Before Pentecost

The story of the Day of Pentecost is a spectacular one.  It is ready made for Hollywood special effects masters to do their work.  If Mel Gibson ever got his hands on it, we’d see the face-melting fire of Indiana Jones mixed with the cow lifting wind of Twister all culminating in Peter offering a wildly out of context antisemitic rant.  I’m on vacation this week, so I hope to have a chance to rescue the actual content of the Pentecost story from the overly dramatic 21st century image I’ve just given you, but in the meantime, as you ponder cows flying on Pentecost, I want to think for a moment about what happened before the coming of the Holy Spirit.

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On Thursday of last week, the Church celebrated the Feast of the Ascension.  It is the day, 40 days after the Resurrection, when Jesus returns to his Father.  As the story goes in Acts, just before his departure, Jesus reiterates to his disciples that they should wait for the Spirit.  This makes sense, given both their impulsiveness and their lack of faith.  One can easily imagine that within minutes of Jesus’ ascension, 6 of the disciples would head home, ready to return to normal life, while the remaining 5 set out to preach the Gospel without any help from the Spirit.  Instead, Jesus says, “wait.”

How often does the Church take that advice?  How often do we forget that it is actually a pattern in the course of salvation history.  Remember how the Hebrews, having fled Egypt on the Day of the Passover, get to the banks of the Red Sea and God tells them to wait there.  He commands them to set up camp while the Egyptians pursue them.  The Hebrews, like many of us, have no desire to wait.  They want to get out of town as quickly as possible, but God demands that they hold fast.

Waiting is often a test to our faith.  It is in those moments when we are doing nothing that we have to come to grips with whether or not we actually trust God to do what God has promised.  The Hebrew’s panicked, offering one of the best lines in Scripture, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?”  The Disciples, this time at least, were obedient to the call to wait.  They elected Matthias to round out the 12, they prayed, they went to the Temple, and they waited.  Faithfully, they waited.

It is easy to just keep busy: to go about the business of ministry and never slow down long enough to listen for God, but sometimes, the will of God is for us to stop, set up camp, and abide for a while.  In waiting, we give the Spirit a chance to meet us.  In waiting, we slow down enough to hear the call of God.  In waiting, we are blessed.

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Trinity Sunday as Pentecost 2.0

As I prepare to enter my 8th and final year of seminary study, I can safely say that I’ve been thoroughly ruined as a human being.  I will probably never be able to listen to a sermon without wondering what I would have preached instead.  Even with seven years of dad jokes in my bag-o-tricks, I’ll never be able to fully break free from the niche market of church jokes.  Worst of all, I’ll never attend a worship service without an ongoing and sometimes brutal Mystery-Science-Theater-3000-esque stream of criticism running through my mind.  After all, we all know there is only one difference between a terrorist and a liturgist.  You can negotiate with a terrorist.

In preparing to preach one of the most difficult Sundays of the church year, my liturgical training is trying to overpower my theological training which is trying to stamp out my homeltical training that is based on the very solid Biblical training I received at VTS, and that might be a good thing.  Reading the lessons appointed for Trinity Sunday, Year C, I’m noticing a strong Holy Spirit theme.  The Father gets a nod, the Son does some speaking and some saving, but the texts really seem focused less on the doctrine of the Trinity and more on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.  With my liturgy senses tingling, I noticed that the title for this Sunday isn’t just “Trinity Sunday,” but rather “The First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday.”  If you buy into the primacy of place rule of Prayer Book studies, then the more important title for this day is “The First Sunday after Pentecost,” or as I call it “Pentecost 2.0.”

The truth of the matter is that most of western Christianity is pretty strongly Binitarian.

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We have a pretty decent understanding of God the Father who created heaven and earth.  We’ve got the Gospels to tell us about Jesus Christ, the only Son of God.  The key to becoming fully Trinitarian Christians is a deeper understanding and experience of the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, but even our foundational creed, the Apostles’ Creed, does nothing more than mention the Spirit as something we believe in on par with the holy catholic Church, the communion of saint, and the forgiveness of sins.

Maybe the key to a strong Trinity Sunday sermon would be to unpack what Paul and Jesus have to say about the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in the world.  The sermon need not dig to the level of the perichoretic dance to be a fruitful teaching on the Trinity.  Instead, it seems like in a world that lacks Biblical and theological literacy, a fuller understanding of all three Persons would suffice.

