What Shall We Do?

May 28, 2023

What Shall We Do?

Passage: Acts of the Apostles chapter 2
Service Type:


Every day is a mixture of the new and the old. New feelings, old feelings; new businesses, old businesses. I read the article about the new sober social club, The Buzz, and thought, I’d like to launch something new there, something I might call the Gospel Buzz.

Pentecost was a mixture of the old and the new. It was a long standing religious and cultural holiday for the Jewish people. It commemorated the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. Like most holidays, it was full of familiar food, familiar rituals, familiar faces.

But on this day, the one described in the second chapter of Acts, there were some new things. A new sound—the rushing wind; a new sight—the tongues of fire resting on each person; a new experience—inspiration to give a testimony about Jesus, newly risen from the dead; even new languages, or many new languages, as people entered the ecstatic state of religious fervor and began to speak in what the text calls glossolalia—other tongues.

Then, there was an old familiar thing: a leader stood up and began to explain things, about the Spirit, about Jesus, about the experience of speaking in tongues, but mostly about Jesus. Then came a familiar question, “What shall we do?”

How many times have we asked this question?

When a child begins to cough, we ask, what shall we do?

When a factory closes, we ask, what shall we do?

When a matriarch dies, we ask, what shall we do?

When a student graduates, we ask, what shall she do?

This is the question that faces many of us. Something may happen to you today that forces you to ask, what shall I do now?

This is the question I put to Providence Church today: what shall we do? We have been managing things new and things old, and together they force us to ask this biblical, spiritual questions, what shall we do?


Today is Pentecost. It is now a Christian festival that celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit. But before that it was a Jewish festival that celebrated, first, the spring harvest, and second, the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai.  In the time of Jesus and his disciples, Pentecost was a familiar event. It featured the ceremonial presentation of two loaves of bread, the fruit of the harvest; and it featured the reading of the Hebrew book of Ruth. These were things very familiar to Jesus and his Jewish family and friends. Year after year, these things were not new; they were traditional, just like we have our religious traditions: the red tie, images of fire, and songs about the spirit of the living God.

We must not forget that the new things described in Acts chapter two occurred along side traditional things, familiar things. The people knew what to do about the familiar; they did not know how to respond to the new.

On that Pentecost, in the year of our Lord, 30 or 33 or whenever it was, there were some new things: the sound of a roaring wind, the appearance of what seemed to be fire, resting on the head of each person, and the ecstatic and emotional state that overcame all the people—they began to speak in strange languages. These are the three things that interrupted the traditional celebration of the giving of the Law on the annual day of Pentecost.

It is the new stuff that catches us off guard. It is the new things that create confusion and indecision. It is the new things that cause us to ask the pivotal question, What now? What are we going to do with this? Or to put it in more religious vocabulary: What is the Lord trying to say to us? What does the Lord want us to do? How can we be faithful to the call of God now, in light of these things?


We are confronted with some new things, aren’t we?

We know the familiar, the traditional, the usual: Sunday worship, women preachers, worship meal. These we know and love. I am glad to report that our former pastor, Julie Merrett Lee will be here next Sunday to preach for us. I will be away, attending a wedding. She will be a reminder of things that are familiar, things that we know, things that we like.

But now, instead of the women, there is an old white-haired man preaching every Sunday; now there is an influx of LGBTQ people in our fellowship; now there is an orthodox congregation across town that wants to buy this building. Now, there are things we must learn how to understand and manage. And we are asking ourselves, what shall we do? What shall we do about these things?

Most congregations want a white man, in his 40’s, with a wife and three children and also with three divinity degrees, somebody who lives close by and can be on call 24-7. But you got me, beginning two years ago. Yes, I am white, and I was in my 40’s once, a long time ago. I have a wife, who lives in another state; in fact, I live in another state! I am not always around to tend to the sick and join in the celebration. My ways and means of being a minister are not like that of my three female predecessors. Give me some space!

More than me, we are coming of age in the great civil rights movement of our time, for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-sexual and queer people. Sometimes on Sunday, a third of our congregation fit this demographic. Three months ago, we as a congregation adopted a wide-ranging policy of affirmation for LGBTQ people. This past Wednesday, we hosted a worship service of contemporary Christian music. We called it Pride & Praise. Twice as many people showed up as are here today. So now we ask, what shall we do? who shall we be? where is this taking us as a congregation?

It is not the familiar stuff that shuffles our emotions; it is the new stuff—the wind blowing where it will, the sound that it makes, the commotion that we make. It is the unfamiliar movements that disturb our religious equilibrium, that disrupt our ecclesiastical peace. That is what makes Pentecost the powerful celebration.

