The Magic of Pentecost

Sermon on Acts 2:1-21 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

imgresIn July of 1997, Bloomsbury, the British publishing house, released a new young adult novel. The previously unknown author was a single mom from Scotland who wrote the manuscript on a typewriter in a coffee shop while her baby slept in a nearby stroller. That little novel and its protagonist eventually became an international sensation. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and its six sequels have been translated into 67 languages, inspired eight blockbuster movies, and made J.K. Rowling, that single mom, a billionaire.

Despite its immense popularity, the Harry Potter series is not terribly groundbreaking. It is essentially an incarnation of the archetypal hero’s journey: Harry Potter is a young orphan who lives with relatives who, predictably, mistreat him in the most cartoonish way imaginable. On his eleventh birthday, Harry discovers that he is, in fact, a wizard when he receives an invitation to attend the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There he learns that his parents, who were also wizards, did not die in a car accident as he was told, but were killed by a powerful dark wizard named Voldemort. As you can probably guess, the series builds to a final showdown between Harry and Voldemort, the results of which I will not spoil for you this morning. Part of the reason that the Harry Potter series was so compelling is that it matured with its audience. The first books were definitely geared toward younger readers. They spent much of their energy describing the wizarding world, exploring what daily life would look like if magic were part of the routine. harry potter hermione ron warner bros.To be honest, it wasn’t all that interesting. The students at Hogwarts learn how to transform mice into water goblets and make household objects float through the air with their wands. Neither of these magical skills seem particularly useful. As the series continues, however, the magic fades into the background as the characters begin to wrestle with life and death questions. In the later Harry Potter books, in fact, the villains rely on magic far more than the heroes. Ultimately, magic is not the point of the Harry Potter series; it is instead the means by which the characters tell their stories.

Today is the Day of Pentecost, the day in the Church year when we remember and celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit. In the popular imagination, the Holy Spirit is the Christian equivalent of magic. Even in our own liturgical language, the invocations of the Holy Spirit could be seen as a kind of spiritual alchemy: we call upon the Holy Spirit to bless the waters of baptism or transform the bread and wine of the Eucharist into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Moreover, in the biblical witness, the Holy Spirit does seem to empower God’s people to do things they would otherwise be unable to do. The Acts of the Apostles provides numerous examples of this phenomenon, and of course none are more famous than the incident we heard about this morning.

After he is raised from the dead and ascends into heaven in Luke’s gospel, Jesus instructs his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they have been “clothed with power from on high.” Ten days later, the wait is over: Peter and the other disciples receive the Holy Spirit and imgresimmediately begin speaking in multiple languages. Some assume that they are drunk, but most are amazed at what is unfolding. No matter where they had come from, everyone who had gathered in Jerusalem was able to understand what these Galileans were saying. Those of us who are native English speakers have trouble understanding what a relief it is to hear one’s own language in a foreign land, since we generally assume that everyone speaks English. Yet thanks to the disciples, these pilgrims to Jerusalem who had come from the very ends of the earth felt a little less like strangers and a little more like they had come home. Needless to say, it was a memorable moment; indeed, it was almost magical. These ordinary men harnessed the power of God and accomplished something impossible.

That is generally where we end this story. For many of us, the point of Pentecost is simply to remember this polyglot miracle. On Pentecost, in fact, many churches will invite parishioners to read this passage from Acts in multiple languages at once, as if to capture what it might have felt like to listen to the disciples. It’s a liturgical opportunity to experience the magic of Pentecost. Now, leaving aside the fact that in Acts people actually understood what the disciples were saying, dwelling on the magic misses the point. The ability to speak in many tongues was a sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence, but not its purpose. The disciples were not empowered to speak multiple languages so that they could beef up their resumes; it was so that they could reveal the story of God’s salvation to anyone who would listen. Indeed, as soon as the crowd turns its attention to Peter, he quotes from one of the prophet Joel: “In those days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” For Joel and for Peter, the presence of the Holy Spirit is an eschatological sign that God’s purpose for us is being worked out. The Holy Spirit is God’s signal that the whole creation is being redeemed. The Holy Spirit is a gift that empowers us to see the work of God in all things.

