Sunday, June 04, 2006

First Sermon as an Ordained Person

Day of Pentecost – Year B (RCL)
Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37b; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
Sunday, June 4, 2006 – St. Bede’s Episcopal Church, Los Angeles

Can you feel it? Something awesome is about to happen – something unparalleled in the history of the entire world. And we are witnesses to it. More importantly, we are all heirs to it.

Today is Pentecost, the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit, often referred to as the birthday of the church. The central lesson for this day is the account of the first Pentecost as recorded by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles. Luke tells us of a new beginning, of our beginning as Christians.

We all know about new beginnings. We have all experienced them – starting school for the very first time; graduation from high school; graduation from college; starting a new job or changing careers; marriage or entering into a committed relationship; having children; moving to a new city; or even just to a new house; retirement. In the last three years, I have gone through enough new beginnings to last me a lifetime. In the last 48 hours alone, I’ve experienced a number of new beginnings. On Friday, I graduated from seminary with my Masters of Divinity degree. Yesterday, I was ordained into the Sacred Order of Deacons. And today I begin my ministry as an ordained person, serving God, the church, and the world.

New beginnings are terribly exciting. There is the sense of excitement and exhilaration at the prospect of starting something new, of becoming someone new, of entering into new possibilities. There is a sense of anticipation about what will yet be. But, at the same time, new beginnings can bring a sense of uncertainty. By human nature, we generally like to know what’s going on. As a result, new beginnings hold an element of the unknown, potentially bringing with them a sense of confusion, questioning, or even fear. What will this new thing, this new phase of my life look like? What will it feel like? How will I be changed by the experience?

Most of the new beginnings we undertake tend to be planned to some degree. We can anticipate their coming, and as a result, have the opportunity to prepare ourselves. But that was not the case with the Disciples on that first Pentecost. Prior to his Ascension, Jesus did tell them that they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit “not many days from now.” But they had no idea specifically when that would happen, or what that would look or feel like. Luke tells us that the Disciples and other followers of Jesus were together when “suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind.” The closest thing I can think of are freak thunderstorms that often occur in the Midwest and in the desert. One minute, it can be bright and sunny outside. And then all of a sudden, the wind kicks up, clouds roll in, there is a loud clap of thunder, and the sky opens up, dumping rain. Now imagine that happening in your living room. That’s what the Disciples would have experienced – well without the rain. It would have been a most startling experience.

And then, as if that weren’t enough, a bunch of strange things began happening. Tongues of fire appeared, resting on each person present. And then everyone started talking in their native languages, but despite this, each person was still able to understand what the others were saying. Luke tells us that in amongst all these events, those in attendance were bewildered, amazed, and perplexed. I should think so!

It was with this preamble that the Holy Spirit burst on the scene, starting something new. But how, exactly does this constitute something new, rather than just a bizarre experience? What did this bursting in of the Holy Spirit mean for those gathered, for the followers of Jesus? And what does it mean for us? For this we need to look at the shift that occurs in the course of scripture, particularly in the New Testament.

The account in Acts is a pivotal point in the New Testament. The story moves from being about Jesus to being the story of all Christians. Now of course, Jesus’ story is our story, but the main focus of action in the Gospels is Jesus. What happens in the first four books of the New Testament, in the Gospels, certainly applies to us, but it is not our own doing. Many of the events and parables are learning experiences for the Disciples and are intended to provide the ground rules by which all followers of Jesus are to live. What happens there is done on our behalf, and done to us. But in Acts, the focus shifts. The story becomes one of how the early Christians began to come to grips with life without their beloved Master and teacher, how they struggled with living according to Jesus’ teachings, how they formed a community and began living into their life and identity as Christians. This is only made possible by the Holy Spirit, who brought them together and infused them with the inspiration and the zeal to carry on without the physical presence of their Master.

Jesus was a dynamic teacher. It is easy to follow when you have such a leader that is willing and able to forge the way. But this was the time of the Roman occupation of Judea. The Roman forces in collaboration with the Judean authorities had conspired to kill this dynamic leader who posed a threat to everything they had built and stood for. In such circumstances, it could be considered foolhardy for a ragtag band of fishermen and common folk to attempt to continue a revolution, particularly without their leader. We know from the account of Jesus’ death that after he had been crucified, his followers went into hiding, fearing for their own lives. And rightly so. The Roman forces were among the most methodical and ruthless in the history of the world. They had succeeded in eliminating the threat that Jesus posed to their dominance and order. They would not have wanted any of his followers to rally around a martyr, to keep his dream alive, and to have the opportunity to gain popularity among the citizenry. Played right, martyrs are powerful symbols and can provide even greater zeal for a movement. The Romans would certainly have known this, and would have taken steps to prevent such a thing from happening on their watch. Yes, the Disciples were justified in fearing for their lives.

