a sermon for the Day of Pentecost [Year C]
Acts 2:1-21 and John 14:8-17
There was a lot of talk in the church office this week about the Parthians, the Medes, and the Elamites. There was also a lot of talk about the residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia…or is it Cappado-sha? Or Cappado-kia? And don’t get us started on those Phrygians and Pamphylians! We were talking about them because, you see, Hanne Hamlin, our Office Administrator, knew she had drawn the lay reader “short straw” and was scheduled to read the Acts lesson this morning that tells the story of Pentecost. And Turner Barger, the son of one of our office staff members and who serves as the president of the Synod’s Lutheran Youth Organization had also been assigned to read this Acts lesson at the big worship service at Synod Assembly Friday night in front of a group of 300 people which contained at least two bishops and dozens of pastors…as if we know how to say these words. I don’t really know how to say these words. I’ve always just made a guess on all those Cretans and Arabs and proselytes from Rome, which is what we all told Hanne and Turner to do. We told them just to launch forth with confidence no matter how they say it. No hesitation. Power through. Everybody will think they’ve done it correctly. And, to be honest, Turner and Hanne and Pamela all rocked it. Take that, Cappadocians!
If you like a good case of irony, this Pentecost reading is a perfect example of it. It is ironic that the Scripture lesson that tells us about how clearly understood the first disciples were on Pentecost contains itself so many words that are impossible to say! It is ironic that the Bible reading that is meant to show us how easy it was for those disciples to proclaim the gospel is one of the toughest for people to get through. For you see, the main message conveyed by this reading, once you get passed all the strange names, is that the gospel is no longer a mystery, no longer a complicated, hard-to-put-together message that only a handful of small-town disciples were entrusted with. The main message of Pentecost, the giving of God’s Holy Spirit, is that the love of Christ and his death and resurrection is now something everyone can grasp and not just grasp, but share!
And that message is for all people, no matter how hard it is to pronounce the country they come from, or how uncomfortable the color of their skin may make us, or how easy it is to drive around their impoverished neighborhood, or how tough it is to sit at their table in the lunchroom at school. The message of the gospel—that Jesus loves us and that the Spirit draws us into one body for God the Father—has been given to us to share and celebrate with all people. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved! And we are the ones to let that good news be known.
The congregation I served during my seminary internship felt like a mini-Pentecost just about every Sunday in that several languages and ethnic groups were always present in the congregation. St. Andrew’s United Church of Cairo is an international, interdenominational congregation supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that sits in the heart of Egypt’s capital city of about 16 million people. It has long been one of the few Protestant churches that offers English-language worship services in a liturgical format. As a result, the congregation is made up not just of American and British and Canadian expats, but also a large number of folks from other countries who happen to speak English. There were Dutch families, German families, as well as several families from various African countries. The congregation also hosted two Sudanese refugee congregations, each of which spoke a different native tongue.
On Christmas our worship tried to gather all of those different peoples together for one service, so we had to make sure the bulletin contained a print version of a lesson in the languages that were being spoken. If the Old Testament lesson, for example, was read aloud by one of the Sudanese worshipers in Dinka, then we’d print the lesson in English, Arabic, and Nuer. If we sang the first hymn in English, then the second one would be offered by one of the refugee choirs. It was a challenge to pull off, but the end result was that each received the message of Jesus’ love in their own tongue.
I was glad for that experience, but I’ve since learned that congregations that speak one language have to be no less intentional about communicating the message of Christ. We may all speak English here, but none of us is exactly the same. We’re all walking the journey a bit differently with our own scars and wounds. We end up hearing things and experiencing matters of faith a bit differently. The Holy Spirit helps bring us overcome those barriers and brings us together in a way that makes us one. The Holy Spirit is that person of God that binds us in mission, so that when we perform an act of mercy or compassion, when we share a word of kindness, we will see the face of God revealed and the world will come to see the face of God in us. Jesus says to his disciples, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” As we, in spite of our differences, live out Christ’s command to love one another, we become the way the world sees God.
