SERMON: “Together” and “Passion”

2017-060304pentecost

A Composite of two sermons preached at
Little White Chapel Christian Church
June 3 and June 4, 2017
John 20:19-23, Acts 20:1-21, and 1 Corinthians 12:4-13

I need to clarify something before addressing the points that are the focus of this message.  When it says in John 20:19 that the disciples were hiding “for fear of the Jews,” it doesn’t mean all Jews, but a small, particular group of people who happened to be Jewish.

Pentecost is considered “the Birthday of the Church” because of the story in Acts 2. People from all over the known world were gathered in Jerusalem to observe Shavuot, or Pentecost. As Pastor Bill recently said, “From the beginning, God intended the Church to be extremely diverse, welcoming all kinds of people from all over the earth.”[1] Shavuot was fifty days after Passover and so the Greek name “Pentecost.”  It was originally a harvest festival but had become a festival to commemorate the giving of the Law, or Torah.

[2]In Acts 2, the wind and fire are a metaphor for the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit, something to be welcomed rather than feared.  The wind and fire are the breath of God that animated the first people;[3] they are the pillar of smoke by day and fire by night that led the Children of Israel out of Egypt;[4] they are the burning ember the seraph touched to Isaiah’s lips, gifting him with the ability to speak on behalf of Yahweh.[5]

[6][This event] changed the believers who were present, the women and men who had followed Jesus when he was alive and who were now willing to follow the resurrected Christ, even if it meant following him to their own crosses. It was as if the Church had been in formation, being knit together in the womb of God, and was now ready to be born, bursting forth into the light. As an unborn child relies entirely on its mother and then, at birth, must eat and breathe on its own, the Church had depended entirely on God; now she had to learn to breathe in and feed on the Holy Spirit God was providing. Now she had to grow into her role as the Body of Christ. Now she had to do something.

Because of verse 4, “they began to speak in other tongues,” there are those who believe the ability to speak in ecstatic languages is the only reliable sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit. That is neither true nor scriptural. 1st Corinthians 12:11 says, “the same Spirit … allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.”[7] Your gift or gifts, whatever they may be, are vital to the work of the church and no more or less important than any other.

In John’s Gospel the gift of the Holy Spirit is given gently, quietly, in an echo of Genesis 2, where “the Lord God formed man [that is, a human being] of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.”

The contrast between the drama of Acts 2 and the restraint of John 20 is similar to the way people describe their conversion experiences.  For some, it’s a sudden, unexpected and awe-inspiring awareness of the presence of God and the urgency to turn to the Divine through Jesus the Christ.  For others, it’s a gradual, subdued, process culminating in the decision to commit to a life of obedience and service to God. I see in all of these passages – John 20, Acts 2, and 1 Corinthians 12 –the community aspect of the gift and presence of the Holy Spirit.

In a slightly different but closely related context, Marjorie Suchocki says, “The word from God does not necessarily direct us toward God; by God’s own design it directs us toward the world… while God’s word is given to each of us individually, there is an inevitable communal dimension to that word.”[8]  Likewise, there is a “communal dimension” to the Holy Spirit that points us toward the community and the wider world.

When the writers of John and Acts describe the giving of the Holy Spirit they both describe a setting where the disciples are gathered together.  It didn’t happen when Peter was sitting alone repairing his fishing nets or when John was praying privately on the roof of the house.  They were gifted with the Holy Spirit when they were gathered together, whether it was behind closed doors[9] or in a public place during the Festival of Shavuot, or Pentecost.[10]  Although Paul doesn’t describe a “Pentecostal” experience per se, he does tell the Church in Corinth, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”[11] For the common good.

So even though the Holy Spirit is given to each of us individually, its purpose is to benefit the community. God doesn’t take the gifts away from us if we stop attending worship services or Bible studies or Christian fellowship times – a gift is a gift, no strings attached – but it just might be that those gifts lie dormant if we don’t nurture and use them in the context of the Christian community.  It also seems evident that it is in the gathering of the faithful that we identify our own gifts – wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, distinguishing of spirits, speaking in tongues, and interpreting those tongues. Paul lists other gifts in other letters, but regardless of what particular gifts God gives us, we use them to encourage one another and strengthen the Body of Christ, and then to fulfill the purpose of the Church.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth, “Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy.”[12] It wasn’t an original thought.  Listen to this account from Numbers 11:

24 So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. 25 Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.

26 Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. 27 And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” 28 And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men,[a] said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” 29 But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” 30 And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.[13]

There was a time when I took Paul’s instruction to heart and prayed fervently for the gift of prophecy.  This went on for several months until I had a new insight: they stoned the prophets!  “Thanks but no thanks, God.  I changed my mind.”

Prophecy is often misunderstood.  A prophet isn’t a psychic or a fortune teller.  Granted, sometimes a prophet can “see the writing on the wall” – an allusion to Daniel 5, if you want to look it up – and predict the consequences of some particular course of action, but primarily a prophet is someone who speaks for God; and that, my friends, is why – historically – they have stoned the prophets.  God’s message for the world can be unpopular.

In a political climate where we’re slapped in the face with hate speech and meanness and divisiveness on a daily basis, we call it sin.  In a world where fame and wealth revered, we show the world what it means to have no gods before Yahweh. In a world where material gain is given more weight than the wellbeing of planet and people, we say that we are called to be stewards of the Earth and responsible for our sisters and brothers. As Pastor Daphne Gascot Arias at Downey Memorial Christian Church likes to remind us, in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – regardless of any differences in belief or in how we understand scripture – we passionately defend the right of everyone – EVERYONE – to come to the Table of Christ. We speak out for truth and justice, and yes, for the all-inclusive love of God, and sometimes we speak with the fire of Pentecost in our hearts and voices.

On the Luther Seminary website “workingpreacher.org,”  Matt Skinner says, “Receiving the Spirit, the church receives Jesus. And so the church receives Jesus’ own capacity to make God manifest, bringing light to the world.”[14] For Skinner, this is the point of verse 23 – not forgiveness of sins as in clearing the way for people to enter Heaven or absolving them of any responsibility for their actions.  Rather, as people who call ourselves by the name “Christian,” who profess to believe in the Good News of Jesus Christ, our job, our calling, our mission, our purpose is to “make God manifest.”  The presence of the Holy Spirit within us gives us the strength we need to do so; the Gifts of the Spirit are the tools we use to fulfill our commission. Not my ministry or commission – our ministry.

We’re in this together. Whatever your gifts, may the fire and passion of Pentecost’s Holy Spirit inspire and motivate you to live out the Good News of Jesus Christ.

 

[1] William Thomas, Jr.  Video.  Facebook, June 1, 2017.
[2] Mary Jo Bradshaw, Sermon, “The Promise Fulfilled,” First Christian Church of Ontario, May 15, 2016.
[3] Genesis 2:7.
[4] Exodus 13:21 etc.
[5] Isaiah 6:6-7.
[6] Mary Jo Bradshaw, Sermon, “Prophecy, Vision, and Dreams,”  All Peoples Christian Church, May 19, 2013.
[7] 1 Corinthians 12:11, New Revised Standard Version.
[8] Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, the Whispered Word: a theology of preaching, (St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 1999), 11.
[9] John 20:19.
[10] Acts 2:1.
[11] 1 Corinthians 12:7, Revised Standard Version.
[12] 1 Corinthians 14:1, New Revised Standard Version.
[13] Numbers 11:24-30, New Revised Standard Version.
[14] Matt Skinner, “Commentary on John 20:19-23,” at http://www.workingpreacher.org, June 12, 2011.  Accessed June 2, 2017.