First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Dr. Jane Florence
May 20, 2018
Scripture: John 14:
15-17, Acts 2:1-4
Sermon: “Witnessing Pentecost”
Red, orange, and yellow streamers; imagery of fire, wind, and birds fill the churches around the world today along with birthday cakes?! What’s that all about? It’s about story starts a long time ago.
On Passover each year, the Hebrews recall their exodus from slavery in Egypt. It is a holy day. Jews gather to commemorate God’s presence leading them out of Egypt with a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day. In the first century, Jesus entered Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. That’s when the religious authorities arrested him and turned him over to be executed. After that, the Jewish feast of Passover became the Christian Holy Week and Easter Celebration.
Fifty days after Passover, the Hebrew tradition has another celebration . They remember the laws given to Moses atop Mount Sinai when a cloud enveloped the mountain until “the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire” (Exodus 24:17). They remember also God’s instruction to “bring a sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest” when you get to the promised land. (Lev. 23:9-11) Fifty days after Passover, the first century Jews were celebrating the laws of God which were to govern their community, and they were celebrating God’s goodness each year at the spring harvest of barley and wheat. The celebration is known by many names one of which is the Day of Pentecost. Pentecost is the Greek word for fifty. Fifty days after Easter, the Christian church celebrates Pentecost giving it new meaning.
As scripture teaches, the Jews have gathered in Jerusalem for the Festival of Harvest, the Day of Pentecost. While Jesus’ disciples are gathered for this celebration, ‘suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind… and divided tongues, as of fire rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2: 1-2).
The language of Pentecost is filled with images of “wind” and “spirit” and “breath” and “fire” which are woven throughout the Hebrew stories. “A wind from God swept over the face of the waters” to create order out of chaos to start their story. Then God formed human from the earth and breathed into nostrils the breath of life. God’s presence was described as visible to Moses in a bush that appeared to be aflame, yet it did not burn. In both Hebrew and Greek the word for “spirit” is the same word used for “wind” and “breath.” These are forces of energy all around us; and even within us.
The spirit of God is like the wind outside us and the breath within us. It is some non-material reality that is profoundly real with palpable, visible effects. The ancient Hebrews spoke of God as the wind without and the breath within- the very essence of life that is both invisible and visible. It is the divine energy of life in the world and in each living creature. “Recognize the Spirit because she remains with you and will be within you,” John writes.
Pentecost is called the birthday of the early church. These stories seek to identify the source of energy and power behind these early Jesus followers. The first disciples did not go into the world to tell of their experiences with Jesus because they thought it would be a nice tribute to their friend. They gather, and worship, and go and live and share because God’s spirit of divine energy and power moves within them to do so.
John puts a little flesh on this spirit imagery at times as well. When Jesus gathers with his friends on his last night before death, he says his good-bye. He tells them he will no longer be with them, but they won’t be alone, abandoned either. He says when he leaves from their sight, God’s spirit will be upon them, with them and within them. John gives God’s Spirit the name Paraclete. (Not parakeet but Paraclete.)
It’s a term familiar in the judicial courts. A Paraclete was an Advocate, a Counselor; it literally means “one who comes alongside.” It is the one who comes alongside you in court to guide and advise you through the proceedings. Your defense attorney to guide you through the court process. In John’s story, Jesus breaths upon the disciples God’s Spirit who will guide them into truth through life.
You don’t get one phone call to notify your attorney that you need help. This Advocate isn’t a phone call away; this Advocate is in your inhaling and exhaling- your very breath. Jesus identifies the purpose of the Advocate again using courtroom language, “the Spirit of Truth will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.” To testify in court is a serious matter; one must testify truthfully. John shows us this powerful all-encompassing creating energizing, truth revealing, truth telling force is given to the community – in all its diversity – as a witness to God’s presence. You are to testify – speak the truth – the convictions of your heart, mind and soul… of God’s energizing love, do so because you have Spirit which allows you to experience it.
In a book with a baseline premise to get people to move out of dualistic mindset, Richard Rohr nonetheless contrasts the wisdom tradition of Jesus with the modern mainline tradition that so often misses the point of Jesus teachings. Jesus was not about belief in a set of doctrines, creeds about himself or the exercise of ritual of an organized religion. Jesus was about teaching people to connect with the Spirit of God in the world, in our being and living out that Spirit of truth in love, compassion, and care.
We proclaim the Easter message that Christ is alive post-crucifixion. We can only proclaim Christ alive in the world as we recognize God’s spirit alive and amongst us. Where have you recognized God’s Spirit this week? Where have you encountered a Living Christ this week? Where did you feel the brush of God’s breath or the burning of God’s energy in the world or your heart? That is the fire, wind and breath of Pentecost, the Paraclete, God’s guiding Spirit. That is the point of Jesus’ life and legacy, leading us into union with and expression of an all-empowering, life-transforming, truth-leading presence of God.
Mark Nepo tells of his friend’s that have helped him battle against cancer. “When I was ill, one toweled my head… others ensured my freedom. I have slept in the high lonely wind waiting for God’s word.” Honest friends are doorways to our souls, and loving friends are the grasses that soften the world. As Saint Martin said, “My friends are the being through whom God loves me.” Perhaps you have felt God’s Spirit this week in the loving care and expression of soul friends. I have. As I prepare to leave ministry here, I have felt God’s Spirit in your words of grace to me. God’s Spirit has spoken to me in your words, in your heart and mouths. How humbling it that for any of us to hear? God coming out of our heart and lips.
I have asked people, where have you seen God? The answers were varied and similar. Harriet’s irises bloomed in my yard this week. God was there. I planted seeds a few weeks ago, another said. This week they pushed up through the dark earth. God was there. I saw the blue sky and the rain and brilliant sunsets. God was in the mystery of life. Others picnicked in the park and watched children playing. Their laughter was God’s joy. You know what they say, “babies are fresh from God.” When I asked that question, one replied instantly, “Right here. As we pray for the sick and notice who has been missing, while we plan programs. Right here. This is where God is.”
In the laughter, in the silence, in the birdsong, in the music and ministry. In the children, in the friendships, in the lovers, in the family. In the flowers, in the garden, in the sunshine, in the breezes. In the strangers, God’s presences infuses the ordinary stuff of daily life.
Where have you experienced God this week? Wherever you have experienced Grace, Love, Beauty, Peace, there you have experienced God.
We need one another to help us see and identify God’s presence. The Spirit of God – which is beyond us – is the spirit of God which is within us – and in whom we live and move and have our being. The Spirit of God is given to the gathered community in order that we might witness/ testify and share Gods presence with others. Then we live out Christ’s command, we love.
May it be so.
1 Richard Rohr. The Naked Now.
2 Mark Nepo. The Book of Awakening.