Thursday, June 26, 2008
So wrote Edward de Vere* under the pen name "William Shakespeare" in a play titled The Scottish Play Act 5 Scene 5 lines 19-21. It's one of the most famous quotations of de Vere, having its own wikipedia site listing its influence.* The context of course is of king who has become disillusioned and depressed. He sees life (tomorrows) as a series of inevitable disappointments. This is the height of cynicism. That is, no one has the power to make anything better.
Cynicism is a terrible thing precisely because the cynic makes the judgement that people have the power to avoid errors. The cynic sees himself or herself as the master of life, someone who can be infallible, someone who can control the events of life and therefore adjust them for the better. Cynics tend to be perfectionists...yes we do. Yes, I said "we." I'm a recovering cynic. And cynics harshly judge other people they believe are not able to suck it up and control their lives.
"Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow..." says the king who has lost the power to control the future, because of a bloodthirsty past. He has made selfish choices, and will have to live with evil consequences.
Cynicism and selfishness are friends from old. A philosopher might suggest that they are synonyms. These notions are clearly at odds with the Christian way of life--no matter what denominational brand it's packaged as. Selfishness is the enemy of the Cross; it is the root and cause of all sin.
"Tomorrow," in our house, today, means new birth. A little girl. And I'll tell you right now that nothing takes away cynicism quite so quickly as anticipating a baby. It takes away your ability to think only for yourself. It takes away your ability to plan only for your own needs. It removes all of your control, despite the ways that you run around getting everything ready. That's just a coping mechanism....you're not in control. The baby comes and life gets turned upside down. A new person to relate to. A new family dynamic. A new pattern of life. A self-evident message from almighty God that we can be replaced--we are not the center of the universe.
We have no right to be cynical.
My priest told me once, "Go down to the river and stick you finger in the water. The day you can pull your finger out of the water and leave a hole is the day the world can't get along without you."
We have no right to be cynical. We don't run this world. God runs this world.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Back in March, I had the opportunity to meet and listen live to Dr. Fred B. Craddock--the man who (to my thinking) changed preaching forever. I'm a big fan. I like him in print, I like listening to his sermons. And I had a question for him that I was able to ask personally, and I'm sure he would approve of his response being broadcasted in any form.
I asked him the question like this: "Easter 2 every year...every single year...we have to read and preach on Thomas. I've been preaching Easter 2 for seven years now (five ordained, two in seminary) and I'm looking at 30+ more years of preaching on Thomas on Easter 2, every year... What am I going to do?"
His response, "There's value in repetition. Many people don't realize that."
It was a frustrating response when I first heard it. It sounded like W.C. Fields..."Go away, kid, you bother me." But the more I've thought about it...one might say, repeated that event in my brain...the more I see he's right.
You could probably preach the same sermon every week (if it's a good sermon) for a whole month, every Sunday, and some folks would probably want to hear it again. I don't intend to try, but I think that's right. Repetition is good for the church. Holy Communion every Sunday, anamnesis, coffee hour, shaking hands, reading the Bible, telling stories.
I'm beginning to look forward to Easter 2 next year...
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Monday, June 23, 2008
This year we are reading through Matthew's Gospel in the lectionary readings. Each of the Gospels has its own way of relating the story of Jesus, because each Gospel was written for a different community in the early Church. John's Gospel was written for a community of ascetic Jews, known as Essenes. That's why John is such a "spiritual" Gospel. Mark's Gospel came first, with Matthew and Luke behind. Both Matthew and Luke draw heavily from Mark, but they shaped their narratives according to their own sense of how they felt the story should read.
Matthew's Gospel was written for a community of Jewish converts to Christianity who have been cast out of their synagogues. So the language of Matthew is much more harsh—it's against the Jewish establishment. The words, "Woe to you, hypocrites!" are only found in Matthew. Jesus sounds much more like a teacher—much more rabbinical—in Matthew, although the word "Rabbi" is discouraged in Matthew's Gospel.
I have heard one biblical scholar say that Matthew's Gospel was written to a people who have been thrown out of their synagogues for being Christians, and are huddled together across the street and don't know what to do next.
So with this in mind, listen again to these words: Jesus said to the twelve disciples, "A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell."
