Acts 2: 1-21
This week I really struggled when I began to write this sermon because I hesitated between two introductions. One option was a quote from an article entitled, Four Key Challenges in Pastoral Transitions, which says, “The pastor leaving will set the tone for how the new pastor is received. Differences of personality or theology that distinguish the new pastor from the old should not interfere with the manner in which the departing pastor helps prepare the way for the new pastor. Everything possible should be done to pave the way for a successful transition in the church from which a pastor leaves and for the continuation of ongoing ministries in the new congregation.”
Instead, I decided to go with my second option: science fiction. I understand science fiction might not be your cup of tea and hopefully your next minister will not bore you to death with this topic, but just try to stay with me for a few moments one more time. I am a fan of Battlestar Galactica, the second version, the Reimagined Series. The main narrative arch that ties this TV series together is, “All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.” The characters of this show progressively discover that everything they are doing – all their struggles and adventures – is part of an ongoing continuum. Essentially, they replicate actions from a distant past that will be eventually repeated in the future.
I like this concept because I believe that it speaks much about us human beings. For many different reasons, we have some difficulties to look at events with a broad perspective. We struggle to see the big picture. For example, this congregation will go through a time of transition very soon and it worries several people. After all, never before the entire staff has decided to leave at the same time. Sally has been here as Director of Music for 38 years. Glenda has been the office administrator for 22 years. There is a sense that this is a moment of rupture, a definite break, a life-altering event for Kanata United Church. For some, this represents as much as a change then… maybe… the assassination of John F. Kennedy or 9/11 for other people. There is this perception that nothing will be the same again.
In our churches, we tend to see Pentecost as one of these moments of definite rupture. Maybe all of us know the story very well because it is read every God-given year. After Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, the disciples gathered in one place, under the same roof. Without warning, “there came a sound like a rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house.” Then, the Spirit of God fell upon the disciples in the form of tongues of fire. Those common men suddenly found the courage and the strength to do what they thought was impossible. They preached with assurance and authority the Good News to representatives of all known nations under the sky. Even if some present that day initially believed the disciples were drunk, thousand were baptized and joined their movement. This specific moment is understood a definitive turning point in the God’s mission. This creative burst, this Big Bang, marks the beginning of the Church. God was doing a new thing.
God was not doing a new thing. We like to repeat this statement in our churches. However, when we look at this event from a broader perspective and go back to our bibles, we discover that it was not the case. There is nothing new here. On many occasions, God’s Spirit manifested itself with sound, light and amazing special effects before the day of Pentecost. It was not even the first time that the presence of the Divine was associated with fire. In the book of Genesis, a smoking fire pot and flaming torch sealed the covenant God made with Abraham. In Exodus, Moses encountered God through a burning bush. The prophet Elijah (you remember the wonderful musical he had not that long ago) defeated Baal’s priest and brought back his people to God when fire felt from heaven and consumed the burnt offerings.
Also it was not the first time that common men were inspired and empowered to share their faith, and speak about God’s deeds and power to the people. The First Testament is filled with a long prophetic tradition of such individuals. Some of those prophets came from modest origins like Amos. Others went to their own people to announce that God was about to transform radically this world like Joel or Isaiah. There is even Jonah who went to Nineveh to preach to a foreign nation, the Babylonians.
The same can be said about the initial reaction of the crowd. Jesus’ disciples were mocked and discredited by those who were in Jerusalem that day. Many other prophets had been rejected, often in much harsher ways. When the chief priest of the Temple heard Jeremiah prophesying, he struck the prophet and put him in the stocks. Elijah had to flee to Beer-sheba because king Ahab and queen Jezebel wanted to kill him. What we look at all of this, what happened on the day of Pentecost is not that different from other stories in the First Testament. The symbols, the messengers, the message and even the initial negative reaction of the crowd are in direct continuity with the history of the people of God. All of this has happened before.
Too often, we are unable to understand that we are part of something bigger than the current set of events. We struggle to envision that we belong to a large historical continuum that has a past, a present and a future. We forget that God’s people continuously live in a series of great cycles that are not that different from one another. In her book, The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle reflects on this phenomenon and comes to the conclusion that every five hundred years or so the church experiences what she calls a great garage sale. If you are like me, you probably accumulate, accumulate and accumulate stuff in your garage or basement to the point there is no more room. One day, you lose your tempter and decide to do a great purge and clean up everything to make space for something new. Then you start to accumulate again until the next purge. According to Phyllis Tickle, we are in the midst of one of those great garage sales. We are letting go of what we do not use anymore to make space for something new. This whole process is not different from what happened during the time of the Reformation 500 years ago or previous times of great renewal, re-examination of the fundamental questions and recommitment to a renewed living of faith.
The event described in the second chapter of the Book of the Apostles is not the beginning of something new or even the birth of the Church as it is often proclaimed. It was just one more step in the great journey of God’s people. As the prophets of older times, the disciples spoke up and proclaimed the same the good news to the people. It was the same Spirit of God that warmed their hearts and move them to become more than they previously believed.
In the same way, the same Spirit of God is still active in our world these days. During the 20th century, we have been blessed by the work of great theologians like Elaine Pagels, the inspired proclamation of preachers like Martin Luther King Jr, or the amazing compassion of individuals like Jean Vanier. Like all of those who preceded them, they added their part to the ongoing ministries of God’s people. They help us to see the presence of God in our world and invited us to journey with them.
And that’s not all. All of this will happen again. This morning we had the great joy to celebrate the confirmation of Kyla. Three weeks ago, it was Alex, Jacob, Owen and Carmen who made the same commitment that will also be repeated by our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the future. Each new generation following us will not have to establish a new covenant with God. Their task will be to proclaim the same message in a fresh new way. They will be invited, as we are today, as our ancestors in faith in the past, to navigate confusing times and challenging events, and to interpret them through the lenses of faith and spirituality. They will be moved by the Spirit of God to communicate effectively and reach out all of those who need to hear the Good News.
All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again. Each and every one of us are called to find our place and bring our gifts in the great continuum of the journey of God’s people. For almost 7 years, I played my part at Kanata United Church. I built on the foundations laid of the past ministers and very soon a new voice will come with different sensibilities, interests and I hope for you a different accent. However, as it was the case on the day of Pentecost, nothing will be really new. It will be the still same church, the same ongoing ministries and the same good news to be proclaimed to the world. For the Spirit of God presented in the past, the present and the future, let us say thanks be to Holy One and amen.