We invoke the Holy Spirit regularly in the Church. In our sacramental life, in our pastoral interactions, even in our committee meetings, part of being in the Church is inviting the Holy Spirit to be present to us. For some, this is probably pro forma; there’s a sense that a church experience only counts if we mention the Holy Spirit in prayer. For others, there is a magical quality to this practice; by invoking the Holy Spirit, we are guaranteeing God’s approval. The Church’s language about the Holy Spirit, however, is far more than some magical incantation. It enables us to see God working in all things. When we use the language about the Holy Spirit in the Church we are affirming that everything we do, whether it is baptizing someone into the Body of Christ, or being with someone who is sick, or simply meeting about church finances has the power to tell God’s story of salvation.

In a few moments, Emily will be baptized into Christ’s one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. She is, obviously, an adult who comes to us from another tradition. As we welcome her into the household of God today, it is not as if she will suddenly and magically receive God’s favor. Indeed, God was at work in her long before she visited The Redeemer. Instead, as Emily is baptized today, she will become for us and for the world an icon of God’s promise to redeem all of creation. As we invite the Holy Spirit to seal Emily in baptism, we are recognizing that her life has the power to tell God’s story of salvation. On this Day of Pentecost, this day when we embrace the gift of the Holy Spirit, we too are called to tell this story of salvation, revealing to the whole creation that God is at work in all things.


Sermon on Acts 1:6-14 offered to the people of St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Midland, TX.

imgresF. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.”  You’ve probably heard this quotation before; members of the media love to trot it out whenever a disgraced politician makes a comeback.  Reporters will repeat the quotation and then say something like, “But clearly, Fitzgerald never met—fill in the blank” (Mark Sanford, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Eliot Spitzer; the list goes on and on and on).  The rhetorical point is clear: though F. Scott Fitzgerald thought it was impossible to make a comeback in America, these people seem to buck the trend.  This interpretation, however, actually misses Fitzgerald’s point.  Kirk Curnutt, the vice president of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society, points out that the quotation originally appears in an essay called “My Lost City.”  In it, Fitzgerald writes, “I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York’s boom days.”  In other words, while one might be inclined to conclude that comebacks are impossible in America, the example of New York points to the contrary conclusion.  Another interpreter points out that the second act of a play is when the protagonist has to deal with difficulties and challenges before things are resolved in the third act.  Fitzgerald may have been implying that in American life, there is no messy second act; things seem to get resolved with out too much complication.  In the case of either interpretation, the point is clear: the comeback is a crucial part of the American narrative, not only for disgraced politicians, but also for military veterans, sports franchises, and cities.  As Americans and as human beings, we tend to find comeback stories very compelling.  One of the striking features of most comeback stories is that the person or the team or the city that has come back usually looks very different.  Sometimes it is challenging to recognize people experiencing a second act because so much about them has changed.  They have a new appreciation for life, a new ambition, a new understanding of their place in the world.

imagesThis morning, we heard about the Ascension, one of the stranger moments in the post resurrection life of Jesus, which is saying something, when you think about it.  Over the past several weeks, we have heard about Jesus being raised from the dead (which is pretty strange in and of itself), appearing to his disciples after passing through walls, and disappearing from their sight after being made known to them in the breaking of the bread.  All of this is pretty bizarre stuff.  The Ascension, however, is even more perplexing than any of these other stories.  It is so strange that Luke, the author of both the gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, is the only evangelist who bothers to include it in his account of the life of Jesus.  In both the gospel and Acts, the story is pretty similar: Jesus gathers his disciples, makes some promises about the coming of the Holy Spirit, and is carried away into the sky until he disappears behind a cloud.  It is a strange story, not just because it’s about someone being taken up into the sky, but also because it is difficult to understand why it is included in the story of Jesus at all.  Most events in the life of Jesus point to some significant truth about the nature of God.  The Ascension doesn’t seem to have a significance beyond, “Hey, remember when that happened?  That was weird.”  And yet, Luke mentions the Ascension two separate times; in fact, it seems to be the pivot point between his gospel and his account of the early Church.  Moreover, the Church fathers thought the Ascension important enough to merit its own clause in the Nicene Creed.  That’s more than you can say for any of Jesus’ teachings.  So while it is one of the more perplexing aspects of the life of Jesus, the Ascension remains an important part of the Christian faith.

