May 20, 2018

Acts 2:1-21
Romans 8:22-27
John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

“We Will Testify to Love”

Today we celebrate Pentecost as a festival of the Christian church. The roots of Pentecost however, predate the events of Acts chapter 2, as Pentecost was one of three major pilgrimage festivals in Judaism. In today’s reading from the Book of Acts, there were “devout Jews from every nation under heaven” gathered in Jerusalem because they had all come for the great pilgrimage festival of Pentecost.

The name “Pentecost” is derived from the Greek prefix pente – meaning “five” or “fifty.” According to Deuteronomy 16, this festival (which was sometimes called the “Festival of Weeks”) took place fifty days after Passover. It marked the completion of the grain harvest that came in late spring. In later Judaism, Pentecost also became a time when the people celebrated God’s giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, thus creating a new covenant community.

But on the first Pentecost after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, something spectacular happened that transformed the meaning of that festival for followers of Jesus and established an important Christian celebration for centuries to come:

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

It was the fulfilment of something that the prophet Joel had said would happen, not to mention Jesus living up to his promise that even though he was going up to heaven to be with God, that he would send them a Comforter, an Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, to remind them, and teach them, guide them, and help them.

But here’s how Joel put it: “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 shall see visions, and your old shall dream dreams.”

One of the things that always strikes me about this passage is that the gift of the Spirit is for everyone – all flesh, all the people. It is not reserved for a few charismatic leaders. It wouldn’t only be the Apostle Peter doing the preaching of the Gospel in the 1st century, and God’s Spirit will gift all of us as well with the courage, and wisdom, and grace to proclaim God’s good news to the world in words and deeds of love.

On Pentecost, we always celebrate that the Spirit gives the earliest disciples the gift of good communication. They are suddenly able to speak all the languages of the world so that the news about Jesus can go out beyond Jerusalem to everyone. But this week I noticed another gift that they received that day that came with the Spirit. I think I would call it the gift of HOPE.

Of course, HOPE is also related to the gift of communicating the gospel. Because, after all, who would go out proclaiming the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ if they had no HOPE that it would make a difference? Who would take the risk or spend the time in putting their faith into words, if they had no HOPE that someone might hear and understand? Who would expend the time and effort required to enact God’s love in good deeds and acts of kindness, if they had no HOPE that God’s Kingdom would come?

It’s that line from the prophet that convinces me they received the gift of HOPE when the Spirit was poured out on them that day: He says, “your young shall see visions, and your old shall dream dreams.”

 In other words, they won’t give up. They won’t get totally overwhelmed and discouraged. They will keep before their eyes a vision of the world as God intended it to be, a dream of the Kingdom of God made complete where there is no more war, no more death, no more crying, no more fear, no more hatred, no more brokenness, no more pain.

The Apostle Paul speaks of that HOPE when he writes in his letter to the Romans: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”

 In other words, we live in the in-between time when God’s Spirit has been poured out, but the Kingdom of God is not yet complete. We receive glimpses and foretastes of the Kingdom of God and the world as it should be, but we still live within a broken and warring world.

Paul goes on to say this: “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

Paul acknowledges that waiting and hoping is difficult. It is painful to live in the brokenness of this world, constantly aware of the troubles and trials of our neighbours, even when we are not directly impacted. We may feel helpless to fix things. We may not even know how to pray about it.

But Paul says that the Spirit will help us in our weakness when we do not know what to do, when we do not know how to pray. The Spirit will intercede for us, praying for us and our world with sighs too deep for words.

Over the last year, I and others in the Presbyterian Church in Canada have been encouraged by the public prayers of our Moderator, the Rev. Peter Bush. As you may know, Moderators serve as the chairperson for our national meeting (the General Assembly) in the first week of June, and then throughout the following year they travel about, visiting Presbyterian churches and communities, often going to some of our overseas missions, preaching, and providing leadership and inspiration for the whole church.

During Peter’s moderatorial year, he’s chosen to carry out a lot of ministry through social media, and a lot of that ministry has been a ministry of prayer. We’ve had a year full of crises, and tragedies, and troubles, and trials in the world. And Peter has led us in prayer through it all.

