Day of Pentecost C
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
John 14:8-17, 25-27
Yesterday I returned from our annual Synod Assembly, the gathering of voting representatives from every congregation in the Northern Great Lakes Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which covers the territory of the Michigan Upper Peninsula and northeast Wisconsin.
It was a weekend filled with wonders. Our opening worship was hosted by Messiah Lutheran Church and was packed to the brim with Lutherans singing loudly and proudly to our God. I watched graduates of the lay schools of our synod receive their certificates, having completed all two and a half years of the curriculum—three of the four graduates this year were from our lay school in Minocqua.
I sat with the pastors and lay representatives of the eight congregations in our conference, from Three Lakes, Eagle River, Rhinelander, Sayner, Conover, and Minocqua, as we discussed the pressing issues in our community: hunger, homelessness, lack of affordable transportation, escalating drug use in our schools, and racism particularly against the native American population. We looked at the problems and their causes, and brainstormed ways in which we as Lutherans living out our faith for the sake of the world could address these issues in a united way.
I heard the Secretary of the ELCA speak about the challenges and dreams facing the churchwide expression of our church, which we are all a part of. I heard a German missionary working in Tanzania share stories of their faith in action. I watched as our friends, our brothers and sisters of Prince of Peace Lutheran and Shepherd of the Lakes Lutheran Churches in Eagle River and Sayner, received an award from our synod’s World Hunger Committee for their amazing work in packing around forty backpacks full of food for hungry kids to take home every weekend so they don’t go two days without food anymore.
I heard about plans for observing the 500th anniversary of the Reformation next year, and about how the Lutheran church is growing in places outside of North America. I watched as people brought forward quarters and dimes and nickels and dumped them into Red Ryder wagons, so many that our synod set a new record for its annual world hunger offering: $25,073.22.
It was an experience that, while at times dull, as we did have to do some business of our synod, like elections and approving next year’s budget, moved and inspired me. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we seem to hold our annual synod assembly every year on a weekend near Pentecost.
We are blessed this morning to hear not one, but two different stories of Pentecost. The first one, from the Acts of the Apostles, is the more familiar story. The disciples, fifty days after Jesus’s resurrection and after his ascension, are sitting in a room somewhere, huddled together, hiding. And out of nowhere this great wind rushes through and the Holy Spirit descends on them.
Immediately, they go out and begin to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, speaking it in every possible tongue and language of all those gathered from across the region for the festival of Pentecost. When some accuse them of being drunk, Peter, the sometimes timid, sometimes erroneously loud-mouthed disciple, stands up and sets the record straight. He gives a powerful witness to God’s work in Jesus Christ, sharing his faith and starting a chain reaction that would see the Christian movement spread like wildfires for centuries to come.
If you look at the banner hanging on the wall in our sanctuary, you’ll see three big, important words: Worship, Welcome, and Witness. Each year, our synod has focused on one theme and this year, it was Witness. Everything we did at synod assembly was about witnessing our faith to others and sharing it. And that, unfortunately, is where the trouble began.
Our bishop, the Rev. Tom Skrenes, put it this way. One of the easiest ways Christians witness to our faith is to tell other people about it. But statistically, he said, Lutherans in America share their faith with someone new, a stranger, on average once every 15 years.
And we wonder why our faith isn’t growing.
We heard stories of the visionary dreams of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania’s Eastern Coastal Diocese, about their explosion of enthusiasm for spreading the Gospel and caring for the lowest and poorest in their midst, and we are jealous of that. Instead, our dreams are nightmares of closed congregations, beloved buildings demolished, the way we’ve always done things dying for the last time.
You see, the sad reality is that, by and large, we are exceptionally bad at witnessing. We are terrible at spreading the Gospel.
Whenever we talk about the Pentecost story, we always remember the middle and the end: the wind, the fire, the languages, the speeches. But the beginning, I believe, it just as important.
The disciples have just spent around 40 days or so with Jesus after his resurrection and before his ascension. On that Easter day, when Mary Magdalene raced to the disciples and became the first ever apostle by declaring to them that she had seen the risen Lord, the disciples entered into a new period of time and work with Jesus Christ. He performed signs for them and others, he walked among them again, he gave them a commission, and then he ascends into heaven for them to carry out the work that he has given them.
And yet, as our story begins, the disciples are… back in a room, all to themselves not engaging with the world. They should be out in the streets carrying out Christ’s mission. Instead, they’re locked away.
It takes the amazing, incredible events of Pentecost to drive them out to witness. But many times, it feels as if the modern day disciples never left that room, as if we are still trapped and huddle together in fear of what may happen if we dared to step outside the comfort of our four little walls and opened our mouths.
For how many churches is the question not, “How can we share our faith with others?”, but “Will there even be enough of us to share the faith, if we ever decide to do so?” How many congregations are obsessed with the numbers of people inside the walls, meticulously counting attendance, comparing trends, fretting over an aging population and a lack of young people to take over for them when they’re gone? For how much of the church is the object of evangelism not to share the good news of Jesus Christ, but to convince people that coming to worship on Sunday morning is just the coolest thing ever, if they just give it a try? For how many congregations are the inadequate ways of being the church in the past more important than answering the call of God right here, right now?
That room at the Pentecost story isn’t so much a starting place as it is a prison, trapping the modern day disciples in their own fear and self-pity, their own worry, their own self-centered thinking. The cries of “Alleluia” and “Amen” thud soundlessly against the prison walls to bounce back at the disciples who won’t leave, who won’t share their stories, who won’t live out their faith if it means having to leave those walls and talk to somebody new.
And it’s not that congregations don’t do anything. We write checks, we send packages, we serve our communities with compassion. But we do it from a safe distance. We’re not involved with the people we help. And we do them for ourselves, to bolster ourselves for congratulations and recognition.
It is into this room of disciples hiding for fear of what Christ’s mission might mean for them that the Holy Spirit comes. We know that the Holy Spirit is not subtle, is not always gentle, is not always sensitive, and has lousy timing. Demonstrating all of those qualities, the Holy Spirit bursts through the prison walls to ignite fire in the disciples, and the very first thing they do is pour into the streets and share their faith. Less likely by their own will and more likely by God’s insistence, they are driven out of their walls as witnesses to God’s mercy and grace, and they can’t help but show it in word and in deed.
Tongues of fire turn into tongues and languages of people all across the world, proving that the message of Christ, the message of the Gospel is universal, for everyone, and that none are left out of God’s saving plan.
Brothers and sisters, Faith Lutheran Church of Three Lakes, Wisconsin: you are witnesses of the resurrection. As the disciples told others, who told others, who told others for two thousand years, passing on the faith to any who would hear, so too are you gifted the Holy Spirit that drove the disciples from their walls of fear of the outside world and sent them as witnesses. Once every fifteen years is not enough.
Rise up! Stand up. The grace and peace of God go with you. Amen.