This leads us to wonder why.  What is significant about the Ascension?  What does it tell us about Jesus Christ and the nature of the God we worship?  One of the most conspicuous elements of the Ascension is that it is characterized by absence.  Think about the ending of the gospel according to Matthew for a moment.  Jesus gathers his disciples on a mountain and charges them to make disciples of all nations.  Jesus then tells them, “Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”  Those are the final words of Matthew’s gospel.  The last thing that Matthew wants us to remember is that Jesus is present with us in some way.  Contrast that to Luke, where Jesus does not promise to be present with the disciples, but instead, vanishes from their sight.  For Luke, the Ascension is noteworthy because Jesus disappears from the disciples’ view, because Jesus is no longer present, because Jesus, like Elvis, has left the building.  For Luke, Jesus needs to be elsewhere, needs to be interested and engaged with creation, but on a remote level.  The reason for this is revealed to us by those mysterious men in white robes.  After Jesus disappears from the disciples’ view, Luke tells us that they continue to gaze at the sky.  Two men approach them and ask, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”  The logical response to this question is, of course, “Duh!  We just saw someone carried away into the sky!”  Before the disciples can offer this obvious response, however, the mysterious men in white say, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  Luke emphasizes the absence of Jesus in order to prepare us for the return of Jesus.  The Ascension, in other words, is less about Jesus’ departure and more about his coming again.

When we hear about the return of Christ, the image that comes to mind tends to terrifying and violent.  Thanks to the apocalyptic imagery found in parts of the gospels, the book of Revelation, and works of popular fiction like the Left Behind series, many of us have come to regard the Second Coming of Christ as something scary.  Christ will return from heaven like a conquering warrior, leading an army of heavenly hosts and slaying the wicked and unrighteous.  In fact, the words of the mysterious strangers in today’s gospel account seem to support this fearsome understanding of Christ’s return: “This Jesus…will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  Through much of Christian history, the prevailing way to read this prediction was as a physical description: Christ went into heaven through the sky and will come back from heaven through the sky.  Charles Wesley embraces this view in the great Advent hymn: “Lo, he comes with clouds descending; once for our salvation slain.  Thousand, thousand saints attending swell the triumph of his train.”

imagesBut what if the prediction of the two men in white is not a physical description, but something much more significant?  What if, by saying that Jesus will come in the same way, these mysterious strangers are not saying “Jesus is going to return from the sky,” but are instead saying, “Jesus will return in the same way he originally came,” that the Second Coming of Christ is going to look similar to Christ’s first advent?  Perhaps these mysterious strangers are saying that when Christ returns, he will return as one who cares for the poor, reaches out to the downtrodden, heals the sick, and welcomes the stranger.  Perhaps these mysterious strangers are saying that in his second act, Jesus will be unchanged, that he will continue to be passionate about justice, compassion, and love.  Perhaps these mysterious strangers are saying that when Christ returns, we will recognize him.

If we are going to recognize Jesus when he returns, this leads us to wonder if Jesus will recognize the Church.  This, I think, is the reason Luke repeats the story of the Ascension in both of his books: he intends this question to be at the back of our minds as we read about the beginnings of the Church in the Acts of the Apostles.  In the gospel, we are told what Jesus did in his earthly ministry, how he cared for the poor, reached out to the downtrodden, healed the sick, and welcomed the stranger.  As we hear the stories of the early Church, Luke wants us to ask: are the apostles living up to the example of their Lord and Master?  By repeating the story of the Ascension at the beginning of Acts, Luke ensures that Jesus’ example and his promise to return are at the back of our minds.  Throughout the book of Acts, we see the apostles striving to follow Christ’s example by caring for the widows and orphans, healing the palsied and disabled, and expanding their understanding of God’s justice as they begin to include Gentiles into the Church.  In other words, we see the apostles striving to make the Church recognizable to the Jesus who will return in the same way he came.

