Monday, May 16, 2016

The Church

Here is my sermon from Pentecost Sunday. The text was Acts 2:1-21:

Today, which is Pentecost Sunday, has often been seen and called the birthday of the church.  I can certainly understand that idea, but I think it is wrong on many levels.  One of the main reasons is that because a birth of something tends to indicate that something entirely new is created, that before this thing was not there, and now it is.  There can also be a sense that this new beginning, a discarding of the past.  But that is not what is going on here, as is indicated even in the name of Pentecost.  The passage begins “When the day of Pentecost had come.” Which means that Pentecost as a celebration existed and was taking place even before what we consider Pentecost had actually occurred, meaning this is not a new birth.

Pentecost literally means 50 days, and it was a Jewish holiday celebrated on the 50th day after Passover, and is better known as the festival of weeks or the festival of the first fruits.  It is one of the three major holidays called for in Exodus and Deuteronomy in which people are called to come to Jerusalem for pilgrimage.  The other two holidays are Passover and the festival of booths.  Booths and Weeks are both agricultural festivals, with booths representing the fall harvest, and weeks representing the spring harvest, and so Pentecost is also known as the festival of first fruits, in which people would bring in their offering to God, giving from their first fruits from the first harvest of the year.

Although Luke, who is the writer of Acts, tells us that there were people from all the nations living in Jerusalem at the time, which is probably true, the crowds of people who spoke different languages would have been even larger at the time because so many people had come to Jerusalem for this festival.  Now weeks was the least observed of the three, but it still had importance, since it is even mentioned that these things happened when the day of Pentecost had come.  This connects this moment to the history of God’s purpose and the history of the people.  It connects the disciples to their Jewish heritage, and through that connects us to it as well.  This is not some incident that is happening without meaning or context, and something that is only about this new beginning.

Now there are some critical points to notice about this passage, including something that happens before the passage we heard from today.  The first is that in chapter one, just before Jesus ascends into heaven, he tells the disciples and apostles, who number 120 at the time, that they will receive the Holy Spirit which will give them power, and then they are to be Jesus’ witnesses to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth.  In other words, that they are to go out and spread the message.  But instead of doing anything yet, there they are sitting their twittaling their thumbs waiting for something to happen, or at least that’s how I imagine it.  Jesus has told them to go out and spread the message, but there they still are sitting there.  I guess the good news is that we are not told that they were waiting in fear.

The other crucial piece of information is upon whom the Spirit falls, and that is everyone.  It doesn’t just fall upon the disciples, or just some of them, it falls upon all of them.  It’s not quite clear who exactly is in this upper room, whether it’s the same 120 who had been there in the stories immediately before this, or if it’s just the disciples along with some of the women and Jesus’ brothers, but regardless of which group is there, it’s more than just the 11 male disciples, but includes others, including women, and the young and old.  That then matches with the prophecy that Peter quotes from the prophet Joel saying that God will pour out the Spirit “on all fresh, 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.”  The Spirit will be given to both men and women, young and old, slave and free, it’s not restricted and reserved, it’s not limited our circumscribed, it’s given freely by God to all, regardless of what others think of who should receive it or who deserves to receive it.  This sounds very much like Paul’s statement in his letter to the Galatians, that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male and female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.

Now what’s striking about Peter’s usage of Joel here, is that this was not a prophecy that people were walking around talking about. No one was saying “I wonder when Joel’s prophecy about the Spirit coming down on everyone is going to happen?”  There were certainly popular prophecies, things people were waiting for, but this was not really one of them.  And so this is not Peter exploring scripture in order to give an interpretation of it.  Instead, he is looking through scripture to explain what is already happening right here and right now.  To explain the Spirit being poured out indiscrimentantly.  And just as the Spirit is given to everyone so too are they called to offer their gifts to everyone else; that the Spirit, or the Gifts of the Spirit, are not individual gifts, they are community gifts that are given to individuals for use in the community.

Those who have received tongues like fire, and notice that it says these things happened like, or as if, which means it’s a metaphor, a way of describing it, not that that’s what the Spirit is, but they have tongues like fire and they begin to speak to everyone.  They don’t say “Oh, those Medes and Elamites, we know what they are like, we don’t want to give them this,” or “Cretans are you series, Cretans are, well, Cretans, surely they won’t listen to or understand what we have to say.”  They don’t say those things even though they are sort of disparaged when the people say “are not all those who are speaking Galileans?” People from Galilee were seen as backwater, not very intelligent people, certainly not ones who could speak multiple languages.  But the disciples and apostles do not take offense at this, instead they continue to do what they are called to do.

They begin offering to God the first fruits of their labors in proclaiming the gospel message and to say that there are many more fruits yet to be grown and harvested.  They connect to the past of the tradition and of God’s promises, but they say that God’s movement isn’t just in the past, God’s movement, God’s surprising ways of being in the world, of calling us to new things, or showing us new ways, of opening up new possibilities, that is all going on right here and right now.  That we are called to look to the past only to help us to understand God’s work so that we can move forward.  We are not called to look to the past, we are called to look forward. We are not called to move backwards, we are called to move forward.  We are not called to revert to the way things used to be, we are called to move bravely and boldly into the future that God is working with us to create.

That is the nature of the church.  So if there is a birthing that takes place on that first Pentecost it is the realization that we are all in this together, in what the Protestant reformer Martin Luther called the priesthood of all believers, and that God’s promises are not about the past but about what is yet to come.  And later in chapter 2 when the people ask what they must do to participate in this exercise with God, Peter tells them repent and be baptized.  The church at its basis, and in its basic form, is the collection of the baptized.  And while we now think of baptism as an individual activity, something individuals chose to do and do for themselves, that is a distortion of the message, because when we are baptized, when we join the church, we move from the state of me, to the state of we, we move from the I to the all, from the individual to the group.  We join something bigger and broader than we are to do things we could never do by ourselves.  The church is not the building, as important as buildings are because they do allow us to do our mission and ministry, but the church is truly the people gathered together into one.

Amazingly, this is just like God, three and one and one in three, an idea we are going to explore next week as we look at the idea of the trinity, that there is unity, but there is not uniformity.  We too often think that in order to have unity we all have to think alike and look alike and act alike, and all too many churches look exactly like that, thinking that uniformity is what God is calling for us.  But what today’s passage, what our baptismal vows, tell us is that God’s church has been opened to people of all ages, nations and races and that we are called to go, to Jerusalem, where we are, to Judea, where we consider home, to Samaria, the land of the enemy, those who are different, and to all the ends of the earth to proclaim the gospel message the good news of Jesus Christ.  Not to tell people to become like us, but to tell them to become who God has called them to be.

At the 11 am service today we will be welcoming this year’s confirmation class, four of our youth, into membership in the church, and I invite all of you to come back for that event, and there will even be cake afterwards, and who can pass up the offer of cake.  As they come forward and we ask for the Holy Spirit to continue to work in their lives, we remember that this is not just the start of their journey, it’s the continuation of their journey.  That we, and they, look back to the vows that have already been made on their behalf and the work that God has already been doing in their lives, but more importantly we look to what God is doing now and will continue to do as they move forward in their lives as they join this church, which is not our church, it’s not my church, it’s God’s church, a part of God’s universal church established here in order to go forth to proclaim the good news, to be witnesses to the ends of the earth, and as forgiven and reconciled people to live into our baptismal vows to offer God not just the fruits we have brought for today, but the fruit that we have even yet to sow but whose harvest we are already preparing for.

And so to help us do that, I’m going to ask you to reaffirm your baptismal vows this morning…

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