Worship Message Texts

I concluded my final interim pastorate in March 2016, so I am no longer preaching on a regular basis. I am available for pulpit supply and these sermon scripts and videos give a picture of my approach. For pulpit supply, I am happy to write new sermons targeted at specific concerns or needs of congregations, otherwise I will rework previous sermons based on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

One and Wildly Varied

Acts 2:1-21; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
June 8, 2014 – Pentecost Sunday
© 2014
Pentecost, 1997
Sawai Chinnawong
We live in a time that yearns to celebrate diversity at the same time it promotes polarization. World attention is currently focused on ethnic, religious and political forces driving violent conflict in South Sudan, Syria and Ukraine. In our own society, the storm around Donald Sterling and the L. A. Clippers and the volatile muddle arising from how to address another mass shooting and gun rights, confront us with the inescapability of diversity and polarization.
The “table of nations” from the first Pentecost we just read in Acts 2:9-11 has baffled scholars for generations. Pieces of it match other ways of envisioning all humanity in the first century, but each scheme has a seemingly fatal flaw. Perhaps Luke did that intentionally to emphasize the diversity of the people who were there that day. The most recent, careful linguistic scholarship suggests that most were not visitors in Jerusalem for the Festival of Weeks, but resident of Jerusalem who had gathered from the diaspora and brought foreign language and culture with them. This is by contrast with the “visitors from Rome” in verse 10. Luke wanted to pre-figure the climax of Acts as the Gospel made it to Rome, the center of the Empire. Luke specified Jews and proselytes to indicate the scope of God’s faithful had already been expanding. That he added “Cretans and Arabs” to the end of this list in verse 11 was as telling then as it is today, as they were the most despised groups.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has envisioned itself as “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.” Without arguing strategy or effectiveness, this is in touch with the challenge of our time. It also echoes Barton Stone’s, “Let Christian unity be our Polar Star.”
The Holy Spirit empowers wildly diverse people to proclaim God’s deeds of power so everyone can call on the name of the Lord and be saved.
Mainline Christians are especially prone to promote and celebrate diversity as an end in itself. However, in the Pentecost account, diversity was the means to the end of the proclamation of God’s deeds of power, specifically raising Jesus from the dead. As we well know, just speaking the same language does not mean we understand each other or are unified. The unity of Pentecost was that from the diversity of languages and cultures they understood the same message.
Throughout the book of Acts, the proclamation of the Gospel was not instruction in ethics, piety, justice or even what we would think of as theology or doctrine. While the Epistles did teach the churches about these things, the proclamation of the Gospel in the public arena was that with the death and resurrection of Jesus, God had acted powerfully, and everything was different. God was inviting everyone to call on the name of the Lord and be saved: to be free of death and to access eternal life.
The proclamation of God’s deeds of power in raising Jesus from the dead overcame all of the human divisions represented in the table of nations in verses 9-11. By quoting from the Prophet Joel, Peter’s sermon went even further to eliminate the barriers between generations, genders and even socio-economic status. Slaves were equal to and united with the free class who claimed to own them. Though Pentecost was clearly a Jewish event, naming Arabs and Cretans pointed ahead to the inclusion of all Gentiles in an equal unity with the risen Jesus.
The diverse language of the visual arts also affirms the unity of the proclamation of God’s deeds of power. It enriches our appreciation of how God has called people of every tribe and tongue and nation into oneness in Jesus. The painting on the cover of your bulletin is by Sawai Chinnawong. He was born in Burma in a Buddhist home and came to Thailand after losing his parents. Studying art, he became curious about a nearby Christian community. At age 23 he was baptized as a Christian and has devoted over two decades to painting biblical images. He says, “I have chosen to celebrate [Christ’s] presence in our lives through Thai traditional cultural forms.” Christian Century, May 28, 2014, pp. 30ff In an email correspondence I had with Allan Eubank last week, I learned that Sawai is a neighbor of the Eubanks, who have been Disciples of Christ missionaries in Thailand for many years. They are officially retired but still serve. The visual representations of Pentecost affirm how the Holy Spirit empowers wildly diverse people to proclaim God’s deeds of power so everyone can call on the name of the Lord and be saved.
By identifying the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost as the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy of the last days, Peter interpreted “last days,” not as meaning the end of the world, but as the culmination of God’s redemptive plan for all humanity. In these “last days,” the Holy Spirit is not limited to a handful of people for brief moments or even to Israel. God’s Spirit would be poured out on all flesh, all humanity.
Peter intended his Pentecost audience to understand what they had witnessed and heard – rushing wind, tongues of fire, hearing about God’s deeds of power in their own languages as the fulfillment of Joel’s prediction of prophecy, visions and dreams. What we read from 1 Corinthians 12 about spiritual gifts illustrates just how diverse these working of the Spirit would be. And that one Spirit would bring all of these together in one body.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) traces its history to the Cane Ridge Revival of 1801 that was hosted by Barton Stone. It was a wild outpouring of the Holy Spirit with manifestations we would associate with some of the most expressive Pentecostalism today. We’d probably find ourselves uncomfortable if we could be transported back there. Whether in that style or not, we are cautious about losing control to the Holy Spirit. Danielle Shroyer, Pastor of Journey Church in Dallas, encourages us to trust the Holy Spirit to take us in new directions. The Hardest Question http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/new-testament/pentecostcnt/
The Spirit of God has been released into the world. Not contained but set free. Not limited but expanding. What else would we expect, if this Spirit of Life is the One through whom God raised Jesus? We are equipped to be who God wants us to be in this new world when the Spirit comes whooshing through the room. Pentecost is the day that makes the future of the church possible. Without Pentecost, we’d just be people who tell Jesus’ story. With Pentecost, we’re people who live into Jesus’ story. We don’t have any idea what the Spirit will do next, so let’s not pretend that we do, or try to limit our assumptions about what the Spirit might do. The one thing we know for sure is that the Spirit is bringing us toward new creation, so whatever it is, it’s going to be good.
Holy Spirit empowers wildly diverse people to proclaim God’s deeds of power so everyone can call on the name of the Lord and be saved.
We sometimes speak of Pentecost as the birthday of the Church. Commentators are divided on whether that is a legitimate understanding. However, Bradley Schmelling, from the pastoral staff of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Minnesota tells of a children’s sermon build on that idea. The pastor asked the children how many candles would need to be on the Church’s birthday cake. When the pastor affirmed one of the children guess close to 2,000, another child piped up, “You can’t blow out that many candles.” Pentecost reminds us that God has promised again and again to set us on fire that cannot be extinguished. Christian Century, May 28, 2014, p. 21
Confident that the Holy Spirit will continue to empower the Church to proclaim God’s deeds of power so everyone can call on the name of the Lord and be saved, we can face the future with hope and courage. Our seemingly small place in the immediate future is an essential component in God’s big picture for the ultimate future. The forces that would try to defeat the Church are doomed to frustration like someone playing the silly game of “Whack a Mole.” Just as the Church seems to take a hit one place, it pops up in another place with new life.
I love how Annie Dillard described the wildness of the Holy Spirit in her 1982 book Teaching a Stone to Talk.
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
Holy Spirit empowers wildly diverse people to proclaim God’s deeds of power so everyone can call on the name of the Lord and be saved.

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