Sunday, May 11, 2008

Day of Pentecost
Acts 2:1-21 or Numbers 11:24-30
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 or Acts 2:1-21
John 20:19-23 or John 7:37-39

Thou sendest forth thy Spirit, they are created; And thou renewest the face of the ground.

Fifty days after Passover, the Jewish people celebrated the Feast of Weeks, also known as Shavu’ot or Pentecost. This was a festival of joyful thanksgiving to God for blessing the harvest by giving offerings from the first fruits of their work. Pentecost was also a time to remember the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. Just as the people stopped briefly between their exodus out of Egypt and their journey to Canaan at the foot of the mountain, so too do the people stopped briefly during the year to thank God for the blessings He has already given and to hear once again the words given to them on the mountain. The giving of the Law occurred fifty days after the Passover in Egypt, so it occurred fifty days later in the yearly remembrance of God’s mercy. The reading of the Law was an important part of this festival.

The word Pentecost means “fifty days.” Jesus was crucified during the celebration of Passover, taken to the cross as the perfect Lamb of God. It is no surprise then that the Holy Spirit would come upon the disciples fifty days later while the city was filled with people attending the Feast of Pentecost. On the first Pentecost, the people of Israel were given God’s law. On the first Christian Pentecost, the people were given the Holy Spirit, along with God’s power and authority. God’s Word was written on their hearts instead of tablets of stone.

Jews from all over the known world were in Jerusalem for the Pentecost celebration. They brought with them offerings of wheat, figs, olives and grapes to praise God for His goodness. I imagine it was an exciting time, but also a confusing time. After all, though they were Jews, they lived in foreign lands and knew foreign tongues. They may have been familiar with Hebrew from the scriptures, but Hebrew was not the commonly spoken language of the day.

In today’s passage, we hear how the listeners felt about this experience. Some were perplexed, others were amazed and some just thought it was silliness due to drunkenness. Peter stood up before the people and explained that this was the fulfillment of the promise given through the prophet Joel, that the Spirit would come upon all people and they would do amazing things. Certainly, the fact that people from all over the world could hear the message in their own language was a most miraculous thing, especially since most of the disciples were uneducated laborers who probably knew Aramaic fluently, enough Hebrew for worship and perhaps just enough Greek necessary for business. Those disciples barely even understood the message they were giving in their own tongues! But Jesus sent the helper, the Spirit of God who gave voice to what they knew to be true in their hearts and the words to make it understandable to others.

That first Christian Pentecost was a day for which Moses longed. Moses was never very confident about the vocation to which God had called him. He was not eloquent in speech or bold in manner. He was humble of heart and would have probably preferred to be herding sheep in a quiet, lonely part of the desert. But God had a different plan. The work to which God had called him was overwhelming. He was leading a million people out of slavery into an unknown world. For a long time Moses held the burden of the task on his own shoulders, but one day he could not take the complaints any longer.

Moses only knew what God had told him and that God was faithful. He did not know when they would arrive or what they would find when they got there. The people were tired. They were hungry. They were scared. They wanted to go back to the place from whence they came, despite the slavery under which they had suffered. At least in Egypt they had good food to eat, plenty of water to drink. In Egypt they had roofs over their heads and they did not have to walk endlessly through the desert. Slavery seemed the much better choice in this situation and they complained. Moses did not know how he, one man, could possibly handle the people any longer.

God told Moses to gather the elders of Israel. When they were gathered, He took the spirit that rested on Moses and divided it among the other elders. He gave them the authority to lead the people, to share in Moses’ responsibility. He took some of the burden from Moses and laid it on others. Joshua was not ready for Moses to let go of the control. It was not a problem that the elders were gathered and given some of the Spirit. It was not a problem that those who had been gathered were going to share in the responsibility and burden of care for the people. However, he was disturbed when the Spirit also fell on some men who had not come to the gathering. “Tell them to stop,” Joshua told Moses. Moses was not bothered by this development because he knew that it came from God. God is in control, not Moses. Moses would have preferred for every Hebrew to prophecy for the Lord. This was a hope that would come into fulfillment long after Moses died, after Jesus, when God did give the Spirit to all those who believe.

We think of Pentecost as the birthday of the Church. The world is changed when a baby is born. Perhaps the differences are small enough that it is unnoticeable to most people, but it is to those close to the baby. The parents no longer get a good night’s rest. They have to change they way they think about finances. The interrelationship between family members naturally has to change because there is someone new in the group. Baby toys litter the floor. Parents need to buy special furniture, special food and dozens of other necessities. Many families move from sporty vehicles to mini-vans or station wagons when a child is born. Their world changes and is renewed by the birth of a baby.

Though the effects on the world might seem insignificant, the world can’t possibly stay the same once a new person has joined it. Jimmy Stewart starred in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” which showed how much one person can affect the circumstances for thousands. George Bailey, Stewart’s character, ran into some problems with his business, troubles that were going to affect his family and many people in his town. He thought that if he had not been born, then everyone would be spared the problems he caused. He wished that he had never been alive. Clarence, a new and inexperienced angel, gave him his wish. He made the world as if George had never existed. George quickly discovered that he’d had a much more positive impact than he ever thought. His brother died because he wasn’t around to save him from drowning. People who had been helped by George’s kindness fell into greater problems because he wasn’t there to give them loans. The entire town was different because the wicked banker took advantage of the people that George had helped.

