Pentecost Sunday, June 4, 2017, Lectionary A
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr.+ Rector Scripture: John 7:37-39
“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, pour out the Holy Spirit upon as you did on that first Pentecost through Jesus Christ our Lord and savior who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.
“A lawyer’s pants caught on fire while he was testifying. No, that’s not your dad’s favorite joke — it actually happened. According to the Miami Herald, Stephen Gutierrez was arguing that his client’s car spontaneously combusted when his pants … spontaneously combusted. The Miami defense lawyer had been fiddling in his pocket moments before going in front of the jury when smoke began billowing from his right pocket. Witnesses say he ran out of the courtroom, and after jurors were ushered out, Gutierrez returned unharmed with a slightly burnt pocket.
Gutierrez has not yet released a statement to the press, and Miami-Dade police and prosecutors are investigating the episode. The defense lawyer was representing Claudy Charles, 48, who is accused of intentionally setting his car on fire. The incident occurred during Gutierrez’s closing arguments. Charles was convicted of second-degree arson. To make matters worse for the lawyer, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman could soon decide to hold him in contempt. Gutierrez insists the accident was not a staged defense demonstration, the Miami Herald reports. He blamed a faulty battery in his e-cigarette.” (KELSEY WEEKMAN, AOL.COM Mar 9th 2017 12:59PM).
In today’s reading from the Book of Acts we hear of another case of spontaneous combustion. The disciples of the now ascended Jesus were all together in one place when suddenly “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” What was going on? Can we imagine ourselves in a similar situation, perhaps here this morning? Suddenly, we, too, hear a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and then tongues of fire appear on each of us.
Look around the room. Can you visualize it? Do we rub our eyes in disbelief? Is it a group hallucination? Maybe global warming is more immediate than the scientists have prognosticated. Should we be afraid? Is the world coming to an end? Are we about to die by incineration?
If we take a moment to reflect on other occasions in the Bible where divine fire has been present, then our first remembrance might be from Genesis 19:24. “Then the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the LORD out of heaven.” Later in Exodus 3:2 we can read that: “The angel of the LORD appeared to (Moses) in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.” In Exodus 4:17 we find these words:“Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.” Of course, there is the all-important pillar of fire, accompanying the Israelites, as they fled from the Egyptians: “The LORD went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night”(Exodus 13:21).
In 2 Kings 1:10 we find, “But Elijah answered the captain of fifty, “‘If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.’ Then fire came down from heaven, and consumed him and his fifty.” The prophet Isaiah records this pyrotechnic: “Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” (Isaiah 6:6, 7).
Are we to believe that the Pentecost fire, which had alighted atop the disciples’ heads, was the same fire of Sodom and Gomorrah, the burning bush, on top of the mountain, the pillar of fire by night, the fire called down by Elijah, or the fire in the burning coal that touched Isaiah’s lips? Was the Pentecost fire the same fire from the God of the Old Testament which glowed, illuminated, incinerated, and purified? Was that the same fire which had inflamed the disciples on the Day of Pentecost?
We will remember that John Baptist, when asked if he were the Messiah, said, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16). John is speaking of Jesus. What John had prophesied had now come true on the Day of Pentecost. That fire, which glowed, illumined, incinerated and purified in the Old Testament now danced on the disciples’ heads—a spiritual shampoo and conditioner all in one, if you will, which cleansed, renewed, and shaped the hearts, minds, and souls of the disciples.
Look around again and try to visualize those flames flickering on each of our heads. Is it a frightening thought? What would we have done, what will we do if such a conflagration were to occur in our midst here at St. Elizabeth’s? You may remember the story I once told about our daughter Caroline.
When she was sixteen or seventeen, she went with a friend to an Assemblies of God church to hear a guest youth speaker from Auburn. After he had spoken for a while, he then said that he was going to call fire down from God. He went person to person to pray for each. Within moments some of the youth collapsed to the floor, resting in the Spirit. Others began to speak in tongues. Still others sang in tongues.
Having been raised in the demure, proper, self-contained, non-emotive Episcopal Church, this was a real shock to Caroline. What did she do? She got up and ran out of there. God showed up, but it was more than Caroline could handle. I understood, but I was sorry that she missed a real opportunity—a life-changing opportunity—something much more than scripture, theology, and doctrine. Indeed, it was the very substance and encounter from which scripture, theology, and doctrine are born.
What would we have done if we had been in Caroline’s place? What would we do if such an occasion were to arise five minutes from now? Would we run and hide from God the Spirit? It is a question that we seriously need to ask ourselves?
So then, immediately following the tongues of fire lighting on all the disciples, (not just a few, but all) they “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” Not only had John the Baptist prophesied the coming of the Spirit, but, as we heard in this morning’s gospel, so had Jesus, saying. “As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.'” 39 Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” And, just before Jesus ascended, He tells the disciples in Luke 24:49, “And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
As we heard, the disciples “began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” They began to speak languages unknown to them, but no less known languages. How do we know this? Luke tells us that “the crowd was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each”—perhaps, some sixteen different languages, based on the different ethnic groups named—sixteen different languages spoken by a bunch of uneducated Galileans. Tongues of fire had been translated into tongues of speech which may leave us wondering about the connection. Some have suggested that this was the reversal of the language chaos that occurred at the tower of Babel. Perhaps, a case could be made for that. Certainly, the gospel was and is to be proclaimed to all people, regardless of language or ethnicity.
