Monday, May 28, 2012

In Remembrance

The following is a sermon I gave at Chenango Valley Home and Apartments yesterday afternoon. (We will be doing another service there on June 10, so stayed tuned for that sermon posting as well.) 

It is based mostly on Acts 2:1-21:

The Holy Spirit Comes at Pentecost

2 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”

Peter Addresses the Crowd

14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

17 “‘In the last days, God says,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people. 
Your sons and daughters will prophesy, 
    your young men will see visions,
    your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
    and they will prophesy. 
19 I will show wonders in the heaven above
    and signs on the earth below, 
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.
20 The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood 
    before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
21 And everyone who calls
    on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

In Remembrance

Today is Pentecost Sunday, which is why some of us are wearing red, to represent the flame of the Holy Spirit which was poured out upon the apostles. 

Although Pentecost is often viewed as the “birthday celebration” of the Church, we do not always recognize how vivid the images of new birth are in the stories related to Pentecost. Indeed, the true promise of Pentecost is that we are all given birth and new life through the Spirit. In Acts, which we read today, the followers of Christ are gathered together in one place when the Holy Spirit comes like a mighty wind and creates a new community of faith and hope, giving birth to Christ’s Church. In today’s Psalter, Psalm 104, the Spirit speaks and the creatures of the earth are created, born of God’s very Spirit. In Romans, today’s Epistle lesson, all of creation groans in labor pains for new birth and life in the Spirit. Even in John, our Gospel lesson today, Jesus prepares the disciples to receive the Advocate, who will speak truth and new life that they do not yet comprehend. The pinnacle of Jesus’ resurrection story is the new life given to Jesus’ followers—not just in the hereafter, but in the here and now. This re-birth, this new life, is the promise and the gift of Pentecost.

Tomorrow is our observed Memorial Day. Originally called Decoration Day, it is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation's service. There are many stories as to its actual beginnings, with over two dozen cities and towns laying claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day. There is also evidence that organized women's groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War.

While Waterloo N.Y. was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966, it's difficult to really prove the origins of the day. It is more likely that it had many separate beginnings that culminated in Gen. Logan giving his official proclamation of the day in 1868. It is not important who was the very first, what is important is that Memorial Day was established. Memorial Day is about coming together to honor those who gave their all.

Just as Jesus gave his all for us. After his death and resurrection, Jesus spent forty more days on this earth. During that time he made special efforts to prepare his disciples for his ascension into heaven. As we heard in today’s Epistle lesson, he told them of the coming of the Holy Spirit who would guide them and teach them after he was gone from this earth.

He knew that they were distressed about his leaving them. So He said:  But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have been one of the original disciples, to have known Jesus when he walked the earth, to have heard him teach and seen him perform miraculous healing? The passage from John’s Gospel reminds us that even though we are not in the physical presence of Jesus the Christ, God’s Holy Spirit is with us, to guide us, to comfort us, and to help us witness to our faith. (Dan R. Dick)

So, in a way, Pentecost and Memorial Day are related, in that they are both days of remembrance. The Holy Spirit helps us remember Christ was once here on earth, that he died for us, and will return again. The act of placing flowers on the graves on Memorial Day for those lost in wars, is also a remembrance of them being on this earth and giving their lives for us to be able to live in freedom. Jesus set us free from sin and those who gave their lives in war freed us from tyranny.

Can you imagine being present when the flames came down on the disciples?  First of all, why were all these people gathered in Jerusalem at this time? They were there for Pentecost, which is one of the major Jewish festivals. From the Greek word for “fifty,” Pentecost was so named because it fell on the fiftieth day after the Sabbath of the Passover. Another name for it was “the Day of Firstfruits,” during which the Jews brought the first fruits from their harvest to give to God in thanksgiving, expecting God to give the rest of the harvest His blessing. This particular day of Pentecost was the day of firstfruits of Christ’s church, the beginning of the great harvest of souls who could come to know Christ and be joined together through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Our text tells us that a violent wind came down from heaven and filled the whole house where the disciples were sitting. The wind was so loud that it caused a crowd to gather to see what the noise was all about. Then they saw tongues of fire that separated and came down to rest on each them.

Fire often indicated the presence of God. God initially appeared to Moses in a burning bush that was not consumed. God guided the children of Israel with a pillar of fire by night, and he descended before them in fire on Mount Sanai; as well as many other references in the Old Testament. Fire also symbolizes God’s purifying presence, burning away the undesirable elements of our lives and setting our hearts aflame to ignite the lives of others.

Prior to this time, the only ones the disciples could teach about Jesus were those who spoke the same language, either Greek or Aramic; and now, they were all speaking in other languages! How was this possible? We know that it was the Holy Spirit that filled them, but the observers were “amazed and perplexed” and asked one another “What does this mean?” And some even accused the disciples of being drunk! 

The Hellenists who were from various parts of the world understood the dialects in which the apostles were speaking and consequently viewed the event for what it was -- a miracle! On the other hand, the Judeans did not understand the foreign languages that were being spoken, so they concluded the apostles were drunk and speaking gibberish.

But, Peter got up and pointed out that it was too early in the day to be drunk. On Holy days, Jews abstained from eating and drinking until later in the day, and when the tongues of flame came upon the apostles it was only nine in the morning.

Peter then took the opportunity to proclaim that this event was the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy that God would pour out His Spirit on all people. Peter linked the gift of the Holy Spirit with the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.

Peter’s message found its way into the hearts of over 3,000 who responded by repenting and being baptized in the name of Jesus and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Although we may never have an audience that size to win over, we can always reach out to others, one by one, through the Holy Spirit to help others come to Christ. Our passion and fire for Jesus can call others to us, just as the violent wind and flame brought all those people to the disciples.

As I said, this was the very first time these “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven” had heard the “wonders of God” in their own tongue! What a feeling of amazement that must have been. Perhaps we can remember the first time we were told of the wonders of God, and about his son, Jesus Christ, who came to save us. Can we recall that feeling of overwhelming joy, that feeling of peace descending upon our troubled hearts? How amazed and perplexed were we? 

We, too, became filled with the flame of the Holy Spirit. We are able to remember our joy at becoming a child of God. We have a flame of remembrance in us.

Another flame of remembrance is called an eternal flame, which is kept alight forever to honor certain people or events. There are, in fact, over 30 eternal flames in the United States. Some of the notable ones are: 

The John F. Kennedy Eternal Flame in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, maybe many of you can remember it being lit by Jacqueline Kennedy on November 25, 1963 during the assassinated president's state funeral

There is one in Honolulu, Hawaii to honor victims of the September 11th attacks

There is one on the Gettysburg Battlefield, in Pennsylvania, in memory of the dead of the American Civil War, it was first lit by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1938, maybe some of you can remember that as well.

There is one in Atlanta, Georgia at the King Center, for assassinated civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

The one in Washington, D.C., at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, was first lit in 1993 by President Bill Clinton and noted Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel

There is one in New York City, New York, at Ground Zero, lit by Mayor Michael Bloomberg on the first anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks 

The one in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, is to honor the crew and passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 on 9/11 for their efforts to thwart the hijacking

All of these eternal flames are important in many respects, but the most important eternal flame that we possess, is our inner eternal flame – that of the Holy Spirit. We can call it our eternal internal flame, which will guide us until our precious Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, returns. Let’s keep that fire burning!

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