Now there is a lot of meaning in that text. It begins with an analogy, "A disciple is not above the teacher." The analogy is that just as Jesus has encountered difficulties, so will his disciples. Don't think that you go around doing what Jesus did and not encounter opposition. People are not naturally geared to being selfless and sacrificial—they are going to dislike you when you suggest that their lives are not as noble as they could be.
So he says, "Have no fear of them" when they persecute you—remember Matthew's community is a persecuted community. "For nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known." In other words, their persecution of you will come to light—and you will be judged according to how well you kept to the teachings of Christ.
Then he goes on to say, "Do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell."
This text can be confusing, if we read it out of context. Remember, people were put to death for being Christians. Jesus says, "Do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul." Read, "human beings." But rather, "fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell." And who is that?
See, the knee jerk reaction is to think that Jesus is talking about the devil, but no. The one who has dominion over both soul and body is God. What Jesus says is that it is very understandable to fear physical death, but what is even more fearful is to be on the wrong side of God: who has dominion over not only our physical life, but our spiritual life as well.
Now, when we are forced to consider these teachings in the context in which they were written, we are forced to consider the context in which we read it now. The fact is that our context is very different. We no longer think quite so seriously about spiritual consequences, either in this life or the next. Be honest. Even at our most pious, we don't often consider God as a giver of punishment.
I once participated in a panel discussion with clergy and representatives from other faiths. It was a very enlightening experience. When I was in college and in seminary I studied the other religions, but I was never really forced to look at them through the eyes of someone who actually believed a faith other than my own. All my world religion professors were Christians.
So as I listened to actual believers talking about their faiths, I realized how the very objectives of those other faiths were so different that they can't even really connect to us. Most Christians believe that other religions have the same spiritual goals, but different ways of talking about them. But in fact, followers of classical Islam are not really looking for salvation as we understand it. Taoists, Buddhists, Hindus…they all have their own sense of relationship to the world, to others, and to God.
In many ways we are absolutely alike. Almost every religion on earth believes that through some form of worship the true reality of the world is revealed. Almost all religions believe that a person may become sacred in some form or another, and almost all believe that the secret to holy living is found in respectful relationships with other people.
But. And this is a big difference: Christians are unique in believing that eternal life in heaven is only accessible though the crucified and resurrected Son of God: Jesus Christ. And that "salvation" is being delivered from hell.
The goal of the Christian life, therefore, is to pattern one's life on the teachings of Jesus, by whose birth, death and resurrection, we obtain life everlasting. As Jeremy Taylor, a 17th century Anglican Divine has written:
"…we must look somewhere else for an abiding city, a place in another country to fix our house in, whose walls and foundation is God, where we must find rest, or else be restless for ever. For whatsoever ease we can have or fancy here is shortly to be changed into sadness or tediousness: it goes away too soon, like the periods of our life: or stays too long, like the sorrows of a sinner: its own weariness, or a contrary disturbance, is its load; or it is eased by its revolution into vanity and forgetfulness; and where either there is sorrow or an end of joy, there can be no true felicity. …We must carry up our affections to the mansions prepared for us above, where eternity is the measure, felicity the state, angels are the company, the Lamb is the light, and God is the portion and inheritance."
To put Taylor's words as succinctly as possible, holy living is holy dying. And if we live as Jesus has taught us, as best we can, then heaven will not seem so foreign a place, and this life will be a foretaste of the life to come. (Pause.)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die." That's a very severe thing to say, isn't it? But Bonhoeffer, in that one phrase, sums up the meaning of what it is to follow Jesus. To follow not just what he teaches, but to follow him all the way to the cross—giving up ourselves sacrificially for the lives of others.
That doesn't necessarily mean that we give our lives literally, although our church calendar is certainly filled with people who have. For most of us, "dying" is about giving up our need to be right, or to have the last word, or to always be the first consideration. This is one of the many reasons why Christians have always been ridiculed. Because we believe that "giving and sharing" is more important than "getting and having." And we have been the subject of scorn for this, even from the very beginning—which brings us back to Matthew. (Pause.)
Matthew's community was wrestling with the dilemma of how to be Christians when their traditions were so deeply Jewish. They were sorting out questions of how to behave to their non-converted friends, how to stay true to the life they felt Jesus had called them to live, and how to bring more people into their fellowship.
