we (yes, we!) are apostles

a sermon, based on John 20.19-23, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Day of Pentecost, June 4, 2017

Pentecost. The word means “fiftieth”. For Christians,[1] the fiftieth day after Easter Day on which we commemorate the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit upon his disciples,[2] those he called to follow him to learn from him so to become apostles sent out by him to preach and teach his gospel, his good news of God’s unconditional, redeeming love.

Today, as we reflect on the nature and work of the Holy Spirit, rather than focus on the stirring, spellbinding scene in Acts with its sudden, violent heaven-sent wind, tongues of fire, disciples filled with the Spirit proclaiming in manifold languages God’s deeds of power,[3] I bid we take the proverbial “road less traveled” and look at John’s gospel.

It is the evening of the first Easter Day.[4] The disciples, grieving the death of Jesus and fearing for their lives, are in hiding. The resurrected Jesus appears…

The Appearance of Christ at the Cenacle (upper room) (Apparition du Christ au cénacle) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

He proclaims peace; not freedom from tribulation (for this is the peace of One who was crucified; thus, if nothing else, bearing bloody witness that life in this world is not free from trial!), but rather that greatest comfort of eternal union with him.

He entrusts them with his mission: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Knowing they need power to fulfill that mission, he breathes on them: “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Then he defines their mission, and, by extension, ours: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

What? Who among us, including the first disciples, as human and honestly confessing our subjection to the temptation of the abuse of authority, would want to wield that kind of power over anyone (or anyone over us!)? Not I? As a priest, when I pronounce the absolution of sin, thank goodness, it is neither on my merit, which there is little, nor in my name, which is wholly lacking, that I proclaim it, but alway only by the grace and mercy of God! Now, I will concede that sometimes I have difficulty forgiving those who hurt me. And I do not believe I’m alone! So, it seems that we humans, at some visceral level, like the notion of releasing and retaining the sins of others!

Nevertheless, God forbid, I don’t think Jesus aims to appoint us as judges of humanity. Rather, we are to do something else in relation to sin.

(In over forty years as a daily Bible student, what I am about to share never has occurred to me, thus, as it hath come to me, for whatever reasons beyond my knowing, I consider it a Spirit-given revelation!)

By “sin”, I do not mean our human, innate moral frailty and failure of virtue leading us into temptation. Nor our acts of commission and omission in disobedience to God’s commandments. Yes, these are definitions of sin, yet, in John’s gospel, the chiefest sin is unbelief; not believing in God as revealed in Jesus.[5]

Therefore, for a disciple of Jesus to retain the sins of any is to refuse to be an apostle, to refuse to share with others the good news of Jesus. To forgive the sins of any is to strive to liberate others from their unbelief by witnessing to the gospel of Jesus.

Therefore, this Day of Pentecost, to commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the first disciples and to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon us is, in the words of the hymn, to “claim the high calling angels cannot share – to young and old the Gospel gladness bear!”[6]

Jesus breathes on us, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” commissioning us as apostles sent out to share with others, through the words of our lips and the deeds of our lives, his good news of God’s unconditional, redeeming love.

 

Illustration: The Appearance of Christ at the Cenacle (upper room) (Apparition du Christ au cénacle) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902). Note: Tissot portrays the resurrected Christ appearing to his followers in the upper room where they had shared the Last Supper exposing his glowing wounds as the disciples, in the foreground, and the servants, in the background, look on in wonder.

Footnotes:

[1] Pentecost first was and is a Jewish harvest festival, Shavuot; referred to as the Festival of Weeks (Exodus 34.22 and Deuteronomy 16.10), the Festival of Harvest (Exodus 23.16), and the Day of First Fruits (Numbers 28.26). As Shavuot is the fiftieth day after the Day of Passover (the annual celebration of the emancipation of the Hebrew captives from bondage in Egypt and their journey to the Promised Land, and, according to Jewish tradition, commemorating God’s giving of the 10 Commandments on Mount Sinai as a sign of new, liberated life), Hellenistic Jews called it Pentecost. This historical Jewish antecedent of Passover-Pentecost enlightens Christian understanding. God’s gift of the Holy Spirit is the signification of resurrected life in Jesus freed from captivity to sin and death so to journey to the Promised Land of eternal life.

