Here’s a sermon from 2009 about Pentecost, the time the Church remembers the pouring of the Holy Spirit, giving the power to witness. How valid is our witness? Do we witness to the resurrection in our own lives or do we reshape God to fit our ideas? I’m interested in what you might think…Here you go:
Frank Richard Coats
May 31, 2009
Pentecost Year B
Acts 2: 1-21
The Gift of the Spirit
Focus statement: God wants all to be saved
Last Sunday afternoon I went home for a little while, had lunch with Brenda and took a brief nap and then headed down to Houston for the Texas Annual Conference. Somewhere along that long road to Houston along US 59 I passed some sort of business with an enormous Confederate flag flying out front. It was more than two times larger than the flag of the United States of America which flies outside our Welcome Center. And I had a physical reaction: I felt a tightening in my stomach, and my hands gripped the steering wheel a little tighter as I wondered why the person inside would fly such a flag.
When I was a kid, growing up in Houston, I loved the romantic stories of the South. Those of you my age may remember the TV show The Rebel which starred Nick Adams and had a wonderful theme song sung by Johnny Cash. The romantic story of a noble, defeated cause which still held its integrity and gained strength through its brokeness appealed to me. I liked gray better than blue, too, and I liked the stars and bars.
But as I became older and learned more of what brought about the Civil War I wondered why there was such romanticism about a rebellion against the United States. I wondered why the leaders of that rebellion are held in such high esteem. On this past Memorial Day, we saw figures that almost half of all Americans who have died in battle died in the Civil War. Deaths on both sides counted, because Lincoln never acknowledged the South’s right to secede, therefore the Confederacy was never an acknowledged separate nation.
And I would hear the ideas that it was about states’ rights and the seizing of power by the federal government that brought about the rebellion, and it was not about slavery but about keeping the South down and not letting them rule themselves.
But it was about slavery. The states wanted the right to maintain the practice of the buying and selling of a people they regarded as less than human – 3/5 human in our Constitution – and the federal government had no right to say they could not. Almost half of the constitutional delegates in 1787 were slaveowners after all, and they had not seen fit to outlaw slavery. Even Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration of Independence, owned other people.
All these things were going through my mind as I saw that large, large Confederate flag hanging alongside an American highway. What were they thinking? And I wondered if they believed — as our scripture says — that all who called on the name of the Lord would be saved.
Today’s reading lets us know where God stands – God who created all of us, who loves all of us, who created all of us in the image of God – we are given an example today of the Kingdom of God, moving beyond any ideas of territories or boundaries.
The text opens with “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in the same place.”
Our celebration of Pentecost is from this passage in Acts, but the original celebration was a celebration of the wheat harvest, and was 50 days after Passover. “They” refers to the apostles. The first chapter retold the story of the Ascension of Jesus and then the choosing of Matthias to replace Judas. You remember that Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus, tried to return the money for the betrayal and killed himself before he could reconcile with the others. His next meeting with Jesus is something we can only imagine…
So they were all in one place. Before Jesus ascended, he told them to wait in Jerusalem until power came upon them from one high. He said, You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. After he said this, they watched him rise out of sight.
So they went back to Jerusalem, and prayed and praised the Lord. 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 utterance.
The sound of the violent wind, the manifestation of tongues of fire and the sudden cacophony of voices in lots of languages drew a crowd. More and more gathered as they heard and witnessed this strange sight. And people from all over the world were there in Jerusalem, the pattern moving from east to west. Some place names were “archaic” by the time of the first century, meaning some of the places no longer existed. They all heard the stories of the power of God in their own languages. And the marveled that the men speaking were Galileans, not men of education or culture but …well…just fishermen…
And they heard from all the world, and from the past and now to the future, of the power of God, of the deeds of God.
And the word used here means “languages” and is not the same word used for “ecstatic speech” that Paul uses and that we mean when we talk about people “speaking in tongues”. This means being able to speak in a foreign language not known to the speaker.
So try to picture yourself there. About midmorning there is a sound of a violent wind that goes through a house, through a building, and suddenly these men whom you had seen around the place and perhaps recognized as being some of the followers of Jesus started speaking in these foreign languages. And people around you started turning their heads at the sound. “I hear someone speaking my language”; “They’re talking to me!” “How do these men know this?”
“What’s going on?”
And “is what they are saying about God true?” “Does their God care for me, too?”
Of course there were scoffers, and the text says: All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
Then Peter, who had not long ago denied Jesus in front of a servant girl and two strangers, rose to speak, and made one of the boldest speeches in the book of Acts. Peter, once terrified, had been changed. He was filled with the Holy Spirit, and he gave witness to Jesus.
He said they were not drunk, because it was only nine in the morning. Now of course this doesn’t mean it is not possible to be drunk at nine in the morning! But Peter is defending the character of the others and the power of God. He framed what had happened in the ancient prophecy of Joel, of the things that were to take place in the last days.
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, smoke 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.
To prophesy means to speak the word of the Lord, not necessarily to foretell the future like most of us think of it. Before the Spirit came upon people selectively – there is the story of Saul being struck by the Spirit and prophesying, which seems to be like going in a frenzy. And the birth narratives of Luke talk about people being filled with the spirit: Zechariah, Mary, Simon, John the Baptist and then Jesus.
But now Peter says the gifts and power of God are open to all people, not just the chosen few. Old and young, rich and poor, male and female, slave and free. Through the mighty works of God in Jesus Christ the world is opened, the Holy Spirit, the power of God is poured out upon all the world, crossing all barriers of time and space, making the love and power of God to witness to the power of the resurrection, the power of the forgiveness of God and the strength to change lives, available to all.
Do you think that’s true?
I go back to that large Confederate flag I saw last week. Does that person think God’s love and mercy is available to all? To everyone?
And then there is the question for me: Do I think it is available to him?
Let us pray:
Merciful God, you who open the church to all people of all nations and races, give us the grace to love as you love, to forgive as you forgive, to be as you are as you shape us into your image. May your shape us into your image, and bring to light all our attempts to shape you into ours.