Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Acts 2: 1-21)

Noted Christian historian Diana Butler Bass, who spoke at this church some number of years ago, has suggested that there are three specific questions that guide how someone enters into and becomes part of a community of faith.   Those three questions are: 

  • What do I believe? – the word literally meaning, “what do I put my trust in?”
  • How should I behave? – behave not meaning “good behavior” but more “how should I act out what I believe?
  • And where do I belong?[1]

So: what do I believe, how do I behave, where do I belong.  And Bass makes the case – and I would agree – that the sequence of these questions is just as important as the questions themselves.  Here’s what I mean by that: for most of the history of the North American Church, specifically the 20th and early 21st centuries, that sequence has been believe first, behave next, and then belong.  One’s entry into the church has traditionally begun with discerning what one believes – doctrines, creeds, that which we profess, that which we put our trust in.  When someone first joins a church, they join by what?  Profession of Faith.  By stating what they believe.  That’s been first.

From there, one has learned how to “behave” – how to live out their beliefs in the context of a church family.  Everything from when to stand and sit in worship, to the ways they choose to serve their church, to how they engage their faith beyond those four walls.  Every church is a little different in how they do things, so it takes some time to get acclimated. But eventually they learn how to behave.

After which they belong – some part of their identity becomes tied up in a particular faith community.  It’s not just that we “attend” Trinity Presbyterian Church – it’s that Trinity is our church.  See the difference?  We have a church family to which we belong, and thanks be to God for that.

So – Believe.  Behave.   Belong.  That is the sequence of how North American Christians, by and large, have been choosing to be part of the church for the vast majority of our lifetime.

But Bass’ book poses a critically important question: has that, in fact, changed?  And more to the point – was it ever really supposed to be that way in the first place?

On this day we go back to that “first place” – to Pentecost, the day on which we dust off the red paraments and stoles; the day we celebrate the beginnings of this thing we call “church” – even though it would be years before they called it that.  On this day years ago, something brand new started.  Something changed. 

And truth be told, it was the Spirit’s fault, stirring things up like that; giving some the ability to speak words they didn’t already know; giving others the ability to hear in ways they’d never heard before.  It was the Spirit that caused such a ruckus that some in the crowd wondered if those folks had had one too many.  The Greek word used in the text for wine, gleukos, appears just this one time in the entire New Testament and literally means “sweet new wine,” both the sugar and alcohol content off the charts – only something like that could lead to something like this

I find it telling that the text describes the Spirit as a wind – a violent wind, in fact.  This is not something to be trifled with.  What a colleague of mine once described as “terrifying, unruly, out of control, and totally awesome.”

Some number of years ago, on a family trip to Pittsburgh, my oldest, all of three at the time, was flying a kite with me at Point State Park, this beautiful green space on the south end of downtown where the Allegheny, Ohio and Monongahela rivers all meet.  It was a VeggieTales kite, if you know what I’m talking about; characters from the popular Bible-themed children’s video series.  Running against the wind, we held on to the kite until just the right moment, at which point we let it go, the wind pulling it up; and so we steadily let the string out, just enough so the tension in the twine would catapult the kite upward.  And with each inch of string released, the kite rose higher and higher until Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber were smiling down on the residents of downtown Pittsburgh. I let Connor hold on to the end for a bit and just watched the wonder and joy of a three-year old flying his kite.

Even though it wasn’t really him flying it.  I didn’t tell him that.  But it never is us.  It’s the wind, always the wind doing the flying.  That’s the thing.  And the wind, as Jesus says in the gospel of John, the wind blows where it chooses.  Not where we choose.  We have to get that through our thick heads.  It blows where it chooses, not where we choose. 

In her book Sailboat Church, author Joan Gray describes the difference between what she calls a rowboat church and a sailboat church. A rowboat church, simply put, is a church where the members set the agenda for who they are and what the church needs to be.  If anything happens in a rowboat church, it is directly tied to the rowing habits of its members.  So if the church is doing good things, it’s because the members are rowing well.  Conversely, if the church is lagging or stuck, the answer is for the members to row harder.  Not surprisingly, rowboat churches tend to burn out their people because it’s all about them. 

That’s in contrast to a sailboat church, where members believe the church is better off with the Spirit leading the way, filling its sails and letting the wind do her thing.  Members in a sailboat church are more interested in what God desires of their church instead of their own agendas.  They are very much engaged in work and ministry but it doesn’t feel like work because it’s not about them and their rowing – instead, it’s the Spirit taking the church where she wants it to go.

