Today completes the first of our four journeys through the Bible using the Narrative Lectionary. We started the Sunday after Labor Day with a journey through the Old Testament, and midway through Advent we switched into a journey through the Gospel of Luke, and after Easter we have finished up with stories of the early church in Acts and Galatians, culminating with Pentecost and the birthday of the church today. Many of you have been keeping up with the daily Bible readings intended to help connect the dots between Sundays.
We will begin our second year the Sunday after Labor Day, focusing on a different series of Old Testament stories up until Advent, then following the Gospel of John through Easter. This will be a new sort of journey, as the Revised Common Lectionary does not have a year which specifically focuses on John.
You may remember that the theory behind the Narrative Lectionary is that lots of people don’t have the basic grasp of Bible knowledge, stories and connections that churches used to assume people had. So it tries to move chronologically through the Bible to help everyone grasp the big picture and how it all fits together, and the same with each Gospel. It also uses the period from Labor Day to Pentecost to do this, recognizing the reality of the school year and the discontinuity of attendance during the summer. It gives some series options for the summer, one on a series of Psalms, one on the book of Ephesians, and one on the sacraments. We will be using some of that, but not exclusively. I hope you have found the first year helpful and that it will continue to be a good experience for all of us.
As I have thought about what Pentecost means for the church this week, it has made me think about the experience of going through Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. You go through all these rooms with exhibits and videos of Holocaust survivors telling their stories about being closed up in ghettos, having their communities and homes ransacked, being boarded on cattle trains and transported to places with work camps and gas chambers. You see the list of Jewish towns and communities in Europe that no longer existed after World War II. Finally you go into a circular room with many different levels that looks like a library with shelves stacked with books on each level, and you learn that the books contain pages with the names and information about the six million victims of the Holocaust. It is depressing and oppressive and disorienting, an enormously sad experience. From that room you exit outside onto a platform which leads you upwards and ends in a panoramic view of the countryside around Jerusalem. You are brought out of that long nightmare and reminded that there is hope. The past must be remembered and learned from, but the future lies ahead of us and it is time to get to work. The platform is a launching pad back into the world.
The period of time following the crucifixion and resurrection must have been filled with lots of conflicting emotions. Sadness and emptiness at no longer having Jesus in their midst as daily companion and guide; hope based on the various resurrection appearances; fear about whether they were at risk as companions of Jesus; uncertainty about what came next.
The Gospels reflect the murky, unclear character of this period and do not tell consistent stories about it. Luke is the only one who continues his story beyond Jesus, in the book of Acts. Luke tells us that there was a forty day period during which Jesus occasionally appeared to disciples before ascending into heaven. On that occasion he tells them the Spirit will soon empower them to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. As with so many of the things Jesus taught them I feel sure they had not a clue what this really meant.
Ten days later the Jewish celebration of Pentecost arrived. Pentecost means fifty, and it is fifty days after Passover. It was a harvest festival of bringing first fruits to God, an appropriate festival day on which the church would be birthed. The followers of Jesus were together in a house in Jerusalem when the Spirit came upon them. Images they recalled from that day were a rush of wind, tongues as of fire appearing among them, and speaking in different languages.
They opened the door of the house and, like stepping onto that platform out of the Holocaust museum, they saw the world and its opportunities before them. There were devout Jews in Jerusalem from all over the world for the festival of Pentecost, and Peter preached a new type of Pentecost sermon to the crowd telling how Jesus fit into the salvation story of the God of Israel. And for the past two thousand years the Spirit has been at work empowering people to tell the story of Jesus, to try to follow the teachings of Jesus, trying to communicate the importance of Jesus to every culture in every language. At times the mistakes and failings of the church and of Christians are so depressing and disorienting that we feel like giving up on it, but then the Spirit leads us out to see a new vista and be filled with a new hope and a determination to do the job to the best of our ability to make a difference in the name of Christ.
