Tag Archives: pentecost

“I can’t breathe” and the Fires of Pentecost

GOSPEL: John 20:19-23
19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” (Read the whole passage)

“I can’t breathe”

If you have been paying attention to the news at all this week, you will know that this is a quote from George Floyd. George Floyd was killed by a police officer kneeling on his neck for 9 minutes as Mr. Floyd was being arrested by Minneapolis Police. The officers involved were fired and one has been charged with murder. 

It is another incident to add to a long list of black men and other people of colour being killed in encounters with police. While at the same time our news has also been filled with images of white protestors congregating at state capitals, in masks and brandishing assault rifles who are allowed to “protest” without police engaging. 

This past week protests have grown violent in Minneapolis and around the United States. Cities on fire and protesting crowds have been flooding our news feeds. 

Breath, fire and crowds. 

These are the images of Pentecost. Pentecost 2020. 

Once again, we arrive at another significant church festival, and things aren’t the way they usually are supposed to be.

Pentecost at home and social distancing is a something we never imagined as a way to mark this moment… at least not until just a few weeks ago. 

Like Lent, Holy Week and Easter this year, the Pandemic has imparted a certain authenticity to the moment. Lent required an unusual amount of sacrifice this year. Our Easter confinement to our homes was more like the original Easter than we ever imagined. And just last week, as the disciples wondered when things were going to go back to the good ol’ days, we too have been wondering when things might return to normal, or at least return and open up at all. 

Today, the Easter story is now bringing that community of disciples to an important moment. A moment of transformation and change. All the preparing that Jesus has been doing, helping his followers for what comes next, for their life as an Easter community comes to fruition as the spirit pushes them out into the streets and through them proclaims the gospel to all the nations. 

As we hear the Pentecost story each year, it is easy to get focused on the well known details of the story. It is easy to think that it is all about the disciples having tongues of fire landing on them (what is a tongue of fire anyways?), about going out into the streets and preaching in all different languages, about the accusation that they are drunk and finally the 3000 people that were baptized. Those details that lull us into thinking that Pentecost is all about the rapid expansion of the church, a model for faithful church planting and growing, a sign of the Holy Spirit’s blessing that good ministry is happening. 

Yet, this year amidst lockdowns and quarantines, we cannot even offer up our merger reproductions of that Pentecost experience by gathering for our small neighbourhood outdoor worship services and BBQs that we usually celebrate with.

All the while, just down the road from Winnipeg in Minneapolis, the images of fire and crowds, protests and anger speak to another version of pentecost this year. 

And they remind us of police involved shootings of indigenous people here in Winnipeg. We are forced to recognize that pandemic has locked down many things, but not the complicated (and often racist) relationship with police that people of colour have both in our country and just across the border to the south of us. 

And so despite the lack of tongues of fire, speaking in different languages, and 3000 baptisms… despite not having our usual pentecost celebrations and observances… and with the unmistakable pentecost images flooding our news this week… we might be wondering what is the Spirit actually up to among us? What does Pentecost mean for us today in 2020?

In John’s gospel we are given a clue. 

As the disciples are hiding out after the crucifixion, hiding in fear from the outside world, Jesus appears in their midst, speaking peace. 

Nothing else is familiar in this moment, but peace – shalom – is something they know. The greeting of the faithful, the peace of God shared between the people of Israel in the synagogue, in the street, in homes, wherever they are – Shalom Aleichem. 

And then Jesus breathes on them the spirit, the sign of life itself, the breath of God, breathed into Adam and Eve, now breathed again into them. 

Peace and breath given by the Word of God. 

The Word who was there in the beginning, speaking all of creation into existence.

The Word who became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. 

The Word who rose from the dead on the 3rd day, transforming the life of creation itself, detaching us from death. 

And now the Word whose breath came upon the disciples, and 7 weeks later, whose breath and fire drove the disciples out into the streets to proclaim the good news to all nations.

The Good News of resurrected life found in the Word of life. 