Speaking of disruptors: three some months ago, I received a letter from another congregation in our city asking this question: “Will you sell to us your church building?”  It is the Saint Anthony the Great Orthodox Church, which meets in a store front on Chadwick Avenue. I met with their pastor Rev. Dr. Chayton Parks. I toured their space, and he came here and looked at this sanctuary. That question was on the survey: what shall we do? I was surprised at the response of this congregation. We posted those responses on the church website and linked it to the newsletter. We talked about it at the Joyful Assembly last Sunday night.

What shall we do?


This story in The Acts of the Apostles, chapter two, has left an indelible mark on the Christian community. The sound of a rushing wind, the sight of dancing fire resting on each head, and the ecstasy of unknown tongues pouring from the soul of scores of people caught their attention and has caught ours. We call it Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the birthday of the Church.

One hundred and seventeen years ago, a similar episode surprised a small group of people meeting in a store front church on Azuza Street in Los Angeles. From that band of fearless followers of Jesus Christ arose what we now call the Pentecostal Movement or the Charismatic Movement. It is the most powerful Christian movement in the world and has been for a century. In 1957, a small group of graduate students at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh went on retreat. They opened their Bibles and studied this chapter, this episode, this Pentecost experience. And they also were overcome with these strange and terrifying things; and thus, the Catholic Charismatic movement began, soon to relocate to Notre Dame University.

These are the things that mark the Pentecostal movement: sound of a rushing wind, sight of a dancing flame, and the voice of hundreds speaking in tongues. But these are not the things that elicited that question on the day of Pentecost. What shall we do? Those first listeners of the gospel were not wondering what to do about sounds and sights. As arresting and spectacular as those things were, they are not what produced this eternally powerful question, what shall we do?

On that day, some of those early believers looked around and said, “These Jews are drunk! They have had too much wine! They have lost control of their faculties.” Strong drink will do that, you know; and it will also pull you into an addiction that can ruin the body and sink the soul.

But their leader stood up and said, “No, these men are not drunk. They have the Spirit of God. They are under the control of the same God that raised Jesus from the dead.” He then told the story of Jesus. Jesus was sent from God. He went about doing good. Evil men killed him. But on the third day, God raised him from the dead. And we are all witnesses to this.”

I suspect at this point, Simon Peter turned to one of those disciples and said, “Mary, tell us what you saw.” Then he turned to another and said, “Cleopas, tell us what happened to you.” Finally, he turned to Thomas, the one who said, “I will not believe this resurrection stuff unless I can put my hand in his hand, until I can examine the wound in his side.”

This man, whom you killed, whom we killed, God raised from the dead.

Then the people said, “What shall we do?”

It is the resurrection that interrupts things. It is the resurrection of a dead man that challenges our religious routines. It is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead that brought something new into all the old things of a familiar religion. It is the resurrection of Jesus Christ that forces the question upon all of us, what shall we do?

It did so to Molly Worthen. She is the tenured professor of American history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She grew up in a secular, unbelieving family. Her intelligence and hard work took her to Yale University, where she earned a bachelors and doctoral degree. She began her distinguished teaching career at the flagship university in North Carolina. Along the way, she wrote pieces for the New York Times; she published a much-praised book on Evangelical religion in America. She was at the top of her game as a scholar, a journalist, a professor.

Until she was assigned a gig by a North Carolina magazine. Do a piece of that fundamentalist preacher at the Summit Church, that multi-campus, mega-church where so many students worship. So began her journey. It took her to interviews, to questions and answers, to friendship with the pastor, and to the books. She read the space trilogy of C. S. Lewis. She read the big book on the resurrection by N. T. Wright. She read the book, Reason for God by the late New York pastor Tim Keller. By her own testimony, she wrestled with the idea of resurrection, with the event of resurrection. If the resurrection happened, what shall I do?

In the end, she got down on her knees in the office of that preacher and confessed Jesus as Lord. It was very similar to the conversion story of C. S. Lewis, who confessed to being the most reluctant convert in all England.  Last August, in a jacuzzi pool, Dr. Mary Worthen went all the way under and came up dripping wet.

“What shall we do?” that first audience asked the preacher. He said, “Repent. Be baptized. Receive the Holy Spirit. Be filled with the Spirit. Walk in the Spirit. Live in the Spirit. Walk like Jesus. Live like Jesus. Sing for Joy like Jesus. Live with hope like Jesus.”

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