Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Miracles of Pentecost and the Great Commission (J. Barry Vaughn, May 19, 2013)

The first year that I taught, one of my students was a young man named Hayes. I found out that he was a Pentecostal and decided to pull his leg. One day after class I said, “Hayes, do you go to a Pentecostal church?” “Yes, Dr. Vaughn,” he replied. “So does that mean that you speak in tongues?” A little tentatively, he said, “Yes, I do.” Then I said, “Do you think you can satisfy the university’s foreign language requirement by speaking in tongues?” I’m pretty sure Hayes was speechless at that point. I don’t think he could even speak in tongues!

The story of the Day of Pentecost is one of the most spectacular stories in scripture. It was a day of wonders. A mighty wind swept through the streets of Jerusalem; tongues of flame came down upon the heads of the disciples; and they all began to proclaim the good news in every languages upon the face of the earth.

But spectacular as Pentecost is, it is a very un-Episcopalian festival.

If tongues of fire appeared on your heads, I’m pretty sure that the first reaction of the vestry would be to call the Church Insurance Corporation to make sure our premiums were up to date.

Do you know comedian Robin Williams’ “Top Ten Reasons to be an Episcopalian”? – 1. . You can believe in dinosaurs; 2. Free wine on Sunday; 3. All of the pageantry and none of the guilt; and so on- I imagine that most Episcopalians would like to add “No speaking in tongues” to their top ten reasons for being Episcopalian.

But we need Pentecost. Pentecost completes the work of Easter. The resurrection of Jesus was a great and joyful miracle, but it is not enough by itself to explain the explosive growth of the early church. Both the gospels and the Book of Acts tell us that even after the resurrection, the disciples huddled together in fear and uncertainty until the Risen Christ sent the Holy Spirit upon them and gave them an inner source of strength and power.

I want to focus on three miracles of Pentecost. First, the ability to speak new languages. Second, the ability to hear what other people are saying. And third, the liberation of God.

First, on Pentecost the disciples of Jesus were given the miraculous ability to speak in other languages. All the clergy I know love the feast of Pentecost because we enjoy watching the layreader trying to pronounce the strange words in today’s reading – Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Pontus, Phrygia, and so on.

But those are the names of all the nations who were present in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost. Before Pentecost was a Christian festival, it was a Jewish festival. In fact, it still is a Jewish festival, but our Jewish sisters and brothers call it Shavuot, the “feast of weeks” and it takes place seven weeks after Passover. Shavuot or the feast of weeks is one of the three “feasts of pilgrimage” on which Jews were to go to the holy city of Jerusalem if at all possible.

So when the Holy Spirit came down upon the disciples, Jerusalem was full of Jews from other parts of the worlds, Jews whose first language was something other than Hebrew or Aramaic.

We live in a world that is a lot like Jerusalem on that first Pentecost. The world is suddenly a very small place. Our neighbors are as likely to speak Bengali or Yoruba or Quechua as they are to speak English. It is no longer enough for us to proclaim the gospel just in English. We need another Pentecost to give us the power to proclaim preach the gospel in new ways so that the world can hear the good news that Jesus gave us to proclaim.

But learning a foreign language is the least of our problems.

If someone who had never visited an Episcopal Church, especially someone with no knowledge of the Christian faith, walked into a staff meeting or vestry meeting at Christ Church, they might think that we were all a little tipsy, even if it was only 9 o’clock in the morning. They might even think that we were speaking in an unknown language.

They would hear us speak of the Eucharist and the liturgy, the collect of the day (accent on the first syllable, please) and the prayer of humble access. They might hear me complain that the acolyte and the crucifer were whispering during the canticle. Or they might hear a conversation about rectors, permanent deacons, transitional deacons, diocesan bishops, suffragan bishops, bishops coadjutor, canons to the ordinary, canons to the  EXTRAORDINARY, and so on.

If you want to become an Episcopalian, you have to learn a whole new language. Of course, to a greater or lesser degree, every family has its own language, and Episcopalians are a family – a fighting, feuding, dysfunctional family, but still a family.

But that prompts me to wonder: Why would anyone want to join the Episcopal Church if we make it so difficult for them to get involved with us? Of course, the esoteric language we speak might be part of the attraction for some. Learning to speak “Episcopal-ese” is kind of like learning the secret handshake or the code word.

But for others, for many, perhaps for most, the obstacles to participation in the Episcopal Church are just too high.