[2] See John 14.15-17, 25

[3] See the Book of Acts 2.1-21

[4] The New Testament witness of the coming of the Holy Spirit gives evidence of more than one tradition, for, according to the Book of Acts, the event is located on the Day of Pentecost and, via the Gospel of John, on Easter Day evening. To explain the latter, for John the evangelist, the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit (John 14.15-17, 26) is tied to his glorification (his crucifixion, death, and resurrection).

[5] I arrive at this view given my interpretation of Jesus’ prayerful definition of eternal life: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17.3). In a recent sermon, Easter People (May 28, 2017), I said, in part: “Our knowing is more than our intellectual assent to the idea of God, more than our cognitive awareness of something, Someone greater than we, more than our understanding of the ways and workings of God. To know God and Jesus is to be in relationship with God as Jesus makes God known to us.” Believing this to be true, I define “sin” (that spiritual and existential state of separation or estrangement from God), from a Johannine point of view, as an active non-knowing of (an active not being in relationship with) God.

I think, too, of Jesus’ healing of the man born blind (John 9.1-41), especially his scathing critique of those who, though beholding his saving work, were what I term “the sighted blind”, for they refused to believe that was the Messiah: Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see’, your sin remains” (John 9.39-41).

Further, I think of Jesus’ testimony to his disciples prior to his departure from them about the work of the Holy Spirit, one aspect of which is in regard to the indelible linkage between sin and unbelief: “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 judgement: 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” (John 16.5-11; my emphases). Note: The phrase “prove the world wrong” (John 16.8) also can be translated from the Greek “convict the world of”, which is to say that the Holy Spirit corrects the world’s viewpoint, say, of the nature and substance of sin, thus clarifying what it is, that is, unbelief.

[6] From the hymn, Come, labor on; words by Jane Laurie Borthwick (1813-1897)

all (subtitle: inspired, intoxicated by the Spirit)

preaching a sermon, based on Genesis 11.1-9 and Acts 2.1-21, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Day of Pentecost, Sunday, May 15, 2016

Pentecost. From the Greek, meaning “fiftieth.” Originally and still a Jewish harvest festival fifty days after Passover.[1] In Christian lore, the fiftieth day following Easter celebrating the coming of Holy Spirit upon the first disciples.

On this day, two biblical stories about language.

Tower of Babel by an unknown Flemish painter, 1587, Kurpfalziches Museum, Heidelberg

From Genesis, a primeval etiological legend, a tale that seeks to explain origins, in this case, of the dawn of ethnic and territorial diversity. In a time of linguistic uniformity, everyone speaking the same language, people driven by a hubristic hunger for glory, build a city with a tower reaching to heaven. God, apparently myopic, “came down” to see more clearly. Jealously regarding the building project as an infringement on heavenly real estate, God (clearly a NIMBY, not in MY backyard?), with a celestial snap of the fingers, creates many languages, making communication, cooperation, and continued construction impossible, for the people, without a common bond and soon to be scattered abroad, no longer understand what is said.

Pentecost (1596), Doménikos Theotokópoulos (El Greco) (1541-1614), Museo del Prado, Madrid.

In Acts, Jesus, crucified and raised from the dead, before ascending into heaven, instructs his disciples to remain in Jerusalem to await the fulfillment of his promise to empower them to proclaim his gospel.[2] Suddenly, a mighty wind shakes the house and the fire of the Holy Spirit alights on each of them; compelling them, presumably all Aramaic-speakers, to proclaim in many languages the word of God. The listeners, Pentecost pilgrims, a cosmopolitan conglomeration of races and nations gathering in Jerusalem, thus, a reversal of the Tower of Babel story, are “amazed and astonished”, for all understand what is said.