The fact that Jesus’ followers were still together for some period following his death indicates that they believed in what their Master had taught them. Jesus had instilled in them a zeal that could not be easily squelched by threat of Roman intervention. Thanks to Peter’s leadership and passion, the one who had been Jesus’ right-hand man in the band of Disciples was somehow able to keep the group together and to keep the dream alive. That was undoubtedly not an easy task, given the threat to life and limb faced by anyone who might profess to have been a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. Not to mention the uncertainties they would have had about their own abilities. After all, Jesus was the Son of God. How could a bunch of simple humans continue his work? Given these fears, these uncertainties, the Disciples weren’t sure how to continue what their Master had begun. But with the coming of the Holy Spirit, there was the infusion of new inspiration, confidence, and divine guidance. The movement that Jesus had started took on a life of its own.

Kenneth Scott Latourette, a twentieth century historian whose most famous book was A History of Christianity, writes, “From discouraged, disillusioned men and women who sadly looked back upon the days when they had hoped that Jesus “was he who should redeem Israel,” they were made over into a company of enthusiastic witnesses. From them, faith in Jesus Christ spread rapidly and spontaneously to many centres of the Greco-Roman world and even beyond it. They did not lose their individual characteristics nor were they immediately emancipated from their weaknesses.”

What is particularly interesting is the role of the Disciples in all of this. Latourette continues, noting that “Most of the eleven apostles seem to have remained obscure. As least we do not have authentic reports of most of them after Pentecost. Except as names cherished in the memory of the Church and for stories about them which cannot be verified, the majority of them disappeared from history.” The Holy Spirit inspired the followers of Jesus to continue the revolution by spreading it to the ends of the earth. The remaining eleven Disciples could not have done it on their own. What was needed was a grass-roots movement in which the people were empowered to be messengers of Christ’s teachings. The Holy Spirit provided the needed energy and courage to make this happen. To more fully understand, we need to take a look at who the Holy Spirit is.

The Holy Spirit is understood by the church to be “the mysterious power or presence of God in nature or with individuals and communities, inspiring or empowering them with qualities they would not otherwise posses. The term ‘spirit’ translates Hebrew (ruach) and Greek (pneuma) words denoting ‘wind,’ ‘breath,’ and by extension, a life-giving element. With the adjective ‘holy,’ the reference is to the divine spirit, i.e., the Spirit of God,” sent by God to fulfill God’s purposes.” The Old Testament tells us that the Holy Spirit has always been around. She was present in creation along with God; she provided inspiration and revelation, especially to the prophets; and she serves as God’s presence in the covenantal community. The New Testament expands and significantly transforms the understanding of the Holy Spirit in Christianity. Many New Testament passages suggest that the Holy Spirit is sent jointly from God and the Risen Christ. Because of this, the Holy Spirit comes to represent both the presence and activity of God and the continuing presence of Jesus Christ in the church – providing divine presence and guidance. In John’s view, the spiritual knowledge or insight imparted by the Holy Spirit, unavailable until after Jesus’ death and resurrection, make Christian faith and understanding fully possible for the first time. Hence, the coming of the Holy Spirit to the Disciples on that first Pentecost provided them with the full understanding of their faith and of what Jesus had been trying to tell them during the three years he was with them – understanding of what was already in their hearts and souls, but only needed a catalyst to release it.

An analogy of the Pentecost experience from our own culture is the classic movie, The Wizard of Oz. In the movie, we start off seeing a normal day in the life of one Dorothy Gale, a girl growing up on her aunt and uncle’s farm in Kansas. As with most of us, some days are better than others. And Dorothy was not having a good day. She retreats to the safety of her bedroom, seeking refuge from what she deems a cold, cruel world, and from a cruel authority in the form of Miss Almira Gulch. In the midst of this, a huge storm appears – a tornado, a mighty wind. The wind picks up the house, Dorothy and all, including her beloved Toto. The house lands in a place quite unlike her native Kansas. There she meets all sorts of strange and interesting people such as dancing and singing Munchkins. She goes on a series of adventures as she attempts to get to the Emerald City of Oz, in hopes of finding the Wizard who might be able to help her get back home. Along the way she makes several unlikely friends, including the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, and the Cowardly Lion – friends who exhibit Wisdom, Compassion, and Courage. She also faces a number of dangers including threats by and attacks from the Wicked Witch of the West and her band of flying monkeys.

With the help of their new found friends, Dorothy and Toto make it to the Emerald City, a beautiful city, full of promise and hope. After a few more adventures, including encounters with the cantankerous Wizard and more attacks by the Wicked Witch and her flying monkeys, everything appears to be set for Dorothy to return home. But something goes wrong and Dorothy misses the balloon that is supposed to transport her and the Wizard to Kansas. Glinda, the Good Witch of the North shows up to save the day. She tells Dorothy that she has had the power to return home all along, that all she needs to do is click her heals three times and say “There’s no place like home.” Bidding good-bye to all her new friends, Dorothy takes Toto in her arms, clicks her heals while repeating the magic words, and finds herself in her bedroom in Kansas, surrounded by her family and friends. In that moment, everything seemed to be alright in Dorothy’s world and she understood what is important in life. But what had changed? Were things different at home? Had the people in Kansas changed? No, Dorothy was different. She had changed.

