Pentecost sermon from North Presbyterian
I have a close friend in Canada who lives with Schizophrenia. Several years ago, when he suffered his first major psychotic break, he was in pretty bad shape. In a delusional state, he walked several miles on foot from the town where he lived to the nearest major city.
Once there, he was tired and bored and wished he had something to read. Reaching into his pocket, he found a pamphlet of Christian literature. As he looked over it, he thought to himself, “This is what I need!” So, right there in the middle of the street, in downtown traffic as the horns of frustrated commuters surrounded him, he knelt down and prayed.
And as he prayed, something remarkable happened: he had a moment of clarity. He realized that something was wrong in his brain and he should go home and get help. So, he turned around and walked the many miles back to his house. When he got there, his mother was worried sick. The police had arrived and were trying to locate him. My friend walked through the front door and said to them, “Hi. I am a danger to myself and others. I need help. You should take me to the hospital.”
Today, I’m happy to report that my friend went to the hospital, stayed there, and got the help he needed. Today, he continues to lead a meaningful life with the help of medication and therapy. He went back to school, became a father, and is currently seeking ordination in his church.
And beautiful thing is how it all began with this brief moment of clarity in the middle of downtown traffic.
I begin with this story today because it is a perfect illustration of the biblical term prophecy.
Words like prophet and prophecy have been misinterpreted and misunderstood in Christian history. For many people, prophecy has become a kind of fortune-telling about the imminent end of the world. Popular authors scour the book of Revelation for clues about when and how Christ will return to earth. When many people think of prophets, they conjure up images of mysterious, occult figures like Nostradamus, who claim to have special, insider information about the end of days.
It will come as no surprise to most of you that I think these so-called “prophecies” are absolute and total bunk. Christians should pay no attention to them. I wholeheartedly affirm, along with the apostles and the historic Church, my belief in the second coming of Christ, the final judgment, and the resurrection of the dead (as we recite each week in the Creed), but I don’t dare to speculate about the details of when or how those events will happen.
When the disciples asked Jesus himself about these things, he responded in no uncertain terms, “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” If Christ himself doesn’t know when or how it will happen, I think the rest of us can absolve ourselves of the responsibility for figuring it out.
So then, prophecy, in the biblical sense, has nothing to do with predicting the end of the world. To the contrary, it has everything to do with interpreting the present.
This morning, as we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, we read a story from the book of Acts where the Holy Spirit descends upon the gathered community of Jesus’ disciples after his resurrection and ascension. The majority of sermons on this passage focus on the first part of the story, where the really interesting and dramatic depiction of the Spirit’s arrival takes place. But I want to focus our attention this morning on the much-neglected second half of the story, where St. Peter stands up and interprets what is happening to the people around him. This part of the story is prophecy at its finest.
The events of that day were confusing, to say the least. There were reports of inexplicable wind and fire. People were suddenly able to speak fluently in previously unknown languages. The crowd didn’t know what to make of it. The most rational explanation was to dismiss the pandemonium as a whole lot of drunken nonsense.
But that’s when Peter got up and began to offer some perspective about what was going on. Like any good Presbyterian, he begins by setting these seemingly random events in the context of Scripture. Citing a passage from the book of Joel, Peter showed the crowd how it had always been part of God’s plan to “pour out [the] Spirit upon all flesh”: male and female, young and old, slave and free. We are, all of us together, the temple of the Holy Spirit. We are all prophets.
Unfortunately, the lectionary cuts us off at this point, just as Peter’s sermon is getting started. If we were to keep reading, we would hear him shift the focus from Scripture to recent events. At that point, Jesus had only recently completed his earthly ministry with his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his grandstanding in the temple, and a showdown with religious and political leaders that ended in Jesus’ execution. And then, as if the story was too good to end there, Jesus’ body suddenly disappeared. Rumors began circulating. Some said that Jesus had risen from the dead while others protested that his disciples had merely stolen his body and hidden it in order to make a stir.