The cynical folk in the crowd consider the proclamations of the disciples the confused mutterings of ordinary inebriation; hardly the supernatural utterances of extraordinary inspiration. Understandable, for I believe what is said and what is meant are related, though never the same; the former involving the declaration of words, the latter, their interpretation. Thus, Peter has to disclose the meaning. Silencing the scoffers, he tells them what they have witnessed is not public drunkenness, but rather the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy[3] of God’s Spirit poured out on all flesh. Not, as in olden days, only on the chosen few, whether Moses or the elders of Israel,[4] prophets[5] or kings,[6] but on sons and daughters, young and old, men and women, free and slaves. All will see visions. All will dream dreams. All will prophesy, able to say, “Thus saith the Lord.”

Focusing again on language, this word “all” signifies what Pentecost means to me. God pours out the Spirit, God’s nature, God’s Self upon all, overriding all barriers we humans erect against one another, ignoring all prejudices by which we discriminate and divide, for that is how God, who created all of us, sees all of us and, thus, wants, wills all of us to see one another and, thus, to see this life in this world differently…

This life in this world where we humans, in countless literal and metaphorical ways, have built, do and will build towers upward to heaven, the taller the better, to glorify ourselves is also where we, inspired, intoxicated by the Spirit, saying, “Thus saith the Lord,” seek to build bridges of connection outward to all our sisters and brothers…

This life in this world where we humans cling to our boundaries and barriers inherited from generations past and our lines of demarcation, whether we draw them ourselves or in our silence allow them to be drawn, between those who are included and excluded is also where we, inspired, intoxicated by the Spirit, seek to make the dream of love and justice a reality for all.

Over ten years ago, I had a vision that became incarnate in my sabbatical during which I purposefully went out into the world to engage “the other” – those unlike me, an African American Episcopalian and liberal Christian – Europeans and Africans, Jews, Muslims, and conservative Christians, secular humanists, agnostics and atheists. Through that experience, I was inspired, intoxicated by the Spirit, no longer able to focus only, even largely on the differences of our humanity, but rather to behold the commonality of our spirituality, for we all are created by God. This doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions or beliefs about how things should be. It does mean I am slower to judge others and I refuse to condemn others, for only God knows what is in the heart and soul of another person, who truly, as I, is equally God’s creation. It does mean that ever since, inspired, intoxicated by the Spirit, I consciously have offered myself to God to be used to share with my lips and my life the gospel of love and justice with all.

I close with the words of Nikos Kazantzakis in his semi-autobiographical work, Report to Greco,[7] for me, one of the most beautifully descriptive spiritual journeys in literature: There are three kinds of souls, three kinds of prayers. One, I am a bow in your hands, Lord. Draw me, lest I rot. Two, I am a bow in your hands, Lord. Do not overdraw me, lest I break. Three, I am a bow in your hands, Lord. Overdraw me, I care not that I break.

For most of my life, I prayed the first two prayers. For the past ten years, I have prayed and, for the rest of my life, I will pray the third.

 

Illustrations:

Tower of Babel by an unknown Flemish painter, 1587, Kurpfalziches Museum, Heidelberg

Pentecost (1596), Doménikos Theotokópoulos (El Greco) (1541-1614), Museo del Prado, Madrid

Footnotes:

[1] Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks)

[2] Acts 1.4-5, 8

[3] See Joel 2.28-29

[4] See Numbers 11.16-17

[5] For example, see 2 Kings 2.9, 15 and Isaiah 61.1f, concerning Elijah and Elisha and Isaiah, respectively.

[6] For example, see 1 Samuel 10. 1 (Saul) and 1 Samuel 16.10-13 (David)

[7] Report to Greco (Touchstone Books, Simon and Schuster, 1965), page 16.