Sermon, June 4, 2017

Sermon.06.04.17

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Acts 2.1-21; Psalm 104.25-35, 37; 1 Corinthians 12.3b-13; John 20.19-23

 

The Christian Church celebrates Pentecost on the seventh Sunday following Easter – the fiftieth day of Easter. We understand Pentecost in terms of the events of Acts 2 – the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples with the sound of a rushing wind and divided tongues as of fire such that they spoke in other languages. Yet Acts 2.1 begins with the words, “When the day of Pentecost had come…”

“Pentecost” is the old Greek and Latin word for the Jewish Festival of Weeks which came fifty days after Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, festivals which had been observed for centuries.

Pentecost was a celebration of reaping the grain harvest. The smell of freshly baked bread would have permeated the streets of Jerusalem.

As Christians, we tend to think of Pentecost as the birth of the Christian Church. In response to Peter’s bold preaching, we are told about three thousand persons welcomed the message of salvation and were baptized. Thereafter, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2.42; NRSV). In our baptismal covenant, we commit, among other things, to doing the same.

Pentecost has tremendous spiritual meaning and significance which is more fully grasped when one considers the story of the Tower of Babel found in Genesis 11. The account begins by stating the whole earth had one language. After the people learned to make bricks, they decided to build a city and “a tower with its top in the heavens” that they might make a name for themselves (Gen 11.4; NRSV). The Lord came down from heaven, looked at the progress of the city and the tower, and said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Genesis 11.6; NRSV). Thus, the Lord came down and confused their language, such that the place was called Babel, and scattered the people across the face of the earth.

In marked contrast, at Pentecost, the people “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability” (Acts 2.4; NRSV). Why would God choose to confuse the language at Babel yet promote communication across languages, cultures, and nationalities at Pentecost?

Babel was grounded in human arrogance, pride, and ambition – the people were out to make a name for themselves; confusion resulted. Pentecost was the culmination of the New Covenant of which Jeremiah spoke: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, a covenant that they broke” (Jeremiah 31.31-32; NRSV).  Unlike the old covenant which was written on tablets of stone, God, speaking through Jeremiah, proclaims, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31.33; NRSV). Jeremiah further prophesies the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the city of God.

Unlike the worldly kingdom of Babel, Pentecost ushered in a heavenly kingdom as God’s Spirit was poured out on all flesh. In Acts 2.43-47 (NRSV), Luke tells us the attributes of God’s kingdom:

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at homeand ate their food with glad and generous  hearts,  praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

 

These characteristics were radically different from those of Babel.

But some say, “Wait a minute. That was a moment of fervor. Things soon quieted down and returned to normal. It’s unreasonable to expect those conditions today.” I remember the day one of our parishioners said to me, “I do not think we put enough emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit.” This was a very perceptive comment!

I think most of us are more comfortable talking about God and Jesus, but we do not quite know what to do with this “Holy Spirit” stuff. Perhaps that is because we do not fully understand the role of the Holy Spirit. Let’s look at what St. Paul says about this in his letter to the Church of Corinth. The Corinthian Church was suffering from a bad case of spiritual one-upsmanship and lack of discipline. The wealthy could arrive early for the common meal; hence, they ate most of the food before the poor had arrived. Paul admonished them and told them to wait for one another; if they were hungry, they should eat something at home rather than act in ways which would bring condemnation. Paul then turned to the topic of spiritual gifts and noted three things of great importance for the Christian community.

First, Paul says, “I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 12.3; NRSV). If we profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, we do so through the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. Apart from the presence of the Holy Spirit, we are unable to profess “Jesus is Lord.” Let’s face it – we more commonly would profess ourselves as Lord; it is more common to worship and praise one’s own self than to worship and praise Jesus Christ. Only as we surrender and permit the Holy Spirit to transform our egoistic impulses are we able to bring ourselves to profess “Jesus is Lord.”

Second, Paul reminds the Corinthian Church that although there are varieties of spiritual gifts, they all come from the same Spirit; though there are varieties of services, all come from the same Lord; and though there are varieties of activities, all are activated by the same God. Rather than focus on one gift, service, or activity and Lord it over others, we are to keep our focus on the Spirit, on the Lord, on God. Paul then reminds the Corinthians, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12.7; NRSV). Whether one’s gift be the utterance of wisdom, the utterance of knowledge, faith, gifts of healing, gifts of miracles, prophecy, the discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues, or interpreting tongues, all are given by the same Spirit for the common good. The spiritual gifts are not given for our own personal benefit – they are given for the common good. This reminds me of a classic illustration of the difference between hell and heaven. When one was shown the horrors of hell, she saw that everyone was seated at a sumptuous banquet, but they all had utensils tied to their hands that were about two feet long. Though they tried, no one could eat! They sat there cursing and howling. When shown the vision of heaven, she saw the same conditions – a sumptuous banquet, with two-foot long utensils tied to their hands. There was one significant difference – they used the utensils to feed the person seated across from them and they engaged in wonderful fellowship and hearty laughter.

Third, and last, Paul reminds the Corinthians, “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12.13; NRSV).

We cannot say “Jesus is Lord” apart from the Holy Spirit; though there are varieties of spiritual gifts, they all come from the same Spirit and are to be used for the common good; and through the Spirit, we are all baptized into one body. Pentecost revealed the power of God’s Spirit; the Spirit calls us to participate in building God’s Kingdom for the common good. Pentecost reminds us of the birth of Christ’s Church. Where would you rather experience – Babel or Pentecost?

Amen

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