Melissa: It may feel odd that we’re still in this virtual space on the Day of Pentecost, the day we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit to those first disciples, known as “the birthday of the church.” We’re going to hear two different stories about the gift of that Spirit, first from the Gospel of John - which gives us one story, and second from the book of Acts - a story that may be more familiar to us.
First we will hear John’s account, which takes place on the day of Jesus’s resurrection.
Gloria: 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.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” - John 20:19-23
Melissa: Jesus breathed onto his followers the Holy Spirit - which is a beautiful image of the life of Jesus being breathed into us. Spirit and breath often go hand in hand. Our next reading explores a different image - that of wind and fire! We’ll be hearing this scripture read in a variety of languages.
Melissa: Throughout this season, we have proclaimed that love is that which binds us (the root of “religion”) to God, to Jesus, to each other. Love IS our religion. On the day of Pentecost, the church received the power of the Holy Spirit to let this message flow out from all, to all. The power of this message is ever-so important to offer to the world today. The Spirit is poured out on each one of us so let us be a community of messengers letting living compassion flow from our hearts.
Two things from these passages stand out to me - even as they make different claims about how the Holy Spirit came to be with the disciples.
The first is from the Gospel of John. This is the same day as the resurrection, it’s the first time Jesus is appearing to the men, they’re all locked away in the house after Mary Magdalene had shared the news that Jesus was, in fact alive, and they’re all afraid. Jesus comes into their midst, speaks peace - breathes the Holy Spirit onto them, and says “Receive the Holy Spirit.” In the Greek, the verb tense used is a command. And order. Take it. It’s not an invitation, it’s not a suggestion, it’s something you have no choice but to do. And with this power of the Holy Spirit comes the authority to forgive and absolve sin...or not.
The second is the image of fire from the book of Acts. Tongues of fire descending on those early followers of Jesus - again, hidden away together - fire that empowered them to speak boldly and that enabled the crowds to hear the message of Jesus in their own native language.
Fire and wind - forces that are uncontrollable, that have the power to change the environment. Fire warms, and wind cools - but both can unsettle and destroy - tearing down what was built and forcing reconstruction and renewal.
The crowds on that day witnessed the wind and the fire disrupting and deconstructing everything they thought they knew about who God was, who they were as a people, and about what God was up to in the world through Jesus. The Holy Spirit blew through that community so fiercely, the crowds thought that people were drunk. And instead of dismissing the event or saying, “well, that was interesting” before getting back to their regularly scheduled lives, or trying to stifle the message that God was about a new thing in the world and pretend like it never happened and get back to normal - the crowds responded by aligning their hearts with the Spirit of God - choosing to let the wind and fire burn away the old and carry them into the waters of baptism and into the way of Jesus.
In the midst of the disrupting power of the spirit, they chose not to go back to normal.
It makes me think about where we are today, Jesus breathing on the disciples to confer the Spirit...and we’re in the middle of a pandemic that manifests primarily in difficulty breathing...and we’re in this moment when our Black siblings are having their breath taken away…. And the tongues of flame sweeping through those early Jesus followers…can bring the refining fire to point us to a new way of being and living - painful and uncomfortable as it is.
We have this unique inflection point where we have choices to make about what we’re going to do going forward. There is immense pressure to act as if nothing ever happened when it comes to the pandemic - albeit a socially distanced, masked, increased attention to hygiene kind of normal. And that push towards normal comes from our government, from marketing, from the left and the right - all wanting us to move on as if nothing disrupted our routine.
Lest we forget, however, that normal was the problem...the normal we’re being pushed to get back into is one marked by exploitation of our planet, extreme wealth inequality, racial oppression and violence - we saw that one pretty clearly this week, a broken health care system, and injustice throughout the entire fabric of society. This pandemic has revealed the cracks in the system built to support the privileged.