Would Jesus recognize the Church today?  On one level, this is a silly question.  The Church has evolved significantly over the last two thousand years.  Jesus would probably have a hard time recognizing our hierarchical structures, our liturgies, our vestments, our preoccupation with committees, our buildings, and even our creeds, for that matter.  But, would Jesus recognize our passion for justice, compassion, and love?  Would Jesus recognize our efforts to provide for the poor, reach out to the downtrodden, care for the sick, and welcome the stranger?  Would Jesus recognize our attempts to follow his example?  Too often we get distracted from our call to follow Christ’s example by our slavish devotion to our Church structures.  We assume that we are not the Church unless we hold to just the right doctrine or use just the right liturgy or embrace just the right hierarchy.  But what the disciples show us in the Acts of the Apostles is that the Church Jesus will recognize is one that is more passionate about justice than dogma.  The disciples show us that the Church Jesus will recognize is one that is more concerned with compassion than structure.  The disciples show us that the Church Jesus will recognize is more interested in sharing God’s love than being right.  The Ascension reveals to us that Christ is the same, yesterday and today; we are called to embrace his changeless example and allow it to shape our lives and the life of the Church.


urlWhen television shows have been on for a while, the writers begin to run out of material.  After all, there are only so many times that an episode centering around the “on-again, off-again” romance of the two main characters can be compelling.  It is at this stage that the writing staff begin to rely on the celebrity cameo to keep people interested.  The plots of these episodes are predictable at best: someone’s long-lost friend from high school (who has never been mentioned before and will never be mentioned again) comes for Thanksgiving and (surprise!) the character is played by Brad Pitt.  While celebrity cameos are often contrived, they do occasionally make for interesting television.  And ideally, the inclusion of a previously unknown character will reveal something new about one of the regular characters on the show.

Today, we’re going to pause our regular scheduled program (namely, the final post on reconciliation) as Saint Matthias the Apostle makes a cameo on his transferred feast day (it’s usually on the 24th, but Sundays always take precedence).  In the first chapter of Acts, we are told that the followers of Jesus gathered together after his ascension in order to select a replacement for Judas, the one who had betrayed Jesus and subsequently committed suicide.  The disciples agreed that Judas’ replacement must be someone who had borne witness to all that Jesus did and taught, and they proposed two individuals who met that qualification: Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias.  Having narrowed the field down to two, the disciples prayed: “Lord, you know everyone’s heart.  Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship.”  They cast lots to determine whom God had chosen, and the lot fell to Matthias, who became one of the twelve.

urlThis is Matthias’ first and only appearance in Scripture.  We never hear where he came from and we never hear where he ends up.  This is a frequent occurrence in the Acts of the Apostles: several apostles make cameo appearances and then disappear completely from the narrative.  While some may think that this is lazy storytelling, the author of Acts is less interested in what happens to the apostles than he is in what they reveal about God’s character.  This leads us to ask what it is that Matthias reveals about the character of God.  There are several interesting details about the selection of Matthias, but I think the most striking is the fact that he was chosen over his competition.  When we’re introduced to the two potential apostles, we don’t know anything about them apart from their names.  Like a popular kid in high school, Joseph is known by three names, which seems to indicate that he is a well-respected guy.  Matthias, on the other hand, is known only by the name his mother gave him.  If the disciples had evaluated the situation objectively, they probably would have selected Joseph, since he would have been able to use his considerable clout in leading the young Church.  Nevertheless, the apostles leave the choice up to God, who selects Matthias, a relative nobody.

This story serves to remind us that God is not interested in popularity or worldly influence; God’s call transcends our human preoccupations.  It’s easy for us to imagine that we are not qualified to serve God or proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.  The story of Matthias, however, reminds us of the old aphorism: God does not call the qualified; God qualifies the called.  As you travel through this journey of Lent, remember that God has called you to proclaim the good news by word and example in whatever way you can.  Lent helps us to remember that we have all been called to be heralds of the gospel, no matter where we have come from or who we are.