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Fully Alive! – Fires of Understanding

Date: 28/05/2023/Speaker: Ps Pauline Ong

Fully Alive: Fires of Understanding
Acts 2:1-21
28 May 2023

This Sunday, we will be concluding our preaching series, Fully Alive! as we celebrate Pentecost Sunday. What is the significance of Pentecost? What was the Spirit of God trying to accomplish in the lives of all believers that special day? And how does this apply to us today? How is the Spirit of God helping us come fully alive?

Acts 2:1-21 (NLT)

On the day of Pentecost[a] all the believers were meeting together in one place. 2 Suddenly, there was a sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm, and it filled the house where they were sitting. 3 Then, what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on each of them. 4 And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages,[b] as the Holy Spirit gave them this ability.

5 At that time there were devout Jews from every nation living in Jerusalem. 6 When they heard the loud noise, everyone came running, and they were bewildered to hear their own languages being spoken by the believers. 7 They were completely amazed. “How can this be?” they exclaimed. “These people are all from Galilee, 8 and yet we hear them speaking in our own native languages! 

9 Here we are—Parthians, Medes, Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, the province of Asia, 10 Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, and the areas of Libya around Cyrene, visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans, and Arabs. And we all hear these people speaking in our own languages about the wonderful things God has done!” 12 They stood there amazed and perplexed.

[Modern-day equivalent]

“What can this mean?” they asked each other.

13 But others in the crowd ridiculed them, saying, “They’re just drunk, that’s all!”

14 Then Peter stepped forward with the eleven other apostles and shouted to the crowd, “Listen carefully, all of you, fellow Jews and residents of Jerusalem! Make no mistake about this. 15 These people are not drunk, as some of you are assuming. Nine o’clock in the morning is much too early for that. 

16 No, what you see was predicted long ago by the prophet Joel:

17 ‘In the last days,’ God says,
    ‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
    Your young men will see visions,
    and your old men will dream dreams.

18 In those days I will pour out my Spirit
    even on my servants—men and women alike—
    and they will prophesy.
19 And I will cause wonders in the heavens above
    and signs on the earth below—
    blood and fire and clouds of smoke.

20 The sun will become dark,
    and the moon will turn blood red
    before that great and glorious day of the Lord arrives.
21 But everyone who calls on the name of the Lord
    will be saved.’

This week, we celebrate Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit by fire, wind, and word. Pentecost — from the Greek pentekostos, meaning “fiftieth,” was a Jewish festival celebrating the spring harvest, and the giving of the law at Mount Sinai. In the Acts account, Luke tells us the Spirit descended on 120 believers in Jerusalem on the fiftieth day after Jesus’ resurrection. 

Question 1 (Word Cloud)

What stood out for you in this passage?

The story Luke describes is an amazing one, full of exciting details. There were tongues or flames of fire, rushing winds, accusations of drunkenness, bold preaching. And if you read further down a few more verses, you will see in v.41-42, that there is a mass baptism and three thousand people were added to their number. And they all devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer. 

So many things were going on that significant day. But here’s the detail that stands out to me as most relevant for our time and place:

All the believers were gathered in one place

A sound from heaven like the roaring wind

What looked like flames of fire appeared and settled on each one

Filled with the Holy Spirit, they testified to the wonderful things God has done in multiple languages, as the Spirit gave them ability

People from all over the world were drawn to the sound, and they were amazed because they understood what was being said in their own native languages

What’s the significance of the Holy Spirit empowering believers to testify of the wonderful things God has done in multiple languages so that people from all over the world can understand what was being said in their own native languages?

I think it shows us something very important about God’s heart for us and the world.

The significance of Pentecost for us today is that throughout human history, God desires for us and is empowering us to:

Understand God’s heart for us and the world

God is reaching out to us in our native/heart languages – that’s the extent that God wants us to understand and be understood

It is amazing that God would condescend to speak to them in their own mother tongues – God welcomes them so intimately, with words and expressions that reminds them of their birthplaces, their childhoods, their beloved countries, and cultures of origin. As if to say, “This Spirit-filled place, this fledging church, this new Body of Christ, is yours. You don’t have to feel like outsiders here; we speak your language too. Come in. Come in and make yourself at home.”

We see diversity and inclusivity throughout this passage.

Christians often speak of Pentecost as the reversal of Babel, the story in Genesis 11 where the people were becoming so occupied with making a name for themselves, and God finally divided and scattered them by multiplying their languages. In fact, Pentecost didn’t reverse Babel; it perfected and blessed it. And made it better.