Had Dorothy really been in Oz and been changed by the experiences she had there, or was the whole thing merely a dream? We will never know for sure. But one thing is certain, Dorothy experienced her life in a new light, a light made possible by a journey that began with a rush of wind. It is not so important whether the journey really occurred or whether it was a dream. The important thing was that the journey was ultimately an interior one, in which she was able to go into the depths of her being and discover what was really there. She was able to traverse through the fear and pain in her life, to find her inner spirit, in which resided love and hope. This love-filled and hope-filled spirit was there all along. She just needed some help finding it. And in finding that spirit, she was able to see the world with eyes made open and bright by the spark of the Holy Spirit.

I imagine that was how the Disciples encountered the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. No, they were not transported to a new and strange land, nor did they experience mass hallucinations or dreams. However it happened—and we can’t know that as it is one of the mysteries of how the Holy Spirit works—the Holy Spirit came upon them and touched the hearts and minds and souls of those frightened fugitives. Through her inspiration, she helped them go deep into their very beings, to glimpse their own spirits and souls. And there, just like Dorothy, they found that they had what it takes to continue in the way of life envisioned by their Master, Jesus. They found that they had the strength and courage to risk life and limb, to defy the authorities and the religious and cultural norms of the day, to dare to do something new. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, they dared to continue the revolution that Jesus had started. They knew that even though Jesus was no longer present physically, he was still present in other ways – through the example he had shown them while he was alive, through the teachings he had given them, through the love and hope he had shared with them, and most importantly, through the Holy Spirit that continues Christ’s work in the world – through the Holy Spirit that would use them as instruments to continue Christ’s work in the world.

The Holy Spirit allows us, prompts us, inspires us, to go deep within ourselves to gain an understanding of what it means to be children of God. She provides the means for understanding our faith and our Christian tradition. The story of Pentecost and the entire Book of Acts provide us with the necessary connections between our faith, our life in Christ, and the outward signs of how we live that faith. To this end, the Book of Acts shows us that there is a close connection among four elements important to our Christian faith: the proclamation of the gospel, baptism, the laying on of hands, and the reception of the Holy Spirit. In Acts and in Paul’s letters, reception of the Holy Spirit brings the gifts needed for Christian ministry and extends the presence and power of Christ to each new generation of Christians. Today, in this community, we have the opportunity to witness first hand the coming of the Holy Spirit. We have already witnessed it in the proclamation of the Gospel, both in the hearing of the scripture lessons, and hopefully in this sermon (heaven knows I needed the help of the Holy Spirit in preparing it). But perhaps more important is the fact that we will witness the baptism of Kristen Weirick [at the 10:00 liturgy / in a few minutes]. Today is not only the birthday of the church, it is also Kristen’s spiritual birthday, by virtue of her baptism.

Baptism is one of the two sacraments defined by the church as being central to our identity as Christians (the other being the Eucharist). Baptism is the entrance rite into the covenant community. This rite represents purification, the washing away of sins. In this rite, Kristen will participate in Jesus’ death and resurrection, dying to sin and her former life, and rising to new life in Christ. This act will represent her full incorporation into the Body of Christ and adoption as one of God’s children. The thanksgiving over the baptismal water invokes the imagery of the exodus through the Red Sea, in which the Hebrews crossed over to a new home. Kristen will cross over from her former life into a new home in this faith community and the broader church.

Baptism also carries with it the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on those who are being baptized. When John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the River Jordan, we are told that the Holy Spirit descended upon him and God said “You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased.” So too, today, as Kristen emerges from the baptismal waters, a changed woman, the Holy Spirit will descend upon her. And in that moment, with the imparting of the Holy Spirit on the newest member of the Body of Christ, we know that God will be saying, “Kristen, you are my beloved daughter, with you I am well pleased.”

Pentecost is a reminder, a celebration, of the coming of the Holy Spirit into our lives and into our community. Pentecost was not a single occurrence that occurred nearly 2,000 years ago. It is an event that occurs for each of us on the day of our baptism, when we arise from the baptismal waters, made new in our life in Christ, at which time the Holy Spirit descends upon us and takes up residence in our hearts, in our souls, and in our lives. Our job, should we dare accept the challenge, is to allow our lives to be transformed by the infusion of the Holy Spirit, and like the Disciples, carry on the revolution, despite the authorities and cultural norms of our own day.

Because of that first Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit, there was a new beginning that 2,000 years later has exploded to engulf the entire world. But there is still more work to be done to transform the world into the kingdom that Christ came to proclaim. We can each do our part, guided by the same Spirit, as we proclaim and live the Gospel to our little pieces of the world. Let us embrace with enthusiasm this new beginning, and all new beginnings provided by our God and our Savior, acting through and guided by the Holy Spirit.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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