A Sermon preached on May 17th, Easter VII and Sunday after Ascenison, at St. Augustine’s, WiesbadenEzekiel 37:1-14, Acts 2:1-21, John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
Today, the Day of Pentecost, is another important reminder of our Jewish origins. Like Easter, or Passover, it is originally a Jewish festival coming 50 days after Easter – that’s where the name Pentecost comes from: it’s Greek for 50. The Jewish Feast of Shavuot or Weeks used to be a celebration of the gift of the Promised Land, now it commemorates the anniversary of the day God gave the Torah or Law to the entire nation of Israel. While the Temple still stood and before Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, it was a huge festival and Jews from far and wide, including those from the diaspora, would come to Jerusalem to celebrate. That’s why there were all those “devout Jews from every nation under heaven” in Jerusalem on the day the Spirit came as we heard this morning in our multi-lingual reading from Acts.
For Christians of course, this is the day on which we celebrate the gift of the Spirit, and Pentecost is often also called the birthday of the worldwide Church. As you might have noticed all three readings focused on God’s Spirit and what the Spirit did and still does for those who are open to the Spirit’s working. The descriptions may sound a little different, but all three passages are referring to the same power and experience of God. After all, when Douglas and I preach we also sound a little different, Douglas is definitely more thorough, and yet we proclaim the same basic message.
Ezekiel is called by God to preach to a beaten and broken and exiled people, to revive them and to bring them new life. This is the meaning of his vision of the valley of dry bones. “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.… I (the Lord) will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.” (Ezekiel 37:9, 14) God’s Spirit, God’s own breath comes from all four corners of the world like a wind, unstoppable and unpredictable, to give the nation new life – for at the risk of repeating myself, breath, wind, and Spirit are all one word, Ruach, in Hebrew.
The Pentecost story in Acts also begins with the wind: “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.” (Acts 2:2) This wind, breath, or spirit also breathes new life into the young church – still recovering from having seemingly lost Jesus for a second time when he had been lifted up and taken out of their sight at his Ascension. God’s Spirit turns out to be the source of miracles, wondrous insights, and exalted speech and to be the driving force of the growth and expansion of the early Church. The Christians are quite literally “enthusiastic”: they have God within them: en theo. Thanks to God’s Spirit they have both the courage and the means to preach about God’s deeds of power, especially those deeds of power experienced and expressed in Jesus Christ. The tongues of fire give them the power to speak in many tongues and to be understood by the throngs of people from all over the known world.
John’s Advocate sounds positively boring in comparison, but that’s just the more technical language he uses. The advocate or defender, or paraclete to use an older word, is the Holy Spirit. When John talks of the Spirit of truth testifying on Jesus behalf and enabling the disciples to testify, it’s his way of saying that the Spirit will enable the disciples to speak about God and about God in Jesus. In his Gospel, Mark (13:11) is as always a little plainer and more direct: “Do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.” John introduces one more important role of the Spirit, to “guide you into all the truth…. and (to) declare to you the things that are to come.” (John 15:13). This is not a new revelation through the Spirit, but the power and ability to interpret the one revelation of God to fit our ever changing contexts and to find the right new form of proclamation for our ever changing world.
We are living in exciting times. Perhaps you feel worried or depressed when you hear or read that according to the latest Pew survey the percentage of adults in the USA who describe themselves as Christians has dropped from nearly 80 % in 2007 to just over 70% in 2014 and that the so-called “non’s,” those who identify as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” has jumped from 16% to 23%. And the situation in England sounds even worse, there only just over 50% of the population associates itself with any religion at all, and only 46% identify as Christian. But God’s Spirit appears and works within us just when we need it most. The Spirit came to the exiles in Babylon when they were about to lose hope and the Spirit came to the newly forming church in Jerusalem as they struggled with rejection and with how to carry on now Jesus had gone. And I see plenty of signs of the Spirit’s work in the churches we come from. Our original mother church, the Church of England is embarking on an ambitious program of Reform and Renewal – aimed both at producing and coping with growth! And that province of the Anglican Communion that we belong to, the Episcopal Church, is also looking forward as she prepares for the triennial General Convention which will elect a new Presiding Bishop and as she embarks on her own program of Reform and Renewal called “Reimagining the Episcopal Church.” This is from the report on the State of the Church for that Convention: “The Episcopal Church celebrates the joys and challenges of a global community called to mission and filled with hope. Amid growing concern about the state of the Church in turbulent times, there are signs of growing mission, transformation, resiliency, and the presence of the ever-creative and renewing work of the Spirit. …. Hope, collaboration, and joy are the images that will describe the State of the Church as we move into a new triennium”
And what about us, what about St. Augustine’s? Here too there are lots of positive signs and wonders. Where were we last year at Pentecost – and where are we now? We have grown and we are growing, not just in number. We are embarking on new and ambitious projects. I know and understand that growth, change, and the risk associated with both are also a cause of concern, even of fear – fear of change, fear of failure, fear of loss. But don’t be afraid, conflict and decline woke us up, God revived us, let’s not lose that initiative and that momentum. Look at what John has to say about the Spirit. When the Spirit comes “he will prove the world wrong.” (John 16:8) In John’s vision evil, the ruler of the world, only seems to have triumphed, in fact that power has already been condemned and Jesus, though condemned to death, has been vindicated and justified and justifies us. Even the power of death has been overcome, so what have we got to be afraid of?
The top three priorities of your vestry are not focused on survival, but on growth, both spiritual and numerical. We want to support this growth through continued reconciliation within our community, and we want to channel our energy into an expansion of our mission and outreach. … Oh yes and we are renovating and renewing our building to support these mission and ministry priorities at the same time. Are we mad? Are we drunk, are we “filled with new wine?" (Acts 2:13) No, instead like Peter and the 11 in Jerusalem over 2,000 years ago we are filled with and inspired by God’s Spirit to see God’s vision for us, to dream God’s dream for us and together, empowered and enlivened by that very Spirit, to make them real.