May 22, 2016

First Sunday after Pentecost  –  Acts 2:14a, 22-47

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What should we do? Confronted with complicity in the crucifixion of Jesus –  cut to the heart (we’re told) – the gathered people of Jerusalem ask disciples: What should we do?

Quite the good question…And one of many in the book of Acts.

When Jesus ascends into heaven (remember, two weeks ago), a pair of angels asks disciples “Why do you stand looking up into heaven?…” Leaving us to ponder where we should be looking…

And when the Holy Spirit falls afresh soon after, and disciples start speaking in languages they didn’t know they knew – now the question from the crowd arises: “What does this mean?” (We should be asking ourselves this question every time we open the scriptures….)

And good questions, asked from the heart…bring good answers… and…

Now later that same day, as the apostle Peter continues preaching on the day of Pentecost, having first said, paraphrasing the prophet Joel: “In the last days, God declares, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh…Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved…”

Now Peter goes to the Psalms, especially Psalm 16 (that we’ve read today– also just a dash of Psalm 110) – building the indictment of shared guilt for the death of Jesus….And proclaiming Jesus as the promised Messiah…

Now crowds, cut to the heart, ask with one voice, “What should we do?”

And… What should we do? Is still the question…for all God’s church… For all of us…  All the time…

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But lets not go too quickly to applications…. let’s linger a little while in the past… The common ground past… of all Christ’s church… For perspective…

Pentecost is often called the birthday of the church, as the Holy Spirit makes new creation… from earthy disciples who fled in fear when Jesus was arrested fifty days earlier… (Peter not only fled – he also denied three times in one night that he even knew Jesus. Peter of course has since repented and been re-commissioned by Jesus… and…)

Now here’s Peter, preaching powerfully the good news of Jesus, risen from the dead, ascended into heaven… Sounding like John the Baptist – who came proclaiming a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins, preaching fiery revival by the River Jordan, saying, ‘I baptize with water, but the one… who comes after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’

Now on the day of Pentecost, here comes the Holy Spirit, with the sound of a rushing roaring wind…In the form of tongues, as of fire, dancing in flaming brilliance on disciples, who speak now in the tongues of many nations. And the crowd, convinced of sin by word and Spirit, asks the same question crowds asked earlier of John the Baptist: ‘What should we do?’

And Peter replies in the same words John spoke – ‘Repent and be baptized’ – adding – ‘and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’  Many are baptized, then and there, on the spot… (John-the-Baptist-deja-vu-all-over-again…Except –)

Now at Pentecost – the fire from heaven John expected to be the fires of dire judgement – instead brings awe and wonder and willingness to change…As the Spirit convicts of sin… And prepares us for transformation…

And three thousand are baptized and join the church that day…Thousands more in days to come…

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But…It’s been awhile now, since that first Pentecost birthday… Now we, the church, even on days when we’re feeling young and hale and hearty…are often reminded… We’re actually going on two thousand years old… And…

What should we do? Is still the question for God’s church… But now we have some history we need to remember, also, as we approach applications…

This week as our Friday walking group walked the canal, some of us were talking about the perennial topic of the future of the church, and the Methodist church in particular. (Friday having been the last day of the every four years Methodist General Conference…Where, as Methodists are apt to do, we discussed many things – and referred most decisions to a Committee to be named later…and…)

When I got home and scanned the news online I didn’t see any news of General Conference… But the first story I did see was an article in the Boston Globe about a church in West Medford – a Congregational church, but it could have been Methodist, American Baptist, or Presbyterian, any mainline denomination (so-called), the story would be almost the same…

The West Medford church, like so many in New England, had seen better days. Older members could remember fifty or sixty years ago, when there were 185 children in the Sunday School classrooms and pews were packed every Sunday. Those days were gone. Now a remnant of 28 members turned in their keys to the building – sold to a Haitian evangelical congregation… and walked a few blocks together, carrying bibles, hymnals, and a cross to their new place of worship, in a rented store front… Where they now seek to re-create church in new ways in a new place. Many still  acutely missing the past…

The Globe’s sympathetic, well-written story describes some of the many difficult, even agonizing, decisions made along the way by members… Some of whom had worshiped in the old church building all their lives (one woman nearly 90 years). A reminder that the simplest questions – Like “What should we do?”  May have simple answers….

Yet doing these answers is seldom simple…

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Meanwhile back on the day of Pentecost… Led by the Spirit, Peter walks the line – reminding the crowd of their responsibility in the death of Jesus on the one hand –– while on the other hand opening wide the path of repentance and mercy….