This Word brought the disciples to the Pentecost moment. 

But Pentecost, this story central our identity as church, is not the destination. 

Pentecost was not and is not the new thing. 

Even as this community of disciples had gone from following Jesus for 3 years, to the experiences of Holy Week, and the re-orientation of Easter and resurrection, even as Jesus prepared them to be the new Easter community…

Pentecost was not the destination. Pentecost was temporary, a transitional space, a moment of disconnection. It was unlike anything they had experienced before, nothing like offering sacrifice in the temple, nothing like learning the Torah in the synagogue. 

And Pentecost, big spirit filled gatherings, full of converts hearing the good news and being baptized… is neither what this Easter community would become. 

Pentecost is a moment of disruption and disconnection. The moment that separated the disciples from the baggage they carried from before. The desire for the return of the Kingdom of Israel that they were still asking for just last week. From their desire for power and control, from their desire to shape and contort the spirit into their image. 

Pentecost instead was making them leave the old things, the old ways behind. 

And soon the early church became small communities of faith spread throughout the Empire, communities of 15 or 25 or 40 gathering around the Word and the shared meal of the Eucharist. 

And yet through all of it, the thread that connected this new Easter community to the faith that birthed them, to the ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, to Pentecost and then to the early church… the thread that connected them was the Word. 

The Word of God speaking from the beginning of time and still speaking to them now. 

And just as this pandemic world is unfamiliar to us and we don’t know where we are going, it is plain to see the we are living in our own Pentecost moment. The Spirit is not necessarily showing us the new thing that we are about to become, Pandemic church is not our new future. 

Instead, the spirit is stripping us of our baggage. 

Stripping us our of attachment to the old ways that we believed being faithful was all about. Of our attachment to culture and traditions that may not be helping us anymore, stripping us of our attitudes and assumptions that contribute to prejudice, racism and white supremacy that allow for a world where Black Indigenous People of Colour can be killed in broad daylight with almost no consequence, even as they cry out, “I can’t breathe.”

Stripping us of all the things that we thought we so important about being church, with the hopes that we will discern again what is essential. 

Yet, Pentecost is not our destination. 

This moment is one of transition for us too, the way are as community in this pandemic world is not the new way are going to be forever.

But as we await the new thing that we will become, Jesus is still speaking peace to us. 

Speaking peace in our homes, behind our locked doors, tying us to the thread of the Word that has been with us all along the way. 

The Word that centred the Church from before the time it was the Church.

The Word that birthed faith in us, in well-traditioned church communities that knew how to be church in their time. 

The Word whose resurrection and Easter story has been gathering us for generations, and will continue to gather us, even if it is in new ways. 

The Word who breathes the spirit in us, even in our socially distanced Easter, even in our homes at Pentecost. 

This Word is the constant all the way through, while the fires of Pentecost seem to be burning the rest of the world down around us. 

This is Pandemic of 2020 is our Pentecost moment when we know everything is changing while we still don’t know what we are changing into.

But Pentecost this year is also the reminder that the Word of God has not left us, nor sent us into this new word alone. 

Instead Jesus is coming again into our midst, speaking Peace to us, bringing us that familiar wind of the spirit, that familiar Word that gives us life.

A Pentecost Moment for an Easter Community

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples 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. (Read the whole passage)

After seven weeks of celebrating the season of Resurrection, seven weeks since we gathered with the women at the empty tomb on Easter morning, we have come to the next climactic moment of the church year – Pentecost Sunday. Today, the spirit comes unexpectedly and surprisingly into the gathering of disciples, and sets them on fire with the gospel in dramatic fashion. Tongues of fire, impromptu sermons, intrigued crowds and many baptisms. The Pentecost story is one that we would love to see and experience more often in our congregations and worship services.

Yet, Pentecost is a day to which we have an odd relationship as modern Christians – as Lutherans gathering together for a Barbecue on the plains of Manitoba in 2019.

