Today I have the privilege to be preaching my first sermon in eleven years at my home church, Living Waters Lutheran Church. It is an awesome responsibility and a great joy at the same time to be tasked with interpreting scripture for others. It is much harder than putting my more personal writings out there for others to read, because in my normal blogging voice I claim no authority. People can ignore what I say and that’s just fine. I’m just a woman who is trying to learn from the daily lessons of life and offering to share my reflections on that process. With a sermon though, even when delivered via computer rather than from behind the pulpit, the weight is heavier. I am trying to present God’s Word, not just my own.
But I am doing it anyhow. These are still my words – in truth they have no more authority than anything else I write unless my readers chose to give them that. And that’s perfect, because I don’t want to be the voice of God. I just pray that God will sometime choose to speak through my voice.
Pentecost Sermon, June 8, 2014 — Spirit of Diverse Unity.
Lectionary Texts for the Day: Acts 2:1-21; I Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20-19-23
Today is the Day of Pentecost – a very significant day for the church because, the church really wouldn’t be the church if it weren’t for Pentecost. Before we talk about that, however, I want to approach the meaning of Pentecost through a story that at first might seem unrelated….. I want to talk about my kids.
(I’m sorry. It had to happen. Stick with me though, and I promise it will tie in).
One of the things that I love about parenting is the daily exposure to insatiable curiosity – the chance to watch small eyes opening wide, straining to take in the wonder of things that I have grown to take for granted; the reminder that every moment of experience is a chance to learn, and understand, and reach for explanations that will help to make sense of this great mystery of life.
Or…at least… I try to remind myself that this is one of the things that I love about parenting. Because I do love it… most of the time. But there are times when this curiosity can be a little exhausting. Times like when my youngest is asking me for the four hundred and seventeenth time for an explanation of one of his favorite movie scenes. Recently we were stuck on Frozen and the Lion King. There was a point when nearly every day he would ask me to explain why Scar killed Mufasa; and perhaps even more frequently he would ask me why Prince Hans tried to kill Queen Elsa.
Having answered these questions literally hundreds of times, I kept varying it – trying to find the magic explanation that would satisfy his particular curiosity, but it didn’t really work. He wanted more. And in both cases, when he pressed for “why” I just kept coming back to the same answer: the longing for power. Both Scar and Prince Hans want to be king, and the only explanation I can provide for the lengths they are prepared to go to in that effort is the lust for power. It’s not nice, and it’s not something I would choose to draw my four-year-old’s attention to, but he sees it and he knows it is important to understand, and so he keeps on asking.
This story is relevant to my sermon because power is exactly what Pentecost is about, right? – On this day the church around the world is talking about the coming of God’s Spirit IN POWER – But this power is a very different kind of power than the evil movie version. This is power for holy purposes to equip the saints to do the work of the kingdom. As Jesus promised to the disciples in Acts 1 “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.”
When I learned that I was preaching on Pentecost I immediately knew that I wanted to talk about this contrast: the power that we receive as a free gift from the Spirit as opposed to the brutal grabbing for power that we find in the world. There’s so much to say about that polarity… I almost wish I hadn’t actually read our texts for the day.
Oops. The first time I read through today’s texts I almost couldn’t believe it. Where was the power? This was Pentecost! The day the Spirit is supposed to descend in power to equip the church, but descriptions of the church’s new power seem to be … missing. In fact, the word “power” only appears ONE time in all THREE texts that we just read – and that one reference is an explanation that the disciples are witnessing to God’s acts of power.
OK. So what are we supposed to do with this? If the point of the coming of God’s Spirit is not POWER (or at least not in these texts), then what it is?
I would like to propose three answers to that question that all lead us to one lesson.
Our first answer comes from the actual Pentecost story – that crazy scene with the rushing wind [i]and the tongues of flame dancing over the heads of a bunch of uneducated Galileans, who were all talking at once in languages they didn’t even know. Before we get distracted by all that drama, however, it’s important to set the scene.
Pentecost was a big deal in Judaism even before it gathered a new meaning for the church. In fact, Pentecost was one of the three great pilgrim feasts in the Jewish faith, and this is important because the feasts drew the scattered people of Israel back together. C.K. Barrett, a New Testament commentator, makes the point that “after the law itself, nothing did more to preserve the unity and uniqueness of Israel than the due celebration of the festivals … (because) the three great pilgrim feasts (Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles) could only be fully observed in Palestine.” In fact, Pentecost — as the celebration of the giving of the law a Sinai — actually combined the two fundamental sources of Jewish unity – physical reunion in the Holy Land, and the unifying law.
I am making such a point about this “unity” emphasis, because I think this helps us to see through all the miraculous imagery of the first Christian Pentecost to what the Spirit was actually doing among that gathering of 120 believers. It was giving them VOICES. That is answer number one to what the Spirit gives the church – VOICES, in the plural.
Speech is the fundamental tool of communication. It is how we unify our actions and work together toward a common goal. That unifying power of speech could not be more evident than in the story of the tower of Babel. When haughty human society decided to defy God by building a tower to heaven, the author of Genesis 11 describes the response in this way: “The LORD said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.’(emphasis added)”
Now, commentators are split about whether Luke actually had this backdrop in mind when he described the outpouring of the Spirit at the first Christian Pentecost, but I don’t think that actually matters very much. The mythology of Babel teaches us the truth that confusion of languages causes divisions. But in the outpouring of God’s Spirit at Pentecost something new happens. Here again there is a cacophony of languages – such an uproar in fact that a crowd of thousands gathered to listen. But the confusion in the scene is not from a failure to communicate. Rather, it is amazement that this multiplicity of languages is comprehensible. Fifteen different named regions and people groups were represented in the crowd, the entire known world from Luke’s perspective, and all of them are hearing the same message in different languages.
