You can listen to my Pentecost sermon on the Saint Paul’s website, or read on.
Today begins a new season in the life of the Church. The Day of Pentecost marks the mid-point in the Church year. From Advent 1 until the Sunday after the Ascension, we were in the Season of Jesus’ life and ministry. We’ll spend the rest of the year in the Season of the Church, learning how to be disciples of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. This year, Pentecost happens to fall on a weekend that marks several other season changes. School ended on Friday and tomorrow is Memorial Day, so today is also our unofficial transition into summer. It also happens to be my last Sunday before a three month sabbatical: a season of rest, renewal, and refreshment. Moments of transition call for discernment, and on a day with so much transition happening here, I can’t help but think that maybe we too should be taking some time to discern what God has in mind for Saint Paul’s. Specifically, I find myself wondering, what is there in the lessons appointed for this day of transition that might help us better understand who God is calling us to be?
Truth be told, I don’t think today is just a day of transition for a couple hundred Episcopalians in Foley, Alabama. I think that the whole world is in a season of transition. My former Systematic Theology professor, the late Bishop Mark Dyer, observed that every five hundred years or so, the Church undergoes a giant rummage sale, and we are living in the midst of one. As with any rummage sale, it isn’t that everything is up for grabs – that’s called an estate sale – but rather the Church is trying to figure out what is worth keeping and what we might be willing to give up. If we think about it, it is actually pretty unsurprising that institutions, which are made by and for people, tend to collect things, just like people do. About every 5 centuries the attic, garage, basement, and a storage shed or two become so packed with the unnecessary stuff that something must be done. A return to the essentials begins and the difficult discussions about what is really needed take place.
Inevitably, the conversation about what is essential will creep its way back through history to find what was kept after the last great rummage sale. That will take us to the lessons learned in the Great Reformation: sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, and soli Deo Gloria; only Scripture, Faith, Grace, and Christ, and always to the glory of God. These are good mottos, which have served the Church well for a long time, but the temptation to return to our roots can’t stop in the 1500s. We’ll have to look deeper into the archives to find what it is that God would have us be about. As we do, eventually we’ll find ourselves smack dab in the middle of the first great rummage sale, sitting with the disciples on the Day of Pentecost trying to discern out what to do next. They’ve been gathered together for 10 straight days, waiting and praying for the Spirit to come, when suddenly, the Spirit arrives with power and might. We can learn a lot about what is essential for disciples of Jesus by looking carefully at what happens on the Day of Pentecost. And what happens on the Day of Pentecost? The Gospel is proclaimed.
It all starts in that upper room with a cacophony of sound. There is the whoosh of a mighty wind, the crackling of flames, and the sound of 120 voices all speaking in foreign languages as the Spirit gave them the ability. Here’s one of those places where the easy to read modern translations fall short of what’s really going on. The King James Bible get a little closer, saying that “the Spirit gave them utterance.” The Greek word translated as ability or utterance is thirteen letters long and I can’t pronounce it. What’s important about it is that it isn’t the word used for common speech. That’s an easy word to pronounce, “lego.” This word carries the deeper meaning that the words being spoken are of divine origin. The 120 remaining disciples were all speaking different languages, but they were all saying the same thing, and what they were saying came from God. Seven verses later, we find out that the divine utterance is telling of “the mighty acts of God,” the Good News of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In the midst of all the confusion, as some sneer that this is nothing more than the incoherent ramblings of a group of drunks, Peter steps forward to speak. The same thirteen letter Greek word used to describe what the 120 did is used to describe the sermon that Peter gives. He spoke a divine utterance to the crowd of more than 3,000. If we’re still confused about what is essential for Spirit filled disciples of Jesus, Peter clarifies it for us in the words of the prophet Joel, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughter shall prophesy, and you 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.”
When the Spirit comes, people prophesy. They don’t read palms or predict the future, but they proclaim the message of God. They tell God’s story. They share the Good News. They evangelize. The primary thing that Spirit filled disciples of Jesus should be about is sharing the Gospel. Unfortunately, we Episcopalians haven’t been good at sharing our faith for a very long time. Last week, we received confirmation of this sad truth from two different sources. Pew Research Center, a leading voice in religious demographic studies published a report that shows the portion of the population claiming to be Christian has dropped from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. That’s a 10% drop in only seven years. Mainline Protestants: Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists and the like, lost nearly 19% of their membership over those same seven years! Within days of the Pew Research report, the Report of the State of the [Episcopal] Church was published in preparation for General Convention. While the authors of that text found things to be hopeful about; the staggering number for me was that the Average Sunday Attendance in the average Episcopal Church fell 4.5% in just one year! The call to be a people who are committed to evangelism can no longer be ignored. It is, whether we like it or not, the primary work of disciples.
My goal during my sabbatical is to write the thesis for my Doctor of Ministry degree. In that paper, I will argue that The Episcopal Church is well suited to meet the needs of a post-rummage sale America, but if we can’t tell people about how Jesus makes a difference in our lives, we are doomed. We prayed this morning that the gift of the Holy Spirit might be spread throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, but many of us don’t even know what the Gospel is, let alone how to share it. As I leave you for the summer with the challenge to share the Good News, I’ll give you the best summation of the Gospel that I know, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever puts their trust in him shall not perish, but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send his Son to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
The Gospel is the story of God’s love being made flesh in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That love changed the world by changing the hearts of human beings. That love will compel us to do good works, to seek justice for all people, and when we sin to repent, seek forgiveness, and return to the Lord. In this time of great transition, we are being called to share that Good News in Foley, throughout south Alabama, and even to the ends of the earth. Pour out your Spirit upon us, O Lord, and open our lips to share the Gospel of your love. Amen.
 Tickle, The Great Emergence, 16.