Pentecost comes from Greek meaning the 50th. The 50th day from Passover, seven weeks after Easter. Pentecost is one of the major church festivals, along with Christmas, Epiphany, Easter and All Saints.

However, Pentecost usually comes and goes without the same in of fanfare are Christmas or Easter, instead it is maybe a convenient day for confirmations or recognitions of graduates… a Sunday that moves us from Easter in spring to green summer Sundays.

There is something about the Pentecost story though, something that resonates deep within us. There is something about the excitement and drama that also makes us want to look back with feelings of nostalgia, with feelings of loss and grief even.

This small little group of disciples that are one day thrust out into the public square, out of hiding into plain sight. And all of sudden the wind of the spirit blows through, igniting the interest of the entire city of Jerusalem. And the crowds just come – effortlessly. Residents of Jerusalem from all over the world. Peter begins preaching, catching the attention of all. The becomes an unplanned worship service. 3000 people are baptized. It is chaotic, but it is exciting. The crowds have come to church. Our shared ministry service here is almost like a recreation of that Pentecost story, a way for us come together with worship and some BBQ fire to recreate the drama.

But here is the rub, if we are honest, the crowds aren’t showing up most Sundays no matter what we do to recapture the moment… it isn’t easy and normal for people to just show up to church anymore. And it is a lot of work to keep the folks we have, a lot of work to keep coming ourselves. Church today is not effortless like it seemed to be on Pentecost.

But it feels like church once that effortless, or our memories of it are. We can look around most Sundays and remember the faces that once sat in empty spots. We can remember the days when many hands made for light work, when it was easy to put on a potluck or Sunday School picnic or congregational event. We can remember the hoards of kid running around church basements or playing outside during congregational meetings.

And maybe most of all we remember the Pentecost energy. We long for that energy, that Pentecost fire to come and wake our communities up. If only we could find that again.

Because we can see still that the world can get caught up in Pentecost-like moments. We can see it in Jets or Raptors playoff games. We saw it in the spontaneous crowds gathering to sing and pray even as Notre Dame cathedral was burning. We see it in the youth walking out of school and striking for climate change. We can see it in the parades for Pride month, in the crowds that will descend on Birds Hill Park for folk fest, in the spontaneous vigil crowds that seem to come with each new mass shooting, in the crowds protesting politicians and greeting royal babies. We can glimpse what seems like Pentecost energy and drama in the news, on social media, in our communities… often seemingly out of the reach of faith communities and churches.

And we also see how fleeting it all is, how interest and drama comes and goes in the blink of an eye.

And so we wonder how to find it again… if we will ever experience it again in our congregations, in our communities of faith. Will church ever have that effortless energy again?

Of course, as usual, there is more to the story.

It easy to think of the crowds and excitement.

But Pentecost was scary and confusing. It was dangerous and momentary.

It easy to forget just how terrifying those 50 days leading up to Pentecost were for the followers of Jesus. The women had come back from the empty tomb on Easter. Jesus had appeared in the locked room twice. And Jesus served breakfast on the beach only to point that Peter was unable to answer Jesus’ questions with the self-giving love that Jesus hoped for. The disciples were hiding, and fearful and confused about what came next for them. Nothing seemed to be in their control.

But then all of a sudden they were thrust into the streets, out from hiding into public view, from the closed circle of Jesus’ friends to being revealed to Jews and Gentiles alike. And even though it was chaotic, they somehow managed to gab hold of some control. Some how they managed to get organized enough to baptize 3000 people.

It is easy for us to forget how fleeting it was. St. Paul wrote to small churches. To communities of 15 or 25 people. To small groups of disciples wondering how to become the church of Jesus’ followers, waiting for Jesus to return and save them from the struggle.

And in fact, the church over the course of the past 2000 years has more often than not looked like those first disciples hiding away not sure of what to do next after the resurrection. The church has been those small communities of the faithful navigating the day to day of minisry and life in amongst the strange and chaotic world around them.

