Monday, July 25, 2011

SERMON: Jesus Keeps His Promise, A Sermon for Pentecost

Date: June 12, 2011

Note: This was the last sermon I preached at St. Matthew's Anglican Church, Riverdale. St. Matthew's was full of wonderful people to serve, and they taught me to love the Church in all of its shapes and sizes. Thanks be to God for them.

I have already admitted to you how big a fan I am of Star Wars. One or two Christmases ago, one of my family members bought me a giant book called, Star Wars: A Pop-Up Guide to the Galaxy. That’s right, a pop-up book. There is a different paper sculpture that springs into being as I turn each page. One page displays the Mos Eisley cantina, complete with an assortment of aliens, droids, and the famous cantina band; the next brings to life the Millenium Falcon, with a look inside its famous hull. Each page brings to life a new world of hidden panels and light-up lightsabers to explore. And if you turn the page slowly, you can see the slow folding of one world and the slow unfolding of the next. If you stop, with the page straight up in the air, the two worlds hang there, one almost gone, the other almost here. And this tension, this excruciating exhilaration of being-in-between, happens each time you turn the page.


There is something of that in-between-ness in the air as the gathered crowds fill the Temple in Jerusalem that Pentecost after Jesus was crucified. Jesus’ death and the rumours of his resurrection had been the buzz of the town, but the buzz has dulled over these last 50 days. Many of the city’s visitors, having saved for years to make the long Passover trip to Jerusalem, choose to stay for the Pentecostal feast before they make their way home to the far corners of the Empire. Adding to the number of stayers, many other pilgrims stream into the city for Pentecost, the annual celebration of covenant renewal.

The Temple courts are full. There are people and priests praying, animals lowing and yelling. The commotion is constant, never ceasing. Everyone is there together worshipping God.

It’s easy to overhear what people are saying. One group is animatedly discussing those 50 day old crucifixions. Another cluster claims to have seen Jesus’ followers in these very courts, the Temple courts, blessing God. They’re here so often that it’s a little strange that they are nowhere to be found today.

The crowd continues walking, worshipping, praying.

Then they hear it. It’s loud. It sounds like a tornado has hit Jerusalem, or a giant dust storm, or a violent wind. It is so loud that the Temple courts go quiet. People strain to see where the sound might be coming from; some duck behind friends or run towards the Temple’s inner courts. When the loud rushing sound suddenly ceases, those left standing lean forward to listen.

A smaller sound meets their ears from outside the Temple courts. It sounds like a group of people crying for help! The words are all mixed up together; the crowd is still too far away to hear what’s really going on. The people closest to the Temple gates start to exit first to see what the commotion is about. The rest begin to follow. As they get closer, they hear the voices growing more distinct. They round the corner and see a group of people through the large open window of an upper room. They are standing as though praying, and as people get closer some of the crowd begin to smile and nod in understanding. One particularly vocal member of the group exclaims loudly, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? […] In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” (Acts 2:7-11)! All were amazed and perplexed. The whole crowd begins to turn in on itself. The genuinely curious ask, “What does it mean?” The openly skeptical respond, sneering, “They are filled with new wine.”


The sneering, skeptical response is a temptation that we all face when something radically new enters our lives. This cynicism is a type of self-armouring. We use it to put distance between ourselves and the fantastic opportunity or the call to service. It’s a crossing of the arms, a shaking of the head, a turning down of the mouth. When something dramatically new enters our world, we get cynical just like the Pentecostal sneerers, and we cast about for an easy explanation (“They are filled with new wine”).

A couple of good friends of ours took Monique and me to visit the Black Creek Pioneer Village. It was winter, and a fresh snow blanketed the ground. We visited period homes and shops, each one decorated for Christmas in a different way. The doctor’s home was striking, decorated in a Scottish style. We learned about Christmas traditions and the practice of medicine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The doctor’s office was a room in the house, and our guide showed us the instruments for tooth extractions, amputations, and blood-letting.

We got into a discussion about germs. Our guide told us the story of the first man who proposed that student doctors should wash their hands after they dealt with cadavers and before they delivered babies. He was laughed out, released, and eventually locked away in a mental hospital. It took a long time before the medical profession finally woke up. In fact, the younger physicians first picked up the idea. The older generation refused to adapt. They crossed their arms, shook their heads, and sneered at the young people who thought they needed to wash up before doing surgery. With the benefit of hindsight we wonder why they would resist the growing body of evidence that germs really do have an impact on the success of surgeries. Our guide put it this way: to admit the germ theory was for this older generation of doctors to admit to their communities, to their profession, and (hardest of all) to themselves that they for their entire careers had been killing patients. Their cynicism about the new science was a shield protecting them from the horrible, horrible truth.

And so it continues with us. Often when we find ourselves being cynical and sneering, especially about the things of God, it is because we are trying to protect ourselves. As the page turns and the old world folds up and the new one is revealed, cynicism and sneering cling to the old. It refuses to repent. It refuses to do what is necessary to live in the new day.


