“What Does This Mean?”
Acts 2:1-21 and John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
May 24, 2015 • Pentecost
Call to Worship: “Spirit of God” (featuring instrumentalists Simon Scott and Chandler Pendley, and soloists Casey Pendley, Sharon Pendley and Rick Martin)
The Word in Song: “All to Us”
Today is the day when the Church celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is described variously in Scripture. In John’s gospel, there is the quieter version – Jesus promises his disciples that the Spirit will come after his departure to be their comforter, companion, and guide and will lead them into all truth and answer the questions they’re not as yet ready to confront. Then after the resurrection, John describes Jesus returning to the frightened disciples in the upper room and breathing on them, saying “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The better known version of Pentecost is the one that Hal read earlier where the disciples after having waited in Jerusalem in an upper room as Jesus had commanded them to do, are surprised and overwhelmed by the noisy and powerful entrance of the Holy Spirit into their midst, experienced by them as both wind and flame. And the results of that experience are immediately noticeable on them and on bystanders who have gathered in Jerusalem from near and far. There is an old saying that goes, “We do not see things as they are; we see things as we are.”
So, the bystanders who first encounter the twelve disciples, bring with them their own life experiences and so react in different ways to the spectacle unfolding around them. Some have brought a capacity for joy, and they sense the joy that is at the center of these disciples’ reactions and which cannot be contained but is now reaching out toward them. Others have brought their cynicism, which makes it just as obvious to them that there’s been some drinking going on already this morning and this spectacle is just about new wine. Still others, the majority perhaps, have brought questions with them, so they are “amazed and perplexed” – or as some would translate it – beside themselves, completely uncomprehending, blown away, and thoroughly disoriented[i] – by what they’ve seen, and so they have to ask, “What does this mean?” [ii] This honest question, some would say, “is like music to the ear of God.”[iii] Throughout scripture it is asked in many ways as the people of God try to figure out what’s happening to them and why – Jacob at the Jabbok, Joseph with his brothers, Moses turning towards the burning bush. And this is the question that we see asked and answered again and again the life and teachings of Jesus.
It is the question that is at the heart of Jesus’ desert temptation, “What does this mean, to be the messiah?” And later he asks of Pharisees, and lawyers, and disciples alike, “What does this mean, to observe the Sabbath? What does this mean, who is my neighbor? What does this mean, to love God with your heart, mind, soul and strength and your neighbor as yourself? What does this mean, this discipline of prayer” [iv] What does this mean, the last will be first and the first will be last? And of course, Jesus always asks more questions than he answers. Then at the day of Pentecost in answer to this same question “what does this mean,” Peter tried to explain to the crowds that what they had experienced was the Holy Spirit. They had been privileged to witness what had been foretold by the prophet Joel: “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.”
By the end of his first public sermon, 3000 people were ready to be baptized and to follow Jesus. Three thousand people had experienced the Holy Spirit; three thousand people had their question answered and knew the truth of Peter’s message. Even those who had been scornful and had blamed it all on too much wine, received answers that took them from seeing this event from their own cynical view point, to seeing it in an entirely new light and as it truly was. From that day, the Holy Spirit led the disciples on to become more than they ever dreamed they could become and do more than they ever dreamed or thought they could do. It was the Holy Spirit that opened Paul’s eyes to the truth of Christ and changed him from being the persecutor of Christians to becoming the primary spokesperson for the group he’d once persecuted. It was the Holy Spirit that led Phillip to baptize the Ethopian Eunuch. It was the Holy Spirit that allowed Peter to dream crazy dreams about a sheet being lowered from heaven which contained all kinds of objects he’d thought of as unclean, and then led him to the home of a Gentile, a Roman soldier named Cornelius and to baptize this man and his whole household – people whom he would previously have shunned – and to conclude “God shows no partiality.” In each instance a new experience forced them to see the world from a different perspective, forced them to look with new eyes at a situation they once wouldn’t have questioned, and to ask “What does this mean?” And the answer came to them each time, not from the tradition or the authorities of the day, but from the urging and prompting of the Holy Spirit from within.