Amazed and Perplexed

Imagine the Pentecost scene.  The city of Jerusalem is teeming with tourists in town to offer the first fruits of the spring wheat harvest.  Certainly there is still a bit of a buzz over this Jesus character who 50 days earlier was said to have risen from the dead after being crucified at the hands of Rome.  His disciples, dutifully following the directions Jesus gave them, are waiting and praying for the Advocate to come and guide them in what is coming next, when all of a sudden, the room is filled with noise and light and heat and flame.  The disciples, about 120 of them, begin to speak in a cacophony of voices that fill blocks upon blocks of the city with sound.  To everyone’s amazement, amidst all this noise, they are able to hear the testimony of God’s deeds of power – presumably in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – in their own native language.  Luke tells us that the crowds response was to be “amazed and perplexed.”

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The Greek literally says that they were “beside themselves” with amazement and “wholly at a loss” for what to make of what was happening right in front of them.  In the midst of this nearly out of body experience of awe and confusion, some were led to assume that the disciples were merely drunk.  This wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility.  According to my HarperCollins Study Bible, wine was viewed in the Oracles at Delphi as an enhancement to prophetic speech.  While this response is humorous, and probably grabs our attention, the more important reaction comes from the majority of the crowd as the wonder:

“What does this mean?”

What does it mean that devout Jews from the diaspora, all in Jerusalem to take part in one of the less popular Jewish feasts, were given the privilege to hear a word about a subversive Rabbi who was put to death for claiming to be the Messiah?  What was God doing in that moment? Looking back, it makes sense that the coming of the Holy Spirit would coincide with a Jewish festival as it seems certain that in that moment, God was using the law to set people free from the corrupt Temple system and invite them into a new covenant with him through the resurrected Messiah.

What does this mean?  It means that it is God’s deepest desire that the whole world be restored to right relationship through the saving power of Jesus Christ.  It means that beginning in Jerusalem, with faithful Jews, the Good News of Jesus would spread to the whole world.  It means that God has a plan for salvation history, and that no matter when we come to faith, we have a role to play in that plan.  The Pentecost event is amazing and perplexing, but it is by design, for the sake of the whole world.

The folly of [hu]man[ity]

It is upon us.  May has arrived with all its fury.  Graduations.  Dance recitals.  Band performances.  Warm weather.  In the midst of a flurry of activity, things begin to wind down.  Summer vacation is near!  Before we get there, however, we have to mark the changing season in the life of the Church as well.  The 50 days of Easter are nearly over.  The Day of Pentecost is near.  Churches will celebrate with balloons, cakes, and polyglotenous readings of the Acts of the Apostles.  Preachers will most likely steer clear of the lesson from Genesis, but they do so at their own peril.

I will readily admit that the story of the Tower of Babel is a fascinating tale, rife with theological difficulties.  It reads more like Greek mythology than it does Christian Scriptures.  It makes God sound vindictive, coercive, paranoid, and mean-spirited.  It is a dense story that requires a lot of unpacking, which is all the more reason to tackle it, even on the Day of Pentecost.  The story of the Tower of Babel serves as a helpful reminder of the unending folly of humanity.

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Again and again, humans attempt to place themselves on par with God, and again and again, we are reminded that only God is God.  The story of the Tower of Babel is a story of human pride.  “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves…” is the cry of a people who have forgotten that their very breath is a gift from God.  The desire to “make a name for ourselves” or to find fame or to be remembered through history is the ongoing struggle between the will of human flesh and the will of God who gives us all things as gift.  To forget that is to succumb to the same temptation that cause Satan to fall.

Pride.  The folly of [hu]man[ity]

You don’t need to spend a full 12 minutes on the text, but I think it will be helpful for your congregations to be invited into the story, to look at the ways in which pride tries to place us on par with God, and to see how the Pentecost miracle essentially undoes the confusion of the people.  The confusion that came from humanity speaking of its own deeds of power is made whole as the 120 proclaim God’s deeds of power in languages that the whole world could understand.  The pride of humanity is replaced by the glory of God, in the Pentecost miracle, and that, I think, is worth at least a brief mention.

Of course, I’m not preaching this week, so it is very easy for me to tell you what to do.  No matter what, your words this Sunday will be important.  May you be like Peter, and boldly proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

Tongues of Fire… The Other Kind

As I’ve said before, I love the book of James, but it can, at times, be a real Debbie Downer.  In this Sunday’s lesson from the third chapter, he takes an image that is well known and much beloved, tongues of fire, and turns it into something fairly lamentable.  Most people, when they think of tongues of fire, picture the Pentecost story as the Holy Spirit arrives with power and might to change the whole world.  Through that powerful in-breaking, God undoes the Babel story and makes many tongues speak one language.

