that began with Passover. They were together in the city, but came from many different lands to be at the celebration, which was known to commemorate the day when the Law was given to Moses on Mount Sinai...an important day among those in the Jewish community. The apostles were there too, still frightened by what might happen to them now that Jesus was gone…after all they were tied to a "not so popular" movement.
Then suddenly a fierce and violent wind began to blow. Anyone who has seen coverage of any major storm knows what that looks like, and it does not usually inspire people to sit and wait. Instead we can envision the people running for cover, scattering here and there. After the wind, came the fire…tongues of fire to be exact…and our poor frightened apostles now saw those coming. Instead of sitting in beautiful robes, they were probably in rough-hewn clothing made from animal hides and other natural fibers, not the cleanest people in the world, as confused as every one else about what was happening…and here comes the fire. It hit each of them individually, and allowed them to speak in languages that they had never studied or spoken before. The apostles were newly empowered. They were no longer afraid. They went outside amongst the people and they started to proclaim their faith.
They told of the good news of Jesus Christ and all the acts of God throughout history. The people who were listening were skeptical to say the least. They questioned how these men, suddenly strong in their proclamations, could possibly be speaking so many different languages. They questioned whether the apostles were drunk or not. They questioned the things the apostles were speaking of. It is not a serene picture that we are given. It is a picture of divinely inspired humanity at its best and at its "not so best" all at the same time.
And it is a picture of chaos turning to peace. It is a picture of some pretty amazing and spirit-filled preaching….after all we find out further along in Acts that nearly 3000 people claimed their faith and were baptized that day. It is a picture of God breaking back into the world after the miracle of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection…of God meeting people where they were, and where we are, as comfortable or jarring an experience as that might be. It is the picture of what many people now have come to know as the birth of the Christian Church.
And what a birthday it was. People coming to believe, people coming to know Christ, people coming to claim and affirm their faith. Today people celebrate this birthday in all different ways. Some churches send rose petals streaming from the ceiling to remind them of the tongues of fire. Some churches blow loud trumpets to remind them of the fierce wind. When I was younger we used to celebrate Pentecost with red balloons that we would let fly after the service and "Happy Birthday, Church" cake. Today, here at CCB we think about our own stories, our own histories and first steps as people of faith. Today we feel the spirit moving in this place, and realize what an amazing gift it is that it can transcend time and culture and all of the barriers that we create amidst ourselves and others as people on this earth. Today we celebrate together the next step in the journey of seven of our own young men and women who have grown in their faith in different ways over the last 14 years and will continue to grow in this place as they have confirmed their baptismal promises and join this community in ministry as members.
There are many things that we do here in community. We worship, mourn, celebrate, baptize people, present Bibles, share in the Confirmation of faith, and welcome new members into this fellowship. We do this all with the knowledge that on these days and these occasions, none of us are here to "go it alone." We make promises on behalf of ourselves and each other that we will walk on a journey together, that we will help each other and share with each other…strengthening each other in difficult times and celebrating with each other in times of rejoicing. We do all of this with the knowledge that together we are the church, despite or perhaps gifted by our humanity and our flaws yet always knowing that God is here amongst us and God's grace is ever-present.
"Every journey begins with a single step." My prayer for all of us today is that we keep on traveling on this journey, one step at a time, growing both individually and together as a community in our Christian faith. That we will continue to identify and share the gifts that God has given us and to learn with and from one another. That we will take those steps that will identify us as believers to the world and help to share God's love, Christ's peace, and the Spirit's inspiration with all those whom we encounter. Amen.