|Photo entitled The Fire Dove.|
"to Boldly Go"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
June 16, 2019 -- (Postponed) Pentecost
Acts 2:1-21; John 14:8-17
Do you remember reading or seeing The Da Vinci Code? In the opening sequence of the film version, an old man is being pursued by a fanatical killer through the Louvre Galleries in Paris. The old man knows something important – a secret – some secret knowledge that he must convey, even as he protects it, from his pursuer. It is his most urgent task and it has been the motivating purpose of his life. In his dying moments he leaves clues, in code, to be – hopefully – discovered later by those who were meant to receive them. A secret message – meant only for a few – to be fiercely protected – even unto death. The Da Vinci Code makes a claim that the old man’s secret is the truth about Christianity. I contend that nothing could be further from the truth. The truth of our faith is a bold message – meant for all – to be freely given – even into new life.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, his colleagues, and his followers advocated the proclamation of simple truths for simple people. Eyewitness accounts of Wesley’s preaching indicate that he was not a particularly dynamic speaker – but that he was on fire with the Holy Spirit – that the modesty of his presentation revealed the depth of the truth that he spoke. Today you might wonder about that if you read the florid prose of his eighteenth-century English. But the advice is good. So today let us speak simply and boldly.
Today we celebrate a postponed Pentecost – an apt metaphor, perhaps, for our proclivity to put off the perplexing aspects of what we profess. The Pentecost reading from Acts is dramatic and full of special effects. In fact, the commotion caused by the arrival of the Holy Spirit is so overwhelming that even today, nearly two thousand years later, we tend to overlook both what was happening before and what happened after the great rush of wind and fire. Before Pentecost, most of the resurrection occurrences take place in secret behind closed doors. This has less to do with the teleportive properties of the resurrection body than with the locked-door mentality of the disciples. In the story immediately preceding Pentecost, there are 120 disciples packed into one small dark room. They are gathered once again after the Easter event, but they're still lying low, skulking about, looking over their shoulders, and timidly whispering the good news. They have good reason to be afraid. That’s how the authorities want them.
Remember that when Peter denies Jesus and slinks off, he's playing out the political script that the authorities have written. The authorities’ logic is very clear. Caiaphas says that it would be better for one man to die than for this thing to get out of hand and bring the Roman heel down upon them all. There is a fragile framework, a tenuous political arrangement between the temple establishment and the occupying empire that they can't afford to upset. They do away with Jesus in order to crush a budding movement. Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will run for cover. The question is this: Will the movement be ruled by fear? Will the followers be contained and confined? Rendered timid and silent? Pentecost comes with a bold answer: “No.”
The story in Acts 2 begins with many faithful Jews of the great diaspora gathered in Jerusalem – some of them happen to be followers of Jesus. These 21 verses could be lifted out of their context in the Acts, and unless you already knew, you could not tell that it is a pivotal moment in the origins of Christianity. These are Jews gathered from the reaches of the empire for one of the great Jewish pilgrimage festivals. They have gathered to speak about God’s deeds of power. The disciples take this story down to earth; they go to the people. To the authorities it must appear as political madness, an acute and, they hope, isolated case of sanctified anarchy. Some people say they have had too much to drink. How else can you explain their reckless courage? After what's been done to Jesus, you'd have to be either crazy or drunk to be shouting his name in the streets. Before Pentecost the disciples have only seen Jesus; now they experience the concrete and practical freedom of the resurrection – of Jesus having overcome the ingrained system of violence, victimization, and vindication. No political authority any place or any time can shut them down. This Pentecost means speaking without confusion. Beginning with Pentecost the disciples speak clearly and are understood. These are just plain Galileans. There isn't a seminary degree among them. They speak rough, down-to-earth, fisherman's-wharf Aramaic. But on Pentecost they speak truth with bold and eloquent simplicity.
The miracle of Pentecost is not so much that the message was suddenly spoken and understood in so many languages, but that there is one story that is greater than our differences – that is the story of God’s power, Jesus’ presence, and Spirit’s promptings, before, between, and beyond our small spheres of experience and influence. John Wesley, said in his sermon “The Catholic Spirit,”
“But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works.”[i]
The promise of the Holy Spirit in the Gospels is almost invariably associated with conflict, controversy, and condemnation — and notably with the ability to speak coherently in court or before the thrones of power. For instance in Luke, the Gospel by the author of Acts, Jesus teaches this to the thousands who gather to learn from and follow him: “When they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious how or what you are to answer or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say”
Later in his Pentecost sermon, Peter says, “Let me speak boldly to you...” The Greek word translated as boldly appears only once in the synoptic Gospels, but then suddenly flourishes in Acts from the day of Pentecost on. Often translated as “boldness,” or “speaking openly,” it is a mini-Pentecost packed into one word. The term is aptly borrowed from the political vocabulary of the Greek city-states. Originally it signified the right of the full citizen to speak fully and freely in the public assembly. It means literally “the freedom to say all.”
All this talk about boldness reminds me of one of my favorite television series, Star Trek: The Next Generation. One of the cool connections to Pentecost is that wherever they go, the locals understand their speech and they understand the locals. Do you remember the opening voice-over?
“Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise; its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”
Well, isn’t this just about like the mission of the church? In the years I have been blessed with the privilege to teach confirmation class, I’ve tried to stress how much we yearn for our young people to become full members of the church, but that it must be their own free decision to do so. They often ask, “Well, what if I want to be part of a different church someday?” In response I use the metaphor of a ship. “The church is like a ship where we know each other, and we are going somewhere together. Anyone is free to join our voyage. We have work to do that is eternal work – lives to live that are eternal too. We want you to be on this journey with us as we travel from port to port, serving the needs of whomever we find there, and relying on their skills and resources on our journey. Those on board the ship are like those on shore. Both have needs and gifts. There are other ships too, that are committed to serving the needs of both ship and shore.”
“Well,” a student wants to know, “what if I just start my own church?” (clear throat) … sometimes I think the purpose of confirmation preparation is to test my own faith. I extend the metaphor. “We don’t want you to drown, and building a ship is a very big task. No one can do it alone, and in the meantime, there may be sharks in the water.”
In the Star Trek fictional universe, the Prime Directive is the overriding guiding principle. It dictates that there will be no interference with the natural development of any primitive society, chiefly meaning that no primitive culture can be given or exposed to any information regarding advanced technology or alien races. The Gospel lesson today, the good news, is that our prime directive is to love one another, to give our lives for one another, and to proclaim our confirming evidence of this good news as we are empowered by the companion that Jesus sent on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit. We are not to hide timidly behind conformance, convention, and compromise. We are not to harbor quietly a secret message – meant only for a few – to be fiercely protected – even unto death. Instead, we are to proclaim our bold message – meant for all – to be freely given – even into new life.
Love one another.
Serve one another as friends.
Claim the name Jesus.
Wear it boldly.
Now, beloved, let us join in our most urgent task and the motivating purpose of our life:
Together let us love God.
Together let us love one another.
Together let us give our lives for one another.
Together let us proclaim our confirming witness of the good news of God’s unconditional love and expectation of shalom as we live into that good news, seeking justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly – not timidly but boldly – with our God.
Make it so.