Rose Petals and the Holy Spirit

First Lesson for the Sunday of Pentecost: Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs — in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.

19And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.

21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Sermon

Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The Pantheon is a basilica in the city of Rome.  It’s not the biggest or most ornate building; but it does have one distinctive feature.  The oculus (the round opening at the top of the dome) is one of the largest of any in the city.  On Pentecost each year, that oculus becomes the source of thousands and thousands of rose petals that come streaming down onto the floor of the basilica. The rose petals are red, like fire; and each petal looks a bit like the tongues of fire that appeared above the heads of the disciples on the day of Pentecost.

There’s a YouTube video that shows the rose petals falling, falling, falling, until they make a carpet several inches deep on the floor.  At first, I was struck by the beauty of those rose petals, even after I read that they were made possible by a fire truck with a long ladder and a crew of helpful firefighters on the top of the dome.  As I continued to watch, however, I began to be bothered by the rope barriers and the basilica staff who kept people confined to the outer edges of the space, away from where the rose petals were falling.  A person could watch that shower of rose petals and possibly never even be touched by one.  A person could be a spectator without ever getting involved.

We might be a lot like the crowd at the Pantheon.  We too like to watch from the margins without getting too deeply involved.  We’ve made a deal with God (or so we think) that we’ll show up and go through the motions and take our turn baking a pan of bars for some event, as long as we don’t have to actually change much about our lives.  We are quite content to be spectators.

What troubled me about that video is, that’s not how the Holy Spirit works.  When the Holy Spirit was showered on the disciples at Pentecost, it just wasn’t possible for them to remain spectators.  When the Holy Spirit showered down on them and filled them up, there was no way they could stay at the edges and just watch.  They were literally pushed out of the room where they had gathered and into the middle of that crowd of strangers.  They were so filled with the Holy Spirit that they simply had to speak out.

And you see, friends, that’s what the Holy Spirit does to us today.  When the Holy Spirit fills you up, you cannot remain unchanged.  That’s what will happen to Sophie and Cecile when they are baptized in just a few minutes.  They will be filled and sealed by the Holy Spirit, and nothing will ever be the same for them.  Just like those young girls, when you are filled with the Holy Spirit, you will find yourself looking at the world with new eyes.  You will find yourself looking at other people, not as strangers to be feared, but as fellow beloved children of God.  When the Holy Spirit fills you up, you will not remain unchanged.  You will make different decisions about how you spend your time, and where you direct your energy.  When the Holy Spirit fills you up and changes you, you will make different decisions about how you spend your money.

You, each one of you, has been filled with the Holy Spirit, and nothing will ever be the same.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Starword: Power

I learned this week about a practice that a number of my friends have been using for a few years.  Each year at Epiphany (just after the 12 days of Christmas), they randomly choose a word to use in the coming year as a focus for prayer and self-discovery.  They’re called Starwords because the star is a symbol of Epiphany (think of the Wise Men following a star to find the Christ child).

Some of my friends share this practice with their congregations, cutting out hundreds of stars and putting a word on each one.  Every member of the congregation is invited to draw a Star-word and use it in their own prayers and meditation throughout the year.  Others take advantage of a virtual basket of Starwords maintained by Marci Auld Glass.  She has lots more information about Starwords on her blog, Glass Overflowing.

I asked Marci to draw a Starword for me this year, and the reply came quickly: Barbara, your word is “power.”  I admit that I wasn’t sure what to make of that.  “Power” seems so… well, powerful.  I thought it would be good to emphasize a softer side of who I am this year. But there it was: your word is “power.” So, “power” it is.

Do not be afraid.

Gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter: John 20:19-31

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Sermon

Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

The disciples were gathered in the house, full of fear. Now they had heard the witness of the women and those who had seen the empty tomb and who had met Jesus in the flesh. You would think they would have been out celebrating that God had done that which they thought impossible. You would think, wouldn’t you?

But they were afraid after Jesus was killed, and even hearing the news that he had been raised didn’t change their fear. They were still huddled together, keeping to themselves, not wanting to share what they knew with anyone. It almost makes a person wonder…

And then Jesus joined them. Now that should have done away with any fear they were feeling. When Jesus breathed on them and said “Receive the Holy Spirit” that should have launched them out of their locked room and into their community, eager to share the good news with everyone they met.

Fast forward one week, and what do we find? They are… back in the locked room. Even Jesus meeting them in person and sending them with a word for the world, even Jesus, couldn’t spring them free from huddling together in fear in the locked room. It almost makes you wonder if they were paying any attention at all when Jesus told them to go out and be witnesses in the world.

But what about us? How often do we come together in worship actually expecting to meet Jesus in the breaking of the bread? How often do we come to worship where Jesus meets us, and it doesn’t even register as a tiny blip in our blood pressure? How often do we hear Jesus say to us “Go. You are my witnesses” and it doesn’t change a single thing about what we think or do or say? How often do we huddle in our church buildings, as though we are afraid to share God’s word with our community, and not even realize that we are directly disobeying Jesus in the process?

So what’s to be done about this problem? About our apathy? About our disobedience?

What happened to those disciples who also disobeyed their Lord out of fear that they might call attention to themselves and someone might not like it?

Clearly something happened, or the story would have died with them, and we would never have even heard about it. And the something that happened is the Holy Spirit. The first reading today takes place right after God got out the big guns to get his people fired up with the Holy Spirit. There was wind, and flame, and noise, and we’ll hear a lot more about that day in a few weeks. But the thing that we need to know today is that they were so filled with the Holy Spirit that they simply couldn’t help themselves. They were out in the streets preaching and teaching and healing and telling the story of the crucified and risen Christ. These were the very same people that just a few weeks earlier had been hidden in fear.

Now, those big Holy Spirit guns that God used to get the first disciples fired up… well, those big guns are trained on us as well. God fills us so full of the Holy Spirit that it should come shooting out of us every time we speak. And our job is absolutely not to huddle in a safe church building, acting afraid. We try to pretend that God’s work and mission doesn’t involve us in very big ways. We try to pretend that we somehow have an exception from Christ’s command to be actively looking for opportunities to talk about God every chance we get. Whenever we encounter a situation that needs our word and our witness, we are quick to hold up our hands and say “Oh no, not us. We’re Norwegian.” Or Swedish. Or Midwesterners. Or too old, or too young, or too shy, or too busy, or too whatever. I wonder what would happen if we all made a commitment – pinky-swear together – that we will never again use being Norwegian as an excuse ? Can you imagine how much Gospel would get loose in our community? Can you just imagine!

When Jesus showed up in that locked room, his first words were “Peace be with you.” Other times he is even more direct: “Do not be afraid.” “Peace be with you. Do not be afraid. Receive the Holy Spirit. You are my witnesses.” And today he shows up in this often-locked building and says “Peace be with you. Do not be afraid. This is my body… for you. This is my blood… for you. Do not be afraid. I am with you always. You get to bring light into a dark world. You get to bring hope to those who despair. You get to show love to those who are unlovable.  Do not be afraid.  You are my witnesses.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.