Change: Discernment

Change: Discernment
A Message on Acts 2:1-21
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
May 31, 2020
By Doug Wintermute

Acts 2:1-21 (NRSV)

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 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. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Peter Addresses the Crowd
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 ‘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.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

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Today is Pentecost, known as the birthday of the church. It is the celebration of the Holy Spirit coming upon the disciples as was promised by the Old Testament prophets as well as Jesus before his crucifixion.

Now for the disciples Pentecost was a harvest festival, known as the Festival of Weeks, and was celebrated seven weeks and one day after the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread that we read about in Deuteronomy 16:9. It was also, according to Exodus 23:16, known as the Feast of Harvest and in Exodus 34:22 we find it is the festival of the wheat harvest.

Because it is seven weeks and one day, which if you’re good at math you can figure out equals 50 days, it was called Pentecost. A pentagram has five sides, right? So Pentecost is 50 days.

The disciples were gathered together for this Jewish festival. They would have been in Jerusalem and either in or near the temple. It had been 49 days since Jesus’ resurrection from the grave and the disciples, while no longer hiding behind closed doors, were still trying to figure out how to be a follower of Jesus Christ with Jesus no longer earthly present. They still considered themselves to be Jewish and observed the Jewish festivals, so they gathered together for this harvest festival.

When the Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples at Pentecost it also is the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that he had made while with the disciples. Here is an example from the gospel of John:

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” John 14:15-17

Later in the 14th chapter, Jesus says this: “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” John 14:25-26

In the Gospel of Luke we find John the Baptist offering this prophecy: “John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’” Luke 3:16

Even in the Old Testament scriptures we find prophecies about the coming of the Holy Spirit. Here’s an example from Joel:

“Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.” Joel 2:28-29

And here is this from Isaiah: “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground, I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring.” Isaiah 44:3

And here’s one more from Ezekiel: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.” Ezekiel 36:26-27

So the promised coming of the Holy Spirit was something that the disciples had to be aware of, especially with Jesus telling them about it. But they didn’t know when or how this would happen… until Pentecost.

And wow, did God show up in a big way! Supernatural things started happening. A loud sound like the rushing of wind filled the place. Tongues of fire appeared above the disciples heads, creating a visual phenomenon to match the auditory one.

And all the disciples started speaking several different languages. As our scripture tells us there was quite the multicultural crowd present in Jerusalem. Pentecost was one of three religious festivals each year that Jewish men were expected to attend in Jerusalem. The temple was in Jerusalem, and so people traveled from a wide geographical area to be in Jerusalem 50 days after the Passover.

Now notice that the disciples spoke these languages “as the spirit gave them ability.” Now the disciples probably knew a couple of languages, including Hebrew (the language the Torah was written in and that Jewish worship was conducted in), Aramaic, and Greek. But we’re talking a lot more languages than that! (At least that’s what I believe.) They were speaking languages they didn’t know, and were doing so through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Now here’s something interesting to note, and that is what the disciples were saying in all the different languages. We find it at the end of verse 11: “…we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

So the disciples were speaking all these different languages and telling of the great things God has done.

So, what does this have to do with change, and specifically discernment?

Here’s the way I see it. In the crowd at Pentecost were two types of people. The first kind we have already talked about, the people who heard the disciples speaking their language and were amazed, knowing that God was doing something amazing.

And then you have another group. This group wasn’t impressed with what was happening with the disciples. As a matter of fact, they made fun of them, the NRSV says they “sneered” at them, and said, “They are filled with new wine.” In other words, the disciples were acting unusual because they were drunk.

So we have two completely different impressions of what was happening on that day of Pentecost in Jerusalem. How in the world can we have such different views of what was happening with the disciples? How can we have one group believing they were witnessing a miracle from God, and another group that thought the disciples were drunk. That’s quite the disparity!

This is where I think discernment comes in. I think it was how people discerned what was happening that gave them the impressions they had about what was going on.

I saw a video on YouTube recently about how we as humans discern stories on social media. It seems we have a predilection, a bias, for news stories that support our opinions and views on a particular subject.

