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A Pentecost of Another Kind

A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar. June 8, 2014 Pentecost Sunday Psalm 104:24-34; John 20:19-23 There is a tiny island off the western coast of Scotland, nestled in a region known as the Outer Hebrides, that is called Iona. It is only about a mile wide and perhaps two miles long. No only can you walk it in a day, but you can also experience all four seasons in one day: spring and summer, fall and winter. In 2003, when Janet and I were there in the month of July, we took such an excursion. We froze and were sunburned, were rained upon and almost blown away, all within a matter of hours. That is Iona. Even today, Iona is accessible from the mainland only by train, then by ferry, followed by a bus excursion, and finally another ferry. In other words, to go to Iona, you have to want to go to Iona. You may wonder why anyone would want to go there, given the difficulty of terrain and weather. I can only explain it this way: it is a beautiful, magical, holy place. It was there in the sixth century that a renegade Irish Catholic priest named Colm Cille made an unexpected appearance. We refer to him as a renegade because he came to Iona while fleeing from the Irish authorities. His crime? He had stolen… are you ready for this?… he had stolen another man’s Bible. And though his brand of Christianity probably had little resemblance to that which we practice today, Colm Cille – or St. Columba, as he is now known – introduced Christ to the inhabitants of Iona a faith that quickly spread throughout all of Scotland, bringing a sense of peace and purpose to those once-warring Picts and Scottish clans. Campbells and Bruces, Brodies (yes, Brodies) and Duncans, McLarens and Stirlings, once at each other’s throats and at war with one another, came under the mesmerizing grace of the Risen Christ, and Scotland was forever changed. To this day, St. Columba is considered the father of the faith in that part of the world. And because Scotland is six hours ahead of our Central Time, you can be assured that the annual Pentecost parade in Edinburgh, celebrating the birth of the church, introduced to them by St. Columba, has been completed. There’s a side of Pentecost that calls for celebration and gaiety, such as they have had earlier today in Edinburgh, and as we have done with our loud colors and the little parade of our children at the beginning of our worship. After all, it is the birthday of the church, and birthdays call for celebrations. On that first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came sweeping down unexpectedly upon the followers of Jesus and manifested himself in fire and the sound of a mighty wind. Bright colors and tornadic noise are what Pentecost is about. It was during the Jewish commemoration of Shavu’ot, which celebrates the giving of the Ten Commandments through Moses to the wandering Hebrews, that Pentecost began. It occurred fifty days after Passover, hence the name Pente-cost. It was a loud and messy and unexplainable occurrence… so unexplainable that Luke, who records the story in the Acts of the Apostles, uses the word like to explain it. It was like a forked tongue, it was like a mighty wind, it was like this, it was like that, not because he wrote like a teenager talks, but because he had such difficulty explaining what it was like. People gathered nearby, who were merely bystanders and observers and at that time not believers, thought these people were drunk, even at 9:00 in the morning. Those who had come together in Jerusalem for the festival heard the 120 folk who had committed themselves to following Jesus speaking in their native tongues. Those who had never stepped foot in the places from which these pilgrims had come could speak their languages – every idiom, every nuance – though they had never done so before. That’s what Luke tells us happened on that first Pentecost after the first Easter. It was a wild and wooly celebration that made RiverFest look like a Sunday school picnic. That was Luke’s version of Pentecost. But there’s another Pentecost… a quieter, gentler Pentecost, portrayed by John, the story we read a bit earlier.1 It doesn’t occur during a festival, but in the dark aftermath of a crucifixion, when Jesus’ disciples are still huddled in fear – hunkered down like a bunch of frightened puppies – wallowing in their inability to understand what has happened to their Lord and Master… and to them. It is the evening of the same day when Peter and the other disciple have come and told them Jesus’ tomb is empty, the same day that Mary Magdalene has reported to them that she has seen – has spoken to – the Lord, and that he is indeed alive! The door is locked, and we know why. You do that sort of thing when you’re renegades, when you’ve stolen someone else’s approach to life and faith, and have no nearby island to which you can flee. No fire, no wind in the upper room that day. Just a soft, familiar Voice saying to them, “Shalom halekem,” “Peace be with you.” I would imagine, however, that in that particular moment, when the breath has been knocked out of them and their heads are spinning from the mortal fear that comes when your life is literally on the line, peace is the last thing they are feeling. They don’t breathe, they don’t move, they remain transfixed, staring at what, as far as they knew, could have – should have – been a ghost. The door is locked. How did he get in here? Who is he? What does he mean by peace? This is not a time or a place for peace. The Voice is familiar. Could it be? Surely not. It must be a ghost. They did believe in such things, you know. Then he holds out his hands, the fresh scars still pink and raw from the nails that had been driven through them. He pulls back his robe and shows them the