So when they read that Jesus said, "Do not worry about those who can kill the body, but not the soul…instead fear the One who can kill both body and soul," he was clearly speaking to their anxieties about how to stay true to the Faith in an adverse culture, believing—as we do to this day—that we will one day stand before God.
One of my favorite stories comes from the Jewish tradition. And since Matthew's Gospel wrestles with Christian and Jewish identities, perhaps it's fitting that I tell it.
It's about a rabbi who disappears every Sabbath night to "commune with God in the forest," or so his congregation thought. So one Sabbath night they asked one of their cantors to follow him to observe the encounter between God and the rabbi.
The rabbi hiked into the woods, deeper and deeper, mile after mile, up hills and down ravines, until he came to a little cottage at the base of a mountain where an old Gentile woman lived. The woman was sick, on the verge of death, and crippled.
As the cantor watched, he saw the rabbi cook for her, split and carry her firewood, give her medicine, sweep her floors, and do her laundry. And when he had finished, the rabbi kissed her softly on the forehead and told her he'd be back next week. The rabbi then made his way back through the forest by night—up hills and down ravines—until he got back to his little house by the synagogue.
When the cantor returned, the people gathered around him wanting to know the full story. They asked, "Did our rabbi go up to heaven? Did you see our rabbi go up to heaven, as we thought?" "Oh, no," the cantor replied, "our rabbi went much, much higher than that."
The experiences that will genuinely bring us closer to God are the unselfish, self-giving, sacrificial actions that we take to improve the lives of others. That is the message of the Cross; that is the message of hope and salvation; that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
We can simply believe in Jesus and go to heaven. But if we follow Jesus, actually doing what Jesus did, then we can go much, much higher than that—even into the very heart of Almighty God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
 Matthew 23:8
 Long, Thomas G. Matthew. Louisville: John Knox Press. 1997. pp. 2, 3 The substance of which I heard live at the Virginia Seminary Convocation in 2004.
 Taylor, Jeremy. The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying, Chapter 1, §2, ¶5. 1651.
 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Macmillan, 1966.
Saturday, June 21, 2008
I walk for my health. I walk because we all have to do something exercise related, especially those of us who live basically sedentary lives.
This morning my wife and child drove to the park. I walked there to meet them, and then home from there--just to get my walk in for the day with a minimal amount of "away from family" time--and as I walked I was thinking about the verse in (I think) Matthew's Gospel, "After this he [Jesus] when journeying from town to town and village to village. And I was thinking about Jesus and the Apostles walking everywhere. Imagine a world where walking was a common means of transport--such a different world that was.
I pretty much wrote my sermon for July 20th on the walk back, and had to wonder how many of Jesus' parables were thought of while walking. Weeds, trees, soil, vineyards, paths, good samaritans, prodigal sons--you can still see them today on the walk from Riley Park to Eagle Street. I swear...they're still out there...and they still preach.
Thursday, June 19, 2008
Strangely though, it doesn't seem real. It's as if only half of each of our brains has acknowledged the reality of it. I firmly expect that June 27th will roll around. She will have the c-section. I will be sitting beside her in the operating room, chatting inanely about the temperature of the room (read, "just like we did with Number 1"), and from out behind the curtain a baby will emerge that a nurse will hasten to call "our daughter," (and then start calling me "Dad" every time she walks by.)
But honestly, until I see the baby, I don't think I will fully believe we're going to have one. And the Rev. Mrs. feels the same way.
"Until I place my hands in the wound in his side, and my fingers in the wounds of his hands, I will not believe." And the Lord, standing before Thomas, said, "Peace be with you. Reach out your finger and place it in my side and in my hand...do not doubt, Thomas, but believe." And Thomas said, "My Lord and my God."
That baby's going to come out from behind that curtain. A little Resurrection right there...
My Lord and my God.
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
I once preached on what are commonly called the seven deadly sins. And afterwards, a parishioner came up to me and said he liked my sermon. I said thank you, and then he said, "I haven't heard anyone preach on sin in awhile; I thought clergy stopped preaching on it."
Now, that was an interesting comment, because it got me thinking about the last time I had heard someone preach about sin. It's been awhile.
To this day I have trouble remembering the last time I heard about sin in an Episcopal church. I have no trouble remembering sermons about sin in other places. When I was a boy I heard sermons about sin. I had opportunities to listen to preaching at Massanetta Springs, and at Eastern Mennonite University, and various churches. One summer I sang in the choir at a Steve Wingfield Revival. I heard about sin there.