The drama and excitement, the crowds of Pentecost did not become the norm. It was only momentary. Pentecost is not the model for being church in the world.

The model has always been Easter.

The spirit’s coming was for an Easter community. The tongues of fire and the crowds and baptisms were all for the sake of the gospel, all to help the disciples tell again the Easter story. To tell the world around them the good news of resurrection, of New Life coming into the world of sin and death.

And yes, Easter is confusing. It is about empty tombs, and unbelievable stories, and Jesus showing up where we least expect him and messing with us in ways we cannot comprehend. Easter is about recognizing that we have no control over what God is up to in the world, that Jesus is ushering in new life and we are along for the ride.

The disciples, the faithful, the Church is an Easter church given a Pentecost moment. We are not a Pentecost community given an Easter moment.

Easter defines us, Easter claims us, death and resurrection creates us anew.

It is the Easter story that we tell every week, every time we gather, every time we confess our faith, we hear the Word, we gather at font and table.

And Pentecost is the Spirit’s way of pointing us back there again, of reminding us that new life comes in surprising and unexpected ways.

Pentecost is God’s way of breathing life into the Church and giving us glimpse of the new life the Gospel brings.

And yet, we remain Easter people. Even as most of the time it isn’t Pentecost, and life and ministry isn’t full of the dramatic and unexpected. Even if the crowds and energy are fleeting. Even if we feel more like those little churches of 15 or 25 that Paul was writing to instead of the 3000 that Peter was preaching to.

Even when it isn’t Pentecost, it is still Easter.

Because with Easter there is always forgiveness of sins, healing and hope for the suffering, life for the dying, resurrection for the dead. There is always the Word and Water, Bread and Wine that tie us again to the mystery of faith that Christ has died, Christ has Risen, Christ will come again.

And so this Pentecost Sunday is not the destination of we have been headed to for the past 50 days, but a reminder of who God has made us to be – Easter People brought to New Life in Christ.

O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord – Pentecost for Today

Ezekiel 37:1-14

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” (Read the whole passage here)

Sermon

Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost.

For a significant portion of medieval Christianity, there were 4 major Christian Feast Days that all Christians were obligated to attend. Easter, Christmas, All Saints Day and Whitsun Day.

Whitsun Day is also known as the Day of Pentecost. On the 8 Sunday after Easter Sunday, 50 days afterwards, Christians gathered to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples early in the morning. On that day the disciples spilled out in the streets, with tongues of fire on them, and the preached the Good News in all languages.

It is an incredible story, a miraculous story. Pentecost has more recently become strongly associated with the idea of speaking in tongues. Pentecostals, a movement born in Azuza Street Revival in early 20th century Los Angeles have become strongly associated with Pentecost and speaking in tongues.

As interesting and perplexing the idea of speaking in tongues might be to a bunch of stayed and stoic Lutherans like us, the most interesting part of the Pentecost story comes just after the speaking in tongues part. After Peter finishes his impromptu sermon to the people of Jerusalem, 3000 people are baptized.

And with that Pentecost becomes birthday of the church.

2000 years since that first Pentecost, the church has survived much. 300 years of marginalization in the pluralistic and pagan world of the Roman Empire. The church has kept going despite bing co-opted by that same empire for political reasons. The church has survived schism, crusades and holy wars, upheaval and reformation, renaissance and scientific revolution, World Wars and Great Depressions.

Pentecost shows us the resiliency of the church, or more particularly, the faithfulness of God. This community of faith born in the Good News and nurtured by water, bread and wine is the ongoing sign of God’s great love for world. And while Acts brings us back to the beginning of this community, it is in Ezekiel that we might find more in common.

The idea of 3000 people being baptized today sounds frightening and exciting, but that is not where we are. It is not where the church or where our congregation has been at for a long time – if ever.

The words spoken by the House of Israel in Ezekiel’s vision sound more familiar:

Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost.

2000 years after Pentecost, the vision that Ezekiel describes, seems to resonate a little more with us. At least the first part, the valley of dry and dead bones part.

