Sermons

PastorEric-2Sunday's Sermon - 
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. 

Back in the 1970’s while I was a college student I had the opportunity to attend the Lutheran World Federation meeting in Evian, France. The Lutheran World Federation, called the LWF, of which our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is a founding member, meets every seven years. That particular year the assembly was scheduled to meet in Porto Alegre, Brazil, but was moved at the last minute as a statement against the then military junta in Brazil and its reported torture of its own citizens. So, the assembly was moved to a “safer” location, in Evian, France, just across Lake Geneva from Geneva, Switzerland where the LWF is headquarter. It was my good fortune to be able to spend time in Mexico, Chile and Argentina, since we were scheduled for church visits there before the assembly was moved, and then head to Europe for the LWF assembly and a pre-assembly gathering of all of the youth delegates. (It is worth noting that the LWF considers anyone 35 years of age or younger as “youth” so some of you here at Mt. Olive would still quality as youth!)

Anyway, the World Encounter of Lutheran Youth, or WELY, as our pre-assembly global Lutheran youth event was called, was an interesting, exciting and yet frustrating event. There were around 70 youth, many from North America and Western Europe, but also a large group from Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe, then still under Communist control. The youth event was held to bring the voices of younger people to the issues before the Lutheran World Federation and its assembly which followed our youth event.

From the very beginning of the youth event, there was a basic divide among us. Those from Europe and North America, the so-called “First World,” were anxious to talk about poverty, hunger, justice and all of the issues that were burning among young people in the 1970’s. Those from the so-called “Second and Third World” nations (Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America) were more interested in talking about more traditional topics – basic evangelism and outreach.

While our conversation was cordial and friendly, our group never really “clicked” as a community, we never could get past our very different backgrounds to find our common ground. At least not until near the end of our event.

I was one of the planners of the youth event closing Service of Holy Communion – I even got to purchase the French bread and wine for the service. At the time of Communion, we decided to ask each person to pray the Lord’s Prayer in her or his own language. We did not think about this too much, just seemed like a good idea.

You can call it what you will, but, at that point in the worship service, our community of young adults finally found its unity – each person prayed the Lord’s Prayer in their own language. The result was as cacophony of sound, 20 or 30 or more languages, all praying the prayer we all knew so well, but each praying in his or her own language. And the power of the Holy Spirit was so strong – finally, in the simple praying of the prayer that Jesus has taught us, our group found its unity in the Spirit and in our common faith in God.

I think of that moment at least every year on the Day of Pentecost. I think we might have captured some of the feeling of that first Pentecost when Jesus’ Holy Spirit came to his followers. The languages were all different, but everyone understood the words that were being shared and spoken. And the overwhelming presence of God was in the room and with the group, so much so that they could go out from that experience and share the Spirit and Love of God with others.

The only record in the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, of Jesus coming to his disciples with the Holy Spirit is the text from St. John’s gospel which is our Gospel lesson for today. As you have just heard, it is not the dramatic story of the Holy Spirit descending from heaven onto the disciples. That comes later in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, our first lesson today. No, in the Gospels, the Holy Spirit comes quietly – John records these words from Jesus as said on the first Easter Sunday, later in the day of Jesus’ resurrection – no tongues of fire or other languages, Jesus breathes on his disciples and shares his spirit. It is as simple as that.

Acts of the Apostles, today’s first lesson, records the more familiar scene. It is Pentecost, a Jewish harvest festival 50 days after Passover. As Jews, Jesus’ followers were among the thousands gathered in Jerusalem for this festival. The Holy Spirit comes dramatically to them, like a “rush of violent wind” with fire on each of them. They were “filled with the Holy Spirit” and “began to speak in other languages” Acts tells us.

Some Jewish leaders were amazed that everyone could understand what was being said – many different languages but all talking about God’s mighty power in words that everyone could understand. Other Jewish leaders were not impressed, wondering if they disciples were drunk.

Peter sets them straight, anchoring what has just happened in the prophet Joel. And, the basic Gospel message is shared with and for all – everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

We Christians sometimes call the Day of Pentecost the church’s birthday. We use our red paraments (altar cloths) to signify the fire of the first Pentecost Holy Spirit. Some congregations read the lessons in various languages, some have a birthday party for the church, and some folks wear red to church.

The Acts Pentecost story is also the source for Christians who call themselves Pentecostalists, who “speak in tongues” during worship, and other times. Some of us have experienced a Pentecostal worship and, while it may not be our worship style, it is quite meaningful for some.

But, as I read this text, I am struck that, different from modern Pentecostal experiences I have witnessed, there is no need for interpretation of the languages that the disciples spoke that first Pentecost – everyone understood what everyone else was saying, even though they were speaking perhaps dozens of different languages. And that’s what always brings me back to my youthful experience of worship in different languages but with all finally understanding the message.

What would a congregation look like which practices such a Pentecost lifestyle? Good communication, common ministry, unity in the message of Jesus Christ that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” – all of those.

But there is more to the Acts text and the story of the earliest Christians. Most Christians, if they note Pentecost at all, end their celebration at Acts 2:21, the end of today’s first lesson. What it would be like if we followed those first disciples who, after experiencing the rush of God’s power in the wind of the Holy Spirit, “were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44&45)? Even most folks who profess to believe literally in the Bible tend to ignore this part of the story, or dismiss it as impractical or unimportant, even if it gets mentioned again in Acts several verses later.

Perhaps our celebration of Pentecost often ends too soon? A Pentecost church will reach out to people of every language and tongue, a Pentecost church will call young and old, women and men to prophesy and a Pentecost church will preach and baptize, all of these, but a Pentecost church will also be concerned about how we live our day-to-day lives, how we share with others, how we use our time and financial resources.
My friend and ELCA pastor and preaching professor Barbara Lundblad shared a powerful example. Lundblad states that a few years ago she had spoken with a friend who is a pastor in New England. "How's your building program going?" she asked. "Oh, we ran out of money before we got to the worship space," her friend said. Lundblad thought to herself, "What could be more important than the worship space?" But she kept her thoughts to herself.

Her friend continued, "We renovated the basement. You know, we have a shelter there for homeless men. We put in new showers and renovated the old kitchen. The basement was so drab, and the showers-well, there was only one shower and it was lousy. On the Sunday before the shelter opened, the worship service began as usual in the sanctuary. When it came time for communion, the people carried the bread and the cup downstairs to the basement. The whole congregation gathered around the empty beds. They passed the bread and the cup around the circle. The body of Christ given for you.” The pastor concluded, “that night the shelter beds were full even if the worship space still needed a lot of work."

For that congregation, Pentecost was not over, it had shaped their life together, and it had everything to do with how they used them time and talents and finances.

The hard work of the church on earth is putting Jesus’ teaching to work in our lives. Today, every day, God’s Spirit comes to each of us, giving us the power to do God’s work here and now. It can start as simply as praying the Lord’s Prayer together or it can be as dramatic as the rush of the wind.

God’s Spirit comes to us, it calls us to move out, to reach out, to forgive, to love, to care, for our fellow congregation members, for this community, for the world, for everyone.

Let’s not let Pentecost end too soon. Let’s let God’s Spirit effect all aspects of our lives, how we live and act and spend and share.

Amen.

The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor
Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Santa Monica, California

 


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