A Sermon for the feast of Pentecost,
By Fr Gavin Dunbar, Rector, and PBS USA President
31st May 2020, at Saint John’s Church in Savannah
… with many other words did [Peter] testify and exhort, saying,
Save yourselves from this untoward generation.
ACTS OF THE APOSTLES 2:40
Pentecost bursts on the disciples of Jesus with the sound of a mighty rushing wind – the power of the storm-wind, the untameable hurricane, terrifying and exhilarating all at once. And then in tongues of fire that same power rests on each of the disciples of Jesus, and bursts forth from their mouths in astonishing utterance. It was said (Genesis 11) that all men once spoke the same language, but when in their pride they sought to build a tower to heaven, God confounded their language, so that they could not understand one another and left off building the tower. Today the polyglot pilgrim crowd in Jerusalem is also confounded when they hear the disciples speaking, but not because they can’t understand what they are saying – but because they can. Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? … we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God. Babel’s diversity of tongues is not undone or reversed, but rather harmonized in a promise of a new and universal community. And that is what Pentecost is all about – the power of God released in utterance among the disciples of Jesus, building the community that sin had destroyed. And the question it raises for us – can it build us into community also?
After power, then utterance: Peter seizes the opportunity to explain this event to the amazed and wondering crowd – pilgrims from afar, but lots of local residents too. What they have just heard and seen, Peter says, is the outpouring of the Spirit foretold by the prophet for the last days, when the purposes of God hasten to fulfilment, in judgment and salvation: blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke: … And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved. That’s astonishing news to proclaim, but Peter doesn’t stop there, he pivots to the recent events in Jerusalem, and bluntly tells them, first, that they are responsible for the death of Jesus just weeks earlier; second, that God has raised him from the dead, and third, that being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear. The conclusion is as inescapable as it was unwelcome: let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made the same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.
There is a reckoning with the truth going on here that must have been a shock to his hearers, many of whom were complicit in the death of Jesus. But the power working
through Peter’s utterance cannot be denied – the power of the storm wind from heaven, the power of spiritual reality breaking in and sweeping away wishful thinking and stubborn prejudice. Pricked in their heart, shocked and appalled by what Peter has told them, they turned to him and asked what shall we do? Though Peter has been holding their feet to the fire, they sense that he is not moved by malice, but by zeal for the truth – and Peter responds with something more than truth, an offer of grace and mercy: Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost; and he urged them, over and over again, Save yourselves from this untoward generation. Through the same Jesus they crucified, who as Christ and Lord endured judgment he did not deserve, can they escape the judgment they deserve.
What’s going on here? Jesus had been warning his people and their leadership that they were on track for the calamity which did eventually overtake them in the year 70 A. D. To escape this calamity, Jesus called for a radical new direction, embodied in a new community, which God had sent him to establish through the gospel he proclaimed. And though he was rejected and crucified, yet God has vindicated Jesus, and poured out his Spirit on the apostles to continue that mission. The offer remains open: Save yourselves from this untoward generation. Peter is offering them forgiveness of sins, and the gift of the Spirit, in the community of salvation, with the disciples of the crucified and risen Lord, but it will take repentance and baptism – a radical change of heart, a death to old ways of thought and action – a new way of thinking, a new perspective and direction – a new obedience to his word, grounded by faith in him as Lord and Savior. The power of the Spirit at work in the words of Peter is the power of the truth spoken in love – and where it is received, in repentance and the obedience of faith, a new spiritual community emerges which Luke describesi in the final verses, a community in which truth and love cohere.
So what does this say to us today? I need hardly remind you that America is a society under great strain – facing disease, economic hardship, and massive unemployment, bitter polarization at home and abroad, and this week another shocking injustice and another shocking breakdown of public order – blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke. It doesn’t take a prophet to point out that we can’t go on this way indefinitely without calamity – and yet, while we are very good at pointing the finger at each other, we seem incapable of fixing our problems, let alone changing course. Let me remind you that the judgment of the Lord arrives not in thunderbolts from the sky, but in this – that he lets sinners have their way, to the point of self-destruction – like a runaway train hurtling to ruin. If we keep on going in the same direction, sooner or later it is going to end badly.
I don’t have a fix for all of America’s problems and I don’t know who does; but I have the words of the Apostle: Save yourselves from this untoward generation – and I have the words of the Prophet: whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved. This is not a call to bail out, and go survivalist. In these last days, we need what Jesus and his apostles preached – a radical new direction lived out in the new community built by the power of God’s Spirit, through the utterance of his word, by faith in the crucified and risen Lord. What’s more, we already have it – in the gospel and the church, in the very community, to which we belong, who at least in outward profession have accepted God’s call to salvation in baptism. So it seems we have a part to play. I am not proposing anything grandiose – God knows, even if Episcopalians don’t, how utterly insignificant we are in the larger scheme of things, and how little we have to offer the world. But there is something for us to do – something that we perhaps could do – by God’s help. We could become what we are. We could be that community into which he has called us, more fully, more deeply, more truly. For the Spirit whose power was released in the utterance of the truth in love – that gift is still Christ’s promise to those who believe in him. But it will take repentance – a radical change of heart, of perspective and direction, a death to old ways of thought and action – a new way of thinking, a new perspective and direction – a new and radical obedience to his word. And we might be praying for that. Though it rarely gets the attention it deserves, like Christmas and Easter, Pentecost is a great feast of the Gospel and of the Church, a time of celebration and thankfulness; but it is also most certainly a time of earnest and humble prayer for a new gift of the Holy Ghost. And I would bid you to earnest and humble prayer: Come Holy Ghost, fill the hearts of thy faithful people, and kindle in them the fire of thy love.
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