Sermon–June 4, 2017


Day of Pentecost–June 4, 2017

William Bradbury

Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:25-35,37, 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13, John 20:19-23

I have a friend in Atlanta who says in 1969, when she was six years old, she put up a poster in her room that said: “Make Love, Not War!” When her father saw the sign he burst out laughing. Of course when she was 16 she understands that making love might mean more than idealistic thoughts.   

Human history can be read as humankind’s experimentation to find the best way to create a world of peace and love.

You may remember the comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes, originally performed in classical Athens in 411 BC. It is about a woman’s mission to end the Peloponnesian War by getting all the women to stop making love until their husbands stop making war.

This is certainly a more creative way forward than the dictators and tyrants who seek to end war by using absolute power to silence and kill all their enemies. Hitler wanted world peace, but he thought he had to kill the Jews and millions of others to achieve it.

Others ascribe to the belief that the way forward is a society that teaches and then strictly enforces the Law. If we can teach everyone the 10 Commandments and punish those who break them, all will be well.

Many Christians continue to ascribe to this strategy, even though St Paul is quite clear when he says that the Law in fact makes sin and sinning more powerful and prevalent. Saint Augustine as a boy in 4th century North Africa joins his friends in stealing pears from a neighbor’s tree. He says they steal them, not because they are hungry or even want the pears, but because they want to experience the thrill of doing something they know is wrong.

In each of us there is an emptiness, a lack, that we are sure can be filled by some shiny object—whether stolen fruit, money, success, or a relationship.

In Jesus Christ, however, God’s strategy for making love becomes visible when Divine Being, which is love, becomes embodied in Jesus.  Jesus models God’s love by making friends with those people we naturally avoid because their inner nothingness is so obvious in their failure to thrive. But Jesus is even willing to die for such people.

The world kills Jesus, but it can’t keep him dead, so Jesus appears in the upper room, on a road, on the beach, to show the disciples that love is the power at the heart of reality.

Just like us, the disciples find out that just believing in Jesus is not enough to free them from their destructive quest to fix themselves. It is easy to think one thing in the mind and to live another thing in the world. For instance, it is quite easy to believe one is not a racist, while at the same time going along with economic and social policies that guarantee that people with white skin stay on top so I can keep trying new things to fill the emptiness within. As has been said by many others, there is a great distance between the head and the heart!

The Good News, however, is that God knows our fears  and our destructive strategies and he is willing to subvert them.

In other words God is not beneath performing a magic trick or two to bring us into the Kingdom.

I’m thinking here of a recent book by philosopher Peter Rollins, called The Divine Magician: The Disappearance of Religion and the Discovery of Faith.

He says there are three stages in a magic trick (as presented in the Movie called The Prestige). The first stage is called THE PLEDGE, when the magician shows us a white dove.

The second step is called THE TURN in which the dove is placed behind a curtain and when the curtain is opened the dove is gone. Now you see it, now you don’t.

But the audience doesn’t clap at this point. No, they wait for the third step, called THE PRESTIGE in which the dove appears under the magician’s hat. Voila!

So Rollins says consider the Holy Eucharist as a magic trick. Of course at the Reformation Protestants sought to discredit the Catholic Mass by calling it a mere magic trick that wasn’t real. Of course Jesus doesn’t magically appear. No, they said, the Lord’s Supper is just a memorial of what happened long ago.

But Rollins says consider the Eucharist as a positive magic trick:

After the priest consecrates the bread and wine they are held up as the divine presence: the Risen Jesus there for all to see. That’s THE PLEDGE.

Then, the second stage, THE TURN, happens as people take the Divine Presence into their hands and make it disappear in their mouths. God was there but now God is gone.

And everyone wonders what THE PRESTIGE will look like: how and where will the divine presence reappear?

This is where our desire to keep God outside of us in order to control God gets us in trouble. I’ve been to countless services of worship that faithfully followed the Prayer Book, yet at the end of the service my sense of unworthiness reappears and my random anxieties reappear, and my anger at people around me who don’t do right reappear, so obviously God has not reappeared. God hasn’t fixed me so I’ll go home disappointed once again. I thought God might show up this time and be that shiny new object that would take away my sense of incompleteness—I guess there is no spiritual magic in this church—maybe I ought to try another church, one where the priest has more power than this one: Oh, I can’t do that, I am the priest!

The problem comes in expecting the Holy Spirit, the dove, to show up outside my life instead of inside my life. What if, as Rollins says, after the final hymn you head toward the door and see a friend who has lost his job and you tell him you know someone who is hiring and that you are there for him and his family. Then, you see another friend who just had a baby and you say you’ll bring dinner on Tuesday night.

What is happening here? The Divine Presence is showing up, not outside you, but inside you. The sacred is not an object that will make us whole and complete, but “the sacred is the experience of depth we feel in the act of love itself.”  Holy Spirit is not a thing outside our life, but the sacred presence hidden in our loving. The sacred is the community of individuals looking out for one another, loving and caring for one another…Jesus is wherever two or three are gathered together in love.”

So on the day of Pentecost the 120 disciples are flooded, not with another divine being or religious object that will fix all their problems. They can’t point to it, handle it, or control it. All they can do is say “Yes, I’ll open myself” or say, “No, I’ll stay closed and search for my wholeness elsewhere.”

For those on the outside of this event there are lots of reasons for saying no: these people are acting drunk—way too joyful for people who have so little.

But for those who say yes, their world is cracked open and their lives transformed. Not because God has fixed their brokenness, but because in their brokenness they experience the infusion of divine love flowing in them and through them, giving them the courage to connect, wounded as they are,  with those who speak a different language and inhabit a different world.

Holy Spirit transforms an inward looking tribe into those who go into all the world, because as Paul says, they are “all baptized into one body– Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, male or female” and “they all drink of one Spirit.”

So the Dove that descends on Jesus at his baptism and disappears at his death, shows up within our lives because this how our amazing God makes love.