Winds of Change
Rev. Charles Svendsen, Jun 4, 2017
Pentecost Sunday! Both Scripture lessons on this Pentecost Sunday, Acts 2 and John 14, force the preacher to consider and address a subject that we often prefer to avoid! And we avoid this topic, I think, because it cannot be examined and outlined and explained... at least not in sermons, with four points and in 18 minutes. At "Pentecost" the preacher each year attempts to set forth the unexplainable and that is what "took place" on that particular Day of Pentecost in Acts 2. And if that isn't impossible enough, how about taking on the demanding words of John's gospel concerning the Spirit? The very nature of the Spirit defies our attempts to explain or control. A further complication is that different biblical text offer different perspectives on the Holy Spirit. And besides, what do pale Presbyterians, like me, know about the Spirit? Isn't the real action anyway down on Crenshaw, in the Faith Center, or at a national gathering of Pentecostals?
Yet there are some biblical affirmations that we can make which are common to most Christians about the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. And we can talk about those commonalities without pretending to exhaust the mystery of the Spirit.
And to do that we will look at Acts 2 and John 14, and I will take a page from my brother John the Baptist's preaching style. Four E's: two E's from Acts and two E's from John. New life - sudden, unmerited, irresistible new life! That's the Pentecost story in Acts 2. The events are broadcast and transmitted in the most "expansive" way possible. All the stops on this great "literary organ" are pulled out: a heavenly sound like a rushing wind, fire descending from heaven, patterns of speech transformed into the diverse languages of the day! It is as if not even the most lavish use of human writing can capture the experience of Pentecost. "When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place." These are the 120 believers possibly gathered in the very upper room in Jerusalem in which Jesus had promised the coming of the Holy Spirit 50 days before. Judas was replaced by Mathias, and the believers were simply waiting. It is not an accident, of course, that the birth of the church, this great "harvest of souls," should take place on an important Jewish agricultural festival day. The Feast of Pentecost sometimes is known as the Feast of Weeks. The day of Pentecost marked the end of the celebration of the Spring Harvest, a worship cycle that began at Passover during which devout Jewish families praised God for all grace and bounty. Pentecost was not only the end of the harvest season, it marked the beginning of a new planting season, lasting until the Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles) in the fall. Again in Tabernacles, the first fruits of the field were harvested and sacrificed to God. Pentecost was, therefore, a "pregnant moment" in the life of the people of God. Pentecost stood at the moment gestation ceases and birthing occurs. You see Pentecost is both an end and a beginning. It is a leaving behind and a launching forth to a new future. So on this day, Pentecost, a crossroads day, God's Spirit rushed into that "one place," spread out tongues of fire. All were filled with the Holy Spirit and they began to speak in the know languages of the day "as the Spirit gave them utterance."
The sound of the wind gathered a crowd in Jerusalem that Sunday morning. And as the disciples spilled into the streets they spoke. And visitors from as far east as Persia, west as Rome, as far south as Libya, and north to Syria, heard the simple Galilean disciples declare the wonders of God in their own tongues. It is like traveling, hearing your native English. You eavesdrop!
Notice that on one present is excluded from this display of God's grace. Unlike other important moments in the history of God's mighty acts of salvation, the transfiguration story in Mark 9, for example, (where only the "inner few" are witnesses to the work of God). At Pentecost, everyone is included! The tongues of fire rest "on each" (Acts 2:3) and a moment later the crowd comes surging forward because "each one" (v6) has heard the disciples speaking in his or her native language. And in order for us not to miss how all inclusive the moment is, we hear the list of place names tracing a wide sweep throughout the "Jewish dwelling" Greco-Roman world. That which happened at Pentecost is therefore no inner mystical experience. It rather is an outpouring of God's power and passion that touches every life present.
Yet not everyone responded to winds and fires of new life that Pentecost in positive ways. Some mocked in verse 13: "The have had too much wine!" - confusing Spirit, induced joy with alcohol-induced inebriation! Amazed and perplexed, the crowd concluded: "This cannot be what it seems to be." Yet, what it seemed to be is precisely what it was! God's Spirit unleashed! New life, sudden unmerited, irresistible, new life!
In verses 17-21, just after today's first lesson, Peter preached a sermon. The same Peter who denied Jesus seven weeks before was now bold, courageous, and unmistakably full of voice. Peter begins his explanation of what they are witnessing with the prophet Joel. Interestingly, a prophesy of 5th century Jerusalem "doomsday" Peter turns into a glorious declaration of God's new life.
"In the last days," God says, "I will pour out my Spirit on all people... sons, daughters, young, old, servants. I will show wonders in heaven above and signs on the earth below." For Joel, the signs and wonders of God's Spirit were an outpouring of disaster, but for Peter these wonders have been fulfilled in Jesus the Christ. Jesus himself is the greatest of God's wonders... and Christ's purpose is nothing less than the redemption of humanity. Our extended New Testament lesson finishes at verse 21: "And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."
Our first two E's: the Spirit of Expansive and, secondly, the Spirit of Experiential. At this first Pentecost, the ministry was indeed "expansive": Libyans, Romans, Persians, and we no less have opportunity on the Pentecost Sunday to have a part in Christ's expansive ministry.
