Pentecost June 12, 2011
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-11
235(1-5), 231, 235(6-8), 230
Now when [the people] heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation.” Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.
Anyone who is handy with tools can build a church. Take some wood and nails, concrete and carpet, wiring and windows, and soon you will have a place that people will drive past and say, “There is a church.” But you know that is not the most important part of building a church, it is only the easiest. You know that the church would not be a church without the people, so you also know that it is not so easy to build a church and then really build it by filling it with believers in Christ. In fact, the filling of the church with believers is something that by ourselves we have no power to do at all.
No matter how fancy the building is, no matter how beautiful the stained glass or how pretty the music, without God the Holy Spirit working in the hearts of men, women, and children to turn them to faith in the Savior, there would not be anyone in the pews on Sunday morning. Our lesson today, on the occasion of this festival when we especially celebrate the work of the third person of the Trinity, reminds us that THE HOLY SPIRIT CAN REALLY BUILD A CHURCH! I. Consider the building process itself and II. Consider the activity of the Spirit-built church
The Apostle Peter did not have a church building on the day of Pentecost, but by the evening hours he had a church! He had 3,000 people baptized and calling themselves Christians. How could a church like that be built so quickly?
It was built by the Holy Spirit who had begun His work that day by coming to Jesus’ disciples at a house in Jerusalem. The Spirit came upon them in a special way with a sound like rushing wind and with what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on them. The disciples also received the special gift of being able to speak in other languages. Then the men went out and used that gift to speak about the risen Lord Jesus.
Peter in particular addressed the crowd, telling them that they had crucified the Lord of Glory and urging them to repent and trust in this Crucified One through whom they had forgiveness of sins and salvation for their souls.
In this way the Spirit worked on the hearts of the 3,000 at Pentecost: He prepared people to speak the good news of Christ. He sent them out to speak. Through the Word of God which apostles’ spoke, He changed the minds of many and brought them to faith in Christ.
The Word through which the Spirit worked was also accompanied by the sacrament of Baptism. Peter told them: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” [v.38]
The Spirit was working that day through the visible Gospel too—through the sacrament of baptism in which the people could see their sins being washed away in the water. This ceremony with water was not just a mere symbol or sign that their sins were forgiven, but it was an act in which the water was intimately connected to God’s word of forgiveness. In their baptisms, the forgiveness Christ won on the cross was actually being given to them. “Be baptized…for the forgiveness of your sins” the clear call sounded.
In their baptisms, the people’s sins were sent away as far as the east from the west. They received Christ’s own robe of righteousness and were led to trust in the forgiveness of sins which He offers. They were brought into God’s family of believers. God put His name on them and finally, as Peter said, they received the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit entered into the hearts of all these new Christians (men, women, and children), putting them in touch with God.
This is how the Holy Spirit builds His Church. It is created through Word and Sacrament. When the apostles went out on their missionary journeys, they did not win souls by saying, “The church here in Antioch will have a great nursery for the kids! The church here in Philadelphia will be a real force for social change in the community! The church here in Ephesus will have a great praise band and some door prizes!” None of this. When the apostles went out, they preached Christ crucified and risen. They preached repentance and faith. They baptized. These are the tools the Spirit uses to draw people to the Lord.
It is not that we can’t have special music in church or activities for children and families. These things can be important indeed. But things like these are servants of the Word. They are not to take the place of the Word and Sacraments. If these things are present for their own sake rather than to support the word of the true Gospel, the soul will not ultimately be drawn any closer to Christ through them.
Therefore, when you yourself have opportunities to help the Spirit build the Church, you do not need to be ashamed or apologetic if what you have to share is the simple news that Christ died for sinners to free them from condemnation. Or if you do not have silver and gold to give, but you have the water of Baptism for an infant’s forgiveness of sins, you have the greater gift. The reason we keep our center and focus on the Word and Sacraments is because this is how the Spirit builds the Church.
Notice how the Word and Sacraments were at the heart of all the activities in the early church. These were the things that the Spirit had used to draw them, these were the things that they cared about as they continued to live their faith under the Spirit’s influence.
About those early Christians the Scriptures say: “They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” [v.42] Four activities are mentioned, all of which are related in some way to the ministry of the word.
First, the Christians listened carefully to the teaching and Word which the first missionaries of Jesus shared. These men such as Peter, James, and John did not simply speak their own words. They spoke the words of the Lord, and they gave evidence of that by doing many wonders and miraculous signs among the people. The new Christians learned the truth from the apostles and then they repeated the teachings of the apostles in their midst. All their activities were based on the Word that came from these special ambassadors for Christ. They heard that Word. They meditated on it. They proclaimed it themselves. They made the Word the main thing in their churches. Likewise we want to make sure that the Word of God is always the main thing in our churches. We do not want to be led astray by the worldly influences that would have us believe that Word does not need to be the main thing for us.
Secondly, the Christians devoted themselves to the fellowship. While they might have gone off to their homes and thought and prayed and learned on their own, they did not do this. Nor did Jesus want them to do this. The Holy Spirit had called them to faith in numbers and the Spirit also led them to gather together in numbers. Several times in these verses the idea of fellowship is mentioned. “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts…all the believers were together…they ate together with glad and sincere hearts.”—together…together…together. They all had something in common—a connection to their Savior—so it was only fitting that they should spend time with one another, especially for worship and prayer. This way they could learn from each other, support each other, and share with one another which they did.
Sometimes people think that gathering together as believers is not very important. Instead of coming to church they think, “I’ll just read the Bible on my own at home. I’ll get my religion well enough that way.” Maybe even some of you who are here today have found yourselves saying some Sundays, “I don’t know if I really need/want to go to church today. I’ll have my own devotional time later in the day.” But that’s not what those 3,000 on the day of Pentecost said. And it’s not what members of a Spirit-built church generally do. As we all share in God’s grace, we all share together around the Word. The Spirit gathers us.
The third activity of the early church that is mentioned is their devotion to the breaking of bread. Because this is spoken of in the same sentence as the gathering around the Word, spiritual fellowship, and prayer, it seems to be a reference in this verse to the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper—or at least to the meal that was usually connected to the Holy Supper. As the believers gathered around the Gospel Word, they also gathered around the visible expressions of the Gospel—Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These are still features of our church gatherings today. We celebrate the Supper often because through it we receive forgiveness of sins, peace and joy of heart. We leave the baptismal font out in the open to remind us of our own baptisms each time we enter church. These special ceremonies instituted by Christ are precious to us for through them He nourishes our souls.
The fourth activity of the Spirit’s church was prayer. It is only natural that after one is led to the Word, hears it, and receives the sacraments, he is led to respond to God in Heaven. So those early Christians returned words of thanksgiving, utterances of praise, and requests of all sorts to the throne of glory, and so do we.
All of this activity is prompted by the Holy Spirit. That Spirit who came on Pentecost to the hearts of the 3,000, led them to continue in activities of the church which were centered on the good news of salvation in Jesus. Yes, THE HOLY SPIRIT CAN REALLY BUILD A CHURCH!
Therefore, come to us, O Holy Spirit. Touch those who are still walking in the darkness of unbelief. Gather us together around the cross and empty tomb, around the Word of the forgiveness of sins and eternal life, around the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Build us into the church you want us to be and lead us into the activities you would have us do. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.