Peter, inspired by the Spirit, spoke up in that moment and said to the crowd (about Jesus): “This man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.”
What Peter does here is tie together current events, recent history, and the biblical text with the cord of the Spirit. He showed them how everything that was happening around them was not in fact a series of random events, but the unfolding of the divine plan in history.
Peter interpreted current events to the people from a spiritual perspective. He brought clarity to their confusion and reality to their delusion. This is the work of prophecy in the world. It is a gift of the Spirit. And it continues to this day.
It continues in the Church’s ministry of Word and Sacrament. Every Sunday, before we read from the Scriptures, we say a Prayer for Illumination. This practice, introduced into our liturgy by the Reformer John Calvin, leads us to acknowledge our dependence on the Holy Spirit’s insight in order to properly understand the Scriptures. The Bible was never intended to be an inerrant book of science or history, in the modern sense. Those Christians who treat it as such misunderstand the Bible’s purpose and true significance in the life of the Church today. Presbyterians believe the Scriptures to be the “authoritative witness” to the person Jesus Christ, who is the revelation of God to the world. We refer to the Scriptures as “the Word of the Lord” because we believe they were inspired by the Holy Spirit, therefore we depend upon the Holy Spirit to illumine our hearts as we read the text, so that we might hear God speaking to us today through these ancient words.
In a similar way, the Spirit’s ministry of prophecy continues in the Church through the Sacrament of the Eucharist. In the Great Thanksgiving, the prayer we say before receiving Communion, we recall the saving deeds of Christ and tell again the story of the Last Supper. Then we call upon the Holy Spirit to descend upon us and the physical elements of bread and wine, so that our celebration of this meal might be a sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ. Unlike our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, we do not believe the elements are literally transformed into flesh and blood. But unlike many of our fellow Protestants, we also do not believe this Sacrament to be a mere memorial of past events. We believe Christ is really, spiritually present, therefore we need the Holy Spirit to open the eyes of our hearts, so that we can receive his Body and Blood by faith as we partake of the bread and wine.
These two ways, Word and Sacrament, are two of the main ways that the Holy Spirit’s ministry of prophecy continues in the Church today. Of course, they are by no means the only ways that the Spirit continues to work in the Church. I could keep going about Baptism, confirmation, ordination, reconciliation, marriage, anointing, music, prayer, or church government. All of these are ways that the Holy Spirit continues to work in the life of the Church, but we would be here all day if I went into detail about each of them.
The Holy Spirit works in our lives outside church as well. I already spoke about my friend’s “moment of clarity” in the midst of a psychotic break. Many others, especially those who are in recovery from addictions, can tell about similar moments when they decided it was time to get clean or sober. Most of them describe this moment as pure grace: that clarity came to them, not from them. They say it felt like something (or someone) was speaking to them, but without words. Not all of them are ready to believe that it was “God” (as we understand God) who spoke to them, but you can visit any Twelve Step recovery meeting in this town and find people there who say, “We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” They credit their ongoing recovery to the work of a Higher Power. I, personally, have no trouble affirming that this too is the work of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives.
The Holy Spirit is all around us and within us, continuing that ministry of prophecy today: gifting us with moments of clarity in the midst of our confusion. The Spirit is at work today in the pastor celebrating at the Communion table and is also at work in the alcoholic struggling for one more day of sobriety (and sometimes, the Spirit works both of those things at the same time, in the same person). The Spirit is at work today in the friendly usher who joyfully greets worshipers on their way into church and is also at work in the sceptic who barely scraped together enough faith to make it to church this morning (and sometimes, the Spirit works both of those things at the same time, in the same person).
The Spirit is at work today, confronting us with moments of clarity and leading us to let go of our delusions. The Spirit is at work today, inviting us to follow where Jesus leads and to trust that our life (as individuals, the Church, and the world) is not a series of random events, but the unfolding story of God’s love for us.
Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, know this: the Spirit is at work in you today. Trust this and remember that you are loved.