Sermon: Pentecost 2016

butterfly_redMay 15, 2016

Jesus says to his disciples in today’s reading from John, “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 be afraid.” I find myself wishing Jesus would show up again today to offer us that same blessing. Because I bet I’m not the only whose heart is troubled, or who is sometimes afraid. Our reasons may differ—some of us are worried about our families or friends, about a new job or a move, about news from a doctor or the news in general—but the effect is the same. We long for peace in hearts, in our homes, and in our world.

It helps to know that Jesus understands. The first time he extended this blessing, Jesus didn’t offer it to a group of contented middle-class people with harmonious lives in calm societies. This blessing is extended as he is preparing his working class followers for his brutal execution on a cross. He’s cautioning them that, as his followers, they should expect trouble to come knocking on their doors as well. Naturally Philip is worried, anxious, and perhaps afraid, which leads him to plead, “Just show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” In other words, just tell us we’re on the right path. Just offer us evidence that we’re secure and safe. But Jesus doesn’t extend certainty to his disciples. What he offers instead is himself: “Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father.”

Jesus never promised his disciples lives free of conflict or pain. He came embodying the reality that God is love, showing us that God’s love is big enough for everything and everyone. Jesus so loved the world that he went to every length – even to the point of dying alone on a cross – to show us how much God loves us. He wants us to be emboldened to live with courage and hope. That’s why he includes in his parting words an assurance of peace that is not like the world’s peace—not simply an absence of conflict, but a deeper, more lasting peace.

But even though we’ve heard these words before, we forget. We get shaken by what’s going on around or within us, by the cruelty and misuse of power we see, by the fear-mongering that the media and others prompt. And we tend to react like the people of Babel from the story in Genesis— we shore up our safety nets. We are tempted to show how powerful and important we are, rather than living as servants of God and one another. We allow a healthy love of country be corrupted into fanatical ethnocentrism and nationalism, even though these extremes take us into political and spiritual dysfunction. We look to weapons and restrictive laws to protect us from “them”—whoever we imagine “them” to be—and lose sight of the fact that the people we call enemies God calls our sisters and brothers and God’s beloved children.

We are not so different from the group of believers who gathered in that upper room on that first Pentecost. They had everything to fear—the oppressive Roman government, the religious leaders who considered them heretics, and a new reality without Jesus present in the flesh among them.

But then, just as Jesus promised, the Holy Spirit comes among them. They are empowered by God’s presence, encouraged and equipped to go out into the marketplace and witness to their faith in Christ. It’s not that the risk factors were removed. They are still in danger, not simply having people think they were drunk at 9 a.m. (or 9:15 for that matter), but also of finding their actions treasonous, possibly even deserving of the crucifixion that their leader had suffered. Through the power of the Spirit, however, they find the courage not simply to resist fear, but actually to step out in confidence and joy.

It’s the work of the Holy Spirit to come along side us whenever we are tempted to forget that love is stronger than evil. It is the Holy Spirit’s job, it seems, to reverse what happened in Babel, the city that was so proud of itself it was building a tower to heaven to show that they had immediate access to God. At that time, God’s reaction was to send multiple languages among them, causing division and confusion where there had once been a common purpose and a common language. But ever since Pentecost, it seems the Holy Spirit has been making it a practice to descend among people who don’t speak the same language—let alone think in the same way!—and unite us.

Peter quotes the prophet Joel, announcing that our differences are not a threat, but gifts from God. The word is that women and slaves and young men will be speaking up alongside elderly men who could take their voice for granted in a patriarchal culture. Everyone would see visions and dream dreams, not just those who went to seminary, or who could say the creed without peeking at the words in the bulletin. All kinds of people—even people who have been (literally or metaphorically) hard to understand—will be inspired by God. It may sound idealistic, but the Holy Spirit possesses a creative force so intense that it can transform and renew even the most stubborn of communities. Pentecost transformed the disciples into bold witnesses for Christ by renewing their hearts and minds. How do we get some of that kind of peace? The strong kind?

We have access to God at all times and in all places because the Holy Spirit is not constrained by walls, no matter how high or how thick. We can call to God when we are afraid, or happy, or heartbroken. Prayer and Scripture reading connect us to God and to our deepest selves in every possible circumstance. We can foster that connection on our own. But if the world is going to be turned upside down again based on the words and deeds of followers of Jesus, we also need to be together when we beg for the Holy Spirit to come. None of us on our own have ALL the necessary gifts to fulfill God’s mission in the world. So we get to gather here, to eat together and pray together, to share our secret anxieties and fears. Jesus wants this for us.

When he broke bread with his disciples, Jesus formed a new, united community, dedicated to loving and serving one another, and gave thanks to God who established it. Sharing God’s body and blood has become a way for God to break into our lives on a regular basis. The Lord’s Supper doesn’t discriminate on the basis of gender, class, or race in its sanctifying energy. When we eat and drink as a faith community, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to be more than we are when we are alone. And somehow, just being in one another’s presence, we may find our hearts less troubled, less afraid.

No matter how we feel, the vibrant, active Breath of God comes to us, forgiving us, renewing us, empowering us, gifting us, teaching us, and even imparting in us the faith to believe any of this! Pentecost didn’t just happen once in Jerusalem, long ago and far away. It happens now. Here. Don’t let your hearts be troubled.

I’ll conclude with a beautiful Pentecost blessing from a Methodist pastor I admire, Jan Richardson:

THIS GRACE THAT SCORCHES US

A Blessing for Pentecost Day

 

Here’s one thing
you must understand
about this blessing:
it is not
for you alone.

It is stubborn
about this.
Do not even try
to lay hold of it
if you are by yourself,
thinking you can carry it
on your own.

To bear this blessing,
you must first take yourself
to a place where everyone
does not look like you
or think like you,
a place where they do not
believe precisely as you believe,
where their thoughts
and ideas and gestures
are not exact echoes
of your own.

Bring your sorrow.
Bring your grief.
Bring your fear.
Bring your weariness,
your pain,
your disgust at how broken
the world is,
how fractured,
how fragmented
by its fighting,
its wars,
its hungers,
its penchant for power,
its ceaseless repetition
of the history it refuses
to rise above.

I will not tell you
this blessing will fix all that.
But in the place
where you have gathered,
wait.

Watch.

Listen.

Lay aside your inability
to be surprised,
your resistance to what you
do not understand.

See then whether this blessing
turns to flame on your tongue,
sets you to speaking
what you cannot fathom
or opens your ear
to a language
beyond your imagining
that comes as a knowing
in your bones,
a clarity
in your heart
that tells you
this is the reason
we were made:
for this ache
that finally opens us,
for this struggle,
this grace
that scorches us
toward one another
and into
the blazing day.

—Jan Richardson

from “Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons”

 

Amen.

About Trinity Lutheran Church

A congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) located in Madison, Wisconsin.
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