May 23, 2010 Series: Lectionary
Topic: Biblical Verse: Acts 2:1–2:21
The Festival of Pentecost
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
“Welcome to the future!” I imagine a sign like that gracing the side of a World’s Fair pavilion, as people from all over the planet come together to see the promise that the future holds. The future usually seems like a great place to live, doesn’t it? We get glimpses of the future through the stories that we tell, images in movies and television shows. You can see one of my favorite bright and shiny depictions of the possible future in the classic film “Back to the Future: Part 2.” In case you haven’t experienced this epic adventure of teenager Marty McFly – it’s a fun ride, anyway – this movie took us ahead to the late-80’s version of 2015. We got to see a flash of some of the things that we’d dream about. This often seems to be the case when we think about the future; it’s filled with the possible, the things that could be. In that vision of 2015, you’d be able to get all the energy you need from your “Mr. Fusion” home appliance: take your garbage and make it fuel for your personal nuclear reactor. Kids ride on hoverboards, skating about wherever they’d want, no wheels required. They’ve got flying cars! And if you’re going to have a flying car, how is a flying DeLorean not the coolest thing? The future is shiny! The future is bright! The future is full of so many things that we hope come to pass.
But the future’s not always that way, is it? In the “real world,” the future can be uncertain. That’s the future that many think about from day to day: the future that’s a day away, a month away, even a year away. We know so many worries in life precisely because the future is beyond our control. We have doubts about what might come our way, whether we’re facing financial challenges, personal or family illness, or one of the many other pressures that come with living in the world today. Responding to the future in fear, we can become timid and defensive, reluctant to step out in faith. We build walls, focusing in ourselves and relying on our own strength. But that strength fades, and there could come a time when you might wonder, “How much future do I have left?”
What of the future back on that first Pentecost for the Church, the one we hear about in our reading from Acts 2? What did the future look like for those early disciples? We heard that the apostles came away from seeing Jesus taken up into heaven at his Ascension and went into the temple, worshipping and praising God continually. And they were waiting – waiting for the fulfillment of the promise that Jesus gave them that he would send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to be with them. But on that first Pentecost, something that was beyond their expectation took place. On that day, as people from all over the world gathered in Jerusalem for the festival, the Holy Spirit came in power on the disciples as those visible tongues of flame rested on their heads. But even more miraculously, these believers who were once afraid to be seen, fearing the future that might come if the Jewish authorities discovered them, are now being sent out in the power of the Holy Spirit to boldly proclaim the truth: that God had come to be with His people, that He gave up His life on the cross for their sake, that He rose from death and ascended in power and glory. This is the Messiah that Peter and the other disciples now proclaimed without fear. God’s people were irrevocably changed. Some 3,000 people would be baptized that day, and through the Spirit’s work the spark of that Pentecost would grow as the Gospel message spread to bring light to all the earth.
As we celebrate Pentecost today, what will the future look like here at St. John's Lutheran Church? What are our plans and hopes as a community of believers here in this time and place? If you look around the sanctuary, you’ll see that things are a little different today. Tongues of flame light the candles that line the aisles. Flags from many nations line the sanctuary walls. This is a festival day as we remember that we are part of the Holy Spirit’s creation, celebrating the “birthday” of the Church. But we’re also celebrating the work of the Holy Spirit among us today as we look ahead to the future. The Spirit gathers us together and makes us holy, day by day. And the Spirit sends us out. He is moving us out into the future, even as He sent the disciples out in boldness on Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is reaching out to those outside of the community of Church through Hispanic Mission Development effort. He is creating connections with the people who live in the Franconia area around the congregation through our people. And He is making disciples here at St. John’s, equipping God’s people for the life that we have outside the walls of this church building.
As you’ve heard over the past few weeks, our congregation is at the beginning of a new capital campaign, “Growing God’s Vision for Tomorrow.” In the recent past, St. John’s purchased the land that is now the west side of our property, with an eye to the future. One focus of this new campaign, at the direction of the congregation, is to pay off the debt we incurred when buying the new land. With this new property come new possibilities: even before we build anything on it, we’re looking to how we might use it in a way that connects with our neighbors in Franconia. But eventually, we will look to build, and we’ve got a plan for facilities that our congregation could use for another 50 years or more.
So what’s the reason behind “Growing God’s Vision for Tomorrow?” Earlier this week, Susan, our Music Director, inadvertently reminded me of something that I’d intended to say to you. She asked me about the final hymn that I’d selected for singing during the Distribution on Sunday morning, “Built on the Rock.” She pointed out that it doesn’t seem like much of a Pentecost hymn: there’s no overt praise to the Holy Spirit, it’s not the most joyful tune in the hymnal. But there’s a reason that I picked it for today. Here’s the first stanza:
Built on the Rock the Church shall stand / Even when steeples are falling.
Crumbled have spires in ev’ry land; / Bells still are chiming and calling,
Calling the young and old to rest, / But above all the souls distressed
Longing for life everlasting.
If you look at that text, you might reasonably wonder why this would be a hymn I’d pick for the beginning of a building campaign as we look to the future. Steeples falling? Spires crumbling? That’s the truth, though: buildings made by people will eventually fall down. They won’t last forever. Ultimately, though, “Growing God’s Vision for Tomorrow” isn’t about a building. We’re not constructing something for ourselves and our pride. If you look at our first reading (Gen. 11:1-9), you’ll see that God has something to say about people taking undue pride in their buildings! But God’s Word, His mission, and His Church endure. And so, we’re moving out in this campaign with a vision, looking ahead to the future as we are gathered together by the Holy Spirit. We’re looking to make use of all that we are and have in the service of the message of reconciliation with God through Christ Jesus.
You and I have been given a mission to share what has been entrusted to us, the message that Peter proclaimed on Pentecost, the message of the God who loves and redeems, who sends His Holy Spirit to be with us and draw us closer. Like those early disciples, you and I are irrevocably changed through the work of the Holy Spirit. That same Spirit sends us out and gives us boldness to live as a people who are forgiven, a people who are forgiving, a people who trust that our God will see us through to a future which is shiny beyond comparison, as all God’s people who bound together through the Holy Spirit join around the marriage feast of the Lamb, Jesus Christ – a future which will have no end.
On this Pentecost, I say to you: Welcome to the future!