“Open Hearts”

Scripture – Acts 2:1-21

Sermon preached by Gregory Knox Jones

Sunday, May 28, 2023


Let’s begin with a breathing exercise. We will inhale slowly, hold it, then exhale. Ready? Breathe in…hold it…Breathe out…Breathe in…hold…Breathe out…Breathe in…Breathe out…

Please, repeat after me: “Breathe on me, Breath of God – fill me with life anew – that I may love what thou dost love – and do what thou wouldst do.”

What might God’s Spirit be beckoning forth from you?

Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day Christians celebrate God’s Spirit filling the first disciples and launching them on their mission. Our text tells the story of an event that seems – quite frankly, bizarre.

Luke, who wrote the two-volume set of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, paints the scene for us. The close followers of Jesus – perhaps numbering as many as 120 – were gathered in a house in Jerusalem. It was 50 days after Passover, and thus, about 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection. His disciples were huddled together to observe a Jewish festival called Pentecost.

Initially, this day was a harvest festival, but by the first century, it had become the day to remember God giving the law to Moses at Mount Sinai. It was a major festival that beckoned pilgrims from great distances to trek to Jerusalem to celebrate the occasion.

Remember that at this point, all the followers of Jesus were Jews who were still worshiping in the synagogue and observing Jewish rituals and holy days. What distinguished the disciples from other Jews was that they believed Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah.

For the followers of Jesus, Jerusalem was hostile territory. They were living under the brutal occupation of the Roman army and they declared that Jesus, not Caesar, was the Son of God. Just seven weeks earlier, their leader was executed for this, so the disciples were trying to fly low. They were huddling in fear that their names might be on a list of suspects.

Their master no longer with them, they were grappling with what to do next. Should they remain together or strike out on their own? Should they head back to the Sea of Galilee and pick up their fishing nets?

They were together at nine o’clock in the morning, when suddenly a sound like the rush of a gale force wind permeated the house. Then, like a wildfire, God’s Spirit engulfed them. Tongues of fire rested on each of them and they began speaking in other languages.

I’m trying to picture this. A violent wind rushing through the house. Tongues of fire resting on each disciple. They begin to speak in other languages. It is fair to say that this was not your typical Presbyterian committee meeting.

For that matter, Pentecost must be the most un-Presbyterian day on the church calendar. It simply does not fit with our M.O. We Presbyterians are practical and predictable. We are rational and reserved. We are dubious of ecstatic manifestations of the Spirit. So, it can be tempting to write this passage off as an incomprehensible exaggeration from the ancient world.

OR, since Luke wrote his gospel and the Book of Acts some fifty years after the event, perhaps his language was as much poetry as prose. Had we witnessed the event with our own eyes, we might have interpreted things differently. However, we dare not miss what Luke is telling us. That is, after Jesus was no longer physically present, his disciples did not pack up their slight possessions and apply for their former jobs. God’s Spirit filled them, inspired them, and empowered them for the new road ahead.

Pentecost ought to remind us that sometimes God seeks to shake things up, to dislodge us from our typical patterns, and to thrust us into new ways of living.

Pentecost is the day we celebrate the fact that God’s Spirit is loose in the world, urging us to live with Christ-like compassion and challenging us to extend ourselves beyond what is reasonable and expected, and not be bound by what is measured and balanced.

These words were never used to describe Jesus.  He was considered a troublemaker because he sought to disrupt a system that kept the majority in poverty, that blamed victims for their suffering, that praised self-righteousness over honest confession, and that limited mercy only to those deemed worthy.

Jesus was not reasonable and restrained; he was not measured and moderate. And for good reason: he was tanked up with God’s Spirit! And God’s Spirit pulsing through his veins created an extreme thirst for justice and produced within him an infinite quantity of self-giving love.  So sometimes when he taught, he set people on edge.

Our passage says that after the disciples were filled with God’s Spirit, they began speaking in other languages. They must have made quite a ruckus because passersby began gathering outside the house to see if they could decipher the cacophony.

At first, they were befuddled by the racket pouring out of the house, but then, a foreigner who had traveled a great distance to come to Jerusalem said, “Wait a minute. These men are Galileans, one of them is speaking my language.” Someone from another country said, “Hey, this one over here is speaking Greek, my native tongue!”

Most of the bystanders were baffled and wondered what it all meant, but a few cynics standing nearby scoffed: “You’ve never heard a bunch of drunks before?” Peter was no teetotaler, but he bristled at the suggestion that they were drunk. With a glint in his eyes, he rose and planted his feet squarely. He said, “Read – My – Lips; no one is drunk. For heaven’s sakes, it’s nine o’clock in the morning!”

Peter clarified what was occurring by quoting the prophet Joel. God’s Spirit would pour out and young people would see visions and oldsters would dream dreams, and everyone who called on the name of the Lord would be saved.

I think the clue to the meaning of this passage can be found in the long list of people from different cultures who hear the disciples speaking their language. Luke says that people came from Egypt, Asia, Cappadocia, and Mesopotamia. He said there were Parthians, Medes, and Elamites. Now, that’s interesting. Professor Tom Long says, “Medes – oh really? There had not been any Medes around for at least four centuries. And the Elamites did not wander over from the next county. They came over from the Old Testament!”

