Saturday, June 7, 2014

So What Do We Do With Pentecost?

No deep words of wisdom in this preamble... Hopefully, the sermon makes some sense of what, for me, is always a struggle between the danger of attempting to define a Person of the Trinity and the relative ease of ignoring the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit is dangerous.

And no, I ain't gonna explain what I mean by that.

Also, and probably unrelated to the sermon, I am unapologetically stating that Pharrel's "Happy" is my favorite song right now.

OK, here's the sermon.

ACTS 2:1-21
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes Cretans and Arabs — in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
In the last days it will be,God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

This is the Word of the Lord.

What do we do with Pentecost?

We are Presbyterians, after all. We are a mainline denomination, we aren't Charismatics or Pentecostals. Most if us don't speak in tongues, we don't do many healing services, we lay hands on people only when we're ordaining them as elders or as Ministers of Word and Sacrament.

Now, I've mentioned before that I was Pentecostal for about a decade. I've been in worship services that lasted for hours, where, in a sanctuary half this size, the preacher would scream into a handheld microphone, where people would be slain in the Spirit, where my ears rang, deafened by a cacophony of unknown tongues around me, in the shadow of a roomful of hands raised to heaven... I've been in a huge auditorium with an amazing choir singing, and I've seen a guy get so “in the Spirit” that he leaped to the back of the pew, ran along the top of it to the aisle, and down to the altar without breaking stride.

I have been awash in all of that excitement and passion and emotion, and I have subscribed to the misconception that Christians who didn't share in that kind of worship experience were missing out on all God had to offer.

And I think it is perhaps a reaction to the damage that this misconception has caused that makes so many mainline believers – or preachers, anyway – seem to shy away from the subject of the Holy Spirit. Oh, I mean, we mention the Holy Spirit in passing, the Apostle's Creed, blessings, things like that. But living, as we do, in a society where Christianity is too often defined by the worst of us – where God is used as an excuse for hatred and exclusion and bullying and bigotry – we spend a lot of our time, we mainline, less angry, more open and affirming Christians, on trying to say we aren't like them... and maybe, just maybe, we shy away from talking about subjects that might make us sound like “them.”

Like the Holy Spirit.

So what do we do with Pentecost?

Well, many churches, and I've been guilty of this, look at Pentecost as “the birthday of the Church.” It certainly is the point in history where the message of the Gospel caught fire and began to spread across the world, yes. But to say the Church started here is to miss the Resurrection – in fact, the very Incarnation – and it is to ignore the millenia of men and women and children who, by faith, followed the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob who is the same God you and I worship in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Were they not also, in a very real sense, a part of the Church?

If we ascribe to a Trinitarian theology – One God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – then we must recognize that God has always been Father, Son and Holy Spirit. John tells us in the prologue to his Gospel that Jesus was both present at, and active in, the creation of the universe. We know that God in the Holy Spirit was active in our Old Testament, speaking through the prophets, inspiring David to write Psalms, and on and on.

So if Pentecost isn't the birthday of the Church, what is it? What do we do with Pentecost?

You know what? That's a catchy refrain, “what do we do with Pentecost,” but it really isn't the question, is it? I'm guilty of doing what I was talking about before, of kind of shying away from the Holy Spirit... the real question is, what do we – Reformed, mainline, non-hand-waving-and-tongue-talking Christians – do with the Holy Spirit?

Well, we know that the Holy Spirit is what Jesus called “another Advocate.” We know from the book of Ephesians that the Holy Spirit is a seal, God's inscription upon us, identifying us as members of God's family, residents of the now and coming Kingdom of God. We know that the Holy Spirit is a Comforter, a teacher, and a guide.

So yes, even if we do not take part in the wild emotionalism and the sound and fury of Pentecostalism, we understand that the Holy Spirit is a gift from God that is uniquely for God's people, in whom we can abide and enjoy, and from whom we receive sustenance. The Holy Spirit reminds us that Jesus did not leave us orphaned, that in life and in death and in life beyond death, we belong to God.

And that would be a great high note to end a sermon on, but that isn't all there is to the Holy Spirit, is it?

Because the Holy Spirit is also a catalyst. The Holy Spirit makes things happen! Look at Peter, in our reading today. We make a lot out of this man, who was such a coward, denying Christ three times and all, finally standing up and preaching the Gospel so eloquently, and it's true, but the interesting thing is that the Holy Spirit didn't change the essence of who Peter was.

Think about it – who had the courage to reply honestly, from his heart, when Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Who had the guts to, however wrongheadedly, try to steer Jesus from all that fatalistic talk of death? Who stepped out of the boat and walked on water toward Jesus? Who piped up at the Transfiguration and offered to build houses for everyone? Who, rather clumsily, tried to defend Jesus with a sword when the Temple guard came to arrest him?

Peter always had the courage. The Holy Spirit gave him voice, purpose, focus.

Throughout the Book of Acts, we see the Holy Spirit giving direction for evangelism, words for defense and for testimony, comfort in persecution, and evidence of faith. And that brings up yet another point: the Holy Spirit is for us, but the Holy Spirit doesn't belong to us.

There's a story told about a seminary professor who was asked to give a talk to a youth group about the baptism of Jesus. He gave his speech, all about the significance of the event, saying basically that it was about to everyone that Jesus was God. He finished, satisfied that he'd done a good job But, that was when this one kid, without lifting his head said, “That ain’t what it means.” So the professor asks, “What do you think it means?”

The youth says, “The story says that the heavens were opened, right?”


The heavens were opened and the spirit of God came down, right?”


The boy finally looked up and leaned forward to say, “It means that God is loose in the world. And it’s dangerous.”

The Apostles would have been happy to keep The Way confined to Judea, to retain God as their sole property... but God had different ideas. Philip shared the Gospel with a eunuch, then he went, of all places to Samaria, and preached there! And if that weren't enough, Peter goes and has this vision on the rooftop and goes and preaches to Gentiles!

Then there was Paul... and you know where all he went!

Well, after Peter went and converted Gentiles, he had to go and defend himself to the others back in Jerusalem... and they argued, and they prayed, and they thought... and they concluded “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

God is loose in the world, wild, out of control, and dangerous.

So this is what we do with Pentecost – what we do with the Holy Spirit... we rest in the assurance that, in Christ and through the Holy Spirit, we are adopted into the Family of God, we are citizens of the Kingdom of God, we belong to God now and for ever.


We rely upon the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit in sharing the love of God with others through our own unique voice, our time, talents and treasures. God in the Holy Spirit speaks through us as God spoke through Peter on Pentecost, directs us like God directed Philip and inspires and teaches us as God inspired Peter on that rooftop.


We watch God in the Holy Spirit move in unexpected and shocking – scandalous – ways. If we believe, as we say we do, that “God do loved the world...”, then when God moves in communities and peoples that we, ourselves, may think are “off limits,” our call is not to judge or limit or hold back, but to let go and say, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

So what do we do with Pentecost?

What we must do is have the courage to release the Holy Spirit from the confines of Pentecost, to take the risk and reap the reward of a God set free in the world, ebullient in love, egregious in forgiveness, bold, unstoppable and dangerous... whatever that means.

Let us pray.

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