It is time for the Episcopal Church to learn to speak a language that people can understand, to lower the barriers that keep people from participating fully in our services. That is the reason that our Sunday service leaflets now include the entire service.

The second miracle of Pentecost was the power to hear what others were saying. Listen again to this verse from the second chapter of Acts: “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…”

The gift of tongues, the gift of miraculous utterance is all very well and good, but it does no good unless it is accompanied by the gift of understanding, and I believe that this is the greater and more important gift.

We not only need to proclaim the gospel, we also need to listen to and hear what others are saying. Are we attentive to the world around us? Do we hear what people are asking for? Are our ears really open to cries of the poor and disenfranchised?

All too often there is a disconnect between the ministry of the church and the needs of the world. From time to time, we need to do an inventory of our ministries and find out if they really match the needs of the world around us. And to do that we need the second miracle of Pentecost: the gift of understanding what others are saying.

The third and greatest miracle of Pentecost is the liberation of God.

The liberation of God? What in the world do I mean by that? Surely, God is radically free. God is omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient. True enough, but we do everything in our power to confine, constrain, and limit God. As theologian J.B. Phillips said, our God is too small. We want a small God, a God who conforms to our prejudices and preconceptions. But this is no new thing.

In the ancient world, it was believed that there were a different gods for every national group – Greek gods, Persian gods, Egyptian gods, and so on. And these gods more or less confined themselves to particular geographical areas.

Do you remember Psalm 137? It is the lament of Jews who have been carried into exile by the Babylonians.

By the waters of Babylon,

there we sat down and wept,

when we remembered Zion. 

On the willows there

we hung up our lyres. 

For there our captors

required of us songs,

and our tormentors, mirth,

saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!" 

How shall we sing the LORD's song

in a foreign land? 

The Jewish captives could not sing the Lord’s song in a foreign or strange land because they believed that their God was back in Israel.

We may not be so different from the Jewish captives in Babylon. A lot of us act as though we can visit God in church once a week and get along perfectly fine without God the rest of the week.

One of the weaknesses of the Episcopal Church is that we have been the church of a class, the church of the one percent, the affluent, and we have done a poor job of reaching out to and including people who are different from us.

But the message of Pentecost is that God will not be confined by our prejudices and preconceptions. The God of Pentecost wants all the peoples of the earth to hear the Good News – Medes and Parthians and Elamites, the peoples of Egypt and Libya.

But that’s not all. Listen again to the words of Peter’s sermon:

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.

The message of Pentecost is radically inclusive. The good news is not just for people who speak English; it is for people of every language and culture. The gospel not only transcends language and culture but transcends the barriers of economics, gender, and age. Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy. Your old and your young shall see visions. And even slaves shall speak the prophetic word.

The mighty wind of Pentecost overthrows our prejudices about who is in and who is out, who is clean and who is unclean, who should preach and who should just sit and listen. Prior to Pentecost, slaves had been forbidden to speak unless they were spoken to; women had not dared to speak to anyone outside their immediate family. But the wind of Pentecost swept aside those constricting beliefs. The prophetic Spirit was poured into women. Inspired by the Spirit, slaves spoke out and defied their masters. The Spirit is no longer confined to the young; even the elderly are given new songs to sing.

Week before last I shared with the staff my vision of where I would like Christ Church to go. It is based on the last words of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ so-called “great commission”: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…”

Note that there are four parts to the Great Commission: make disciples, all nations, baptize, and teach.

Repeat those with me: make disciples, all nations, baptize, and teach.

This is exactly the message of Pentecost. It begins with the disciples of Jesus. They proclaim the gospel to all the nations assembled in Jerusalem and then take it out to the farthest corners of the world. And if we read on in the second chapter of Acts, we find that on the day of Pentecost 3000 people were baptized and that they began to devote themselves to “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship…”

Christ Church needs the miracle of Pentecost so that we can carry out the Great Commission. We need the power to proclaim the gospel in the languages of the people around us; we need the Spirit’s help to listen to and hear what the world around us is asking for; and above all, we need to remember that our God is a powerful God who cannot be confined to one culture or race or language. God cannot be limited to one generation or gender or class.  And when that happens, the mighty wind that will sweep through this place will make Hurricane Katrina look like a summer breeze and the fire of the Spirit will ignite even these hard old hearts of ours.