Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Feast of Pentecost — Sunday, May 24, 2015
A few years ago a Lutheran church was given a full set of used red vestments, hand-me-downs from a larger congregation. As the pastor and lay leaders unpacked them they soon noticed the image of a descending dove with completely crazed eyes and claws that looked like talons. It was as though the Holy Spirit was a predator. “Man, someone said. We can’t use these. It makes The Holy Spirit look dangerous.” They got that right.We tend to talk about Pentecost as the birthday of the church which is a nice concept, albeit a bit oversentimental. The story we hear today is not. It’s a dangerous one. It opens with that small group of the remnant friends of Jesus isolating themselves as the text says, all together in one place. Were they so afraid of the crowds that had gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish feast day? Little did they suspect that what they should have feared was what was about to happen. They were in danger but not from those on the outside – the danger they were in was from a powerful Spirit who is about to crash the party.
Raucous sounds from heaven, cosmic language, the rush of a mighty wind—the ruach, the breath of God—invaded the room where they gathered and appeared to them as a burning fire. Blazing tongues touched their nerve centers. The noisy, windy, sizzling yet unseen power of God moved among them and clutched them.
It was the day of Pentecost—the day that an explosion occurred in Jerusalem more than two thousand years ago releasing a holy energy in the form of God’s Spirit that turned the world of the first believers upside down. These mashugana characters were instantly transformed into confident, charismatic preachers through whose outreach a large community of faith began to take form.
Without the power unleashed on Pentecost through the coming of God’s Ruach, God’s own life-giving breath, we would not be gathered here this morning as the church. It’s a great story and yet it gives me pause. I sometimes wonder just what went wrong. Think about the tremendous growth of the earliest faith communities under such difficult and even life-threatening conditions. Why are so many churches struggling to attract members?
Today we often find church people in their meeting rooms squelching, even sabotaging the Spirit. The church began in a state of wild revival; why is there so much stagnation and boredom in many churches today?
The Pentecost story begins with holy commotion, great excitement, fire and velocity—all of which leads this small gaggle of people to boldly proclaim the powerful works of God with a sense of urgency and conviction. That was the beginning of church. And it continued to be that kind of vibrant church as we learn from the rest of the Book of Acts.
How much do we resemble the church of Jerusalem in 33 AD? Is their energy, passion, and a sense of urgency to proclaim the good news to a diverse and broad spectrum of people in our 21st century DNA? How selective is the church about who is welcome, even entitled to be part of it? How complacent and apathetic can it get when its pews are full? Why are so many empty?
It may be hard to see any resemblance at all to that amazing day in Jerusalem more than two thousand years ago and to what we have become today unless we look at the people because, if we look there, we will find that there is actually little difference whatsoever. There is still fear and isolation in the church. Sadly, I find that an emerging focus seems to be on fostering the concept of “smaller” church, a radical departure from God’s dream for us. God dreams big and so must we. The reality is that we are still as flawed, smug, confused, embarrassed and sometimes even as mashugana as those disciples were on that awesome day—in other words we are the very kind of people to whom God sends the spirit.
Who doesn’t find themselves in the same predicament as those disciples cowering in that house on the first Pentecost, trying to find our way out of the imprisonment of fear, confronted with a sense of ineffectiveness, and lacking an understanding of how God will lead us out of our anxiety, our distress, our confusion and give us a glimpse of the hope we do not see?
The prophet Joel reminds us that God’s spirit—the Ruach—is open to open everybody to God’s future. The young and the old will dream and have visions of hope. God is establishing through us a whole new economy of creation. That breath of God, the powerful, rousing, even risky Spirit draws us together as one people, helps us to recognize what God is doing in the world, and empowers us to proclaim God’s mission of reconciling all people. The radical and mysterious thing about the Holy Spirit is that She molds us into the Body of Christ and turns us from a “they” into a “we”. So that we can be all together in one place.
We often think about the Holy Spirit as the “Comforter,” but it is not a warm chocolate chip cookies and milk kind of comfort but rather the truth bearing kind that, while it might set us free, can scare the heck out of us and rattle our cages in the process.
So how much do we resemble the church of Jerusalem in 33 AD? I think sometimes a lot and sometimes very little. I think we give Jesus reason to say “Nice going, folks!” as well as “oh no! Where did that come from?” I think we give him cause to smile, to laugh, and to weep. And, in all of it and by the grace of God, we are still here.
Aseel Albanna came to the United States as a student from Iraq just before the war broke out. Three years ago, she returned to see a country destroyed by war. When she finally arrived and stood in front of her house, what was once her home, she said, “It’s like there’s no more life left in it. What I have left is only memories, because right now I barely recognize it. The only thing that’s still there is the breeze, that Baghdad breeze.”
Only the wind remains, I thought when I read this. We can do great things as the church and at times we can fail to do what God has called us to do, but we cannot destroy the wonderful power of God. The Jerusalem breeze remains, sometimes in spite of us. Because you see, God hasn’t changed and the Holy Spirit, well, She can be mighty dangerous! In a wonderfully exciting way.