once-gaping wound where the sword had been thrust into his side. On the day of Pentecost, about seven weeks later, there was great rejoicing when the gathered believers finally realized what had happened… that the Spirit Jesus promised them had now been manifested in their presence. Peter spontaneously preached his famous sermon and three thousand people became believers. But not before the Holy Spirit, in great power and strength, had come and invaded their space, their hearts and lungs and minds, and revealed to them that God has indeed been true to his word that they who had cast their personal and collective lot with Jesus the Nazarene were now free to share the good news of the gospel without restraint or fear. That is one version of Pentecost. But let’s go back to that fateful night when the Risen Christ appears to his frightened disciples in the upper room. There is rejoicing then as well, but a different kind of joy… a joy that  comes more in the form of relief, like when it appears that all is lost and suddenly the Cavalry comes to the rescue. It wasn’t with the force of a wind that would knock them off their feet, but with a soft puff of the cheek that Jesus breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” It is a Pentecost of another kind. Why do you think Jesus breathed on them? I mean, why then? He had promised them the Holy Spirit would come, and it did indeed happen a few weeks later on Pentecost. Why now, when the events of what we now call Holy Week are still so fresh and raw in their minds and hearts, as fresh and raw as Jesus’ wounds? One reason could be that dead men don’t breathe, so Jesus is showing them, not only with his scars but also with his breath, that he is very much alive. He is not some phantom spirit or figment of their imagination. And he wants to empower them beyond a way they’ve ever known before. To put one’s breath into another is the same as putting a bit of one’s self in the other person. Jesus is implanting himself, his spirit, his breath – if you want to use a twenty-first century term for it, his DNA –  in them. From now on, they will not be breathing on their own. Jesus will be their Divine Respirator. But let’s try to understand what this breath means. We gladly will accept the breath of Jesus if it means that he will walk beside us and answer all our questions and show us what to do, where to go, and how to arrange our lives in a neat little bundle. We want the comforting, guiding, consoling, encouraging breath of Jesus. That breath of Jesus we will be more than happy to receive. But truth be told, having Jesus breathe into you can be a scary thing as well. Wait a minute, are you telling me that the same Jesus who has come to dispel our fear – “Shalom halakem, peace be with you” – (and remember he says it time after time) this same Jesus can then frighten us with his Spirit, his breath? Well, it’s only scary if we’re not ready to receive it. It’s only frightening if we’ve made but a half-hearted commitment to the One who has given us his all, his everything. Which means, because we never do give him all there is of us, that yes, it can indeed be a scary thing. You see, when Jesus really and truly breathes on us, we lose control. We’re no longer in charge. And when we discover that we’re not in charge, we have one basic option: we can be fearful or we can believe. What choice will we make? Do we dare give ourselves to Christ in such a way that we risk being overwhelmed by his presence, his breath? Do we dare let go? The disciples of Jesus were not irreligious people. Understand that, if you will. In fact, they were far more religious than we are. They had forsaken their families and their professions to follow Jesus. How many of us would be willing to do that? They had seen in the Nazarene the answer to their prayers. In Jesus the kingdom had come fully, and they were excited enough about following him that they gave up everything. Or at least they thought they had given up everything. But this experience with the Risen Christ brings them up a notch higher. Whatever the personal cost might be, they will find themselves willing to do it. No matter what the outcome, they were ready to risk it. There would be no going back. I look at their story, and I have to come to the conclusion that we can’t match it. We just can’t. I’ve known you for almost twenty years. I will have been in this skin of mine sixty-five years tomorrow. I know us – you and me – quite well in fact, and I have to tell you, it’s pretty hopeless. I don’t think we can match the experience of Jesus’ disciples. I’m convinced we can’t rise to the level of their faith, we can’t ratchet it up any more than we already have. We just can’t do this… not by our own strength anyway. Not through our own insight and ingenuity. It has to be a God-thing. I can tell you this… the earliest Christ-followers did not take the gift of the Holy Spirit for granted. Maybe they remembered the prayer of King David, uttered so many centuries before. He has been confronted with his grievous sin of taking Bathsheba for his own in adultery and arranging the death of her husband while doing so. He says to God… Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. It was a refrain uttered often in the worship of the early church: “Do not take away your Holy Spirit. Do not take away your Holy Spirit. Do not take away your Holy Spirit.” They knew that without the breath of God, they could not make it. And neither can we, neither can we. Which is why we need Pentecost, even a Pentecost of another kind. Come to us, O Lord, behind the closed doors of our hearts and minds, and breathe your Spirit afresh in each of us. Through our Risen Christ we pray, Amen. Notes 1cited from Fred B. Craddock, Cherry Log Sermons (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), p. 66.