Just this week, Pew Research in the US released a report detailing the decline of church attendance. Nothing that we didn’t know of course. Except, the report contradicts the common narrative that evangelical and conservative churches are still growing or maintaining. Attendance is dropping across the board. Declining for every group except one. The ‘Nones’ or the group the group who describe themselves as belonging to no religion.

Christianity is declining around us – our bones are dried up.  And those who are leaving are leaving for nothing – our hope is lost.

The prophet Ezekiel lived in world much more like ours than the Pentecost moment. He was a young man when Jerusalem was sacked by the Babylonians, the temple was destroyed and all the elites of Israel carried off into exile in Babylon. And for 5 years Ezekiel started preaching about and re-enacting the destruction of the temple. 5 years.

It took 5 years for the people to believe that the temple was gone. That the world they once knew was gone. It took 5 years to sink in that there was no going back. It wasn’t  enough to see the temple destroyed. It wasn’t enough to be in Babylon. It wasn’t enough to be conquered and forced to worship new gods. They needed to hear the story over and over again for it sink in. For them to accept their new reality.

Sounds familiar yet?

We too tell the same stories. The stories of our decline. The stories of our destruction. We lament and long for a world that is gone. We grieve for a world that we cannot go back to. And it might take us years to admit to this change, for our new world to sink in. Accepting our reality is just as hard.

Our pews will never be full of the people that filled them before. Our Sunday School and Confirmation classes will never have the students they once had. School children will never pray our prayers again. Sports, music and dance will never be banned during our worship again. Shopping hours will never be reduced to accommodate church attendance in our lifetimes. There are fewer Sunday sermons on radios and prayers at town council meetings. We will feel like we are having to make room for other religions and like we are being pushed out of public space for years to come.

Our bones are drying up, and our hope is lost.

And still,  standing with Ezekiel with the valley of dry bones spread before us, God will speak to us too.

“Mortal, can these bones live?”

Ezekiel’s responses is one of powerlessness. It is a sentiment that we understand. It is an utterance of exasperation that we speak often.

“O Lord God… you know”

50 years ago… if you had been sitting in a full and bustling church on Sunday morning, the only show in town, the place where many of your family, friends and neighbours were week after week, and the preacher stood a the pulpit and said,

“In only a few years this place will be a hallow shell of itself”

You might have laughed. It would seem unbelievable. It would sound crazy.

And yet, here we are.

Here we are with Ezekiel standing at the valley of dry bones and we are admitting, we are giving in, we are hopeless. “Only God knows what is next for us”

And God says,

“Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

Today… as you sit in a church with more empty spots in the pews than occupied ones on Sunday morning, as we are just one Sunday morning activity option among many, where friends, family and neighbours are rarely seen.

And the preachers stands in the pulpit and says,

“In only a few years this place will be full and alive with the spirit again”

You might laugh. It would seem unbelievable. It would sound crazy.

And yet, that is just what God is saying:

Then God said to us, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of [Good Shepherd], the whole house of [Christianity]. [You] say, `Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, [and hear the word of the Lord for you], Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves [I am going to open your doors, open your hearts, open your communities], and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of [Christ]. And you shall know that I am the Lord [you shall know that your church does not live and die by you], when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.

Today, a new Pentecost is dawning on us. Today, the spirit is blowing again in our midst. We might feel like our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost. We might only see a dying church… but God is about to do something new among us.

God is setting to the task of making dry bones walk. God making us ready for what is coming next for the church. And that might begin with years of telling the story of our decline and destruction. But like Ezekiel, once the story has been told enough, God will provide a new vision. Ezekiel saw a vision of the new temple and God is even today giving us glimpses of a new church, a new way to be people of faith in a changing world. It still took 200 years before the exiles returned to Israel to rebuild the temple, and it might just as long for the church. But this is how God works. God is making us ready for what is coming next.

Today the Lord says to us, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy my church, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live”

Amen.