Let me see if I can explain with an example, let’s say the Coronavirus pandemic we are in. Let’s say that your personal opinion is that this virus isn’t as bad as everyone says it is. When you see news and social media stories about the virus, you will tend to believe the stories that present the information in a way that supports what you believe. You believe those to be true. The stories that present the virus as a very serious situation with the potential for many illnesses and death you tend to disregard as not true.

The same thing is true if you believe the opposite way. The stories about the seriousness of the virus you will believe to be true, and the stories about how it’s not that dangerous you will believe to be untrue.

It’s called confirmation bias. In our discernment process we tend to believe those things that confirm what we already believe, and disregard those things that go against what we believe.

I think that at Pentecost we see confirmation bias at work in the people who thought the disciples were drunk. They didn’t like the disciples and their belief that Jesus of Nazareth was the messiah, and certainly didn’t believe that he rose from the dead. So their perception bias, their discernment, kept them from viewing the supernatural events as being from God. They believed what they wanted to believe.

Okay, so let’s pause for a second and define what discernment actually is. In normal language it means “the ability to judge well.” Synonyms include judgement, discrimination, and perceptiveness.

But there is a somewhat different definition when it comes to Christianity. The definition here is “perception in the absence of judgement with a view to obtaining spiritual guidance and understanding.”

That’s what is called spiritual discernment. I think that’s what the people who were amazed at the disciples at Pentecost had, and it’s what those who sneered at them and thought they were drunk did not have.

When it comes to change, which there is certainly a lot of nowadays, discernment is a good thing to have. And spiritual discernment is a VERY good thing to have.

Our country is in need of discernment. The death of George Floyd at the hands of police, and the destruction and looting in response both show a need for people to have discernment, on all sides. George Floyd’s death is a tragedy and we should lift our voices for justice, but the destruction and looting of cities, including many businesses owned by minorities, is also a tragedy.

So many people in our country have lost their moral compasses, and we need to work, to discern, both regular discernment and spiritual discernment, the way back to what is right and true and loving.

Okay, so let’s talk about spiritual discernment. How does one develop spiritual discernment? Good question. I’m glad you asked.

I think one of the best ways to develop spiritual discernment is to practice spiritual disciplines. These include Bible study and reading, prayer, regular worship attendance, sacrificial giving, performing works of charity, Christian conferencing (meeting with accountability groups), and seeking justice for people from all walks of life. (The need for that last one has become very evident this past week up in Minneapolis.)

I believe when you practice the spiritual disciplines that it calibrates your spiritual discernment radar so that you are more receptive to the workings of the Holy Spirit. When you live your life close to God, it’s a lot easier to discern the Holy Spirit’s actions.

Now I believe it is the power of the Holy Spirit that provides spiritual discernment, but practicing the spiritual disciplines paves the way for that discernment. It’s like if you were going to plant a garden, you wouldn’t just go throw seeds on top of the ground. You have to first work the ground, plowing or tilling it, removing weeds, making sure it drains properly and has the proper fertilizer.

I believe that the spiritual disciplines prepare the ground for the planting of the Holy Spirit, and that they pull the weeds and water and nurture the seeds that are planted so that they grow and bear fruit.

Just as an athlete has to train in order to perform at peak ability, so we must also work our spiritual discipline muscles in order to be at peak spiritual discernment.

Jesus promised the disciples that the Holy Spirit would come upon them, and that happened at Pentecost. All the things that Jesus had taught them that had confused them started making sense through the spiritual discernment given to them through the Holy Spirit.

Jesus’ life, his teachings, his holy words about what would happen to him after his death and resurrection, and how those actions provide forgiveness of sins and everlasting life, all became much clearer to the disciples after Pentecost. The Holy Spirit gave them the gift of spiritual discernment.

So my challenge to you this week as we celebrate Pentecost today is to improve your spiritual discernment. In these days of change it is a great skill to have. Practice the spiritual disciplines so that the Holy Spirit may take root and grow in your life, giving you spiritual discernment as one of its fruits.

That way when the Holy Spirit moves mightily among God’s people, you won’t think they are drunk.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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