May 23, 2010, The Day of Pentecost

SERMON preached on May 23, 2010 -Pentecost – Ted Berktold
Church of the Resurrection, Eugene

When a volcano erupts, what happens on the surface is a result of unseen things happening underneath. Heat and pressure from gases and molten rock build up. They cause the ground to bulge and quake and then, amidst fire and flooding mud and flowing lava, a volcano is born. What happens under the earth’s crust happens to people. The People of Israel, God’s Chosen People, once spiritually powerful and influential, lay dormant despite so much potential force, talk of a messiah, and the promise of God’s power. Some Jews thought that the eruption had come with Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth. But it blew up in their faces. Dreams of glory were buried under fear and death, and their hopes were turned to ashes. The disciples, however, did not disband and go fishing. They did as the Lord instructed; they waited. The Lord of all creation, of all the past and all the present, had claimed to be the Lord of the future as well. So they waited.

During Jesus’ time on earth, the disciples got to know him as they walked together and talked together, felt his healing touch, and heard his words of comfort and truth. They began to respect and love him, and place their hope in him before his arrest, but “He was crucified, died, and was buried,” says the Creed. Then something tremendous happened within the earth; so tremendous it still brings a shout of “alleluia” to our lips two thousand years later. Inside the earth itself, God gave life to the crucified one. The stone was rolled back; the Holy One of God arose to rejoin those who had followed him faithfully. Although they had no hope of ever looking into his eyes again or hearing his voice or touching him, they found themselves doing all those things. Now their relationship with Jesus changed. He was still who he had been before the cross, but they made it clear that now he was more, much more. They could touch the holes made by the nails and the spear. They recognized him in the breaking of bread. He came through closed doors. He had become, to use the words we know so well, the risen Christ.

But this, too, had an end. Christians have always regarded the Ascension of our Lord as the ending of Jesus’ presence among us in a special, personal way that will only begin again in the kingdom of God, after this phase of our life has ended. The early Church would need half a century to absorb his departure and speak about his return. The phrase that comes into my mind when I think of the Ascension is “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” In his account of the Ascension, Luke says that the disciples and Mary went home with joy after Jesus ascended into heaven. I know that we must read the lines of scripture before we read between the lines, but I can’t help feeling that their joy was mixed with sadness on the day Jesus departed. I’m not surprised that scripture mentions only joy, for joy and sadness are opposite ends of the same line, and are often intermingled. So they waited, because he told them to. On the Jewish feast of Pentecost, 50 days after Passover, when Jews commemorate the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai, the waiting stopped. We read in the Acts of the Apostles: “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2: 2)

We live in the area of active volcanoes. But we know that the power of a volcano is nothing compared with the power of God; nothing. The disciples poured out of that room on fire with the Holy Spirit. Like volcanic ash, they began to choke the world, and its powers. They drifted toward Spain and Africa, Rome and Corinth. Those original followers, many who had never left their tiny homeland, covered the known world. They preached love, forgiveness. They preached Jesus Christ. They baptized; they immersed others in the Spirit of God which was poured out in them, the same Spirit which is poured out into us in baptism. “In each of us the Spirit is manifested in a particular way; wise speech, healing, ecstatic utterance, or ability to interpret it,” said Paul. He expanded the list in the 12th chapter of Romans. The gift of the Spirit can be administration, teaching, giving to charity, leading. Paul gave no definitive list. The Spirit blows where it will, he said. We do not know where the Spirit of God will be tomorrow.

According to Paul, the gifts of God are given for the building up of the church, Christ’s visible, tangible presence on earth. They are not for the elite few, these gifts. Each member of the church has his or her particular character, from the youngest to the eldest. There is no Christian who does not have one or more of the gifts of the Spirit, and no individual has them all; not even the bishop. So the question for Paul was not: “What is biggest, best gift for a Christian to have?” but rather, “What gifts has the Spirit given to me?” and “How can I use those gifts?” How can the Church discern the gifts of each person, recognize those gifts, and celebrate them? Some gifts are extraordinary, miraculous, sensational. Some are quiet and ordinary, as modest as a welcoming smile to a newcomer on Sunday morning. At bottom, all the gifts are one gift. There is one Lord, one Spirit, who gives the gift of eternal life. “Almighty God, on this day you opened the way to eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit,” says the collect for today. That life begins today when we live the love of Christ. Love is our experience of eternal life now.

As their relationship with the risen Christ ended when he ascended, the disciples realized that the love they had come to expect from Jesus would now have to come from among themselves. Chapters 13 -17 of John’s Gospel, the portion of the Gospel we have been reading since I came at the beginning of May, are known as the Farewell Discourses because, in them, Jesus was saying goodbye and handing on his work to those who were to continue his mission. Today’s Gospel (John 14: 8-17) is a key section of that farewell speech. The test of their love for him, he said, is that they continue to practice all he taught them. At the end of the Discourses, at the 2Oth verse of Chapter 17, Jesus prayed not only for the disciples among whom he had lived and ministered, but also for “those who believe in me through their word.” Jesus was praying for us; inviting us to inherit the gifts and become divine love in our own day. He knew people would no longer run into him at the marketplace; they would run into us. They would see and hear us, and he knew that through us, they might eventually come to know him. Over the centuries, by way of water and Word, bread and wine, that first Christian community has become us and we have become them. Like the disciples, we may feel tempted to look back nostalgically to the times when Christ was there for us, and not realize he wanted us to be here for him.

Pentecost redirects our vision from ascending Lord to empowering presence; from sky to earth; from far-away God to Christ in our midst. Pentecost is the mission statement of the Church. Celebrating it with you today is a privilege and a joy. Within us burns the flame of Pentecost. Embowered by the Spirit of the Living God, may we always be Christ to each other. Thank you for being Christ to me today.

Let us pray:
May the Spirit’s fire be in our thoughts
Making them true, good and just
May it protect us from the evil one.

May the Spirit’s fire be in our eyes
May it open our eyes to what is good in life and
protect us from what is not.

May the Spirit’s fire be on our lips, so that we may speak the truth in kindness
That we may serve and encourage others and
Be protected from speaking evil.

May the Spirit’s fire be in our ears
that we may hear with a deep, deep listening
and all may know that we respect them.

May the Spirit’s fire be in our arms and hands
So that we may be of service and build up love.

May the Spirit’s fire be in our whole being; in our legs and feet
Enabling us to walk the earth with care
So that we may walk ways of goodness and truth. Amen.