But for the last I don't know how many years, preaching in mainline denominations has mostly turned away from sin, and much more over to the comforting messages that God is there: you're okay, I'm okay, we're okay. Part of that, I think, is that the culture of America changed dramatically in the 1960s, and the reverberations of that change can be felt in the decline in church membership today. People don't come to church because "that's just what you do," it's more of a choice now.
And since church is more of a choice, among many other choices, churches sometimes feel the need to be more "marketable." They try to make the experience less threatening, less intrusive. Wouldn't wantsomeone to come through the door and feel bad, so let's not talk about tithing. Let's not talk about sacrificial living—giving one's life to the Gospel. Let's not talk about evangelism. And above all, let's not talk about sin.
I don't think churches have slid into this mindset consciously, or deliberately. I just think people, especially Americans, don't really like to be reminded that a relationship with God does indeed carry over into the rest of our lives. That there's a cost to discipleship. And it's not new with my generation, or even the generations of the last hundred years. There has always been a tension there. There has always been a resistance to the devout life, because it means that we have to admit that we are not God, and that we are, in fact, sinners.
I was talking with someone recently who said, "I'm an Episcopalian because the Episcopal Church doesn't tell you how to live." Well, there are two sides to that. On one side, that's good, I have to agree. I like the freedom of opinion that Anglicanism has always allowed. But on the other side, it makes our tradition sound like "anything goes."
One day, I was flipping through the channels and came across a televised meeting of Roman Catholic bishops. It was on EWTN, the Roman Catholic channel. The bishop who was just about to speak was the liaison with the Anglican Communion. He came up to the microphone, and started talking about the "great challenge" of relating to the Anglicans, because—and I'll quote loosely—"their clergy wear collars like we do, their Mass looks just like our Mass, they often sound just as Catholic as we do, but they have no authority." And he went on to complain about how our church can't control what our members believe.
And I'm proud to say he's right. It's a little thing we like to call the Reformation…it happened about five hundred years ago.
But see here's the thing. The Episcopal Church doesn't tell you how to live. But Jesus does. It's not that "anything goes," it's that, in the Episcopal Church, we give as much latitude as possible for people to live out their faith. Instead of doctrine and dogma, we leave the challenge of living the Gospel to the conscience of believers. That should never be confused with "anything goes." If
anything, Anglicanism is even more challenging because we offer none of the authoritative certainty that you have done it perfectly.
But let's come back to the text. There's a little bur in this text. You know how you go walking through thickets and something doesn't feel right, and you look down and there's a little bur. Walk through this text with me, and see if you can feel it: "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly, Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us."
You feel it? Let me paraphrase. "Rarely will anyone die for a deserving person, maybe for someone nice someone might actually die. But God shows his love for us in that while we still were sinners Jesus hung on the cross for us."
I feel the bur when I read: "while we were still sinners." Did you ever stop to consider yourself a sinner first, and a Christian second? Now, my guess is that none of you have done any "hard time." None of you have split rocks in the county jail. You've probably told some little lies, maybe you didn't exactly `fess up when you did something wrong. Nothing all that remarkable on your rap sheet. But see, I'm not talking about sins. I'm talking about being a sinner.
God did not look down humanity and say, "Well, those are very decent folks. Some of them are right nice, I think I'll send my Son so that they can know I love them." No, no, no. "While we were still sinners..."
And Jesus came and preached and healed and cared for us, and the culmination of all of that was to go to the Cross. Not because we'd earned it. Not because we heard the message of pardon and forgiveness and repented—because some of us did, and some of us didn't. Salvation and remption are not "the gifts of God, for the people who deserve them." No, while we were still sinners...
While we were still completely ignorant of how sinful we were, while we still had no idea how great the distance was between us and God, while we were still consumed with selfishness and greed, hoarding and scraping, and covered in sin…
Some years ago I heard a sermon on this text and the preacher told a story about playing fetch with his dog on a farm, and he'd thrown the ball out so far that it had gone into a cow pasture. The dog ran out to get the ball and found a fresh patch of you-know-what. And after the dog had rolled in it, he started back, and found his way into a stack of leaves and straw. And the dog came back to his owner covered in all this mess with the ball in his mouth, fur matted with manure and stuck with leaves.