We observe that there are two reactions to the disciples telling of the mighty works of God on Pentecost. They were those who were amazed and perplexed and there were the detractors, as there always are, who mocked the disciples saying, “They are filled with new wine,” meaning, of course, that they were drunk. That, though, was and still is the way the world is, isn’t it? If has to do with God, well they are going to put it down, put you down. They will say that you are crazy.
So then, there was pushback against this extraordinary phenomenon, when suddenly Peter, Peter who in fear had denied Jesus three times, stood up and boldly declared¸ “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel.” What had happened to chicken-livered Peter? The former wimp had suddenly become the very name and nature, which Jesus had dubbed him earlier (Mark 3:16). He had become the “rock.” Peter, along with the other disciples, had not only been given a new tongue, as the Spirit gave them ability, but a new nature.
Suddenly, they were new and different men by virtue of nothing they had done or said. They had not studied, been to a therapist, or changed their diets. In the blink of an eye God through the power of the Holy Spirit had changed them. As St. Paul puts it, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Not only had they become new, but they had become more, more than they were before. We heard Paul give us some idea of what this “more” was like in the Corinthians reading this morning, when he spoke of the varieties of gifts, given by the Spirit, the same Spirit at Pentecost. “To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit” (vs. 8-11).
Gloriously, Peter and the other disciples had had a divine encounter with God the Spirit. While we celebrate and rejoice that God the Son became incarnate and walked this earth, biblically speaking the incarnation was the exception. Encountering God via the Spirit was and still is the norm. Here’s the thing. The inherent reality of coming into contact with God is that He will change us, change who we are, making us new, better, and more. And maybe, that is what scares us. We don’t really want to change; even it is for the better, even if it will make us feel better, healthier, or smarter. We don’t want to change. We don’t like to change. We are afraid of change, but why? What is so precious about the way we have always done things? What is so precious about feeling bad about ourselves, bad about relationships, bad about jobs, and the list goes on.
Returning again to Peter and the crew after the Pentecost event, after their divine encounter with God the Spirit, we do not find them regretting the experience, we do not find them saying, “Gee, I wish I could be my old ambivalent, timid self again.” We don’t see that. That should encourage us to invite God the Spirit to increase His presence in our lives, to increase His presence here at St. Elizabeth’s on Sunday mornings.
I think that I am correct in saying that all of us want to have what is real. All of us want what is genuine. We don’t want to kid ourselves. We don’t want to live a lie. We want what we do to be meaningful and relevant. This is especially true when it comes to religion because religion asks us to believe in what cannot be seen. How do we know it is not all made up? How do we know that following Jesus is not some myth made up a bunch of guys two thousand years ago in order that they might control things or some other motive? How do we know?
When we reflect on the effect that the Holy Spirit encounter had on Peter, what do we observe? As already noted, Peter suddenly became bold, no longer hiding in the shadows for fear of the Jews. How, though, do we understand his explanation to the crowd as to what was going on with him and his fellow disciples? They weren’t drunk; no, as Peter said, this was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Joel. Great, but where did that come from? What made him think of that? Why didn’t He just say, “People, Jesus said this would happen?” Could this have been a prepared sermon, so to speak, on Peter’s part? Possibly! Jesus had told the disciples prior to His ascension to expect the Holy Spirit’s arrival. Was there some biblical precedent for this having happened before? God told Moses that He would share some of the Spirit on Moses with the seventy elders. We can, also read in 1 Samuel 10:6 when the prophet Samuel spoke to King Saul, predecessor to David. “Then the spirit of the LORD will possess you (Saul), and you will be in a prophetic frenzy along with them and be turned into a different person.”
In other words, because of Peter’s Holy Spirit encounter on the Day of Pentecost the scriptures had become alive to Peter in a way that he might never have imagined. Oh sure, they became alive with Jesus, but He was no longer around; the Spirit was. There is a lesson to us in this. If we want the Bible to become alive to us, if we want our faith to become alive, real, and relatable to others, then the only way that is going to happen is if we, too, have an encounter with God the Holy Spirit, if we, too, have our own Pentecost. If you are thinking the Holy Spirit only came once on Pentecost, think again. We read in Acts 4:31: “When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.” It is not enough to say, as is said during baptism, “You are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.” That is selling us and our faith short. Our faith is and we are meant to be more than that.
Now, I realize that what I am saying about the Spirit may sound like another religious sales pitch, another one of those faith straws you grab for only to find it isn’t true. However, if there is one thing about which I am absolutely confident, if there is one thing I truly know about the Christian faith, it is that the Holy Spirit is real and can be experienced. I would not be standing here before you this morning if I did not know this. The Holy Spirit converted me to Jesus.
So, there it is—the Pentecost opportunity, which can make us new, more, and better, which can make St. Elizabeth’s come alive. Look around you. Don’t you think we could use some enlivening? Don’t you think we need those flames flickering atop our heads? Don’t you think we need to suddenly catch fire, not because of a faulty battery in an e-cigarette, as had been the case for the lawyer at the beginning of this sermon, but because we would love nothing more than for St. Elizabeth’s to be filled with the Holy Spirit? I guarantee you, Sunday attendance would sail through the roof, just as it did on that first Pentecost. “On that day about three thousand were added to their number” (Acts 2:41). So, if you want this, if you really want to be filled with the Spirit, speak to me after the service.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.