The unity-focus of Pentecost, and the dispersion narrative of Babel are both flipped on their head in this one scene. When the Spirit gives speech to the church it doesn’t eradicate differences and force conformity to one language or cultural identify, but neither does it allow the perpetuation of divisions. When the Spirit gives the gift of voices to the Church, they are voices that brings unity while preserving diversity.
So, the first revealed function of the Holy Spirit in the Church is a new kind of communication – voices, speech that can reach out into all the diversity of the world and offer a new kind of unity.
This tension of diversity co-existing with unity is repeated in our second text from I Corinthians, chapter 12. At the opening of this passage Paul writes “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works in all.” Paul then goes on to describe an array of gifts and means of service – from wisdom and knowledge, to healing, to prophesy, to speaking in tongues.
This was a list that was important in the Corinthian context, but I think we need to acknowledge that Paul’s list is not our list. It just isn’t. If our adult forum sat down to identify a list of the spiritual gifts in our congregation we would probably get faith on the list somewhere, and maybe wisdom, but miraculous powers and interpretation of tongues? I really doubt it.
That really doesn’t matter. Paul’s point in laying out this list is not about the gifts themselves. He was addressing the Church at Corinth about these things because diversity in the Spiritual gifts they were experiencing was causing problems. They were getting competitive. They were trying to align the gifts in a hierarchy, so that those with “better gifts” could lord it over those with “lesser gifts” and THIS WAS NOT THE POINT.
The point again, was unity with diversity; a body with many parts, but still a unit. A baptism that does not erase our different identities, our different ways of acting in the world, our different ways of serving the Church, but that still unifies us in one Spirit.
So that is our second answer that teaches the same lesson. The Spirit gives a diversity of gifts for service of the church. That diversity must not divide, however, but rather it is essential to the proper functioning of our unity as one body.
So, what is our third answer? This is perhaps the hardest to see, although the text is short. Our gospel for today is just five verses, and the part about the Spirit is just two. “Jesus breathed on (his disciples) and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’”
Wait, What?! I have sort of been making a big point about this whole unity theme and now Jesus is telling us that we have the power to deny forgiveness to people? That certainly doesn’t sound very much like unity. (And it doesn’t sound very Lutheran either, by the way).
Well, let’s stop and think for a minute. Is Jesus really saying to the disciples “OK. It’s all up to you now. You are the decision-makers. I’ve done my bit, now I’m off to relax up in Heaven and you lot can figure out who’s in and who’s out.”
No. Of course not.
What Jesus is doing is calling the early church to continue the model of Jesus’ ministry. Just before breathing on them Jesus says “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (vs. 21). And while John’s gospel doesn’t focus as much on the theme of forgiveness as the synoptic gospels do, it focuses a lot on unity – especially the unity of Jesus and the Father. Jesus is calling his followers not to a ministry of boundary-drawing, but to a ministry that mirrors his own. And when, a few chapters earlier, Jesus prayed for these very disciples in their coming ministry he prayed this way: “Holy Father protect them by the power of your name – the name you gave me – so that they may be one as we are one.” (John 17:11).
So that they may be one. Read in the light of this prayer, Jesus’ instructions about forgiveness sound a lot different to me. They sound more like a parent challenging a child to live up to the standard they know is right. “It’s your choice – you can make a good choice, or a bad choice, but I believe you will make the right choice.”
That is the tone we get from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of this passage in The Message: “Then (Jesus) took a deep breath and breathed into them. ‘Receive the Holy Spirit,’ he said. ‘If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?”
So we have our third answer: the Spirit gives us the capacity to forgive. And here, again, this very different kind of power is one that calls forth unity in a context where it might not be expected.
What does the Spirit poured out on the church give us? I give us voices that allow us to communicate even in our diversity; it gives us spiritual gifts that perform the many functions of one body; it gives us forgiveness that allows us to enter into the unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It gives us the miracle of unified diversity.
But this still leaves one question for me. What’s the point? What are communication, and gifts of service, and forgiveness all for? Are they all for us? Is the point just to make it a better to deal to be the Church?
I don’t think so. In fact, if that were the point, I don’t think all these promises would actually be possible. When we look at the State of the Christian church today, we certainly don’t see much evidence of them do we?
We see lots of voices – but so many of them are shouting over each other, claiming to have the one true perspective on God, and calling each other deceived at best or heretical at worst.
We see different approaches to serving the Church, but precious little effort to bind all of those different ministries together into a unified body that works in coordination.
We see the message of forgiveness shared, but also its opposite. The Christian conversation is full of disciples on both sides of many debates who are quite ready to take Jesus at his apparent word and to deny forgiveness to those who disagree with them on a whole host of issues.
So what are we to do with this evidence of the apparent failure of the Spirit to deliver the promised gifts; the failure to forge improbable unity amid diversity? I think the answer is to consider what these promises are really for, and to realize that in the end it is Not. Really. About. Us.
Remember those voices on the first Christian Pentecost? Remember what they were saying? They were speaking in a dozen languages or more, but they were all saying the same thing. “We hear them speaking about God’s deeds of Power.” (Acts 2:11) It’s not about us. It’s about God. When we receive the Spirit of God – when we surrender to that breath of life and let it breath out through us – it will use our diversity – the specificity of our creation – our uniqueness that God created in us for a purpose, and that uniqueness will not be a barrier to unity for one reason, and for one reason only. Because our eyes, and our lips, and our every action will be all about God. When that happens… when we stop looking at all our differences and start looking at God, the multiplicity of our voices will become a grand chorus.
[i] C.K. Barrett, The New Testament Background: Selected Documents, Revised Edition, Harper Collins, 1989, p. 194.