When Paul wrote to the Galatians they had gone through the initial euphoria of being called into fellowship by his preaching and example and establishing a community of faith. Then other preachers had come along with different messages, including that the new Gentile believers needed to be circumcised and follow all the Jewish laws and rituals. So they had moved into that depressing phase of conflict and confusion and dividing into different camps. Paul wants to lead them out onto the platform where they can see the big picture and find hope again.
In the passage we looked at last week, Paul reminded them that they looked back to Abraham as father, who knew nothing about the law and yet was regarded as righteous by God because of his faith. He said the law was given 430 years later to be our custodian, our disciplinarian, until Christ came bringing freedom. We were slaves to the law until Christ set us free. Now that Christ has done this, Paul says, we no longer judge each other as Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. If we belong to Christ, then we are children of Abraham, heirs according to the promise.
In today’s passage he continues this line of thought. He talks about that moment in time when God determined to remove us from slavery to the law. He says, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” Paul almost never talks about events in the life of Jesus, except referencing the crucifixion, so it is highly significant that he speaks of his birth here. When the time was right God sent his Son. He was born of a woman and born under the law – he was fully human just as we all are, even though he was God’s Son. The reason God sent his Son was in order to redeem those who were under the law. Redemption is a word dealing with slavery. To free a slave you redeem him or her, you pay the price of redemption. You can also pay a price to purchase a slave, but when your purpose in paying the price is to set free it is called redemption.
Through Christ we become adopted children of God. But knowing that we are adopted may leave us with questions about whether we are fully loved, as much as if we were biological children of our parents. So God has taken the further step of sending the Spirit of his Son into our hearts assuring us of our place as children of God to the point that we are inspired to fully open hearted intimacy with God, crying out “Abba!,” which is like saying, “Daddy!”
Paul concludes, “So you are no longer slaves, but children of God, and if children of God, then also heirs through God.” We are not called to be slaves who do what the Master says because we have to and we don’t want to be punished. We are not just called to be children, but heirs. Heirs are people who have a vested interest in the affairs of their parents, who need to be preparing to do the work, run the business, manage the affairs. Think about that aha moment growing up when you realized you need to start paying attention and making decisions and charting a course in life, not just relying on parents for everything.
The Spirit is what equips us for becoming mature Christians. I put out the banner which has the seal of our denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA) for today, because I love the symbolism of it. Prominent in it are two representations of the Holy Spirit. First, there is the descending dove, which reminds us of the baptism of Jesus. The Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove and instilled in his heart the knowledge of the love his Father had for him. Daddy!
Second, there are the flames of fire which remind us of the day of Pentecost. The flames are underneath the Bible, reminding us that it is the work of the Holy Spirit which allows those ancient words and stories to come alive and have relevance and meaning for our lives and faith these many hundreds of years later. Together the flames and the Bible form a pulpit, which remind us of the work of the Spirit and the Word in proclamation. This symbol should not be taken so literally as to mean that it is only from a pulpit in a church that proclamation can take place or should take place. “You are my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and in all the world.” As you tell the good news at home, at work, at the swimming pool, you are engaging in the Spirit powered proclamation of the story of Jesus and changing the world. And all of the symbols together form a cross, for the story has no meaning or credibility apart from the cross. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” “The cross is foolishness to Greeks and a stumbling block to Jews, but it is the power of God for salvation.”
When you leave the sanctuary this morning and walk out the door, allow the Spirit to show you the world in which you live, to give you hope for that world, to see how you can make a difference in it. Terror attacks, angry words, and broken relationships create fear and make us want to retreat into our own little worlds and insulate ourselves. That is not our calling. You are a beloved child of God and heir to the kingdom, called to take the Gospel into all the world in word and deed. We all need to rejoice in that and do our part to keep that kingdom healthy and help it grow using the gifts and abilities which have been given to us.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
June 4, 2017
Central Presbyterian Church