One Friday night I was working late at church, when a young boy wandered in among the pews. He was there for a Scout dinner in the other room, but excited to see the sanctuary doors open, he ducked in to have a look. I invited him on in, along with his mom. They were hushed and reverent as they gazed around, but I did manage to overhear his parting words. Looking at the wall at the front of the sanctuary, he pointed to the cross hanging there and said with grave solemnity and great awe, “Look! They have a giant lowercase t.”
I smiled to myself as they padded out. The first thing I did was to wish them a good evening. The second thing I did was to decide, “I have got to tell this story in a sermon one day.” And the third thing I did was to wish I had it to do all over again. To wish I could say to that little Cub Scout and his mom, “You know that’s actually not a lowercase t as you suppose. Could I tell you what it’s really all about?”
Here’s the word. You and I and the congregations we serve are what stand between that being a lowercase t, and a reason for hope for the world. If we don’t speak up, and live out, and love boldly, and respond to the moving of God’s Spirit within us, then the crosses that hang both in our sanctuaries and around our necks might as well just be letters of the alphabet. The message we proclaim hinges on the lives we live, the truths we tell, and the dreams we dare to dream.
This week, we celebrate the day of Pentecost. We read the familiar story from Acts every year: Jesus has ascended, Jerusalem is abuzz, and a crowd has gathered amidst the sound of a rushing wind and a cacophony of languages. The Spirit of God is alive and on the loose. It’s a weird, wild, wonder-full scene. The text tells us that folks were “amazed and perplexed” at the outpouring, but others insisted, “They are filled with new wine.” In other words: They’re just drunk. They’re nobody. This is nothing.
It’s a little less innocent and a lot more cynical, but the response of those naysayers is the same kind of honest mistake as thinking the cross in the sanctuary is a lowercase t. Because both are reminders that the events of Pentecost—like the crosses on our walls—will mean little to those who witness them without elaboration, interpretation, and explanation from us.
Which is precisely why Peter stood up and launched into his very first sermon saying: these are not drunk, as you suppose. Everything that’s happening here is not as you suppose. There is urgency and necessity in this refrain. Perhaps because Peter realized that the only thing standing between this being a scene of early morning drunkenness—and the dramatic continuance of Jesus’ saving ministry to all humanity—was the response he and his sisters and brothers would make. So he implicated himself and all the rest of us when he quoted the prophet Joel:
These are not drunk, as you suppose…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.
Maybe you’ve noticed—the last days are long. They were in them then, and we are still in them now. The times they may be a-changing, but the questions remain the same: in these long, last days are we speaking God’s prophetic truth even in adversity? Have we been captured by compelling, exciting visions for the world God desires? Do we dream God’s dreams for this time and place? Is Peter’s ancient sermon playing out in new ways among us, or do the lives we live make him sound like a madman, drunk and off his rocker before 9am?
Every year we read this story of Pentecost the meaning is up for grabs again. It is the content of our lives—individually and as a community—that stand in the balance between Acts 2.1-21 being a story with life-changing ramifications, or just some obscure account of a first-century drunken brawl. Every year this story is told again, waiting for us to provide an interpretation. We supply the meaning, or we take it away.
And of course it’s not just what happened in Jerusalem that day that’s up for grabs, but what’s happening in the church right here and now. The character of Christian community, the identity of the body of Christ, and the whole of the Christian story require brave, faithful, and daily explanation, interpretation, and demonstration in our lives today. With Peter we need to say and to show that things are not as you suppose…
To those first-century cynics, these are not drunk as you may suppose.
To those harmed by the church, these are not just judgmental as you may suppose.
To those frustrated by the church, these are not just hypocritical as you may suppose.
To those reporting on the church, these are not just closed-minded zealots as you may suppose.
To the educated elite, this is not just a joke as you may suppose.
To the doubters and disbelievers, this is not just a hoax as you may suppose.
To the comfortable Christians, this is not just a social club as you may suppose.
To the poll-takers and odds-makers, this is not just an irrelevant, dying institution as you may suppose.
What this is was spoken by the prophet Joel. This is a gathering of young and old, of rich and poor, of black and brown, of immigrant and citizen, of gay and straight, of red and blue, of burdened and free. This is the place where we trace our history to a Pentecost morning when a few dozen people were just foolishly brilliant enough to believe that Spirit at work among them, and that they might be able to partner with God on behalf of the world.
And to the Cub Scout, wherever you are, that is not a lowercase t as you suppose. I’m sorry I didn’t say that when you wandered into church all those years back. I want you to know that that is the cross of Christ: the sign of the undoing of death, and the victory of love. That is the cross of Christ: the source of our hope and the light by which we see. That is the cross of Christ: that makes dreamers and truth-tellers, and life-changers out of us all. Especially this week. Especially on Pentecost. The Day all things (even ourselves) are not as we suppose, but filled with the very Spirit and power and goodness of God.