On their way to the Ascension, the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, will you now restore again the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus said, “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power. But you shall receive power, after the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.”
Today we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on the apostles at the first Pentecost, like the rush of a violent wind, and tongues of fire. All were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak as the Spirit gave them ability. The list of those who heard begins in Iran and moves west along the north shore of the Mediterranean as far as Rome and back to North Africa. Peter interprets this experience as a sign of “the Lord's great and glorious day” and ends with the missionary imperative, “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
From that day on the Church, the spiritual body of Christ on earth, has continued to witness to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, so that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
We all know the saying, “when you are up to your neck (or some other part of the body) in alligators, it is hard to remember you set out to drain the swamp.” We all know how easy it is to lose focus, to deal with the immediate and ignore the important.
Anniversaries help us remember our purpose. Birthdays, wedding anniversaries, even Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, and of course Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, provide opportunity to look at where we’ve been and where we want to go.
Last Thursday’s 70th anniversary of D-Day drew special attention because we expect most of those who were there will die in the next 10 years. Queen Elizabeth is 88 and served in the British Womens Auxiliary Territorial Service as a truck driver and mechanic. Prince Philip is 93; he served in the British navy in the Mediterranean and the Pacific. When I checked these dates I learned they met when he was 18 and she was 13 – a 75 year love affair. God bless them.
Archbishop Welby of Canterbury recommended this prayer for Thursday’s 70th anniversary of D-Day: Almighty and eternal God, from whose love in Christ we cannot be parted, either by death or life: hear our prayers and thanksgivings for all whom we remember this day; fulfil in them the purpose of your love; and bring us all, with them, to your eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Archbishop Welby 2014)
The place of the Christian church this Pentecost Sunday in our society is different from what it was 70 years ago, or even 40 years ago when I moved to Asheboro, North Carolina. Bishop Tom Fraser gathered the clergy new to that diocese. I remember he said, “Boys (and we were all boys in those days), you are fortunate to be living in a place where people think going to church will do you some good.” In those days one of the signs of responsibility and reliability was participation in church life. Businesses were mostly local and people knew where their accountant, their insurance agent, their car dealer, all went to church. Those local businesses have been bought out by national chains, and no one seems to care where, or if, the managers of the big box stores go to church.
The church has always been counter-cultural. Human beings are fundamentally self-centered; Christ calls us to center our lives on God. From infancy we have wanted what we wanted when we wanted it. Christ calls us to seek and do the will of God. We seek our personal advantage; Christ calls us to seek first the good of others.
Human government has always made a supreme claim on the lives of the governed. Governments and societies have alternated between trying to silence the church and trying to get the church to support the interests of government. Christians are commanded by the bible to pray for those in authority and to comply with the legitimate demands of those in authority – and we are commanded to resist those demands when they conflict with God’s will. That has been the case from the first Pentecost until now. Hitler tried with some success to make the Protestant and Catholic church subservient to the ideology of the Nazi regime; Communist Russia tried to exterminate the church, murdering clergy, stealing property. We frequently read of Christians being persecuted, murdered, dispossessed, in some Muslim majority countries.
The other day at a clergy meeting Morgan Gardner raised the question, “What are we going to do when churches have to pay property tax?” The last NC legislature tried to collect sales tax from larger charities, mostly hospitals and schools, not small churches, yet. The First Amendment provides that Congress shall make no law “respecting an establishment of religion nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” When that was adopted Massachusetts and Connecticut collected a tax for the support of the Congregational church in each town. Before the Revolution Maryland and Virginia, and to a lesser extent the Carolinas and Georgia had collected an income tax for the support of the Church of England parishes. The courts have interpreted the establishment clause to forbid some religious activities in some public places. Some anti-Christians interpret “free exercise” to mean “freedom of worship.” But they continually complain about the “free exercise” of any public prayer outside a church building, church floats in the Christmas parade, and the like.
We’ve been here before, and the history is that God sends revival in the worst of times – in the mid 18th century, in the early 19th century, in the early 20th century, in the mid 20th century. We’re about due for another mighty work of God. And we have been from Pentecost to Pentecost since the Spirit first fell on the apostles, like the rush of a violent wind, and tongues of fire. All were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak as the Spirit gave them ability.
We continue to meet Sunday by Sunday. It is not for us to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power. But we have received power. The Holy Ghost has come upon us: and we are Christ’s witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth – even western North Carolina. We continue to hear and obey Peter’s call that first Pentecost, to continue to be the spiritual body of Christ on earth and to continue to witness to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, so that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”