Tower of Babel = breakdown in understanding each other / scattered across the earth

When the Holy Spirit came upon the believers at Pentecost, she (and I use ‘she’ because the Hebrew word for spirit is ruah and it is a feminine noun)…she didn’t restore humanity to a common language; she declared all languages holy and equally worthy to speak of God’s stories. The Holy Spirit wove diversity and inclusiveness into the very fabric of the Church right from the beginning.

Pentecost = gift of understanding / bringing together across borders, cultures and languages

In this Acts passage, we see Peter stepping up to explain what was happening and to confirm that the Spirit was weaving diversity and inclusiveness into the kin-dom of God.

The Spirit is poured out upon ALL people: all kinds of human beings with no regard to gender, age, status, or people group.  Not just men, not just old men, not just old men who occupy special positions like priest or king, but men and women, young and old, slaves and free—all receive the Spirit and they prophesy. That’s how the Gospel spreads—when all God’s children testify about Jesus wherever they are in the world.

Understand each other’s hearts – across language barriers, cultural differences, family backgrounds, relational hurts and triggers, etc.

This connection that the Spirit desires to spark in us is relational. It is mutual. Not only did each believer understand the languages of others, others also understood them.

“It’s good to be loved. It’s profound to be understood.” – Portia de Rossi

As human beings, we all long to be seen, heard, and understood. It is indeed profound to be understood. How often have you felt truly understood? Quite rare, right? Sometimes, I hear people complain that people in church don’t see them, hear them or understand them.

While we have some ways to go in growing as a community that learns to see, hear and understand one another, the question I have for you is: do you try to see others, hear them out and understand their heart?

It is a mutual relationship. As a pastor and counselor, I’ve realized over the years that one of the best gifts I can ever give someone is the gift of helping them feel understood. Often, that’s all people want. They may not want solutions or advice they didn’t ask for. Sometimes what helps them is knowing someone understands (or is trying their best to understand) what they are going through. And this is a gift you can give someone too.

A church community is not just about you consuming what you want, it’s also about what you put in. If you want to be seen, heard and understood, are you also putting in equal effort to see, hear and understand others, especially those you have a hard time getting along with? Or those you might have had moments of conflict with? Perhaps today the Spirit of God is challenging you to think about someone you’d like to put more effort into seeing, hearing and understanding.

This breakdown in understanding and God’s power to revive and renew understanding works across all levels of human existence — from the deeply personal to the universal — across borders, cultures and languages. This is the hope and promise of Pentecost.

The Holy Spirit descended like flames of fire on the people of God and empowered them to understand each other in a miraculous way. And I believe that is true for us today. At the personal & communal level, God is bringing healing in multiple dimensions.

The Spirit sparks fires of connection and understanding. But are you willing to be that conduit of understanding in someone else’s life?

Perhaps it’s not so instant and easy when we try to understand each other today compared to at Pentecost. For example, I had to study Japanese for several years before I became even slightly fluent to survive and do ministry in Japan.

And that’s true for all levels of understanding beyond just language. I want you to think back to a time when you felt truly understood by someone. It could be your partner, best friend, colleague or church friend. What was that moment like? What helped you feel understood in that moment?

Question 2 (Open)

What helped you feel understood in that moment?

To understand another person’s heart takes time and effort, and the willingness to take risks and be vulnerable. It’s not always easy but the promise of Pentecost is that if we are willing, God’s Spirit is sparking off fires of understanding within and between us.

Understand our call and purpose as God’s people

The Spirit also helps us understand our call and purpose as God’s people. In response to the skeptics who were sneering at what was happening, Peter stood up and preached, refering to the prophet Joel in the Hebrew Bible and showed them that this was what God was planning all along.

Regardless of age, gender or status in society, the Spirit of God would be poured out on all, and we would have the ability to prophesy – which also means “speaking forth” — all the wonderful things that God has done. This is what we are called to do as God’s people – to proclaim, testify, speak forth all the wonderful things that God has done in our lives and in the life of our community. And not only to speak forth but to embody, to live out the good news of God’s love for all people in all that we do and all that we are.

Main Idea:

God is empowering us to understand God’s heart for us and the world, and to understand each other’s hearts too, so that we can fulfil our call and purpose as God’s people by embodying the gospel to all peoples across language, cultural and social barriers.

So what can we do? Where can we start?

Understanding requires open hearts and humility on both sides.

