First Pentecost sermon was so powerful we still have not put it into practice.
It was a spectacular display. Fireworks and the sound of a violent wind took the people by surprise and turned a typical celebration into an unforgettable event. Today we are still drawn to those amazing signs of Pentecost, and reenact them in our worship.
But while enamored with such a demonstration of the Holy Spirit’s outpouring, we tend to overlook God’s creative and powerful word on that day, expressed through Peter’s passionate preaching. God’s word was so radical that the church of the New Testament had difficulty putting it into practice, and we are still working at it today.
All flesh: Peter draws on the prophecy of Joel:
In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh (Acts 2:17).
The earliest church consisted mainly of people who came from the Jewish heritage, and many of them incorrectly believed that the Christian church was open only to those who were circumcised.
Peter himself played a significant role in facing that issue as he carried the gospel to the uncircumcised Cornelius. After he had gone and baptized Cornelius, Peter had come back to Jerusalem only to run into stiff opposition from church people who accused him of breaking church laws.
So Peter told them how God had commissioned him to go and baptize Cornelius and compared that event to Pentecost:
“As I began to speak [to Cornelius], the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning [at Pentecost]. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:15-17 TNIV).
Unfortunately much of the Christian church through the ages has been standing in God’s way. For some reason God’s declaration that the Holy Spirit is poured out on all flesh has not been fully addressed.
The New Testament is full of instruction, some of it quite pointed, on how to relate lovingly to each other. The apostle Paul, for instance, needed to remind the church that Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, males and females are included in the church. Why do we add our own requirements to God’s word, instead of taking God at his word?
Different denominations of the church claim to have the true word—and others don’t. Then, too, some think that America is a Christian nation and wrongly go to war in an attempt to establish the righteousness of the United States. And sadly, many of our Christian missions around the globe have preached the culture of North America rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ.
God declares, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.”
Men and women. God’s powerful word through Peter on Pentecost continues:
… [Y]our sons and your daughters shall prophesy … Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy (Acts 2:17-18).
Again, unfortunately, much of the Christian church through the ages has been standing in God’s way. Instead of following God’s word and applying that to our understanding of the world, we tend to follow the way of the world, and apply that to our understanding of God’s word. Just because the world views men as superior to and more important than women, the church should not follow the world.
Some religious leaders say that women must serve men but men not serve women, that men can be preachers but women can’t. Why do we add our own requirements to God’s word, instead of taking God at his word?
But what about those verses in the New Testament that appear to say women are not to teach or to be pastors? It is clear that the message of the New Testament celebrates the giving of God’s gifts to both women and men, but also includes both positive and negative references to women as ministers.
As we know, we can prove almost anything by quoting isolated Bible verses to our advantage. So it is important that we place every book of the Bible fully within its context.
First Timothy and Titus are frequently quoted to prove that women cannot be pastors—ever.
On close reading, however, we find that these epistles were written to experienced pastors as specific instructions for dealing with crisis situations in Ephesus and Crete. The two pastors already knew how to organize churches. The new instructions were sent to deal with conditions that required special care, to serve as remedial help for the purpose of bringing the congregations back to divine expectations proclaimed on Pentecost and described elsewhere in the New Testament.
If we believe that certain verses from 1 Timothy and Titus do not allow women to exercise specific leadership positions and that they are instructions for all time, then we must accept that every verse of those two epistles is an instruction for all time. That would mean, for instance, that only married men—but married only once—with children (respectful ones) could serve as bishop or overseer. And that women are saved through childbearing. And what about the instruction to drink wine, and the fact that 1 Timothy and Titus disagree on whether a woman is supposed to teach?
Certainly the Bible is God’s written word, but we cannot treat it as a rule book from which we arbitrarily select laws, or choose which instructions to obey or disobey.
However, if we accept the message of the whole Bible, beginning with Creation, moving to the transformation of Re-Creation in Christ and following on to God’s powerful word on Pentecost, then we can wholeheartedly receive God’s foundational declaration: All women and men from all the tribes of the earth may receive God’s Spirit in order to prophesy.
The New Testament comes from times during which the earliest church was being shaped, and its writings are evidence of how tough a struggle that was—as the story of Peter and Cornelius shows.
The New Testament is a record of how the early church worked at interpreting God’s word, a discerning task that is still our duty under the Holy Spirit. For us to see that the early church was not able to put everything in order immediately can be an encouragement, both as a reminder that the church always consists of fallible human beings like us, and that our goal is to fulfill God’s righteous word, not our human desires.
Commitment to Christ. I am thankful that Mennonite Church USA honors the call of both women and men to ministry. Article 15 of Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective states:
We believe that ministry continues the work of Christ, who gives gifts through the Holy Spirit to all believers and empowers them for service in the church and in the world. … The church calls, trains and appoints gifted men and women to a variety of leadership ministries on its behalf. These may include such offices as pastor, deacon and elder as well as evangelists, missionaries, teachers, conference ministers and overseers.
Ohio Conference Minister Tom Kauffman writes: “Our obedience to God’s call is more important than our innate skill set or character. Our obedience opens the door to God’s gracious outpouring of the Holy Spirit to empower us to accomplish the task that God has for us” (Ohio Evangel, April-May 2007).
It is not the gifts we bring to God that matter. What matters is that we bring ourselves. Then Christ provides the gifts needed for his mission.
In light of God’s Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all flesh—including on men and women—I cannot, with integrity, limit my commitment to Christ by offering myself as coming from only a certain ethnic heritage, or as either male or female.
I offer myself—whoever I am. And as God continues to bless all kinds of Christian believers with divine gifts, I along with Peter must confess, “Who [am] I to think that I [can] stand in God’s way?”
As individuals and as a people of God, let us commit ourselves to Christ with open hearts and minds: “Here I am, Lord, your servant; empower me with your Spirit.”
Philip K. Clemens is pastor at Pike Mennonite Church, Elida, Ohio, and author of Beyond the Law: Living the Sermon on the Mount (Herald Press). This article is adapted from his sermon at Pike on May 27, 2007.