In contrast to God’s amazing use of the tongues of men and women to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ far and wide, James sees the tongue as nothing more than a necessary evil.  He goes so far as to say that “the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.”

No, really, thanks for the image James

Clearly there is some context missing here.  The author is addressing something in particular, and we are not privy to the details, but we can certainly guess what is going on.  The Church, even when it is filled with people filled with the Holy Spirit, is not immune from the tongue being used to burn.  There’s the gossip that pours out at coffee hour.  There’s the quiet murmuring of parking lot conversations.  There the grumbling over music, preaching, outreach, or, God forbid, somebody sitting in my pew.  The tongue is the outlet for many of the growing pains that happen in the life of the Church, and wise leaders know how to hold their own tongues and respond to the fires that can be set by the tongues of others.

These are tough words from James, but I’m thankful that the RCL Divining Rod decided to have them read.  We need to be called to task every once in a while.  Scripture offers reproof even 2,000 years later because human beings do what human beings do, no matter the context of space and time.  In response to this difficult teaching, we have the Collect for Proper 19B with its invocation of the Holy Spirit.  Perhaps it could be slightly reworded this Sunday, “Send tongues of fire upon us, Lord, that in all things your Spirit may direct and rule our hearts and tongues to the honor and glory of your name…”  Amen.

The Spirit of Evangelism – A Pentecost Sermon

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.[1]  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![2]  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![3]  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.

[1] Tickle, The Great Emergence, 16.

[2] http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

[3] https://extranet.generalconvention.org/staff/files/download/12702.pdf

Jesus’ Paraclete

My friend Evan Garner, being the good Church Nerd that he is will hopefully find this next sentence very exciting.  Evan Garner and David Lose have me thinking.  In his post for today, Evan offers a quality reminder that even though 90% of sermons for Pentecost Day will focus on Acts 2, there is a deep and rich Gospel text ready and waiting to be mined as well.  Meanwhile, in his post for Pentecost B, David Lose works out his own issue with the Gospel text, specifically the word Paraclete (Advocate), in light of the Acts lesson.

I will, no doubt, preach on Acts 2 this Sunday, but thanks to Evan and David, it won’t be without at least some temptation to deal with Jesus’ promise of the Paraclete in John’s Gospel.  The more I think about it, the more I think I might even find a way to preach on both.  The Holy Spirit that appears with power and might and leaves the crowd in Acts 2 totally blown away needs to be jived with the Comforter/Advocate that Jesus talks about in John 15.  The Holy Spirit that works in the lives of the faithful, calling them out of their comfort zones, empowering prophets, lifting up leaders and voices for change, sending forth missionaries and reticent priests often doesn’t feel a whole like like she’s comforting us.  No, when the Spirit is at work in your life, things get downright messy; sometimes even dangerous.

The Holy Spirit compelled Peter to stand up before a crowd of bewildered, sometimes sneering people and tell them that Jesus is the Messiah, that he was killed by those outside the law, and that God had bigger plans, bigger even than the promises he made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, or Solomon.  As one who steps into the relative safety of a pulpit on a regular basis, it is easy to take what Peter did for granted, but the reality is that what he did was shockingly risky.  Jesus had been hung on a cross 53 days ago.  The religious powers-that-be were still on edge about the whole Jesus movement, and Peter and the disciples continued to, rightfully, be scared for their lives.

As David Lose says in his blog, “We tend to think of the Holy Spirit as the answer to a problem, but what if the Spirit’s work is to create for us a new problem; that we have a story to tell, mercy to share, love to spread, and we just can’t rest until we’e done so!”  That’s what the Holy Spirit of Acts 2 is all about.  As I said earlier this week, the universal gift and call of the Spirit is to preach the Gospel in the language of our circle of influence.,  That’s pretty damn frightening.  That’s why the Church is shrinking rapidly.  We’re too afraid to share our story, too afraid to let the Spirit do her work in our lives, too afraid to offend someone.

The Paraclete that Jesus promises is literally, “one who comes alongside” and when she does, hold on tight because the ride is about to get rough, for the sake of the Gospel and the glory of God.

Paraclete Tactical Body Armor Solutions is perhaps the best image of what the Holy Spirit does in our lives. She calls us out of safety, but promises protection along the way.