It was Pentecost, a Jewish feast that celebrated new life, and new crops, by offering a gift of their first fruits in gratitude to God. We’re told that 120 of Jesus’ followers were gathered together in an upper room in Jerusalem. It must have been a rather large room!
For 50 days, since Jesus had gone missing from that tomb, he had been appearing to various of his followers. We heard those stories in the four gospels. He had told them to stay in Jerusalem - “to wait there for the promise of the Father”… where they “will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” I doubt they had a clear picture of what he was talking about, after all, they knew about John’s baptism with water for the forgiveness of sins, but baptism by the spirit? - this was something new.
And this is where our story begins, on that day of Pentecost. What a perfect day to birth the church with new life! Follow the scripture reading closely in your bulletins. You all will have parts to play. And if you speak a second or third language, be prepared with a sentence or two.
Susan: Acts 2: 1-21 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.
Choir: wind sounds
Susan: Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
(congregation calls out in other languages)
Susan: Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked,
All in unison: ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?
Thom: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’
Susan: All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another,
Women: ‘What does this mean?’
Susan: But others sneered and said,
Men: ‘They are filled with new wine.’
Susan: But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them:
John: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
This was the birth of the church, when that breath of God, that Spirit that resides in each of us, came alive in his followers and transformed them from fearful, bumblers into fearless leaders, able to inspire others, and communicate in a way that was understood by all those present.
The Spirit arrived to equip them, to encourage them, to give them the strength and courage to walk out those doors and meet the needs of their community - to inspire others with the message Jesus had instilled in them. But where to start? What were they to do now?
Peter rose to the occasion and stepped into his leadership role as “the rock on which the church was to be built. He told them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” That Spirit was a gift to all those present, from every country in the known world at the time, and to all of us who are open to it. We’re told that about 3,000 were baptized that day.
His followers “spoke the word of God with boldness.” They taught and cured the sick in Jesus’ name, and created a community of followers.
And those who followed devoted themselves to the apostles’ teachings. The writer of Acts tells us “Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
I wonder how many churches have been birthed since that Pentecost Day? Mind-boggling, just to think of it. Today there are 2.2 billion Christians in the world, give or take a few. Paul established those first churches throughout the Mediterranean that we read about in Acts and his letters. Without his evangelism we probably wouldn’t be sitting here today.
We learn from those writings that it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Christians didn’t always live according to Jesus’ teachings. Churches weren’t always in agreement. And over the millenniums many churches have completed their life cycle and then died, while others have flourished. I’m convinced that the ones who live on are spirit-filled. If they’ve existed a long time, like Eliot has, they’ve gone through many challenges, changes, near-death experiences, and re-births or renewals.
But the Spirit kept showing up, igniting a flame over the faithful, maybe over a pastor, or some members in the congregation who were open to it. New ideas inspired them, new life blossomed and the light spread to others. As Peter quotes from the prophet Joel: “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams.” Vibrant, alive churches are filled with visions and dreams of what the future may hold. And they don’t just dream, they act.
Those who study the life cycles of churches say they begin with a pastor and a core group of followers who come together, led by the Spirit, with visions and dreams to start something new. As churches here in Massachusetts close, others are being birthed - or re-birthed.
Three years ago, after serving three different churches, Pastor Matt Carriker knew he was being called to do something different. He had been thinking of a new church start for some time, but the usual fears and questions and doubts kept interfering with the Spirit - until - one day, Paul, the pastor of another UCC church invited him to lunch. Paul’s church had just sold a building and had some money to give away. He said he had been led by the Spirit to ask Matt if he would like to use it to plant a new church.
Those fears were still there. Matt kept praying on it, and the answer kept coming back ‘yes.’ That is how the spirit works. Both scared and excited, he was joined by a small group of followers, many of them millennials, who formed the Agape Spiritual Community, UCC, in Waltham, where his dream of forming a faith community where you could love God with both heart and intellect became a reality, where they could try new ways of worshipping and being in community.
They have partnered with Eliot and 2nd Church in our outreach to the families at the Home Suites Inn, and plan to partner more with us in the future. Six of us attended their Sunday evening dinner church a while back. I hope to attend another on June 10th. Let me know if you’d like to join me.
I wonder how the Spirit came to the Eliot Religious Society when they decided Newton needed a new church - and to their first pastor Rev. William Solomon Leavitt in 1845? Those who study the life cycles of churches say that the founding members and pastor define the congregation’s self-identity, its mission, core values and spiritual life.
And those are likely to remain in some form throughout the life of the church. This is certainly true of Eliot, as I read about its early history.
“The spirit of John Eliot has helped to keep Eliot Church an out-going church. From the beginning, members have taken an active interest in missionary causes…. In the olden days the Women’s Missionary Society packed barrels and boxes for the struggling new churches in the western part of this country and abroad. There were mission study groups among the women, children and the men.”
Does that sound like Eliot today? Over the years our mission focus has changed with the needs and issues of the time, but we have remained an ‘out-going’ church.
They also say that those early, formative years are a period of some of the greatest growth. Within four years the first building was enlarged by adding 28 pews to accommodate the rapidly growing congregation. By 1860 they voted to sell and move the church, and replace it with a grander one with 178 pews seating 1,000 persons.
Fire swept through the church early on a Sunday morning in 1887 leaving only blackened ruins. This could have been the beginning of the end, but the Eliot Religious Society wasted no time in starting to rebuild an even larger building holding 1,038 persons, which served the congregation for 67 years until it suffered the same fate in 1956.
Once again it was a shattering blow, but they weren’t disheartened for long. “Burned but not consumed” became the rallying cry of their pastor, Rev. Eusden, and from the flames of fire came flames of the Holy Spirit once again, which ignited the congregation with hope, creativity and a determination to live on.
Our sanctuary no longer holds 1,000 people. Times have changed and Eliot has changed with them. That is what has kept it alive: a willingness to face the disasters, the challenges, the controversies; a willingness to keep renewing and re-birthing. 14 pastors, led by the Spirit, have walked through these doors, as well as countless people looking for a church home, a place to grow in their faith, to become a part of a supporting community, a place to live the love that Jesus shared with us.
People die, they move away, their family or individual needs change, even their theology and spirituality may grow and lead them in different directions. Very few of those who were here during the last fire are still with us today. Change is not easy, especially the loss of long-time friends, but it is part of life, and part of the life of a church.
But as long as we remain spirit filled, so will Eliot. No church can survive without new ideas and creativity. On June 3rd, at our congregational meeting, we will be looking at some of the new ideas and visions for Eliot going forward that came out of the surveys some of you filled out a year ago. How will we grow in the spirit in the coming year? Where will the Spirit lead us? Will we follow?
No church can survive without new members, and the new enthusiasm and ideas they bring. This morning I’m excited to welcome six such people into the life of Eliot, some are very new, and others have been with us for a while. Claire Martin-Doyle, who could not be here today, will be joining on Eliot Day in June.