Pentecost is the quintessential sailboat church moment.  These people were gathered there not having a clue what to do next.  Jesus, the one who started all of this, the one they left their lives behind for, was gone.  And they had no idea what to do.  Now they could’ve let their anxiety about all of that get the best of them, as we tend to do in the church when we find ourselves in a liminal season with no clear way forward (hint hint: post-Covid).  They could’ve started grabbing for straws, resorting to familiar things that used to work back in the day but probably wouldn’t work anymore.  They could’ve started rowing like crazy.

But they didn’t.  They got out of their own way and, in so doing, made room for the Spirit to enter their space and fill their sails with her violent wind, blowing through all who were gathered there.

It was the perfect sailboat church moment.  But friends, it was so much more than just a moment.  Because the Spirit didn’t stop there.  She kept going.  She kept filling the church’s sails with her wind, taking it where she wanted it to go.  Over time it blew outside the holy land to places with strange names like Corinth and Ephesus and Philippi and Rome – places no one ever thought she’d go, places some even said she shouldn’t go.  But see, it wasn’t about them.  It never is.  The wind blows where it chooses.  From there, over time, the wind blew to new lands, near and far; and eventually that wind blew to this land and filled our sails for a spell.

But the wind blows where it chooses.  And now that wind is blowing in other places like Africa and Asia and Latin America, where the church of Jesus Christ is growing the fastest.  Consider this: from 1970 to 1985 over 4000 people were leaving the Church in North America and Europe on a daily basis, while in that same period over 16,000 were converting to Christianity each day in Africa alone.[2]   I can only imagine what those statistics are now.  The wind blows where it chooses. 

So, people of God, what is it that binds us to this terrifying, unruly, out of control and totally awesome Spirit?  And what does church look like for us now, especially if the church is not something we choose but something that in essence chooses us?

You know, I can’t help but think about the opening line of our Pentecost story:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.

Interesting, isn’t it?  It’s not, “when the day of Pentecost had come, they believed.”  Not, “when the day of Pentecost had come, they knew how to behave.”  No – it says, when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  All together.

Beloved, don’t you see?  From the very beginning of this thing called church, they belonged.  Before anything else, they belonged.

And that’s when the Spirit filled their sails and they began to speak “as the Spirit gave them ability.”  They learned how to live out this new belonging – not through some new member flier, but simply by experiencing it together.  They taught each other, learned from each other.  They gathered in each other’s homes and worshiped together, all because of this terrifying, unruly, out of control and totally awesome Spirit.  They learned how to be the people that God was calling them to be.  They learned how to behave.

So Belong first.  Behave next.  And then?  Over time they created thoughts and ideas and dreams about God, Jesus, the Spirit, community, salvation.  A few of them put it all down in writing – in letters to other churches, in doctrines and in creeds.  Words to unpack who they were.  Something to believe.

Belong.  Behave.  Believe.  That is the story of the church that we find unfolding at Pentecost, the very first iteration of the faith community, a true sailboat church.  And it is the exact reverse of what most of us have experienced in our rowboat churches; a church where we believe first, behave next, belong last. 

When the day of Pentecost had come, when they were all together in one place, they belonged, they behaved, they believed.

We have to admit, it makes more sense, right?  Think how powerful it is for someone to walk through the doors of this church on a Sunday morning and know they already belong.  Before they figure out what it is they believe, if one ever fully figures that out.  Before they get a hang on when to stand or sit in worship or how they can serve. There will be time to discern those things, yes, but think how powerful it is to know that first and foremost, above all else, that they belong. 

And think how powerful it is, upon knowing they belong, to begin to learn how to live out their community.  And learn not just from others, but with others – because even those of us who’ve been here forever are still learning what it means to be church, especially these past few years.  A church willing to grow and adapt, willing to envision a new vision for a new Trinity, as our Way Forward Task Force has taken to saying.  A church where everyone’s always learning how to behave, how to embody this place where we belong.

And think how powerful it is to take all those learnings in loving community and arrive at new understandings about God and Jesus and the Spirit and the church and the world we are called to serve. Beliefs – things we put our trust in.  Doctrines and creeds not simply sketched on paper but etched in our very hearts.

Belong.  Behave.  Believe.  That is the story of Pentecost; that is the story of the church today.  A sailboat church, letting the wind take us where she wants us to go. And that is terrifying.  It is unruly.  It is out of control.  And it is totally awesome.

In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!



* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.


[1] From DBB’s book Christianity After Religion.

[2] Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford: University Press, 2002), 2ff.