The people in Acts had to risk vulnerability in the face of difference. Have you ever tried speaking a foreign language? It can be embarrassing because we may not get the pronunciation or intonation right. The believers had to trust that no matter how awkward, inadequate, or silly they sounded, the words bubbling up inside of them — new words, strange words, unfamiliar words — were precisely the words ordained for that time and place.

Meanwhile, the crowd who listened had to take risks as well.  They had to suspend disbelief, drop their defenses, and opt for curiosity and wonder instead of fear and suspicion. They had to widen their circles, and welcome strangers with accents into their midst.

Take the risk of being curious, widening our circles and welcoming those who are different from us.

It was in the midst of widening their circles and welcoming strangers into their midst that they saw God at work. Unlike those who sneered and decided this isn’t God, this isn’t something new, they are just drunk.

Gathered to pray and wait on the Spirit to do a new thing.

Before the Spirit came upon them, we need to remember that they followed Jesus’s instruction to stay in one place, pray without ceasing, and wait for the Holy Spirit to come with power and do a new thing — both in them and through them. The disciples may be easily frightened and clueless but they obeyed the prompting of the Spirit and allowed themselves to be transformed by the wind, the fire, the breath of God. Everything else followed from that.

That is why it is so important for us to gather as God’s people and ask the Holy Spirit to guide us, shape us, heal us, remake us, and transform us. We need new languages of bridge-building with one another, and with those around us who may not necessarily agree with us.

As Debi Thomas says, “We need new words to rekindle love.  We need the wind and fire of God to challenge our complacencies, reset our priorities, ease our anxieties, and move us out.”

Our coming retreat is a wonderful opportunity to do just that! You know what I’ve been praying for our church, and more specifically for this retreat?

That God would move in us, transform us and that we would be willing. Everything else follows from that.

Throughout this sermon series, we alluded to the art of kintsugi as a metaphor to help us understand how our brokenness and flaws can be a pathway to God’s mending, beauty and wholeness.

I think kintsugi can teach us a lot about our own lives. We often try to hide our flaws behind make-up or bravado and pretend that everything in our lives is okay.

Kintsugi teaches us that flaws can be beautiful, and we don’t need to hide them. We can be loved for what we are, including our bruises, past trauma, and past mistakes. We don’t need to hide those things to be worthy of love and respect.

Kintsugi also has a more practical message about being wasteful. In our overly consumeristic culture, we tend to throw things away the second we see a flaw in them. If it’s not perfect, we don’t need it anymore, and we buy a new one.

This applies to our relationships as well. We are often quick to throw away relationships that are broken or have grown distant over time. And admittedly, there are some relationship dynamics that may be impossible to repair or perhaps even inadvisable to repair, especially when there is abuse or toxicity involved.

But there are many relationships in our lives that could be repaired and restored along the lines of kintsugi. Can you think of any?

God desires to mend us and our relationships, and is sparking fires of understanding in our hearts in order to help us with the mending. Are you open and receptive to the moving of the Spirit of God? What fires of understanding is God sparking in you today?

A few days ago, we had a briefing for everyone who is going for the retreat. As preparation, Miak asked us to set our intentions for our time there. What areas of your spiritual life would you like to explore, heal, or deepen? Whether you are going for the retreat or not, I want to invite you to set some intentions for this season. Use this time for reflection.

Question 3 (Open)

What are some of your intentions for this retreat/season?

Is it a deeper understanding of God’s heart for you and the world? Is it a deeper understanding of someone in your life, or in this faith community, or someone with whom you have grown distant from or experienced conflict with? Is it a broken relationship that God is urging you to repair? Is it a deeper understanding of your call and purpose here on earth for such a time as this?

God is inviting you to receive these fires of understanding to spark, stir up, or even burst into flames so that you can experience the beauty of kintsugi in your story that is still evolving and developing.

Shape

In this season of Pentecost, remember that God is empowering us to understand God’s heart for us and the world, and to understand each other’s hearts too, so that we can fulfil our call and purpose as God’s people by embodying the gospel to all peoples across language, cultural and social barriers.

My prayer for this season of retreat is that God will spark fires of understanding in each one of us. Whether you are going physically to the retreat or not, this is my prayer for you.

Will you receive God’s gift of understanding in your life through the Holy Spirit? And are you willing to give the gift of understanding to someone else today? May this season be one of us growing deeper in understanding and being understood.

May God’s fires of understanding rest on each one of us so that all may hear of the wonderful things that God has done. Amen.