The preacher said, "I took that mangy old dog of mine back to the house, tracked him through to the bathroom, and gave him a bath. And then I had to clean the floors and the bathroom, and take a shower myself, and it took the rest of my day. And then I understood this text."
Well, yeah, kind of. But I think the Cross was bit more of a sacrifice. Most of us like to be good to people who are good to us. You clean up your dog. You lend a hand to your neighbor.
I was out playing with Peter one afternoon and noticed some little tree saplings growing up between the bushes, so I got my loppers and started cutting them down, and then I found a patch of stink-weed growing, so I cut that down, too. And before long I had piles of branches all over the place.
My next door neighbor came over and offered to help take my clippings to the dump. He's a nice man; I like him a lot, and frankly I was touched that he was willing to help me out. I was piling up thoseclippings on his little truck trailer, and I said, "You know, if you ever need an extra pair of hands, I'm right next door." I mean, I like the man, and if he ever needs help with anything…you know.
But now, let's say that you've got a neighbor who isn't very nice to you, and now he needs your help. You've known him for years. You have sent him Christmas cards; he has never sent you one. You made a bunch of cookies and took them over to him, but he slammed the door in
your face. You waved to him each morning on your way out. No wave back.
You took his mail and newspaper to him when he had the flu. He never thanked you.
Now he's in the hospital. He needs a kidney. If he doesn't get a kidney, he will die, and he's at the bottom of the waiting list. Time is running out. There are no donors who match the blood type. Except your son. Your only son. He's a good boy; he's offered to give the kidney, but he could die from the surgery.
What do you say? He's your son.
Will the man apologize before you offer to help him? No. Will the man change his ways, if he recovers? Maybe. You don't know. In fact, he might actually be ungrateful. He might get even
more grumpy when he realizes that you and the boy have saved his life. The man is dying. The clock is ticking.
If you have to think about this decision, it's because you're a sinner. If you don't have to think about this decision, it's because you're God.
Sunday, June 15, 2008
Unbelieveably...and I know you'll find this shocking...even though MY WIFE is about to have our second child in the next two weeks, I STILL forgot about Father's Day during the THREE anouncement times of the three services I conducted this morning. To my credit, I ameliorated the situation by mentioning it just before the dismissal at the three services...but still. Though I made a mental note (never worth the paper they're printed on) I still forgot.
Why? I don't know.
I think I need to buy a secular calendar. All mine are liturgical..and I miss all these days like Flag Day and Lincoln's Birthday. What shall I do? I could be sanctimonious about it and say that the secular calendar doesn't really matter, as compared with the calendar of saints....but that's just a cop out. The fact of the matter is that my head is probably too much in the Church and not enough in world we live in. That's not a good thing, actually.
Saturday, June 14, 2008
I have two very recent recollections about Tim. I was watching Morning Joe on MSNBC one morning after one of the primaries, and there he was joking around about the endlessness of the primary season. He had to say goodbye to head back to DC, and everyone was shaking his hand and saying goodbye, and long after they had all done so, and as Tim was walking away, he paused slightly just to wave one more time, and no one was looking. It just kinda struck me as a mark of his humility. One last wave, just to say thanks and goodbye. It's how I'll remember him.
The other recent recollection is of a comment he made just a short month or so ago. He was talking about--and I could be wrong here--Ted Kennedy, or someone else facing a difficult illness, and he reported that the individual had said, "There is no such thing as a bad day." Russert went on to explain that everyday we are alive on this earth is a good day, but we have to make it so. It's a bittersweet memory now...but for some reason when he said it, it "burned within me."
Tim Russert was a devout Christian--a devout Roman Catholic. It always seemed to me that his faith came out in interviews. Like the way Jesus questioned the Pharisees, Tim always seemed to go after the hypocritical. But this was always tempered with respect.
We don't know who will be the next Washington Bureau Chief of NBC or Moderator of Meet the Press, but no one will replace Tim Russert. I hope that whomever NBC hires to do his job will grow feet large enough to fit into Tim's shoes. We should pray for him, or her, because they will be measured by an impossible standard. And that's not just sentimentality talking...Tim really was great.
Since we (Christians) believe in the company of saints, a company of prayer and witness, let us ask Tim for his prayers as we continue to "strive for justice and peace among all people."
