(A sermon for Pentecost Sunday/Confirmation Sunday using Acts 2:1-21.)
In a four-year run on National Public Radio that ended last year, "This I Believe" invited listeners to share their core beliefs and personal philosophies. People from the famous to the semi-famous to the absolutely ordinary wrote in and later recorded their stories about family and nature and food and even faith.
In an eight month run on Thursday nights that ended just this week, the Confirmation Class and its teachers have been engaged in a similar discussion, but we've had a very particular discussion partner, the Statement of Faith of the United Church of Christ. Using it as a framework we’ve encountered the histories and beliefs of our Christian ancestors. We've brought our personal experience of the holy, and our sense of what matters, and our hopes for the future into a conversation with stories about the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. We've worshiped and prayed, shared our joys and concerns, and every week we've sung "our" song, which describes the time we gather as one of mystery, and the nature of our gathering as being "one strong body."
Every week we've sung together, asking the Spirit of God to draw near.
Sometimes the Spirit draws near gently, and that's been mostly true for us. Oh, there was one night of great hilarity over the 1980s hairstyles and glasses of a group of famous theologians on a VHS tape! And perhaps we had the odd evening or two when we had a hard time settling to our work. On the whole we’ve taken things seriously and worked within our ritual time, well and devotedly.
But there are times in the history of our faith when the Holy Spirit does not come gently.
Pentecost may be the most famous of them, a day when the Spirit rushed in with the violence of a mighty wind and the surprise of flaming tongues, altering the lives of the ones who prayed.
This I believe:
When you ask God to come closer, you will not be in charge of the way God arrives.
The disciples had gathered in the upper room, trying to figure out what they needed to do next. It had been 50 days since the Resurrection, which is not, all things considered, a very long time. In a short week they went from having their friend and teacher with them, to having him arrested and crucified, to seeing Jesus risen from the dead. When we meet them at Pentecost, they've had a week to get used to the idea that the Christ they were coming to know has now ascended to heaven.
I think it's fair to say they were in shock.
As is true in any group of people undergoing transition, some sit back and others step up, and the natural leader of the group moved forward: Peter. Peter led them through a process to round out their number to twelve again. Peter gathered them together in prayer. And Peter would stand up and speak when the rest of the people gathered at the Temple in Jerusalem suspected Jesus' followers might be drunk rather than having a profound, direct experience of the Spirit of God.
This I believe:
The Spirit still works in and through the gathered body. Every time a group of faithful people gather, the gifts needed to do God's work will be provided in the strengths and even in the weaknesses of the people drawn together. God created humankind in great variety for a reason, so that we might complement one another and create communities of caring and support and action that draw on our collective spiritual and practical gifts.
I also firmly believe that in our diversity is our strength. It's our Congregational tradition to respect and engage with the historical creeds and statements of faith, but not to be ruled or limited by them. It's part of our tradition to ask questions, to respect the right of the individual to reach his or her own conclusions and to define his or her own relationship with God. Down in the Youth Room on Thursday evenings, we had a congregational experience, twelve 8th graders and their adult teachers and on some occasions their mentors from the wider congregation. We did *not* all see everything the same way but we could agree on the foundations that make us Christians, on a faith we will all affirm when we read the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith together this morning.
That statement asks us to think about Jesus Christ, to consider what we believe about him. We explored his humanity and his divinity, his life and his death and his Resurrection. We considered his impact on history and on our lives today.
At our Confirmation retreat, a student explained that the Bible exists because the acts of Jesus were so powerful that people could not stop sharing them with others, until eventually those stories spread around the world, transcending barriers of language and culture. We hear it in the Pentecost story. It’s foundational to our identity as the Church. Our heritage and our culture and our language may be different, but in Christ Jesus, we are all one. It’s the motto of the United Church of Christ, taken from the passage we heard last week, “that they may all be one.”
I asked the students to consider what that belief means for how they are to live their lives. It seems that no matter how firmly they believed, or how many questions remained, in the end they felt compelled by the stories of Jesus. In the end they had a sense that God, whether enacting a plan, intervening to help or simply looking on in a Spirit of Love, could be sensed in our lives today, at home and at school and in the Youth Room for Confirmation class.
And that brings me back to our Pentecost disciples, gathered together in the Upper Room, the Spirit of God filling the house, the noise of the wind so mighty that even people outside noticed something was happening. When we look for God to communicate with us, we need to remember that it may blow the roof off the house. It may expose us to the attention of others. It may change us, our direction, our hopes and our dreams.
Peter preached that day using what would have been a familiar quotation from the prophet Joel:
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. (Acts 2:17, NRSV)
Now, I am not the young one seeing visions or the old one dreaming dreams, so perhaps as a person in the middle of life I might be allowed to prophesy…
Members of the Confirmation class, tomorrow you will go back to school, back into the everyday world of sports and homework and cell phones and summer plans. You may feel relieved or happy that Confirmation is over; a certificate will prove it! But today we do not release you; this is no graduation or ending. This is your initiation. Today we welcome you as full members of this body of Christ’s church. We welcome you to the costs and joys of discipleship, to the responsibilities of membership and to the full meaning of your baptismal promises, which include such lofty goals as resisting oppression and evil, promises we can keep only with the help of God.
We lay hands upon you to mark you again as God’s own, an acknowledgement that the waters of baptism have been upon you and the power of the Holy Spirit is with you.
On this birthday of the Church, as we welcome twelve new members into our church family through Confirmation, the future looks bright. We don’t know what churches will look like when they are the parents and teachers and perhaps even the pastors. But as long as their minds and hearts remain open, the wind of the Spirit will blow, moving them and us into the new life Christ gives.
This, I believe. Amen.