Sermons That Work

One Can Imagine…, Day of Pentecost (C) – 2004

May 30, 2004

One can imagine the followers of Jesus huddled in the Upper Room holding endless discussions. It must have been rather like one of those vestry meetings where the members have been challenged to do the impossible and haven’t yet plucked up the courage to say that the proposal is impossible.

Jesus had told them to take his message, what we now call the Gospel, and spread it everywhere in the known world. The men and women who had experienced the Resurrection and the Ascension were given this task. They were local people, not world travelers. To be in Jerusalem was event enough.

What was this Gospel? Simply put it was a call to revolution. Jesus is King. Not king of something “above the bright blue sky,” but a king with the most extraordinary and immediate power. That power is neatly described in the Gospel today as the power to forgive—or not forgive—sins. What on earth does that mean? Jesus showed what he meant during his ministry. He had the power and the love to liberate people from the things that bound them: hunger, disease, poverty, even death. On the other hand he was perfectly capable of confirming people in their sins as he did those who used power, the ultimate power of religion, to repress the weak and the helpless. Jesus told his friends that they were to be given the power to proclaim Forgiveness as life-givers, for that is what the world witness means.

Was it the reality of the authority given them that worried the disciples in that Upper Room? It was probably a mixture of “can we?” and “how can we?” that bothered them. In the end, they did something entirely safe. They held an election! Judas, the treasurer of the group, had betrayed Jesus and then committed suicide. The position was open. After all, how may a vestry function without a treasurer?

No one doubts that the election was necessary. It’s just that, when in doubt, the political solution always seems available. We know how to do politics. We are not so good at doing religion. More so when it seems to involve the risky and embarrassing project of talking about what we believe to others.

The disciples didn’t have our excuses. The Jews loved to talk about religion and the Gentiles found the subject equally compelling. They couldn’t come up with shy talk about religion being private and personal, or that we have no right to force our religious opinions on others, or “leave that sort of thing to the Baptists.” Mind you we have no similar qualms about boring everyone else to death about our politics. It never seems to occur to us that if someone hadn’t talked about religion, we wouldn’t be Christians now.

The disciples faced a considerable logistical problem. Perhaps getting to Judea and Samaria might be possible, but to the uttermost parts of the earth? Consider the camel fares alone! Perhaps Matthias, the new treasurer, gave them all a good talking to about fiscal responsibility.

Revivals are odd things. They are not the same as 20/20 campaigns, evangelical crusades, or plans for Jubilee or Justice. This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with planning. We find it easy to get our heads straight about creating feasibility studies, creating plans, and organizing the process. That’s how some of us live our lives.

Revivals are spontaneous. If you’ve ever found yourself transported with delight at the sight of a flower or a mountain stream, by a piece of music, a lovely poem, an exciting or crucial ball game or vivid nostalgia, remember that experience and then imagine it happening to a group of people. Of course feelings, however vivid or even awesome are not enough. But there are moments when an overwhelming and shared emotion thrusts folk into doing things they wouldn’t have dared do otherwise.

Revivals are like that. They pop up from time to time in all religions and have had powerful effect in our own. If you like, our Faith began in an extraordinary revival. Jesus had promised the disciples power, a power to be exercised humbly by servants and not by dictators, be they individuals or elected majorities, but power nevertheless. On the day of Pentecost power arrived. St. Luke was forced to use symbols of uncontrolled natural force, wind and fire, signs in the Old Testament of the very presence of God the Holy Spirit, to bring home to his hearers and readers the excitement of what happened.

So the plans given to the disciples by Jesus, those impossible plans, worked. Out into the streets the disciples ran, shouting aloud the Gospel until people thought they were drunk. And because they were drunk with faith, we claim the name Christian today. In one of the collects appointed today, we find the words: “Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth.”

Most Episcopalians don’t want to get drunk on religion. It sounds highly suspect. Most of us spend our lives trying to be rational and reasonable, sensible and above all in control. That way we can talk about people in need, have meetings about people in need, without having to risk losing control by being with people in need.

The gift that made Peter and Mary and the rest “drunk” was courage to share the things that they had been given and they found in faith, the things which liberate, which free, which make us whole. Our world today looks no better, perhaps a bit worse, than it has done in past decades or even centuries. When all the political and sociological plans have been tried, there remains the ever-new cry, “Jesus is King” and Jesus through his chosen people, his priests, brings forgiveness and newness of life. “Come Holy Spirit and fill the lives of your faithful people.”

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Christopher Sikkema


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