Today, we especially need to be aware of the promptings of the Holy Spirit as we try to find our meaning for our time. In times past, people of faith looked to outside authorities – the authority of the church or the authority of scripture – to find the truth. If the church said it, it was true. If the Bible said it, we were to believe it, and the issue was settled. But things are different today; we live in a time of change and flux. The Church which began as one is now divided into some 41,000 different denominations and sects around it world, and has lost that single voice with which it once spoke. Now there is a cacophony of voices claiming to speak for God and the Church, and if you don’t like one, you can move down the street to another more to your liking. The Bible, too has lost much of the authority it had in days gone by. Biblical literacy is at an all time low; and the changes over the last 150 or so years has undermined its power. Our historical struggles over slavery, the acceptance of divorce, the changing status and role of women, technological, medical and scientific advances have all challenged the traditional role of scripture. And one author has suggested that the current struggle over marriage equality and the ordination of LGBT clergy is the last bastion of the sola scriptura – only scripture – position within Christianity. When it is over, we will no longer be able to claim scripture as the sole authority for the answers to our deepest questions.[v] If all this is so, then to what do we turn as the authority for today that will lead us to the answers to our most significant questions? How do we know that what we do, think, or feel is right, or holy, or of God when the old standards have ceased to have influence in our pluralistic society, when there is no longer one kind of Christianity, or one clear voice that speaks for the faithful?[vi] I wonder if the answer is that we should turn to exactly what overtook the disciples on thefirst day of Pentecost – the Holy Spirit.
Regardless of the weight and authority that we do or do not give to Scripture or the traditions of the church, the Holy Spirit continues to call us into the mystery of God, reminds us of the model of Jesus, and brings us into the fullness of who we are meant to be.[vii] To speak the central question, “What does this mean?” at the first Pentecost or today 2000+ years later starts us and keeps us on our journey towards God. The Holy Spirit has come as the Advocate, the Friend, and the Comforter, but also as the Agitator, the Encourager, the Guide of all of us who are on this life long journey during which we become more and more aware of its leading. It is as Jesus had promised, “When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.” However, if we are not careful and aware, it is easy to become very self-centered and go right back to the place of seeing things as we are and not as they truly are. To avoid this pitfall we need one another; we need community where we can ask God centered questions – not questions about what we are doing or what is personally important to us, but about what is God doing, where is the Holy Spirit working, and what can we do today to participate in what God is already up to. Where and how can we individually and as a church fit into God’s much larger work and hope for the world. When we ask “what does this mean?” we can’t be thinking “what do we want from God or from the church?” but instead what does God want from us and from the church. The history of this church is characterized by its continual asking of these questions. The answers have changed for the changing times and circumstances. Most recently we have spent important time over the last two years exploring these questions yet again and we will continue to do so even after we’ve moved into our new building and it ceases over time to be new anymore. For as long as there is an Oconee Street United Methodist church we will ask these questions “what does this mean” and “where is God working” and we will seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we explore new possibilities.
Thanks be to God for this day of Pentecost, for every year it reminds us and teaches us of the amazing, disorienting, mind-blowing arrival of the Holy spirit on that first Pentecost, and calls us to ask questions, and to move into uncharted territory and face new challenges as we find ways to serve God and God’s people in the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Frank L. Crouch, “Commentary on Acts 2:1-21, http://www.workingpreacher.org, , 2015 [ii] Richard Spalding, “A Seal Upon Your Heart,” Pulpit Digest, April-June 2000, 114. [iii] Spalding. [iv] Spalding, 115. [v] Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, 2008, 83. [vi] Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith, 2006, 93. [vii] Peter Gomes, “Remembrance and Imagination,” Strength for the Journey, 2003, 297.