A Sermon from the North Yarmouth Congregational Church
A sermon offered by the Rev. Nancy J. White in the public worship of the First Congregational Church of North Yarmouth, UCC of North Yarmouth, Maine on Pentecost Sunday, May 15, 2016.
Principal readings Acts 2:1-21, John 14:8-17, (25-27)
It had been a troubling time for Jesus’ followers. They have been on a roller-coaster ride. Expectantly, they had entered Jerusalem with Jesus triumphantly riding a donkey and joined the shouts and adulation of the crowds as they greeted with Hosannas the “one who came in the name of the Lord.” They watched as Jesus challenged the money changers in the temple and joined with Jesus in celebrating the Passover in an upper room – only later to understand that this was their ‘Last Supper’ with Jesus as they had always known him. Terrified and helpless to do anything, they endured his trial and crucifixion. Perplexed they sought him, after the women reported that his body was missing from the tomb. They walked with the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus only recognizing him when he broke bread with them. And then for forty days the resurrected Christ was with them – everything was OK again. And then Christ ascended into heaven – gone again. What would the community of believers do – this was their leader and he was gone – for good this time.
I imagine, in the life of Jesus’ followers this was a CRISIS – a crisis beyond what they thought they could endure. They had dropped everything and dedicated their lives to the ministry of this extraordinary person. The one who promised to be with them always, the one who opened the scriptures to them and explained that God’s love is available to all, is now gone. They had pinned their future and all of their hopes on the person of Jesus – and he left them. Can you imagine it ?
Do you think they thought back on the words of Jesus as recounted to us in John’s gospel today? Jesus said,
“I have said these things to you while I am still with you.
But the… Holy Spirit, … will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.
Peace I leave with you; ….. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
Do you think they remembered those words that were confusing to them at the time? Did they remember that Jesus told them that the Spirit would come to them after he was gone? Do you think they feel at peace? Do you think they are not afraid?
The Holy Spirit was sent to comfort Jesus’ believers in their time of mourning and distress. Jesus knew that his leaving would be very difficult for them but he did not leave them adrift – he sent them the Holy Spirit to comfort and to guide. Jesus’ promise was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost.
Pentecost means literally ‘fifty days’ and it was originally known as the Festival of Weeks which was celebrated 50 days after Passover. 7 days X 7 weeks plus one for fifty. It was a celebration of the first fruits of the harvest – the first fruits of the spring planting. This festival had been celebrated for generations – long before Jesus lived on this earth. As was the custom, fifty days after Passover, Jews from all over were gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate God’s goodness in the abundance of the first harvest of spring.
The reading from Acts is a unique account in the New Testament of the Holy Spirit being given to the believing community. The Holy Spirit came with a sound ‘like the rush of a violent wind’ filling the entire house – can you imagine it ? it was probably similar to a bad windstorm – loud and frightening – the people there probably wondered if the house would stay standing and were probably wondering what would happen next. Then while they were in this state of fear “tongues, as of fire”, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.
This is the day the church was born! As Jesus had promised, the Holy Spirit was poured down on all believers. Believers filled with the Holy Spirit were empowered to go out and preach the Good News of the Gospel. Galileans who were notorious for their lack of linguistic talent, spoke about ‘God’s deeds of power’ to the gathered people and each heard the message in their own native language. They were amazed – some thought they were drunk with new wine from the first harvest – but all were astonished at what was happening. Their lives were changed in a big way that day.
So if this is such a big day for the church, then why do we not see the power of the Holy Spirit in churches today? One answer to that is fear.
Why are we fearful of the Holy Spirit? -because we fear that to be filled with the Holy Spirit means that we will lose control just as what some believed was happening to the Galileans on that first Pentecost. There is much controversy surrounding speaking in tongues which is one of the gifts of the Spirit identified by Paul in 1st Cor. A friend told me once that she was in a church group that was having quite an animated discussion about speaking in tongues – it made her so nervous that throughout the whole discussion she was praying earnestly – God, please don’t give me that gift!”
