A cursory reading of Luke’s Pentecost narrative in Acts 2 solicits a fascinating question: Where did the 3,000 who became Christians go after their conversions?
Jerusalem, at the time, overflowed with pilgrims from all over the world who had come to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. Luke described this diversity in verses 9-11. Pentecost, truly, was a feast for the nations.
As Peter preached his first sermon, people from every nation believed. Yet, where did they go afterward? Church historians would be quick to point out that what happened next became the impulse of the spread of Christianity.
Quite simply: Everyone went home. With the gospel on their minds and the Spirit in their hearts, these new believers from many nations traveled home and shared Jesus’ story as they went to the ends of the earth.
The kind of openhandedness with which the apostles appear to have operated at Pentecost—allowing these new Christians to leave and go into the world—feels like a far cry from the kind of controlling, protecting and corralling I find myself doing in pastoral ministry.
The mission of God was fueled by an early church that … saw people as being sent into their world, wherever they may be.
When I’m used by God in some way to help someone experience grace or freedom or truth, I oddly find myself feeling entitled to that person’s ongoing service to perpetuate my ministry, which helped them in the first place. In short, I am owed their service on the greeting team or in the children’s ministry. When God uses me most, I feel obliged to use others.
This system is a dangerous one, indeed. Time and time again, I encounter young leaders who have left a place in church ministry because they felt loved for their gifts but not for who they were as people. They were loved because they were young, or because they could lead worship, or because they were people of color. But when someone is treated as a gift that can be used, rather than a person who is to be loved, their patience will soon run thin. I’d run away, too.
When someone is treated as a gift that can be used, rather than a person who is to be loved, their patience will soon run thin.
The apostles, the text clearly indicates, didn’t corral all of these new Christians into small groups, missional communities or even to serve on the greeting team or in the children’s ministry. They didn’t hoard people for their gifts—they sent them into the world. The apostles let them go home. And that became the spread of Christianity “to the ends of the earth” that Jesus said would happen when the Holy Spirit would fall.
The mission of God was fueled by an early church that didn’t control people, hold them down or corral them—it was fueled by a church that saw people as being sent into their world, wherever they may be.
Fidel was about 20 years old. I met him after a church service on a Sunday evening when he approached me and an elder in our church, Theophilus Church (Hawthorne Foursquare Church) in Portland, Ore., for prayer. This was his first time at our church.
Visibly shaken, the young man told how he had been at a friend’s party the week before and had had a cup of some kind of acid thrown on his face. He had lost a good deal of vision in one of his eyes. He was distraught. We prayed with the young man.
When Fidel opened his eyes, he nearly fell over, overwhelmed by the fact that his vision had been restored in his eye. We quietly cried with rejoicing with this young man as we celebrated the work of God we were seeing before our very eyes.
God gives us the power we need—not the control we want.
As Fidel walked out of our church sanctuary, I remember thinking: “Man, that guy is going to plug in really quick. He’s going to be a solid part of our church. He’s sold.” Seeing him walk away with the friends who brought him, I was convinced he would be a solid part of our community.
That was, of course, the last time I saw Fidel. He is now serving Jesus elsewhere in our world. He isn’t at my church. And after dealing with a small bout of sadness over the fact, I was brought to the openhandedness of the early apostles.
When we encounter Pentecost, we do receive all the power of heaven. I know that to be true. But I must be careful not to overstep that power. God gives us the power we need—not the control we want.