Acts 2:1-18, 41-42
Let’s begin by considering some of what the Day of Pentecost is about.
Pentecost began and continues as an ancient Jewish pilgrimage festival meant to mark several other big moments in Jewish life: 50 days after Passover, which itself commemorates the Hebrew people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt; the bringing in of the year’s grain harvest and, with it, Jewish peoples from all over the world; and, God’s giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. In Jewish tradition, Pentecost is also known as the Festival of Weeks, or Shavuot.
The Christian church marks Pentecost as the day that comes 50 days after Resurrection Sunday, or Easter, and the moment when the people of God were filled with the Holy Spirit of God and the church was born.
And on this Day of Pentecost at First Church Amherst, we consider what no one could have imagined or made up: that, taken together, a 3,000-year-old story of story of shared spirit-filled leadership, a 50-year-old soccer strategy, and a present-day, F-bomb-laden television show might have something to teach us about what it means to trust the Spirit and one another as we seek to be the church in this place at this time.
If all that seems like a lot to take in, I feel you. But it is Pentecost, so I trust that the Spirit will be with us all as I try to connect some very old, distant, and disparate dots.
Caveat Number One: I know next to nothing about soccer or, as as it’s known in the rest of the world, football.
It turns out that Ted Lasso, the American who’s brought to London to coach the AFC Richmond football (that is, soccer) club in the Apple TV series by the same name, doesn’t either. This trope works well in the show because (a) the show isn’t really about football, and (b) Ted Lasso is trying to teach his players, who believe “football is life,” that succeeding in life has much more to do with kindness, forgiveness, generosity, and relationship than winning—at anything.
Caveat Number Two: Almost all metaphors break down eventually, and the ones I’m going to use this morning—football and church, the Holy Spirit and team spirit, strategy and structure, the love of a game and one’s teammates and love for God, our church, and one another—absolutely do.
Those metaphors will carry us only so far, but I trust that if we open our hearts and minds, Spirit and Love will carry us the rest of the way.
Caveat Number 3: You needn’t have seen a single episode of “Ted Lasso” to understand the metaphors I’m using this morning or to make the applications to church life and what Jesus called “life abundant.” You need only trust—as Moses did when faced with a couple of seemingly self-made prophets, and as many thousands of devout Jews did when faced with seemingly drunk disciples—that God not only can, but will, work in unexpected ways through unlikely people.
So . . . back to “Ted Lasso,” AFC Richmond, and football (or soccer, if you prefer).
With his team floundering, Coach Lasso dreams up a radical new strategy. Except that it’s actually an old strategy, called Total Football, which had its heyday in the 1970s. The essence of Total Football is flexibility, awareness, responsiveness, and a focus at all times on what is best for the team.
Traditional football (or soccer) is played like most team sports, with each player having an assigned position. Each member of the team is a specialist who focuses on being the best midfielder, attacker, or defender they can be. There is a clear script, and everyone sticks to it.
But in Total Football, only the goalkeeper is restricted to playing one position. Every other player is encouraged to constantly assess the game situation and respond to it. When one player moves out of their normal position during a play, another player moves out of their position into the first player’s position. And so on.
For Total Football to work, the players must be in great shape. They must pay attention to everything that’s happening. They must be versatile, adaptable, and flexible. And, most important of all, they must care more about the success of the entire team than they do about their own glory or star power.
The key question in total football is not “How can I succeed?” but rather, “What does this situation need?” And “How can I help?”
Friends, on this Pentecost Sunday, I want to suggest that, with Spirit’s help, we take some cues from “Ted Lasso” and begin practicing Total Church.
Now I want to be very clear: I am not at all suggesting that we overhaul our carefully and prayerfully designed church structure. Nor do I mean to imply that we’re doing anything wrong.
When I say “Total Church,” what I mean is concerning ourselves not only with the aspect of church we’re most involved with and committed to—whether that’s a ministry team, the choir, or something else—but to focusing that same level of passion, commitment, and dedication to the whole of First Church Amherst.
