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The Day of Pentecost - Whitsunday
May 24, 2015
The First Reading: Acts 2:1-21
Sermon: "Lightning Strike"
The Very Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
Watch the complete video of this service on our YouTube Channel
The First Reading:
When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 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." All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine."
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
`In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.' "
On the Day of Pentecost, lightning struck the church. They were gathered in an upper room in Jerusalem. The twelve were there, save one. Judas’ place had been taken by Matthias, who had been chosen by the casting of lots. That this was, perhaps, an unreliable means of choosing officers for the board is attested to by the fact that Matthias is never mentioned again.
Jesus’ brothers were there. The resurrection had obviously healed some wounds. Remember how his brothers had been embarrassed earlier by Jesus’ ministry. His mother was there, too. She was still pondering things, I imagine. Events too extraordinary to comprehend were far too commonplace in her life. The agony of the cross was her agony as well as his. His resurrection was joyous comfort. Still, though wounds heal, they leave scars.
“The women” were there as well. We only know three or four of their names, listed in brief sentences as they are by the Gospel writers as an almost afterthought. It was the cultural assumption that women counted for less than men; women, slaves, children. Jesus witnessed in many ways to the absurdity of this position, but old ways die hard. The women proved themselves more courageous in the drama of his crucifixion than did the men. They were with him all the way. We may not know all their names, but we know that they were there.
There they were, this band of earnest believers, still shaken by the events of the past fifty days; saddened by the departure of their leader to “sit at the right hand of the Father” as the creeds put it, and uncertain as to their fate now that he was no longer with them. He had told them to wait, and that is exactly what they did. They waited and they prayed. Then, without warning, “…came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them… All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”
That was the birth of the church; the moment from which all its future would proceed. Throughout the ages since, whenever the Spirit has filled the church, what has come has been a new birth of life and vitality. That same Spirit is watching us this morning, looking to see if we really desire it. I say looking to see, because not every church, or priest or pastor for that matter, does desire it. All that new life can be unsettling.
It can be like that rather dignified priest who was visiting a woman in a care facility. She was confined to a wheel chair. As he stood to leave she asked him to have a word of prayer. He gently took her hand and prayed that God would be with her to bring her comfort, strength, and healing. Suddenly, her face began to glow. She said, “Would you help me to my feet?” Unsure of what was happening, he helped her up. At first she simply took a few uncertain steps. Then she began to jump up and down. That led her to dancing and shouting and crying out with happiness until the whole clinic was aroused. After she was quieted again the solemn priest hurried out to his car, closed the door, grabbed hold of the steering wheel and prayed, “Lord, don’t you ever do that to me again!”
New life can be disturbing if we’ve grown accustomed to deadness. Yet the Spirit comes; many times in the life of a congregation. For the Spirit will not leave a church to fend for itself for long. The Spirit comes with fiery purpose, and a people are refined into the people of God again and again. What are the characteristics of a church that has been lightning struck, that is, made alive by the Holy Spirit? There are three characteristics that are central. These are power, vision, and presence.
Let’s consider, first, the characteristic of power. Jesus, in his final instructions to his disciples, told them, as we noted last week, to wait in Jerusalem until they were clothed with power from on high. That power would be the Holy Spirit at work in their lives. On the day of Pentecost Simon Peter preached and 3,000 souls were added to the church. In a relatively brief period of history the tiny Christian community swept across the entire Roman Empire. Power was promised and power was delivered. The very gates of hell were threatened by the advancing battering ram of God’s Spirit. When the Holy Spirit is experienced, people walk with courage and confidence. No one asks, “Can we do this, dare we try that?” Nothing is impossible when a people are led by the Spirit.
Every study of thriving congregations indicates that the attitude of the congregation is the important ingredient in the vitality of that church’s witness. Here at St. Thomas we believe that it is God’s will that we be a church that is alive and growing and serving the needs of people; and we are! This is not simply the power of positive thinking. It is trust in a promise: “the Holy Spirit will come upon you and you shall have power…”Power; vitality and life is the first characteristic of a lightning struck church.
The second characteristic is vision. God declares through the prophet Joel, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young shall see visions, and your old shall dream dreams…” The Spirit brings the ability to see visions and to dream dreams.
Dreams and visions are slowly building once again among a number of us here at St. Thomas. There is a vision that sees the needs of our towns and county; sees the people whom we are uniquely gifted to help, and we are in the process of making something new in our outreach happen here. Groundwork is still being laid, and vital connections are being linked. As our path becomes clearer, and the vision grows, we will be making it known and taking it on; soon, as the Spirit continues to empower us! We also have dreams that are emerging among us that are already being taken seriously and being worked on.
Those of us who have been in the church for a long time need to be particularly aware at this point. Listen to the parable of the braves. There was once a native people who lived in a beautiful valley. As time passed, however, the soil played out. The number of wild animals thinned. Food was scarce. Life was hard. Some of the braves had heard that beyond the distant high mountains there lay another beautiful valley that had not been despoiled by human habitation; where the soil was still rich and the game plentiful. At much risk and with great courage, they climbed the high mountains, scaling each difficult precipice until finally they could peer to the other side. There lay the beautiful valley of promise. They went back to tell the tribe. The elders were thrilled, and whole tribe caught the vision. Soon all had made the pilgrimage to the new valley. There they lived in peace and plenty.
The years passed. The soil in the new valley began to lose its richness. Hunting became poor. Food was scarce. Life was hard. Word began circulating among the braves that beyond a range of distant, high mountains there lay another beautiful valley that had not been despoiled by human habitation. They decided to climb the distant mountains to see if the reports were true. This time, however, the elders of the tribe gathered and decided that sending an expedition to search for the new valley was simply too risky. They opted for caution. No expedition was sent. The vision died. The ironic thing was that the council of the elders was made up of those who had once been the braves responsible for seeking out the valley where the tribe now resided.
It’s not a perfect parable in its analogy…for one thing, as an environmentalist I would have wanted them to consider fertilizer and crop rotation, and animal husbandry. But, you get the idea. Something akin to that can happen in a church. We could become fearful for our future; become cautious and risk averse in answering the Spirit’s call to serve and do.
But, we are not going to let that happen. We are opting to be the braves. There is more to come for St. Thomas, for there is more that the Spirit is calling us to do. It is a time now of visions and dreams.
Power, vision, and one characteristic more: presence. Jesus had ascended to be with the Father. What would his disciples do now? He was the Way, the Truth, and Life for them. What would happen to the sheep without the shepherd? They were not to worry, Jesus told them. “I will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever…” That Counselor came like a lightning strike, like a violent wind, like tongues on fire at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit brings Christ’s presence into the hearts of his followers.
The children of Israel were commanded to carry fire with them as they traveled with Moses to the Promised Land. (Lev. 6:13) That fire was to remind them of God’s presence. The fire on the altar of ancient Israel was, according to Leviticus, kindled directly from Heaven. (Lev. 9:24) The fire that appeared above each of the believers on Pentecost was that same fire. After all, they were the new Israel; the new bearers of the ancient flame. That is who we are now. We are not alone. God is with us. He has not left us comfortless, or powerless, or without purpose. Fire is again kindled on the altar of God, and its flame burns on the altar of our hearts.
So, here is what to do: keep praying, keep dreaming, keep worshiping, and stay tuned in! The lightning strike is coming!