Diversity seems to be a big topic church these days, and for good reason. Even in 2019 we are still trying to overcome the divisions of race and gender and economics that have kept our unity less than what it could be. We celebrate that now there are more women and more people of color serving as bishops in our Lutheran denomination than ever before. Three congregations in the Virginia Synod (out of about six) are led by senior pastors who are women, which is sign that the stained glass ceiling is breaking. One day we won’t even count or take note of those kinds of things. They will just be the way the church in America is.
And yet one thing I struggle with my tendency to make the concept of diversity into an idol, as if that idea of many differences is what I worship, not the God behind it. The people on Pentecost were surprised at their diversity and glad for it. Their diversity language and culture is a sign of the Holy Spirit’s activity. And yet the diversity never becomes the focus of their message. It just happens.
We would do well to remember, then, that the only thing that keeps the church true and interesting and powerful is the presence of Christ abiding through the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells his disciples on the eve of his death to keep his commandment of love. Diversity alone does not alone make the church rich. God’s love in Christ does. When it is proclaiming Jesus, crucified and risen, a small congregation of farmers on the plains of North Dakota is just as true a church as the congregation I served in Cairo with its many languages and ethnic groups. A new group of Christians worshipping in a grass hut in Papua New Guinea is just as valid in their discipleship and as a sign of God’s kingdom as we are here with our Brighten Our Light campaign and groundbreaking.
It is important that we not get too taken away with ourselves, too fixated on our tapestries of diversity—or apparent lack of it—for our task as church is never to proclaim ourselves. It not to point ultimately to how special we are, even though true diversity is very special. Our task is always and only to do the works that Jesus’ love produces in us, which are the works of God the Father. Our task is to point the world to the One who has claimed us and made us his own. It is to lift up the love of the God who has adopted us and made us children, and if children, heirs.
And yet…that is never an excuse just to be content with whoever is here at Epiphany at the moment, as if we’re complete. The Spirit always bringing new people to each church event, to each Sunday worship service. The Spirit is always placing new people in your path out their in your daily lives, people who long to know the love and forgiveness of Jesus. And the Spirit always calls us to be aware of how unintentionally unwelcoming we may be to newcomers, or how confusing our ways may be to those trying to find their way in.
That’s one reason why all the images for the Spirit in the Bible have to do with air. A dove, fire, rushing wind—God can’t be controlled, and be prepared for what can happen when you open up a window and let the air in. The Venerable Bede, an English saint of the 8th century who the church commemorates today, once said, “Unfurl the sails, and let God steer us where he will!”
The groundbreaking last Sunday was an exciting day in the life of this congregation. We’re getting ready to open a lot of windows. And walls. Literally. They’ll be knocked down and rebuilt. Last week during one of the children’s sermons, as I was showing the architects’ drawings to make a point, one young child spoke up and said, “But I don’t want our change our church.” That wasn’t exactly the direction I wanted to go with the children’s sermon, but, then again, you never know how the Spirit is going to move. In that moment I gave God thanks that the Spirit has developed this congregation in such a way that young children are welcome in worship and are nurtured in their faith in such a way that they can use their voice and respond openly and honestly to what they hear.
And I also gave thanks for that particular boy’s prophecy, because, if I’m honest, a part of me fears what these changes will bring to Epiphany, too. A part of me always fears change a bit, fears the air that blows in the window. I suppose the church is always being changed in some way, not just here at Epiphany, but the world over. If you like a good case of irony, there you have it. The church can always depend on the fact that things are changing. In our sin we consider them too young to do so, but the young men and women are prophesying. And in our sin we often paint them as stuck in their ways, but old men and women do have visions and dream dreams for what the people of God can be doing.
We can fear it, have our misgivings, and yet God still pours himself out for us. God still entrusts to us this powerful message of Christ for the sake of the world. So even when we’re not quite sure how we’re supposed to say it…or share it…how to pronounce it…how to be it…at some point God’s Spirit moves us to launch forward with confidence. No hesitation! Power through! People will see us and see the Father.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.