We don’t know how our one life might have made a difference in the world. It may be something as simple as a word of kindness for someone we’ll never remember but who went on to do great things because we gave them the courage or strength to get through another day. Our children may go on to change the world with their gifts and talents, children that would never exist if we had never been born. Our small donation to a food bank might give someone a second chance and then that person might just go on to change a town, a country or even the world.

On this celebration of a birthday, however, we are reminded how different the world is because Jesus passed His ministry on to His people. It is a time to pause and ask, “What is the Church? What is our purpose? Why does God gather us together?” The answer isn’t always as clear as it should be. Christians since the first Pentecost have not always lived as God called them to live. At times Christianity was an excuse for domination and destruction. People have been forced to convert under the unwieldy power of governments who have used Christianity to control and oppress others. Men like Adolf Hitler have misunderstood and misused God’s grace to make the world look they want it to look. Christians are not the only faithful who have proclaimed war in the name of some god, but throughout our history Christians have at times unjustly attacked enemies for the sake of “the cross.”

However, over the millennium since that first Pentecost, the Church has also done amazing things. Men and women have followed God in service to neighbor, making a very real difference in the world. How many universities have been started by the Church, helping to train both religious and secular leaders in our world? Christians have built hospitals and orphanages. The first people into a disaster zone are usually from some Christian relief group. Mother Theresa offered grace to the dying of Calcutta, and many others have done the same throughout time on every continent. Though the Church has failed, God has managed to make incredible things happen through the Church for two thousand years.

The psalmist says, “Thou sendest forth they Spirit, they are created; and thou renewest the face of the ground.” God breathes on every baby born and they become living beings. Every baby born changes and renews the earth. There is no person who has been created by God that is not loved by Him and for whom He has a great and wonderful purpose. Their very existence means that the world will be a new and different place. When God sent His Spirit to rest upon the disciples on that first Pentecost, the world was changed.

Our reading from the Psalm for today does not include verse 35a. The reason for ignoring this passage is because it does not seem to be in keeping with the praise and worship of the rest of psalm. The psalmist writes, “And let the wicked be no more.” I think we should keep it in, because it is not a condemnation of wickedness but rather a hope for sinners. If we read it in the context of the promise of Pentecost and the reality of God’s life-changing breath, we can see that when God breathes on His people, they are changed. Though they are sinners, by faith they become saints. When God transforms a person, he or she is wicked no more. We are made righteous by God’s breath, created and the earth is renewed. The world is changed because God has taken away the wickedness by which all human flesh is oppressed and makes us new to go out and glorify God by sharing His Word and His goodness with others.

And so we ask on this Pentecost, what is our purpose? Why were we born into such a body as the Church? Why did God send His Spirit to rest on His people?

In the passage from John 7, Jesus was teaching in the temple during Sukkoth, or the festival of Booths. It was a time to thank God for His abundant generosity at the harvest. The adherents built small booths, or tabernacles, to represent God’s protection. They lived and ate in the booths for seven days. Other rituals accompanied the celebrations. Jesus spoke to them on the seventh day, when great quantities of water were poured over the altar. The water ran off of the altar, onto the floor and it flowed out of the temple into the valley below. Though this was not originally part of the festival, it had become an important aspect to the people as they sought God’s blessings for their winter planting. It was not an act of faith or obedience, defined by God to be a part of the celebration. It was a pagan ritual that the people had adopted so that they might feel assured of God’s provision. It was as if they thought God did not know they needed water to live.

Jesus saw this ritual and cried out, “If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink.” When we drink of the water that comes from God, by His Holy Spirit, living water will wash through our lives into the world. The promised Spirit came to the disciples at Pentecost; He comes to us at baptism and continues to come to us as we live our lives of faith. The Spirit does not come for our own assurance or benefit, but so that the living water of Christ might flow into the world. We use our gifts to share the message which Christ came to give—forgiveness. He sent the disciples, and so now sends us, to take that message into the world so that the world might be saved.

Joshua was afraid that if the spirit of God rested on those who had not been invited or not come to the gathering, then Moses would lose control. Moses wanted all of God’s people to have the spirit so that they might speak God’s word of hope and grace to one another. God gave that Spirit to all believers on the day of Pentecost, promising that future generations would also receive the gift of the Spirit so that the work of Christ might continue.

I once heard someone suggest that the reason we do not see miraculous things happening in our day as happened in the early days of the Church is that God’s Spirit has become spread out so thin that none of us has much power. However, can God’s Spirit really be divided? Can He be made weaker as He is shared with each new generation of Christian?

Perhaps we have forgotten the real purpose of our work? We spend so much time arguing over what we are supposed to be doing as a Church. We want other Christians to look just like we look, to act and speak just like us. We are all part of one body, individuals with our own gifts and purpose, none more important than another. We are unified, but that does not mean uniformity. Diversity is as much a part of the Church as is our common bonds. We simply have to learn to live together, understanding that we aren’t all going to be the same. We will be different, because that is how God created us to be. But He has called us to be one with Him and with Christ Jesus in the work that we do, each part giving according to the measure we have been given.

God’s Spirit is not less, but we are divided, forgetting that God has called us to bring reconciliation and forgiveness to the world. In the passage from John 20, Jesus breathed on the disciples and said, “Receive ye the Holy Spirit: whose soever sins ye forgive, they are forgiven unto them; whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.” Are we like Moses, hoping that all God’s people will speak God’s Word into the world? Or are we more like Joshua, jealous about the gifts and successes of other Christians and wishing that they become less so that we might become more? Do we want the blessings of Pentecost to come only to us and those we choose or do we hope that all God’s people will respond to God’s grace by changing the world one breath at a time?

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