So, what is Luke saying? I think he’s pushing us to expand our understanding of who is a member of God’s family. It’s not just people who look and think and act like we do. Luke wants us to recognize the tremendous diversity of God’s family.

Several years ago, Presbyterian minister Tom Are served a church in Jacksonville. His church was near a park where some of the homeless community lived. It was not unusual for someone to approach him and ask for money or a cup of coffee.

One morning, he was walking to a nearby coffee shop when one of the guys from the park approached him and said, “Sir, can I come in with you?” Tom knew what he wanted and said, “Sure. Come on.”

Tom ordered his coffee and said, “I’ll also pay for whatever he’s having.”

The man said, “I just want a cup of water.” And then he did something surprising. The man put money on the counter.

Tom said, “What are you doing?”

He said, “I’d like to buy your coffee, if you don’t mind.”

Tom said, “I don’t understand, why are you buying my coffee?”

The man said, “You’re the pastor of that church, right?”


“You have a really nice choir.”

“We do, don’t we?”

The man said, “I used to sing in the choir when I was in college.”

The words fell out of Tom’s mouth before he could stop them: “You were in college?” The man said, “Yes, until my mom got sick, and I had to drop out. But I love the music, and Michael, your custodian, lets me in balcony when the choir is rehearsing on Thursday nights. I lie on a pew and listen. Reverend, it’s the best part of my week. For an hour, I am surrounded by beauty. So, I just want to buy you a cup of coffee and ask you to thank the singers at your church.”

Tom said, “I’m sorry, what’s your name?”

He said, “Gabriel. It’s a name from the Bible.”

“Yes, it certainly is. Gabriel, would you like to come sing with the choir on Thursday?” “Oh, no,” he said. “I don’t sing anymore but tell them I love to listen. Tell them the anthem by Rutter they practiced last week is one of my favorites. Enjoy your coffee.” And he walked away.

Tom said he walked into that coffee shop feeling pretty good. He was prepared to do a good deed, to let his Christian generosity show. But what he is ashamed to admit is that he didn’t walk into that coffee shop thinking that he and Gabriel belonged to each other in any fashion. He did not walk in there thinking both of us are in this life together; until Gabriel made it impossible to ignore.

Tom said, “Perhaps I will grow up someday and then I will see everyone I meet as a member of the family of God.”1

We can intellectually affirm that each person is a child of God, but something shifts in our soul when we experience someone different from ourselves as a child of God.

The followers of Jesus who were gathered in that room on Pentecost mustered the courage to open their hearts to God’s Spirit. They breathed in a deep breath – more likely three or four deep breaths, and took the gamble to open their souls to God’s Spirit. They dropped their preconceived notions, they released the grip on their biases, and they took the risky step of opening themselves to the rush of God’s Spirit.

And when they did, something peculiar and mystical happened. They stopped clinging to the world as it is and began working for the world God dreams it can become. Might we do the same.



  1. Tom Are, Jr., “The Shelter, Nurture, and Spiritual Fellowship of the Children of God,” September 12, 2021.


Prayers of the People

Sudie Niesen Thompson


Spirit of God — In the beginning, when the universe was unformed chaos, you danced across primeval waters and gave birth to creation. In an age of distress and doubt, you swirled around an unformed church and enlivened the body of Christ. In all times, you — O Breath of God — stir us to life. Today we celebrate the gift of your breath, which fills our lungs that we might glorify you. We celebrate the gift of your breath, which sustains this body that — together — we might bear witness to your love.

Wind of God — Descend upon us, as you descended upon disciples long ago, and energize your people. On that first Pentecost, you gave a newborn church language to tell your story. Now we ask for words to proclaim love to people who are suffering and peace to communities tormented by violence. Give us wisdom that we might offer counsel to a world craving your vision, and courage that we might demand justice for a creation thirsting for wholeness. Wind of God — Descend upon us, we pray.

Heavenly Dove — Commission us for service, as you commissioned disciples long ago, and help us carry out our common calling. At the River Jordan, you anointed Jesus to bring good news to the poor; and in Jerusalem, you sent the faithful to continue his work. Empower us that we, too, might participate in Christ’s ministry — bringing healing to a wounded world and hope to communities in chaos. As we remember those who died while serving our country, we find ourselves torn between gratitude and grief. We give thanks for the dedication and courage of those who laid down their lives and we long for the day when nations will lay down their swords and refuse to learn the ways of war. As we mark the first anniversary of the massacre at Robb Elementary School, we lament again the many lives lost to gun violence and long for the day when all people will beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. God, grant us the imagination and the collective will to sow seeds of peace and to rid the world of violence. Heavenly Dove — Commission us, we pray.

Divine Fire — Inspire us, as you inspired disciples long ago, and infuse us with Pentecostal power. With tongues of flame, you ignited your church with passion for your good news. Renew our conviction, that we too might tell of your grace, and extend it to others through acts of compassionate service. By your Spirit, draw us into your transformative work, until our common life incarnates your vision for creation. Divine Fire — Inspire us, we pray.

And now, Spirit of God, hear us as we offer the words Christ taught us, saying together: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.