The Sunday Sermon: Pentecost Sunday – May 20, 2018
Scripture: Acts 2:1-12
There and Back Again: A Christian’s Tale
I couldn’t resist the sermon title for this week, but the references to Tolkien’s “A Hobbit’s Tale” end there (Sorry, Matt Kingsley …) For this is the end and the beginning of “our tale,” a Christian’s tale. We’re back in Jerusalem, now, having traveled through this city and from it for the last fifty days. We walked and talked, traveling with the first century Apostles – Peter, James, Stephen, and Paul. We have met other disciples and witnessed conversions – prison guards, Lydia, and of course Paul, to name a few. We have engaged angry councils, hostile crowds, and lethal kings. We have experienced the coldness of the empire’s prison cells and the warmth of some new companion’s homes. Through it all we have witnessed the gospel, the good news of God in Christ, spreading – like wildfire at times and like molasses at times, but always moving, outward into the world and inward onto the hearts of all with ears to hear.
And today, we’re back. Back where it all began and back before it all began. We’re going to read the classic Pentecost scripture verses from Acts in a moment and hear once again what happened on that first Pentecost that began the journey we just returned from. But our focus this morning is going to be elsewhere.
We noted last week as we prepared our return to Jerusalem from Philippi in Southeast Europe, that the gospel has already spread “to all the nations,” that God in Christ is already at work in the world wherever men and women live in love and with a courage that challenges “the world.” I suggested that if we believe God in Christ is already “out,” then our choice on Pentecost 2018 is not whether we will take God “to the ends of the earth,” but whether are not we are willing to meet God there.
Let us pray …
One of the things I have try to do with every sermon I preach is to distill the central theme of it into one sentence, two at the most. Here are the central themes, the faith affirmations, of the last six weeks. See if you remember them:
On April 8 from Acts 5: We must never resort to force to silence those who seek God in new ways, but rather should let truth make its own way.
On April 15 from Acts 6: The daily care for the members of any congregation is the most vital ministry of any church, and it takes all of us to care for one another and call on one another.
On April 22 Ashia preached from Acts 9: Like Paul, our conversion to the Way of Christ means questioning all of our most deeply held assumptions about ourselves, about our beliefs, about who Jesus is, and about what it truly means to do God’s will.
On April 29 from later in Acts 9: The answers to our prayers lie in the relationships that are established and the trust that is created with our God and with each other in the new life that we share as we pray.
On May 6 Shawn preached from Acts 10: It is God alone who decides on salvation10:42. Our job is to share the good news of the gospel “with all” regardless of who we believe is fit to hear it.
On May 13, just last week, from Acts 12: God is already “out” and Christ is alive in the world. Our choice is not about whether or not we will take God “to all the nations” and “to the ends of the earth,” but whether or not we will be willing to meet God there.
There they are. Bring back any memories?! It’s good to be reminded, for as we read our scripture passage for this morning, as we hear again about what happened and how it all began, let us ponder how we will be, “of God” and faithful to our call from Christ going forward.
Read Acts 2:1-12
The first Apostles were gathered “in one place” together with others from “every nation under heaven.” We read the names of the countries, regions, and cities that were present (verses 5-11), but you may not be familiar with the ancient lands. These countries extend from modern day Turkey, to Libya and Egypt, through Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran, and back to Turkey! The “others” from these regions include both Jews and “proselytes,” or “those who have come over,” Gentiles who have converted to Judaism. Hearing all these place names and nationalities makes us feel the distances and disparities that exist among those who have gathered so that the connections and harmony of what is coming into being can be experienced even more powerfully.
As the sun rises on this first Pentecost day, the children of God have gathered from different places on the map, with diverse political, ideological, and theological beliefs. The crisis facing Israel on this “feast day” for which they gathered is their divided house: Some have the promise of the Spirit and others do not; some are more holy under the law and others are not; some are worthy of forgiveness and others need to do a lot more work! It is into this division, this segregation, this separation, that a sound like the rush of a violent wind comes, filling the entire assembly and offering something new: Unity, harmony, accord … oneness in the name and through the love of God in Jesus of Nazareth, God’s anointed, the Christ.
The response to this offering, we read is “bewilderment, amazement, astonishment, and perplexity.” No one is prepared for this, you see! Everyone is here in Jerusalem, gathered, for the “expected,” a ritual to mark the end of the spring harvest with their Festival of Weeks and the beginning of a period leading up to the Festival of Booths when they will offer the first fruits of their fall harvest. No one is expecting this, this morning … a uniting, harmonious, Holy Spirit. And in their surprise, they offer the only explanation they can think of, “These people are drunk! We must be drunk! How early in the morning is it …?” More worldly explanations for the inexplicable, the incomprehensible … for the Spirit of God can never be explained with words alone.
But before we get too critical of that first gathering, let’s acknowledge our own inability to understand what’s going on, or to grasp it, even now. The in-breaking of the Spirit is profoundly unsettling whenever it happens. It’s deeply threatening to the powers and principalities of the world, to the crowd in the street in Jerusalem over two thousand years ago, and to crowds that gather today, even as a congregation of the Church! We don’t know what to do with that Spirit, either. We clap instead of shout “Amen!” We sing hymns we know by heart with our noses in the books! We keep our time together as close to sixty minutes as possible! And that’s just among friends! As for the world at-large, we, too, devise explanations that are meant to be “not too offensive” and “not to strange. We, too, try to keep this violent wind in a box, so people don’t think we’re “weird.”
But what happens on that first day of Pentecost for the new community that will become the church is that God once again says “no” to this world, to our self-concerns and claims of control and “yes” to the sacrificial love incarnated in Jesus, God’s anointed. The story we have read again this morning is a story of how the truth of the community soon to be called the church came into being and how the first worldly disciples found their tongues to unashamedly proclaim the truth of God in Christ, not God in Caesar. And even if they couldn’t “define” the Spirit that Christ bestowed upon them, they did express some common affirmations, and began to preach them:
- The Spirit of God gives life … new life for all. No one is excluded.
- The life-giving power and presence of the Spirit is a gift – unsolicited, undeserved, unexpected.
- To receive this Spirit and to live by it, is to at odds with the world around us. But …
- Life in the Spirit is life as God intends. It is to know a peace that the world cannot give (John 14:27).
Our journey over the past seven weeks has taught us nothing if it hasn’t brought those messages home time and again. So …
Now that we’re back home we may be wondering if we will actually dare to take this new life, this good news, to all the nations? And if we do, where would we begin?
Let us begin as Peter did, with the words of our tradition: Do not be afraid!
Ours is not an exclusive or condemning message of doom. It is the most inclusive and affirming message of hope and love that ever was. God’s Spirit is poured out on all and everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord, who follows this life-giving Spirit in the world and offers it to others!
That’s who we are as the church and individuals in it. We’re not finally here for ourselves to serve an institution. We are here together and together in the world to share the promises of the Spirit, to live the life of Christ, and to offer the love of God. The thing entrusted to us by God in Jesus is unconditional love. The way that Jesus saves us is, he shows us how to love. The way the Spirit empowers us is to love as Christ loves.
We’ve been there and back again. So, it’s time to begin again. Next week is Memorial Day weekend and the official beginning of summer (public school schedules notwithstanding!). As we gather all in one place whenever we do, may we continue our mission, celebrate our journey, and live into the Spirit that is ours today! So be it …
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / May 20, 2018