One extension of WPC's expansive ministry and mission is our long standing and far-reaching Westminster Presbyterian Preschool. Each day well over 200 children, teachers, parents, grandparents, and nannies grace our campus. The pre-school children, their families and friends are an integral and important ministry and mission of this church. So, when we come on campus during the week, we warmly welcome them. I wear my name tag so I'm not just an old white haired guy with checked shirts and khaki pants talking to their children. Call us crazy, but we are even moving the preschool office out of the trailer and into Steve's old office, which is right next to mine!
Expansive Pentecost and Experiential Pentecost. Experience of the heart. At the end of Peter's sermon Luke writes that the hearers were cut to the heart: We reformed and Presbyterian and Norwegian types are a lot more comfortable thinking with our heads than feeling with our hearts. My friends, the story of Pentecost is all about visions and dreaming, all about repentance and forgiveness, and receiving gifts and promises - and that's "heart talk"!
That's experiential! Is your heart in your faith? Can you live it as well as you talk it? And for most of us the answer is "No, we can't." So we need fresh outpouring of God's Spirit... today, in this place, in our hearts.
Speaking of hearts, a second important ministry of WPC is our Thursday hosting of the Conejo Valley Youth Orchestra. Every week, the Fellowship Center and our courtyard is full of young musicians - three orchestras practice here at 3:45, 5:00, and 7:00. Every week I tell them jokes. They seem to look forward to but never laugh at them - like this : "What was the name of the one most important detective of the Reformation? - Martin Sluther." A concert is being held this afternoon at 3 in the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Center, you are invited.
Let's briefly look at John 14: Again John 13-17 makes up Jesus' farewell sermon to his disciples. It is sometimes called the "Upper Room Discourse." It's Thursday evening and by John's account, Jesus has shocked his followers by getting up from the table, tying a towel about his waist and, one-by-one, washing the disciples' feet.
In his absence, they were to be servants. Just before our lesson today it is Philip who hasn't understood what Jesus just said. Jesus said in essence: "Know me, know God; see me, see God." Philip counters: "Lord, before you go away "show us the Father. Let us know and see God, that will be enough, that will keep us going without you" And Jesus answered (really tenderly): "Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you a long time? If you have been with me, you have been with God."
My words are the Father's words, my works are the Father's works. And because of that closeness, that identity that I have with the Father, Philip, you and many, many other believers, you will do even "greater things" than I have done. Just ask in my name, and you will receive. We will come back to that in a moment.
Verse 15 is a simple, but oh so difficult to keep phrase: "If you love me, you will obey what I command." We get our word mandate: command; Commanding Thursday. Maundy Thursday. If we can shrug that demand of Jesus off with a "no problem", we can do it. "If you love me, keep my commandments." If that is easy for you or me, we do not know much about Christian discipleship.
The commands of Christ are a response of love, and they are life long! And they are demanding. And then that prayer promised by our Lord in verse 16: "And I will ask the Father and he will give you another counselor, another advocate, another to come along side you to be with you forever. And that is our third E: the Spirit is "Eternal." No longer orphans, these disciples, the Spirit lives with you and will be in you, promised Jesus. And that is a great Pentecostal truth - that at Pentecost, from that day forward, the Spirit takes up residence in the church. No longer to come and go in pillars of cloud and fire, no longer to be wrestled with only to escape at daybreak. No longer will the angel at the empty tomb say, "He is not here!" The Counselor is now a permanent resident with believers and in the believing church. That is why we can gather for prayer before the service each Sunday morning and ask and receive the Holy Spirit. We have the promise of our Lord that the Spirit is Eternals.
Last E - the Spirit is Effective. I'll say the Spirit is Effective. That the Spirit filled believers, the Spirit baptized church will do even greater things than Jesus. Greater than healing lame and blind? Greater than potent preaching and thoughtful teaching? Greater than death and resurrection? So effective is the church that they are promised "greater things." And Jesus concludes, as he has elsewhere, just ask in my name. What are you asking for in the days and months ahead - peace, unity of the church? They just may be greater than the great things of Jesus. The Spirit is here, the name of Jesus is effective and the Father is waiting. (Acts 16:5). Pentecost 2017 from Acts 2: we marvel at an "expansive Spirit." We give our hearts to an "experiential Spirit."
And from John 14 that Spirit is "eternal," residing in the church, and that Spirit is "effectual" giving believers great and greater things to do.
Where will this great church be on Pentecost 2018? This time next year, what will the Spirit have done with us? I have a marvelous mental picture of where I would pray WPC to be both today and one year from today. I drove for 15 years a 1969 MGB roadster, British Racing Green on the California freeways. I'm fortunate to still be alive! And when I got back from jaunting around with no top (British mechanical - I never got it to work) my hair would be standing absolutely straight out and up. I imagine the 120 believers in Jerusalem had their hair standing straight out and up on Pentecost as the Holy Spirit roared through the Church! That we in the next months may be "Wind blown" because we are "God blown" by the Holy Spirit.
You see WPC is not the Session's church. It's not the pastor's church. It is not even your church. This great church at the corner of Lakeview Canyon and Watergate belongs to God.
So may God, by the power of the Holy Spirit and with the abiding presence of Jesus Christ, blow mightily and blow purposefully and blow graciously as we minister the gospel of Pentecost.
Westminster Presbyterian Church