Sunday, May 19, 2024

Pentecost & Baptism, 2024-B: Expanding the boundaries of love

Note: You can watch this being delivered live at Emmanuel Episcopal Church during our Sunday, 10 am Rite II service of Holy Eucharist, live-streamed on our YouTube channel.  The sermon begins at 29:22.

Lectionary: Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

En el nombre de Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen. In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Amen. 

As I read our Collect for today, I was struck by this phrase: “…in the unity of the Holy Spirit…” This is something we hear so often as we gather together to worship. It ends just about every Collect we say, and it concludes all four of our Eucharistic Prayers.

Even though we pray this often, have we stopped lately to think about what it means? Well, today’s a good day to do that because this phrase is, for me, the essence of Pentecost.

In the story in Acts, God, who is Trinity in Unity, self-divides into tongues as of fire and rests on each person in the gathering. When that happens, each one is filled with God’s spirit. They are now, in their bodies, living in unity with the Holy Spirit. This was God’s choice.

You remember last week, I preached about the power of God being the power of choice, and the power given to us being the power to action. In the Pentecost story, God chose to overtly join God’s self to each person, and the minute that happened, they were empowered to action, immediately sharing the Good News of the love of God in the world.

As they spoke, everyone present could understand them, and this bewildered them. How can this be? It’s the same question Mary asked the angel Gabriel when he told her she would conceive a son by the power of God’s spirit. It’s good to remember Gabriel’s response to Mary as we read this story of the first Pentecost. In fact, it’s a mantra we can all live by: “For nothing shall be impossible with God.”

As our Psalmist says, “O Lord, how manifold are your works…” then he goes on to describe just some of the wonder and diversity of God’s creative love. May we, like the psalmist, sing God’s praise forever.

In our gospel story, Jesus promises to send an Advocate from the Father. I need to pause to mention that each time the word “Father’ is used here, it is plural, and it literally means “father and mother.” The appropriate pronoun, therefore, would be “they” not “he.”

The word Advocate, also faithfully translated as Comforter, Helper, and Counselor (as in a lawyer or an advice-giver) literally translates as one who is summoned… called to one's aid, a pleader who comes forward in favor of and as the representative of another. (Greek translation, Thayer)

Jesus says this Advocate will "testify on MY behalf." This is Jesus’ Advocate - summoned to help him, to testify in favor of his cause as his representative." And when the Advocate comes,” Jesus says, they will show the world to be wrong about sin, righteousness, and judgment. 

Sin, because there are people not persuaded by me, they don’t trust me and so they are without me; the divine-human relationship is disrupted.

Righteousness, because I withdraw from this world (you will see me no longer) and return to the eternal unity of God. Righteousness literally translates here as, “the state of him who is such as he ought to be” (Greek translation, Thayer)

And judgment... God’s judgment, God’s choice is to separate and distinguish Jesus from the powers and powerful of the world who distract us from our right relationship with God, others, and self. These worldly powers throw us off our true path. Jesus says they have been JUDGED (not condemned, as it was translated here), that is, they have been distinguished from Jesus who is our true path: the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Jesus’ Advocate, who is the Spirit of truth, will make all of this known to us. Spirit, btw, comes from the word “pneuma” which is feminine, so the appropriate pronoun would be “she” not “he.” She will guide us into all truth. She will make known the things that are to come. She will glorify Jesus.

And through Her, so will we.

In the story from Acts, Peter says, “Let this be known to you, and listen to (which actually translates as “receive”) what I say. When we open ourselves to receive the power to action given to us by the Spirit of truth, we too will prophesy.

To prophesy is to speak as directed by the Spirit of God. So, prophesy that the Holy Spirit of God now dwells in us, uniting us to God and to one another – actually and intimately, like family. Prophesy that the need to divide our matter from God’s Spirit, to divide worthy people from unworthy people, is a lie – because we live in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Prophesy, then watch as God works through our faithfulness.

The other way to use our power to action is to live it. That first Pentecost was a powerful moment of heavenly inclusion, of building relationships where earthly divisions had been. All nations, all people were being made known to be one body, one family. When we live this truth as a church, the Good News will issue forth from our mouths and our lives like rushing water, satisfying those who hunger and thirst for a Love that includes them too.

As the church, the body of Christ in the world, we are called to communally discover and nurture the gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit and use them so that the truth that we are all the family of God is made known on earth.

Today we are blessed to welcome a new member into this family of God: Emilia Jane Reinhardt, Emmy as we call her. Emmy has unique gifts to be discovered and nurtured. Her parents and Godparents will pledge to help her grow in her Christian faith and life. We will pledge to do all in our power to support Emmy and her parents, praying that God will teach Emmy to love in the power of the Spirit and send her into the world in witness to that love.

By this Baptism, we will expand the boundaries of love. We will renew our own Baptismal vows, remembering that we too are marked as Christ’s own forever and are called, along with Emmy, to have inquiring and discerning hearts and live lives of grace.

How wonderful is it to know that we are never alone on this pilgrimage of life? We have family everywhere we are: God, one another, and self - in the unity of the Holy Spirit.

I now invite Emmy, and her parents, Godparents, family, and friends, to come to the font for the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. I also invite all of the children present today to come forward and help me bless the Baptismal water.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Ascension 24-B Divine love for a divine purpose

Note: this sermon can be viewed on the Emmanuel Episcopal Church YouTube channel. See the service of Holy Eucharist, Rite II for May 12. The sermon begins at 23:30.

Lectionary: Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

Today we contemplate how we interact with and are affected by the stories in our Scripture. How we do that is as varied as we are. Are you someone who approaches Scripture as a literal, historical account? Or do you approach it as a metaphorical or spiritual story? Or do you have another way?

