The Spirit and the Great Debates, Sermon for Pentecost Sunday, May 27, 2012 on Acts 2 & John 15-16

Acts 2:1-21

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When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs — in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'”

John 15:26-27,16:4b-15

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[Jesus said:] “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

“I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.

“Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

It’s a bit odd that Memorial Day weekend and Pentecost Sunday should come together as they have this year.  In some ways they have nothing in common.  One is a national holiday, the other a church holiday.  Memorial Day is a time to remember people who have died in service to our own country: it’s about America.  Pentecost is about the Spirit making it possible for Christianity to become an international faith, understood in every language.

And yet, as I thought about it, the two holidays do share some elements in common.  Both are occasions for happiness and sorrow.  On Memorial Day, we rejoice in our freedom even as we reflect on the sad cost paid for it in human lives.

We see the same mixture of emotions about Pentecost.  When Jesus announced the coming of the Spirit which should have been a cause for joy, the disciples

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were full of sorrow over Jesus’ upcoming departure.

And, although Memorial Day is all about our own country, nevertheless, this is quite a remarkable collection of people who came here from all over the world.  In that way, our country shares a characteristic in common with the church.  When the Spirit came on the Day of Pentecost and everyone heard the message of the gospel in their own languages, one church, one body of Christ was taking shape from all of that diversity.

Admitting we were wrong

We have a lot of debates in our country right now.  We have different perspectives on a variety of important issues.  And the same was true for the church, from the very beginning.  Both the nation and the church have had to grow and mature.  Both have had to accept the fact that there were ideas and assumptions that we used to have, that now we see were incorrect.  Both our nation and the church have had to swallow our pride and admit we had been wrong.

As our Declaration of Independence proclaims, our nation was founded on the self-evident concept that “all men are created equal.”    We all know that when they used to say the words “all men” they meant all people.  Except that, in this case, they really did mean men, and actually, they meant only white men.  Thomas Jefferson himself was a slave owner.  It took a very long time to enshrine racial equality in law.

In the same way, it took a long time for men in this country to come to believe that women were created equal and that they should have the right to vote and hold elected office.

The church also used to be guilty of patriarchal attitudes towards women, and yes, some churches were racist.  Our culture has a powerful and limiting effect on what we believe.  Thankfully we can see that though it took a long time, the “Spirit of Truth” has led us into truth that we could not bear in earlier days.

More to learn

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This is exactly what Jesus said the Holy Spirit would do.  Jesus had taught the disciples a great deal, but he knew they still had more to learn.

12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.

The job of continuing his teaching ministry is what the Jesus said the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of Truth” would do.

13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.   14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

Right from the start, the Spirit of truth had teaching work to do.  One of the teaching points that Jesus never got around to was what to do about converts who were not Jewish.  The issue was how much of the Old Testament law of Moses did they have to follow?  Did they have to keep Kosher – avoid eating pork and shrimp?  Did they have to be circumcised?   What about eating meat with blood in it?

The issue was finally settled at a meeting we call the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15).  At the conclusion the council sent an open letter to the Gentile churches, saying,

“For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit” 

not to impose on Gentiles the burden of the circumcision mandate.  Clearly they understood that the Holy Spirit was teaching them new things that they had not learned from Jesus himself.

How did they know that the new teaching was really from the Holy Spirit and not an unfaithful novelty?  The answer is that it followed the same path; it went in the same direction, the same trajectory as Jesus’ teachings had followed.  This is what Jesus indicated would happen.

“13  he [the Spirit of Truth] will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.   14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you

Follow the Trajectory

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Although Jesus never taught about what exactly the requirements for Gentiles should be, nevertheless it was clear that he seemed to accept them when they came to him in faith, looking for healing.

The Roman centurions’s servant was healed, the Canaanite woman’s daughter was healed, and in neither case did Jesus follow up the healing by saying “Now go to the temple and start following the law of Moses.”  He seemed to open the door to non-Jews in a new way.  The disciples at the Jerusalem Council were merely following the same trajectory further down the path.

Slavery

We believe that the same thing happened with the institution of slavery.  Nowhere did Jesus teach that slavery was wrong, but there is an easily discernible arc, or trajectory that led the church, eventually, to that conclusion.

The way that Jesus treated all people with dignity and worth, people of different races, genders, and ages, showed a perspective that seems incompatible with owning them as property.   The Spirit of Truth finally led the church to that new conclusion.

Women

The same is true, of course, about the role of women in the church.  This issue is even more complicated because the New Testament seems to be double-minded on the question.  Some passages indicate that women, like for example Junia, were considered apostles – even outstanding apostles (Rom. 16:7).   And yet other places in the New Testament forbid them to speak or have authority (1 Tim. 2).

Eventually the church concluded that the reasons for limiting the role of women seemed to have been cultural and historical – given that women in those days were generally not given access to education.  The trajectory that Jesus set in motion was to treat women and men as equals.  The Spirit of truth finally taught the church to open its doors to the ministry of women, and we have been enriched enormously by their gifts.

Our Modern Debates

A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

The church continues to debate complex questions.  People of faith disagree with each other now, just as they did during the debates in the Jerusalem Council.  Culture always seems to complicate the questions.  Some people by nature seem to be more open to new ideas, others by nature are only comfortable keeping it the way it has always been.

Both kinds of people  have the obligation to respect each other and to hear each other out, believing the best about each other, and trying to discern where the Jesus-Trajectory is leading us.

There is, after all only One body of Christ.  The basis of our unity is only Jesus.  Our unity is not contingent upon unanimous agreement.  When we come to the Lord’s Supper, we share one bread and one cup.  One Lord Jesus is present in the sacrament, by means of One Holy Spirit.

Reflecting on Memorial Day Weekend

As we remember sacrifices made on our behalf and celebrate our very diverse country this Memorial Day weekend, let us pause to reflect on the positive ways we have moved past the limited white-males-only perspectives of our founders.  Let us rejoice that we have been led to grow into a more mature  inclusive democracy.

Let us also pray that the Spirit of Truth would continue to teach the church as we struggle with the issues of our day, as Ephesians says,

“making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:3).  

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