the Church Ablaze
A sermon on Ezekiel 37: 1-14 & Acts 2: 1-21 by Nathan Nettleton, 31 May 2009
The festive Day of Pentecost has come in more ways than one for us this year. In one way it has come just because it always does. The Day of Pentecost is the concluding day of the annual Paschal season, and so it comes around each year whether we are ready for it or not and whether it means anything much to us or not. But this year I reckon it really means something to us, or symbolises and celebrates something that is really happening among us, and that is exciting. And in more ways than one here too. At least three.
The story of the Day of Pentecost that was spoken about in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles provides one of the great symbols of the gospel breaking down the walls of racial and ethnic division in the early Church. Up until that point, all the followers of Jesus were Israelite Jews. And Judaism is a religion that is so strongly associated with the one racial and national community, that the idea that the God of Israel might want to call non-Jews to faith on an equal footing was a radical and difficult notion. But on the Day of Pentecost, as the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Church, the disciples found themselves speaking in languages they had never learned to proclaim the gospel to people from many other countries. The Holy Spirit had made her will known. The Church of Jesus was not to be a mono-cultural or mono-lingual community of faith. It was to be a sign of the reconciliation of all peoples, regardless of ethnic and linguistic differences, as one diverse but united people in Christ.
And so tonight, for the first time, we have heard our prayers in this congregation being offered in more than one language. Maggie, Simon, Michael and Luc are still relatively new to our congregation, but they have been a precious gift to us, a sign of new life after a time of pain and loss. But now they are not only a sign of new growth, but a sign of new things, new opportunities. Through their gift to us tonight, we can see that our pattern of worship is unusually well-suited to a multi-lingual celebration. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is calling us to new things and pointing us in new directions. For the gifts of the Spirit shared through the Chinese tongue tonight, thanks be to God. Amen? Amen!
A second new thing that is beginning here tonight is also very Pentecost-like. It too looks like a sign of the Spirit moving among us, disturbing us out from our comfort zones, and calling us to explore and embrace new possibilities. In the story we heard, the Apostle Peter preached from the prophet Joel saying “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young ones shall see visions, and your old ones shall dream dreams.” Eighteen months ago we dreamed some dreams and shared some visions about how we might give life to this vision and more fully include our sons and our daughters, our young ones, in our liturgy, in the central symbol of what our gathered life is all about. We got stuck for a while, and though we improved the way we provided for them outside while the service was on, that was only ever intended as an interim arrangement. Tonight we are beginning to try something new. Tonight our young ones are participating in our liturgy in new ways. We are still making it up and working it out as we go along, so it won’t be too neat and polished, but as Alison wrote in the notice sheet, it just might be glorious!
We have much to learn from these young ones. Jesus was quite clear that we have to learn to be more like them if we are going to make it in the Kingdom of God. I don’t think he was kidding, but I think the Church has always struggled to know what to make of it. I’m not suggesting for a moment that what we are beginning tonight takes care of it, but we will be at least looking in the right direction if we welcome our children in and invite them to lead us in new expressions of joy and celebration in our liturgy. What they are adding is not just kids’ stuff. It is new enhancements of our liturgy that I would love to see happening even if we didn’t have any children to lead us. But I reckon if we tried to do it without the help of our children, there would be a lot more inertia and inhibition holding us back. For the gifts of the Spirit shared through our children tonight, thanks be to God. Amen? Amen!
There is a third, and perhaps even bigger way that Pentecost has come to us at this time. It is not as suddenly obvious, because it is not a new action or tongue or presence. But it is perhaps even more fully what Pentecost is about. The Pentecost story tells of the fire of the Holy Spirit bursting ablaze in what had been a hurt and frightened and uncertain group of believers. The disciples had experienced the presence of the resurrected Christ, but now he was no longer showing up. He had been taken away from them again, and they continued to meet behind closed doors, insecure, worried, lonely, and somewhat despairing. And then the Holy Spirit comes and sets them aflame with passion and love and boldness and they begin turning the world upside down.
This congregation has been a pretty hurt and despairing and uncertain group of believers in the past year. Hopes had been dashed among us, and death seems to hang in the air, and we were not sure whether we would ever pull through or whether we would just spiral down the plug hole into an oblivion of recriminations and disillusionment. But it appears to me that Pentecost is coming for real. As Jan wrote in that beautiful reflection she sent to us this week, sometimes the fire looks like it is out and there is only cold ashes left, but prod and poke and it is amazing how often a fire can be brought back to life. The Holy Spirit has been doing a lot of prodding and poking among us lately. There are all sorts of new dreams beginning to be dreamt and new directions beginning to be explored.
Two I’ve already spoken of because of the way they have been expressed for the first time in tonight’s liturgy, but there are more. Garry and Jan have reaffirmed their baptismal vows and been welcomed into membership. Samara has got us all wrestling with questions of how we relate to the congregation and what it takes for us to express and sustain and grow our life together. Even in a fortnight where we have been asked to look for one last time at the wounds of the past year, we seem to have been able to do that with a new freedom and with a sense that we are closing a chapter rather than wallowing in a hole. These are but examples of something difficult to define or describe adequately, because it is more a thing of the Spirit than a thing of objective events and examples. I think Jan probably captured it better in her written reflection than I have in this preaching, and I am aware that her reflection would have made a good sermon for tonight. In fact if she hadn’t so vehemently told me just last week that she would never preach, then I might have asked her to preach it tonight. I did warn her about the dangers of telling the Holy Spirit that you would never ever do a particular thing. The Spirit has far too rich a sense of humour to allow us to get away with such statements, and she will do with Jan what she will, just as she does with us all.
Pentecost is here! New life is rising from the ashes, here among us and everywhere where the Spirit moves. For the gifts of the Spirit bringing new life and new hope and new vitality, thanks be to God. Amen? Amen!