My sponsoring rector has been abundantly generous in inviting me to preach at our parish, The Church of the Redeemer. He has made sure I have had great lessons to work with and am preaching days I have not preached before. Continuing this trend, he invited me to preach on Pentecost (May 15, 2016).
Below is a copy of my manuscript, and you can find the lessons here (we used Acts and Romans). You can listen to a recording for the 10am Liturgy through the media player below or over on The Redeemer’s website.
One of the greatest challenges, and ultimately the great gift of seminary, are the moments when what you are learning confronts and conflicts with what you have always believed to be true. It is the encounters where the old and new can no longer coexist together. Over the last two years I have watched countless friends and classmates enter into these struggles – these crises of faith – and emerge on the other side; the old being cast down and replaced by a new and deeper understanding of God. In the last week, I have realized that today, this great feast of Pentecost, is one of my crossroad moments. In struggling to craft this sermon, I have come to know that what I thought I knew about Pentecost can no longer stand with what I understand to be true about the Christian life.
Growing up, Pentecost was one of my favorite days in the life of the Church. This excitement had nothing to do with the fact that everyone wore red or any liturgical pageantry, but had everything to do with coffee hour. You see the parish I grew up in celebrated this principal feast day as the birthday of the church – so coffee hour was one big birthday party. There were balloons, we sang “Happy Birthday,” and blew out candles on not one but twelve birthday cakes. My foundational experiences of Pentecost were happy, joyous, sugar fueled, parties.
This foundation was further built upon when I had the opportunity to travel to Taizé, France at the end of my freshman year of college. As I journeyed to Taizé I was convinced that I would finally understand what the Pentecost moment was all about. Over the course of my weeklong pilgrimage, I gathered with hundreds even thousands of other people to worship in the Church of Reconciliation. Each day our number grew larger and the cacophony of voices increased. There we were, worshipping in the Spirit, each in our own native tongue. You could feel the Spirit at work in that place. It was a warm, embracing, joy-filled Spirit. Young people from around the world – separated by boundaries of geography and language – praising God with one voice. To add to this, the week I was there was mostly windy and rainy. I thought I had it all. I had experienced Pentecost – the wind, the multitude of voices, the Spirit descending on the people of God. So I entered seminary, believing Pentecost to be a fun, exciting, party of love and worship.
But as I read today’s lessons, as I listen to John’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, those are not the words that come to mind. Instead, I think of intense intimacy, unsettling peace, terrifying transformation, subversive behavior, and unceasing fire.
What we just heard from John’s Gospel is a testimony to the profound intimacy of God. Just as we heard last Sunday, we hear again today that Jesus and the Father are one. That God the Father sent Jesus – who is God the Son – into the world, that all people might come to believe and know God. With the incarnation came a promise that God would dwell with God’s people forever. Today we hear again of that promise, when Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” This Advocate is God the Holy Spirit. So when God the Son is no longer physically present among us, God the Holy Spirit comes to be present to us and to dwell in each and every one of us. It is this same abiding Spirit that is going to reveal to us everything that we need to know, because the Spirit of truth brings Jesus to mind, the one who is the way, the truth, and the life. Or succinctly as Gregory of Nazianzus profoundly wrote, “we receive the Son’s light from the Father’s light in the light of the Spirit.”
The concluding sentences of today’s Gospel reading jump ahead a few verses in John’s narrative, and, according to the lectionary, are completely optional. We hear these concluding words from Jesus, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
The peace proclaimed in this Gospel, is not the type of peace that the world proclaims: a peace championed by celebrities and imagined as children singing in harmony and unity. The peace of God, to quote Hymn 661, “it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.” It is the peace that changes everything we think we know. It is not some comforting imagine, but unsettles all that has become stagnant and transforms it to the way God intended in creation. It is this transformation, this marvelous peace of God that we are called to pray for. This transformation is at the heart of the Acts of the Apostles.
In Acts we hear of the flashy, intense, and action packed descent of the Holy Spirit on God’s people. “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.” These closest followers of Jesus were hiding, trying to stay safe. After witnessing what happened to Jesus, they were understandably terrified that the same would happen to them. And all of a sudden, there came the sound like the rush of a violent wind. How completely terrifying – that in this place they thought was safe, they would be overwhelmed by a deafening and violent sounds that seems to come out of nowhere. God the Holy Spirit did not descend upon them like some cute little bird, but rather came crashing in shattering the World as they knew it. All of a sudden they began speaking in every language imaginable – languages they never spoke before.
This transformation, this descent of God, was not something to be confined to those in the house, but quickly spread throughout Jerusalem. We hear that a bewildered, amazed, and astonished crowd came and gather to figure out what was going on. And as each person heard the mighty acts of God proclaimed in their native tongue those feelings only intensified. Some tried to figure out what had happened, while others mocked and scoffed – writing off this transformation as if the apostles were a bunch of drunken fools.
Then Peter steps up and begins to preach as a way to explain all that is happening. “Indeed, these are not drunk, as you supposed, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel” When I stop laughing at Peter’s insistence that the twelve could not be drunk because it is nine in the morning – because no one has ever been drunk at that hour – I can not help but wonder more seriously, “what would it take for the world to be so surprised, bewildered, astonished, and amazed by our actions that the only logical conclusion would be that we have had a little too much to drink a little too early in the day?
What would it look like, if we stepped outside our perceived houses of safety and proclaimed the righteousness of God in the world around us? What would it look like if we – as exemplified in Paul and Silas last week – praised and worshipped God in such a way that walls came crashing down? What would it look like if we actually believed that “a hundred men and women turned the known world upside down,” even more to the point, what if we believed that it could happen again?
This is why the Holy Spirit descends on that Pentecost day, and this Pentecost day, in such a terrifying and startling way. Because the Spirit of truth dwells in us so richly that if we truly believe we will do greater things than Jesus himself.
The world in which we live is torn apart by useless division and senseless violence. If the Pentecost event teaches us anything, it is that these divisions can and will be cast down. If one hundred people turned the known world upside down that Pentecost day – why can’t 50 turn Providence upside down this Pentecost day? If the prayer and praise of Paul and Silas casts down the prison wall, why can’t our prayer and praise break down the wall between the East Side and Camp Street? If God has created us to be at unity with God’s self, why can’t we get out of God’s way and be open to receiving the Spirit of God?
On that great and glorious Pentecost day divided tongues as of fire appeared among them. By the preaching of all, hearts were set a blaze. As long as fire gets the fuel it needs, it can continue to burn without end, but without fuel the fire starves and quickly extinguishes itself. Today, that fire has arrived at our door. The Holy Spirit has descended upon us and transformed us into fuel to keep that fire burning.
The life of discipleship is hard and it requires much. In fact it requires everything. This day we celebrate is not a glorified liturgical birthday party. It is God fulfilling God’s promise – that the Holy Spirit will be our advocate and guide here on earth as we strive to build the kingdom of God. On this day God equips us to do the impossible – to follow the God who took on our mortality so that we might take on God’s immortality.
In a few moments we will recommit ourselves to this work as we renew our Baptismal Vows. With that renewal and with being nourished by Christ’s Body and Blood in the Sacrament of the Eucharist we will go forth from this place as a living Pentecost moment: to share in the intense intimacy of God who is three in one and one in three, to be unsettled by the peace of God and shaken from our complacency, to stand unafraid of the awesome transformational power of God, to act in a way that is so subversive to the ways of this world people think we are drunken fools, and to share the light of Christ that burns so brightly in our hearts that it sets this world on fire.
“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 prophecy and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” It is time for us to prophecy, it is time for us to dream, it is time for us to get to work and do the impossible.