We’ve seen how Brown and Black people are more likely to contract COVID because they are more likely to work frontline jobs and live in crowded conditions where social distancing is impossible. We’ve seen how much of a difference a reduction in carbon emissions has made for our planet. We’ve seen hospitals unable to have the protective equipment needed to do their jobs. We’ve seen people who make more on unemployment than they do at their day job. There are things we’ve witnessed during these past two months that we cannot unsee. Knowledge that we cannot forget. Stories that aren’t just stories, but people’s daily lived realities. And just like the crowds on Pentecost, we have the choice, to say, “oh, well, that was an interesting time, wasn’t it?” as we are pressured to get back to the normal that may have worked for us but not for many, many people - or we can stop and choose to live a different way. Refuse to go back to normal. Let the wind and fire finish its work in our hearts to bring us to a more just way of living with each other and with all creation.
I believe this is part of what the church is meant to embody in the world - a different way of being together, a community of people following Jesus that invites and challenges the world to strive for right relationships between people and between all of creation. As Rev. Allen Ewing-Merrill of the BTS Center put it, the church is to be “a Gospel-shaped, Love-fueled, Spirit-led, peace-loving, justice-seeking, destabilizing agent of change, not a stabilizing preserver of the status quo. And that’s what Pentecost is all about.”
To me, this circles back to the first disciples receiving the Holy Spirit as depicted in the Gospel of John, where Jesus basically commands his disciples to take the Holy Spirit, and as a result, to be the ones to hold others accountable for their sins. Some of what we’ve put up with as normal has perpetuated our cycles of systemic injustice and global devastation. We have an opportunity in this moment to call our culture to account - and to examine ourselves as well - as we, too, have this challenge as a church to not go back to normal, but to use this moment to continue following the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit and be the church.
We’ve been on this discernment journey over the past eight months as we’ve considered our relationship with the wider United Methodist Church. We completed the required sessions together, and that’s something to celebrate. We’ve put in hard work together, we’ve learned together, and we’ve had honest conversations about our values and the incompatibility of our values and that of the UMC. But I think what has also become clear is that there is more work for us to do - not only in terms of what we wrestle with being part of the UMC...but also in terms of where the Holy Spirit truly is leading us. I believe we have seen glimpses of that as we’ve seen what we’ve done as a church in serving this community - both those near and far - during the pandemic. The movement of God’s spirit has been powerfully present with the food pantry ministry - what else might God be inviting us into as we serve? What about in the ways we worship? There, we won’t be able to go back to normal - no singing, no hugs or handshakes - in worship we will have to find new ways to worship God together. I think, too, about our children, and the opportunity we have to address how we can help them become the people God has created them to be - as I think about the way many of them have disengaged from church to be the clearest sign that our normal wasn’t working. We have questions to answer about how we nurture one another’s faith.
We’re in a moment when the Holy Spirit has swept through and deconstructed much of what we knew about our world, about church, and about ourselves. Are we willing to resist the urge to go back to normal so that we can follow the Holy Spirit into a new way of being?
Melissa: So take a moment to look around the room you are in. Find one object in the room that represents the pressure to get back to normal - and if you can go get it, I invite you to do so. If you can’t get it, just make note of it. We’re going to share about our objects in a moment. [pause to allow time to do this]
Breaking Open our Lives with Discussion
Leader: Our theme scripture says, “they ate their food with glad and generous hearts.” One way we can be glad and generous is to share about how we are finding strength, hope, love and peace in these days. This is part of “breaking bread” with each other as we break open our hearts to one another as well. Maybe even help each other rekindle the Jesus fire within.
Share about the object you found - what pressure to get back to normal does it represent? How do you feel called to live differently?
What is it that your heart is on fire for?
What winds of change you want to blow through your life?
Finally, what do you feel is at the heart of the matter of life?
Each week, we have an activity or two to spread Goodwill throughout our communities. This week - chalk art! Get out onto the roads, since many of us don’t have paved driveways, and write some messages to share with your neighbors that they are loved, that there is hope, love, and peace!
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and three year old son and 6 month old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.