Thursday, June 12, 2008
She was glad to see me however. I'm glad because I was a little afraid that the spontenaity and old world nature of the visit would put her off. Nice conversation, then back on the sidewalk to visit the hospital. As if today were June 13th, 1943.
The story of the Church’s birth is really quite something. But in order to understand her, you have to understand her parents. There are three great festivals of the Jewish year, which gave birth to Christian feasts. There is, of course, the feast of the Passover, also known as the feast of Unleavened Bread. The Passover gave birth to the Christian Easter. Following Passover is the feast of Tabernacles, also known as the feast of Booths, or the feast of Weeks, “because it was observed seven weeks after Passover.”1
Pentecost means “fiftieth day after Passover,” and this feast was celebrated in thanksgiving for the law given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Now, please listen carefully. Because this can get kind of confusing. Passover celebrates the deliverance of the Hebrew people from Egypt: Pharaoh, plagues, the Exodus, you remember, right?
All right. Now, a span of time after they left Egypt, Moses gets to Mount Sinai, and receives the Law, the Torah. So Pentecost, as a Jewish feast, celebrates God making his covenant with the Hebrew people.
In order to see the significance of our Christian Pentecost, you have to understand that the old festival was about the giving of the Torah, the teachings of God. Whereas the Jewish feast remembered God writing his teaching on tablets of stone, the Christian Pentecost is God writing his teaching on the hearts of the disciples. The festivals are strikingly similar, and yet very different.
For the Christian, Pentecost is the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise—that he would “pray the Father,” and that the Father would send us a companion, the Spirit of God, who would guide us into all truth. The old Pentecost was a celebration of God’s initial Covenant with his people. The new Pentecost is a celebration of God’s new Covenant in Jesus Christ.
So you see, Pentecost didn’t just pop up on its own fifty days after Easter. It was already a Jewish feast day, with its own meaning, that—through the gift of the Holy Spirit—gave birth to the Church. I told you, she’s an interesting lady, because she’s got interesting parents.
Pentecost signaled a dramatic religious shift for the followers of the Risen Christ because it took God’s teachings out of the book, and into the heart. The Scriptures came to be read, not just to remember the Covenants, but to internalize them, and live the out. If you go to a synagogue, you will see that the Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy—those scrolls are in the place of greatest honor.
The new Pentecost envisions the Apostles with the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, resting on their foreheads like tongues of fire. This is not about scrolls and teachings. This is about God’s ways coming upon them—like fire. Not by words and instruction, but as a fulfillment of what Jeremiah had written,
“I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest," declares the Lord. "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more."2 It’s a new Covenant—not emphasizing rules and penalties, but grace and love.
But there is another way the Christian Pentecost changed everything. It changed the whole meaning of “God’s people.” The old covenant is about “us” and “our land.” The Hebrew people had been called out of Egypt, and given a place to live—free of slavery. The Babylonian exile had shaken that understanding of what it mean to be “God’s chosen people,” but that faith endured.
Yet, at the Christian Pentecost, the meaning of “God’s people” becomes understood in a radically different way. No longer are only Jews chosen to receive the covenant, but all who call upon the name of the Lord are chosen.
This theology would be developed in some detail by the Apostles Peter and Paul, but it all happened quite intuitively on the day of Pentecost. And that change was so dramatic that it is depicted as drunkenness. Now it’s true that many Christians understand that drunkenness as the Holy Spirit moving so powerfully in them that it overtook them, and they spontaneously spoke in various forms. But I think it is closer to the truth to say that the Holy Spirit miraculously enabled them to speak in languages other than their own, so that this powerful truth—that God is for all people—could be communicated as quickly as possible.
I’m not saying that evangelical Christians are wrong when they claim that the Holy Spirit allows them speak in a special prayer language. But it is abundantly clear from Acts that God’s intention was to hasten the spread of the Gospel by empowering the Apostles to communicate.
Beginning in verse 2:7 of Acts, Luke records, “Amazed and astonished, they asked, `Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’”
So clearly the “tongues” were preëxisting languages, miraculously conferred on the Apostles by the Holy Spirit.