The 12 disciples, Jesus’ mother Mary, and the other women who traveled with them are gathered in the upper room. They can walk into a new day; they can move from one page to the next, because Jesus keeps his promise.

Just a few short days before Pentecost, they had been with Jesus on the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem. He made them a promise, “You are witnesses of these things,” he said. “And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:48-49). Jesus put it another way, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). These were the last things Jesus said to his disciples before he ascended into heaven. The disciples followed Jesus’ instructions and went back to Jerusalem. There they were always in the Temple courts praising God. They devoted themselves to constant prayer together. They waited and watched, not with cynicism or fear, but with real hope.

Did they feel the page turning? Could they see the world they knew collapsing and a new one taking its place?

When the day of Pentecost comes, they are all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there comes a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it fills the entire house where they are sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appear among them, and a tongue rests on each of them. All of them are filled with the Holy Spirit and begin to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gives them ability (par. from Acts 2:1-4).

When the gathered crowd streams from the Temple courts to see what is the matter, some sneer, thinking the disciples are drunk. Peter stands up among the disciples, raises his voice, and speaks. And from his place at the Father’s right hand, Jesus gives the Spirit which turns Peter from a fisherman into a witness. The witness begins here in Jerusalem, but soon it will spread to Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. Jesus keeps his promise.


We set aside this day each year to remember that Jesus, all those years ago, kept his promise to his disciples. And we affirm, with our fathers and mothers in faith, stretching all the way back to the apostles, that Jesus keeps his promises still. That first Pentecost is over, but the Spirit of God that proceeds from the Father and the Son is still at loose in the world. The first Pentecost is over, but each year we remember that the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost still means something to us today.

First, Pentecost means that we are caught up in the same story as the disciples were all those years ago. Just as the apostles’ found themselves at that turning of the page between the old world and the new, so do we find ourselves riding the transition between the present and the end of time. At any moment, we expect that Jesus himself might appear, riding in the clouds, to reclaim the world for himself. We can wait for that time with patience and with hope because of the Holy Spirit’s life among us, shaping us into Christ’s image, feeding us with spiritual food, reminding us not to worry because Jesus keeps his promise.

Second, Pentecost means that we can’t control God. Jesus didn’t give his disciples magic words to summon the presence of God. Yes, we invoke God’s presence in prayer, but our invocation is no guarantee of it. God is not a pet to be trained or an object to be owned. God is the free God. God is the one who loves us precisely in that freedom, which means that we cannot move or force him, but we can know, because of Jesus’ promises, that he is always on the move towards us, and that movement towards us is the Holy Spirit. While we can’t control God, we can put ourselves in God’s way. After the Ascension, the apostles prayed constantly, praising God in the upper room and in the Temple courts. We, too, are called to the life of prayer, both as individuals and as a body of believers. In living the prayerful life, we will put ourselves in the way of the God who in and as the Holy Spirit is on his way towards us even now.

Finally, Pentecost means that we are called to be witnesses. The apostles are given miraculous powers when the Spirit comes, but these powers are not for themselves to have and hold. The power is for witness. The Spirit empowers the apostles to be his witnesses, first in Jerusalem where they were, then in Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. So too, this Pentecost, does the Spirit empower us to be his witnesses here on First Avenue. It is our Jerusalem, our starting point. It is here that we will learn to be a church that is alive both in and for our neighborhood. It is here that we will stand up and find ourselves speaking into people’s lives, even to people with lives much different than our own, because the Spirit is there as our translator, making sense of the Gospel even for them. It is here that we will find brothers and sisters with whom we can share our lives, committed together to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers. For in so doing, we will find ourselves solidly in the way of the God who loves us in Jesus Christ. We will find ourselves empowered by his Spirit to bear witness to God’s love even here. May it be true of us, by God’s grace. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Welcome to Contra Factum

King's College Chapel, Cambridge
photo by Monique Ingalls
If you're visiting Contra Factum after reading my interview in the July 31 edition of The Living Church, a hearty welcome to you! I hope you'll enjoy the site.

My wife Dr. Monique and I are in the midst of a two-stage international move. The first took place this week, when she and I (with the help of the great folk at Wycliffe College) moved our belongings from Toronto to Arkansas. Vilonia, AR is homebase for our summer of visiting friends and relatives before moving to Cambridge (hopefully) in late August. Monique has been awarded the Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in Popular Music and Culture there. She will teach courses and pursue her own research as a member of the Faculty of Music and as a Visiting Fellow at Wolfson College.

It's my hope that Contra Factum will come back to life in the next couple of weeks. I want to continue posting on The Episcopal Church's Baptismal Covenant, and there are other avenues I would like to explore, like mining biblical resources for a 'theology of freedom.'

Welcome, and enjoy!