Whatever your approach is, it is faithful when you let God guide you from where you are to where God wants you to be. No matter where we start, we grow and mature and our understanding expands, deepens, and widens as the revelation of God’s love in Christ lives and moves in us.

How do we interact with and how are we affected by our lectionary today? Let’s review them quickly in order.

The Acts of the Apostles is traditionally thought to be an extension of the Gospel of Luke written by the same person. Then we have the joyful song of praise found in Psalm 47. Next is the letter to the Ephesians, which while often ascribed to Paul, is believed by most scholars not to have been written by Paul but by someone who ascribed it to Paul probably to borrow on Paul’s authority to deal with problems in the church in Ephesus. Regardless of who wrote it, this portion of that letter is, imho, a bit of genius for which I am truly grateful. Then we have the gospel account according to Luke.

These Scriptures move together in a beautiful dance that upholds two main themes: power and enlightenment. The story of the Ascension of Jesus is the story of God’s power and our enlightenment. Let’s look at how.

The author of Acts recounts how Jesus made many post-resurrection appearances and instructed his followers to remain in Jerusalem where they would be baptized by the Holy Spirit. The followers reasonably ask. ‘Is this when you’ll restore the kingdom of Israel?”

Jesus’ reply is: that isn’t your concern. Those times and periods are set by God who alone has the authority (this word literally means ‘the power of choice’). What is your concern is this: the Holy Spirit will come upon you and you too will receive power.

In Acts, the power they receive is power to action, and the action is to be Jesus’ witnesses beginning in Jerusalem, spreading throughout Judea, and ultimately to the whole world.

Then Jesus is lifted up and out of their sight in a cloud. Clouds symbolize the presence and care of God for the people. They also symbolize that which is beyond human control. As an example, at the Transfiguration, a cloud overshadowed Peter, James, and John who were being overwhelmed as they watched a supernaturally dazzling Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah.  As the cloud descended upon them, they were gently led to sleep. When they awoke, Jesus was alone with them and the reality they could manage was restored – and very much expanded.

The account of the ascension in the gospel of Luke differs a bit from the account in Acts. In the gospel story, Jesus affirms for them that he is the Messiah who was prophesied in their Scriptures. Then he opened their minds to understand this.

In the gospel version of the ascension story, the power they receive is enlightenment. Our version of the Bible says Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures. The word used here means “to bring together, as foes in battle; to collect together… into a whole; to apprehend.” (Greek Bible, Thayer translation)

So, in Acts, Jesus’ followers get the power to action, and in the gospel of Luke, they get the power of holistic enlightenment.

In all cases, God chooses what is to happen. This is what we call God’s plan, and it is dynamic, loving, and continually responsive to us. We who have been clothed in the Spirit of God, then act to make God’s choice happen on earth. As Jesus prayed, “on earth as it is in heaven.”

The author of Ephesians, whether Paul or someone else, was not an eyewitness to this event, yet he affirms that for all of us the eyes of our hearts are enlightened by our faith in Jesus, who is the Christ. Then he offers the genius of his own enlightenment about Jesus: “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

How’s that for a beautiful portrayal of the Christ?

In the Gospel story from Luke, as Jesus was ascending, he blessed his followers, and they “returned to Jerusalem with great joy…” It might help to know that the Greek word “chara,” translated as ‘joy,’ also means great gift and extraordinary power.

So, the great and extraordinary gift given to us is the power to put love into action in response to God’s plan for the world.

This time, they got it! With the eyes of their hearts enlightened, they worshipped Jesus finally recognizing that he is God, and it makes them joyful and they can’t help but continually praise God in the temple.

Do we feel this joyful? Do we feel this powerful?

When Jesus ascended into heaven, he handed over the continuing work of reconciliation to us – the church, the body of Christ in the world. Knowing full well the cost of love, Jesus gave us the power of his love; a love which demands we pray for those who persecute us, forgive those who harm us, and love those who hate us…a love that never gives up on the other, but stands with them, bearing the light of Christ into any darkness.

Upon our baptism, the greatness of God’s love is meant to be what people see when they see us. God is not only dwelling within us but all over us, visible for all to see, including us… and I think that may be what scares us.

As author Marianne Williamson famously said: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.”

We, who are believers now are witnesses of this powerful love in the world today. We are called not just to receive the gift of this love, but to use it.

So I ask you, people of Emmanuel, in what ways is this powerful love being manifest in and through us today? Are we models of forgiveness in a sin-filled world? Are we icons of hope to the hopeless? Light to those trapped in darkness? Comfort to the suffering? Are we welcomers of the exiled, the reviled, the hated?

It’s so easy for the church to get distracted from our mission, but our mission is simple: Be the extraordinary, powerful, transforming love of God in the world. Make known this amazing love to those who don’t know it, or have forgotten it, or had it stolen from them. Be love in the face of hate and ridicule. Detach from anger, from being right, and from the rewards of this world, and seek only the love that forgives all, welcomes all, and judges none.

The greatest, most powerful thing in the whole world is the same now as it was when creation was being spoken into being: love. And this love has been given to us as a gift from the Creator of the universe. More amazingly, it dwells in us, all around us, and emanates from us.

We have heard throughout this season of Easter that Christ abides in us, and we in him - individually and as a community of faith. Jesus also told us that, as amazing as his ministry was, we would do greater things in ours.

On this Feast of the Ascension, we are being challenged to own the extraordinary, powerful, love already in us and use it to heal the world around us. Each person here has within them the extraordinary power of God’s love and the community being gathered within these walls has been chosen by God in this time and place to do the work God has for us to do.

This is our invitation to action. So, let’s be the extraordinary, powerful, transforming love of God in Christ, and let’s enjoy the heck out of the time we’ve been given to be together as witnesses to the world of that Love. Amen.