|Today’s scripture readings:
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
A few weeks ago, I had a minor disagreement with a friend and I said something that, as soon as it came out of my mouth, I wished I could take back. It was one of those times when if I had taken just two more seconds to let my brain process what I was about to say before I said it, I’m pretty sure I would have realized this was one of those remarks I would regret. But I said it. And what’s worse, after I said it, I stayed the course. No remorse, no apologies. I was too proud to take it back, determined to stick to my guns, somehow convincing myself I was right, that I was justified in saying what I had said. The problem is, the next couple days I felt terrible about it. I sensed that I had damaged the friendship. Finally, I got up the nerve to pick up the phone and give him a call. I told him I had regretted my snarky remark as soon as I said it, and I said I was sorry. He accepted my apology and went on to apologize himself for his own part in our disagreement. After that conversation, it felt like we had not only repaired our friendship but even taken it to another level. Our friendship was in a new and better place.
That is what Easter is all about. That is death and resurrection. Picking up the phone to apologize to my friend, I had to die to my own sense of pride. I had to put to death my desire to be right so something new and better could be born in its place. The only way to get to the empty tomb is through the cross where a painful “no” gives way to a more joyful “yes” and suddenly we experience for ourselves the truth of the resurrection. It turns out death isn’t just the event that ends human life. Death is an experience we need to have over and over again throughout our lives so we can keep becoming a new creation every single day. That’s what we Christians are talking about when we talk about death and resurrection. That’s the good news of the Gospel, and that’s what Easter is about. Death is the way to new life.
I spent so many years of Sunday School and confirmation feeling totally skeptical about Easter and the story of Christ’s death and resurrection, because people who are dead don’t just come back to life. Are we actually supposed to believe that just this once in all of human history this person, Jesus, who was put to death, was brought back to life? I am still mystified by the Easter story and honestly don’t know how to explain it. Except for this: I’ve learned from my own experience that death really is what makes new life possible. I’m sold on death and resurrection because I’ve experienced it myself. I may not have the mechanics of Christ’s death and resurrection all figured out, but I do know something about dying and rising to new life. I have found a way to talk about death and resurrection that makes sense to me. I have language to tell the story that I can understand. And maybe that language will help others understand the story, too.
Maybe you are like me: Maybe you don’t know how to explain the death and resurrection of Jesus to someone else. Maybe what you need is a different way to talk about dying and rising to new life. Maybe you need to be given different language to tell the story—language that might help others hear and make sense of the story, too.
I think that is what Pentecost is all about. Pentecost is about sharing the good news of death and resurrection using language that will allow every last person to hear and understand it.
I’d guess most of us don’t think we’re up to the task of sharing the good news with every last person. Some of us are really great at writing lesson plans or legal briefs but get tripped up when we try to talk about Jesus. Others of us can manage portfolios, supervise staff, or diagnose diseases, but worry we don’t know as much about the Bible as we should. Still others can plan a great party, welcome strangers into our homes, and offer wonderful hospitality, but talk to others about death and resurrection? Who among us is really up for that?
Those of us who worry we’re not cut out to proclaim the Gospel are in good company. Before he ascends to heaven Jesus tells his disciples they will be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. But nothing those in Jesus’ inner circle had said or done prior to that suggested they were up to the task. Throughout the gospels they are confused about who Jesus is and slow to understand what he asks of them. On the night Jesus is arrested the disciples flee as quickly as possible. Witnesses to the ends of the earth? Peter can’t even witness to a girl in Jerusalem who recognizes him as one of Jesus’ followers, when he instead denies Jesus three times and goes into hiding. If these disciples really are going to share the story of Jesus with all the world, they’re going to need some remedial education. They were no better prepared than any of us are today to proclaim the good news.
That’s why the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is such an amazing event. When the Spirit blows through the room where the disciples had hidden themselves away and tongues of fire descend on each of them, they are transformed from a bumbling bunch of wannabe believers into the Christian church’s first evangelists. They really do become Jesus’ witnesses to the ends of the earth. If there’s hope for them, there’s hope for us, too. Actually, that’s the promise of this reading from Acts, that the Holy Spirit equips each of us to share the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection far and wide so that all people have the opportunity to hear it.
I wonder if the call of the Holy Spirit today isn’t so much to literally learn other languages and travel around the world preaching the Gospel, but instead to find the right language to share the good news we have experienced ourselves with the people we encounter here every day. I suspect all of us have had experiences of death and resurrection in our own lives—experiences that have taught us that letting go of something we thought we needed turns out to be the way something new and better can emerge. Maybe the Holy Spirit’s work today is equipping you to share that story with others—equipping you to be part of a movement of Christians who are going through life telling counter-cultural stories about death and resurrection that have the power to reshape the world.
In an op-ed in Friday’s New York Times, columnist David Brooks challenges a worldview that seems so pervasive in America today—a worldview that suggests that “selfishness is the sole driver of human affairs,” that the “world is a vicious arena where [people] compete for advantage” and “everything is about self-interest.” He says the problem with this philosophy is that “it misunderstands what drives human action.” People are sometimes driven by selfishness, yes, but we are also motivated by another set of drives that can be even more powerful. We are motivated by a desire for cooperation, by empathy, by a yearning for justice, by a longing for goodness. Brooks tells the story of a man who put aside his own interests and spontaneously leapt out of his car to help an older woman shovel snow from her driveway. Someone who witnessed this small act later wrote: “I felt like jumping out of the car and hugging the guy. I felt like singing and running, or skipping and laughing. Just being active. I felt like saying nice things about people. Writing a beautiful poem or love song. Playing in the snow like a child. Telling everybody about his deed.”
Death and resurrection. Putting selfishness to death and letting empathy and generosity and joy come to birth in its place. It’s contagious. When we practice death and resurrection and share our experience with others, who knows how the world might be changed. Maybe it’s these kinds of stories of death and resurrection that the Holy Spirit is giving us the language to tell today. Honestly, can you imagine a world where more of us who profess to be Christian lived as though we believed new life were really possible and then, led by the Holy Spirit, told stories about our experiences of death and resurrection with each person we encountered? How might the Holy Spirit be working through us to tell the world a different story—a story about the new life that emerges when we willingly abandon the impulses of selfishness, greed, and competition that are poisoning our human community today?
Come, Holy Spirit. Move among us and make us witnesses to the resurrected life, so that every last person might hear the good news and our world might be transformed. Amen.
Doug Bratt, “Acts 2:1-21,” on The Center for Excellence in Preaching, May 29, 2017, http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/day-of-pentecost-a/?type=old_testament_lectionary.
David Brooks, “Donald Trump Poisons the World,” in The New York Times, June 2, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/02/opinion/donald-trump-poisons-the-world.html.