Why do we fear the power of the Holy Spirit? – because we fear God will fill us with the Holy Spirit and then ask us to go to Africa – When African Christians are asked what they fear most they reply ‘that God would send me to NYC”
Why do we fear the power of the Holy Spirit? – because we fear God will ask us to give up all our worldly goods. That was one of the things I feared when I was discerning my call into the ministry. I was a successful businesswoman and very independent and I had the financial resources so that I didn’t have to worry about how to pay the bills. Being single, I felt that there was no one I could ask to help support me financially – I was afraid – it was difficult to put my trust in God on this one. I didn’t quit my job right away. It was two years into seminary before I had courage and trust and faith enough to say OK God, I’m yours, and I quit my job. Almost immediately I entered into a part-time ministry for adults with developmental disabilities and support came from sources I had never considered before.
The Holy Spirit has many functions. One is to give each person a gift that may be used for the good of the Body of Christ. In 1st Corinthians, Romans and Ephesians, Paul tells us that in addition to varieties of service and activities in the Lord, believers are given gifts of the Spirit, which include: utterance of wisdom, utterance of knowledge, faith, gifts of healing, working of miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues, interpretation of tongues, ministering, teaching, giving, leadership, compassion. This list is not exhaustive and in fact there is much discussion in Christianity about what gifts are included in it. Paul makes no distinction in status of one’s gift but sees them all as inspired by the Holy Spirit and for God to use them for the common good.
Another distinction made is that these gifts are given by the Spirit as the Spirit sees fit. We don’t really have any choice in the matter. This is a tough one for most of us – we need to give up control to God. The Spirit gives us gifts when we need them to do God’s work here on earth. At different times we may be gifted with different gifts. For a time we may be called to be a teacher, another time we may be called to be compassionate, etc.
So how do understand what gift the Spirit is giving us? We understand through prayer – prayer by ourselves and prayer with other believers. I have often wondered looking back at the number of times I laughed as people told me they thought I would make a good minister. The Spirit was trying to tell me the gift she was giving me and I was ignoring it because God did not tap me on the shoulder and speak to me in a loud clear voice. Well, maybe God speaks through other believers. After awhile when you hear the same thing repeatedly, you might want to consider that the source could be a higher one.
Another way to help you understand your gifts is to take a Spiritual Gift Inventory. A couple of months ago, I asked each person here to do this – it takes about 30 minutes to an hour – I know some of you have done this. As we go forward, we will be sharing with one another what the inventory suggests as each person’s spiritual gifts. I have copies of this tool available for anyone who would like to use it to help discern what your spiritual gifts are.
As this church looks to its future, it will take the entire community of believers to discern what is God calling us, as a church, to do in this place, in this time. As you consider that, you need to also consider what God is calling you as an individual to do through the gift given you by the Holy Spirit. Your gift, whatever it may be, is not just for you, but for the common good of God’s kingdom, God’s community, here on earth.
It is appropriate on Pentecost Sunday, the celebration of the birth of Christ’s church, that we start to ponder what the future role of this church should be. As a church do we fear what the Holy Spirit might be calling us to be and do? Maybe yes for some, maybe no for others. The entire Church is asking this question a lot these days. How do we reach those who have not heard about God’s love and all the ways Jesus teaches us how to live as people? There is lots of discussion about this out there. We are now into at least the second or third decade of conversation about what it means to be the Church in the 21st century. What is our core mission? Should we have rock bands, live streaming, online Bible study or meet for Bible study at the local coffee house or micro-brewery? And the question is not, what will bring people back, but rather, what will bring people to Christ and love and ways of peace and harmony. Not new questions at all but in this day and age, there are lots of new ways to think about reaching out.
I see lots of articles on Facebook about these questions. Some of the ideas are ones that will work in some places but not others – it is not , a ‘one size fits all’ sort of thing. It is a ‘find out the needs and dreams of your community’ and then work with that sort of thing. There are lots of thoughts and ideas – bring the children back into worship – they are the church now, not just in the future; make church an experiential thing – young people today want hands-on involvement in church and outreach ministries, both locally and globally. People of all ages are looking for community – it may mean something different depending where you are in life – let’s explore where various groups find community and ask ourselves how we can offer that here. Several articles I have read indicate that while the church needs to update its music using songs and hymns more relevant to today, rock bands are not necessary. As I come across these articles, I will circulate them first among the council and we will discuss them, but I will also make them available for anyone to read and discuss. These are discussion starters so that together with the help of the Holy Spirit, we might discern what God is calling us as a church to do and be here in North Yarmouth, Maine.
Pray about it. Pray for one another. Help each other discern what gifts the Holy Spirit is giving to each of us. Then as part of this community of faith at NYCC, prayerfully consider what God is calling you to do. Amen.