Letting everyone know it was according to God’s plan that the Messiah would suffer and die. So yes, feel guilty – but don’t let guilt take you out… Let Godly guilt work in all for good – provoking us into cooperating with God’s intended transformations…

And the Spirit and the scriptures remind us – repentance isn’t just saying we’re sorry – it’s about showing we’re sorry – from the heart, sincerely. Naming our need of God’s mercy and grace. Changing our behaviors… Committing to following Jesus every day…Which is only possible with God’s gracious help every day…(So…)

We go to the Scriptures every week (every day) to be reminded… We serve a God who is in the business of new creation…We pray and worship together every week (and every day in our homes), practicing our callings to be co-creators under God’s supervision…

And now later that same day of Pentecost we see radical repentance happening, big time – as, led by the Spirit, the whole crowd’s asking the community of apostles, “what should we do?” And Peter (designated spokesperson) says – ‘Repent and be baptized – just like John the Baptist said – but now letting us know – the gift of repentance comes wrapped in the promise of the Holy Spirit…And– the promise is for all– ‘for you and your children – and for everyone whom God calls.’

So – Come, be saved. Come, be transformed…and…

When we glance back into Luke’s gospel (chapter 3) we’re reminded that when the crowds there ask John the Baptist, ‘what then should we do?’ John says, ‘bear fruit befitting repentance.’ (And–)  ‘Let those who’ve got two sets of clothes share with those who’ve got none, and those with food, do the same.’…

Now at Pentecost we don’t hear Peter adding any similar specific instructions… Yet as we read on we hear that all those baptized are doing what John said to do, and then some…Sharing all they have with one another. (Talk about extravagant generosity – ) They’re going all-out and all-in for Jesus… Apparently without needing to be told… Though I’m sure they had plentiful inspiration from the Spirit, and probably apostolic human encouragement also…

But this radical sharing isn’t the result of any legal requirement… Nor of any man-made synthetic church-growth program… It’s all the work of the Holy Spirit in a community shaped and formed in the image of Jesus… Doing what Jesus did and said to do… Eating together, praying together, worshiping together, serving God together… Sharing together as the Spirit leads… Doing faith, hope and love, together…

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And now we’re back to the future… Back in our present times… Times as strange as  science fiction, from the perspective of even relatively recent past times… And here and now, again… ‘What should we do?’ Is still the question…

And since we’re still on the day of Pentecost – and in a sermon series from the book of Acts – one of our supplementary questions needs to be – Just how closely – how literally or how metaphorically –  should we be trying to follow the script of the book of Acts?

The church has usually interpreted this sharing of all things in common that the early church practiced… as a one-time event, not for replication…However,  John Wesley, co-founder of the Methodist movement, deeply believed this sharing of all things is meant to be normative Christian practice. (He certainly lived it himself.) And at a Finance Committee meeting just last week (in Bourne) we heard some Wesley quotes on money, starting with (quote): “When a man becomes a Christian, he becomes industrious, trustworthy and prosperous. Now, if that man when he gets all he can and saves all he can, does not give all he can, I have more hope for Judas Iscariot than for that man!” (Exclamation point. End quote.)

And lest we might think Wesley’s main concern was church finances, here’s another Wesley quote: “Do you not know that God entrusted you with that money (all above what buys necessities for your families) to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to help the stranger, the widow, the fatherless, and indeed, as far as it will go, to relieve the wants of all mankind? How can you, how dare you, defraud the Lord, by applying it to any other purpose?” (End quote.)

Ouch. John Wesley sets the giving bar rather high… But then again, so does Jesus… who told a rich young ruler – ‘sell it all, give to the poor, and come, follow me.’ Jesus also said ‘blessed are you poor, yours is the kingdom of God – and woe to you rich, you’ve had your fun…’

Wesley makes me flinch sometimes… So does Jesus. But when I consider the fruitfulness of the early church that did what Jesus did… Did what Jesus said – and the early Methodists who really tried… I do start thinking… Maybe our best short answer as to ‘what should we do?’ – is to just try to come as close as we can… to doing what worked for the early church and early Methodists… Remembering –

What isn’t possible in our own strength… Is possible in the power of the Holy Spirit…

And if we’re willing to depend on the Spirit – And commit to daily prayer, fellowship, worship, bible study, and sharing – like the church after Pentecost – Who knows?

We may be utterly amazed – with what God is willing and able to do with us, and through us… So…

What should we do? Is still our question… to be asking God…

And may this question be our heart’s deep prayer –

As we ask God to help us live ever more deeply… into this holy question…

And may God grant us delight in our asking, in our listening, and our doing.

Amen.