This week alone, Peter posted a prayer for…

  • Christian sisters and brothers in Surabaya, Indonesia, following attacks on three churches there last Sunday,
  • The Gaza Strip and Jerusalem, in the aftermath of recent violence,
  • Healing and reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
  • And for those impacted by the school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas.

There is a lot of faith and a lot of hope represented in those prayers. They arise from a conviction that God is present, and loving, and active, and that God is preparing to set the world right. Those prayers are inspired by a vision of God’s Kingdom coming and a dream of peace with justice and joy. Very often, those prayers cry out like the psalmist: “How long, O Lord? How long?” And yet, they continue to cry, and to hope, and to participate in building God’s Kingdom of love.

When Jesus, in John’s Gospel, promises the gift of the Holy Spirit to his disciples, he says that the Spirit will testify on his behalf. The Spirit will be a witness to Jesus’ message of love and grace. The Spirit will remind the disciples of all that Jesus taught them. The Spirit will speak the truth, and will declare the things that are to come.

The Spirit will testify to God’s love, Jesus tells us, and then he says that the disciples will testify also. We also will testify to God’s love because we will have the gift of the Spirit in our minds and hearts to give us the power and ability to do so.

There are many voices in our world witnessing to hatred, violence, and despair. This week alone we were horrified by the killing of Palestinians in Jerusalem, as well as another school shooting in Texas. And this morning, a Lutheran friend of mine posted on Facebook a briefing of this week’s news from the New York Times. It was a terrible list of things that happened this week, somewhat overwhelming.

And one of the things that he commented was that school shootings had become so commonplace in the U.S. that the Texas school shooting didn’t even make it to the top of the list. It wasn’t on the figurative “front page, above the fold” but was hidden further down the list. My friend raised questions, and lamented what he was reading. And then he ended by saying that he would go off to church to celebrate Pentecost, and that his pastor would help him to make sense of all of this.

I don’t know if his pastor will be able to make sense of all of this. But I hope that his pastor will be able to preach about the love of God in the midst of this world in which we live. For that is what we are called to do – to testify to love. In a world that so desperately needs God’s love, we are called, empowered, and sent to share it in word and deed. We are called to testify to love. And with the gift of the Spirit within us, we will be able to do so.

Not just preachers, but all of us have received that gift and call, so I want to invite you to share with each other. In a moment, I’ll invite you to talk to your neighbours in the pews. Turn to someone near you, and share with each other a story, an example, or a word about God’s love.

But let me get us started. In a couple of weeks, I’m going to participate in a fundraising walk to send kids to Camp Christopher. TRI 4 KIDS 4 CAMP is an effort of the Presbyterians in Prince Albert, together with leadership from the innercity schools and community. And each year, about 140 children and youth who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity, are sponsored to attend our Christian Camp at Christopher Lake.

A small group of leaders in Prince Albert put a lot of effort into the fundraising and organizing to make this happen. And the owner of the Canadian Tire in PA makes a substantial donation every year to support the effort.

This year, for the first time, some of the children who have come to camp for several years have made it through the Leader-in-Training program, and a couple of them will be on staff as counsellors. Their lives have been deeply impacted for the better through this work of love. They have grown as individuals, gained new skills, heard the gospel, and experienced living in Christian community at camp, and I see God’s Spirit at work in all of that.

So, share now with each other. Share a story, an example, or a witness to God’s love in your life, in your family, in the work of the church, or in the wider world. I invite you to testify to love.

Sharing in small groups…

A song by Wynonna Judd: “Testify to Love”

All the colors of the rainbow, all the voices of the wind,
Every dream that reaches out, that reaches out to find where love began,
Every word of every story, every star in every sky,
Every corner of creation lives to testify.

For as long as I shall live, I will testify to love,
I’ll be a witness to the silences, when words are not enough,
And with every breath I take, I will give thanks to god above,
For as long as I shall live, I will testify to love.

From the mountains to the valleys, from the rivers to the sea,
Every Hand that reaches out, every hand that reaches out to offer peace,
Every simple act of mercy, every step to kingdom come,
Every hope in every heart will, speak what love has done.