Pentecost was the day the Father sent the Holy Spirit to begin conferring the gifts and power that keep the Church going to this day. Though it happened some 2000 years ago, all of these events—the life of Christ, the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Pentecost—still reverberate into our present day. Put simply, the Holy Spirit is still being poured out upon the Church. We might not hear or feel the wind, but it is constantly blowing upon us.
I have been in countless worship services in the course of my life. I have been in worship services where the youngest hymn or prayer was over a thousand years old, and I have been in worship services where the oldest hymn or prayer was five minutes old. I have been in worship services where people were waving their hands, and falling over in what is called “slain in the Spirit,” and I have been in worship services where the only sign of life was that, after a period of silent prayer, someone rang a bell.
I don’t know how strong the Holy Spirit is at any given moment, or at any given service, but I have been around people who think they know. “Boy, the Holy Spirit was really powerful at that service.” Or “Goodness gracious, I wonder if anyone bothered to ask the Holy Spirit to come.”
I think we need to be careful about assuming that we know when the Spirit is present or not, because the Holy Spirit’s purpose is not to make us feel good. The Holy Spirit’s purpose is to give gifts for ministry, and to reconcile all people to God. And sometimes the Spirit shows up whether we know, it or not. (Pause.)
Some years ago, I conducted a service at a nursing home. Almost everyone in attendance was in a wheelchair, and I stood at one of those lecterns that has a built in sound system. Now, I’m not very tall, as you can see, and I stood behind this tall lectern with a huge microphone sticking up on a goose-neck. I couldn’t see very well over the top, and yet there I was. There was no music at all. They had a piano in the corner, but no one to play it.
So I said, “Good evening.” Silence. That endless, tired silence that hangs in nursing homes on the smell of disinfectant and stale coffee. “I’m Alexander MacPhail,” I said, “I’m the Rector of the local Episcopal Church.” Silence. I thought maybe I heard a cricket in the back of the room. Some of the residents had begun to fall asleep, one of them was sitting right in front of me, right on the front row.
So, I soldiered on with my introduction. And then I offered a reading of scripture. And then I preached a sermon. And then I prayed. The acoustics were terrible. My voice sounded tinny and weak in the cheap sound system. I remember wondering if I was the only one listening to what I had to say.
It was a draining experience. I didn’t feel like I connected with them. I didn’t feel like what I had to say was understood or helpful. I wondered if there was any difference between my standing there talking and the television in the corner. Was I just a focus of attention for twenty minutes? Let me get right down to it: was the Holy Spirit involved in that, or not?
It was just me and a room full of semiconscious elderly folks. No one welcomed me there. No one said, “Thank you for coming.” No one said, “Goodbye.” What do you learn from that experience? What do you take away from it? I began to think that I was no different than one of those clowns who visits nursing homes and makes balloon animals, or like one of those patronizing male nurse’s aids, who calls patients, “Young man” or “Sweetheart.”
I drove home, thinking, “What was that all about?” I actually remember asking God, “Did you sit that one out, or what?” Because, you see, I too have long believed that if there’s no enthusiasm in the room, then the Holy Spirit simply isn’t there. It’s a seductive belief, because we’ve all been in worship services that have crackled with excitement. You know, Christmas Eve when all the candles are lit and we’re singing “Silent Night.” And it just feels like God’s right there in front of you.
But come back to Pentecost for a moment, come back to the text, and look at it objectively. They weren’t just running around like crazy people. The power they had been given was to share the Gospel of Christ outside the limits of language and culture.
In other words, the movement of the Holy Spirit was to break through our fallible, broken selves, so that the Gospel could go forward in spite of us. Now think about that. The Holy Spirit came to empower us to bring Christ to the world in spite of ourselves, in spite of our sinfulness, in spite of our gross inability to fully live out the teachings of Jesus.
So here’s the thing: I am positively convinced the Holy Spirit was at the nursing home vespers service. You never know when a phrase, a prayer, a verse of scripture will spark a fire in someone. You never know when just your presence there at that moment was a moment of grace.
There was no sound of rushing wind. There were no flames of fire. No one spoke in other tongues. But I did see Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene. They were all there.
I don’t know if what I said was in their language or not. But I have to believe that the same Spirit who was there at Pentecost was just as powerfully present at the nursing home that evening. And that the Holy Spirit was bringing God to those people in spite of my feeble attempts. I have to believe that. The story of Pentecost makes me believe that.