What I’m proposing—in the spirit of renegade but faithful prophets Eldad and Medad, who ministered to the people where they were, and in the Pentecost spirit of the powerful Holy Spirit, who has a tendency to appear whenever we all come together—is not that we do more necessarily, but that, at least occasionally, we consider doing something different.
That instead of asking what my ministry team is going to work on this month or what particular passions of mine I’m going to pursue, I look around, pray, listen, and ask, “What does our church need right now so that we can continue to heal and serve our community and this world that God so loves? How can I help?”
What does our church need right now to be able to minister to children, youth, and families now that Nathan is leaving? How can I help?
What does our church need to be and do to recover some of the people we lost during the pandemic, and to attract new people? How can I help?
How can our church inspire the continued growth and deepening of our faith? How can we more fully love and serve God and our neighbors? And how can I help?
I can’t answer those questions for you, but the origin story of the church on Pentecost tells me that when we show up with loving hearts and willing spirits, Spirit will provide the people and the gifts that we need.
I can’t say exactly how Total Church might work, but I know that to make it work, with Spirit’s help, we will need to be in good spiritual shape—deeply grounded in God’s love and attuned to the Spirit. We will need to pay attention to the whole church. We will need to be versatile, adaptable, flexible, and willing to help out wherever help is needed. We must care deeply about, and be engaged in developing, the well-being of the whole church.
I can’t make any promises, but I can tell you that when AFC Richmond adopted Total Football, the players started having fun again. They reconnected with their love for the game and, in working for a common team goal, they grew in love for and commitment to each other. Total Football brought joy into the locker room and onto the pitch, and that joy brought effectiveness of play and success in the league.
Back when the Israelites were beginning what would become 40 years of hoping to reach the Promised Land, a couple of regular guys named Eldad and Medad played Total Wilderness. They heard the people complaining and weeping and longing for meat to eat. They listened to Moses speak of God, and they saw Moses gather 70 leaders of the people in the tent of meeting. God spoke to the leaders and the spirit rested upon them.
But Eldad and Medad saw that still more was needed. The Spirit of God rested upon them, and they ministered to the people in the camp.
When Joshua complained that Eldad and Medad were breaking the rules, Moses said, “I wish everyone played Total Wilderness.”
After the Risen Christ ascended to the right hand of God and the day of Pentecost had come, the apostles and other Jesus followers were playing Total Faith, just waiting to be told how to spread the good news of Jesus. Suddenly there was a sound like a mighty wind, divided tongues as of fire, and all of them—I repeat, all of them—were filled with the Holy Spirit.
Then it was as if the Holy Spirit was playing Total Gospel, speaking in different languages as needed and, even more amazing, empowering people from all over the known world to hear in their own language, to receive the good news in ways they could understand.
Total Church is not so much a strategy or a structure as a way of seeing with clarity and compassion and responding in love and giving in selfless generosity. Because we have all received the gift of the Holy Spirit, we’re all players on the team—not our own team or a ministry team, but the team of the whole church, which is, of course, a mission lived out with purpose. Total Church is one person noticing what is needed and then offering it in love, and then another person noticing and stepping up and offering, and then another and another.
And I see Total Church happening all the time, in ways big and small. Here’s just one recent example:
Last Sunday I arrived for worship fully aware that no one had signed up to host Coffee Hour. So I was surprised to find someone setting up and another person putting snacks together and getting the coffee going. Sure enough, when worship was over Coffee Hour went off without a hitch.
And when Coffee Hour was over, I looked in the kitchen and saw three men—each one of them having already offered some other gift in worship that day—cleaning up, putting things away, and washing dishes. Simply because they saw that it needed to be done.
Total Church works when we love God, each other, and this imperfect but wonderful church. Total Church works when we trust the Spirit. And still, Total Church requires our attention, intention, openness, and generosity.
On this celebration of the birthday of the church, let us joyfully and mindfully renew our commitment to be the Christ’s total Church. May we be “a dynamic community of people [who are] following Jesus [and are] empowered by the Holy Spirit to carry out God’s creative mission of healing, liberation, and joy for the sake of the world.”
And may our church, and this world that God so loves, shine brightly with Spirit power and love.