Posted on May 24th, 2015
Pentecost presents an event that seems too fantastic to believe. Tongues of fire? People speaking in foreign languages they never learned?
This follows other events that seem equally not believable: A man dies on a cross, is buried, only to emerge from the tomb alive, and strangely changed? And then, this man after forty days is taken up into the skies, going beyond all sight of those with Him?
It seems more rational, more “scientific” to put this in the category of legend, myth, or perhaps wishful thinking.
How do we know anything? Things that are repeatable can be studied by science. If the temperature falls below 32º F., water will freeze. That same water, heated properly, will boil and turn to steam.
History is more difficult, for it studies unrepeatable things. How can we know what happened? What we cannot do is dismiss something because it seems too unlikely, too improbable.
Now nothing seems more unlikely, more improbable, than a dead man coming back to life. Yet at the same time it is beyond all doubt that a large group of people claim to have seen the man Jesus of Nazareth do just that. They themselves didn’t believe it at first. The first reports were met with derision. But these skeptics became convinced, not only that Jesus did rise from the dead, but that His cross and resurrection had inaugurated a fundamental transformation of the world. The cross and resurrection of Jesus was not just an event, however improbable – it was the event which changed everything.
What did it change for the men who had been with Jesus as His disciples? Not two months earlier, they had all run away when Jesus was arrested. They pretended not to know Jesus. They locked their doors and hid, afraid that they too would be nailed to crosses.
Now, Peter stands up and preaches the death and resurrection of Jesus. He would, in fact, be nailed to a cross, in Rome under the emperor Nero. But he was unafraid. For the death and resurrection of Jesus changed everything. He proclaimed from the prophet Joel on the Day of Pentecost, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Saved from what? Cancer? Church politics? A loveless marriage? A dead-end job? From what do you want to be saved? From what do you need to be saved?
It’s surprising when you go to the prophet Joel and read the entire passage in context. The first thing you find is that the promise of salvation, read on this day of Pentecost—the end of the Easter Season—comes after the very first thing we read at the beginning of this larger season, on Ash Wednesday. There, Joel tells us to fast, and confess our sins. The Jewish custom of mourning was to tear one’s clothes, but Joel tells us to tear, rend something else: our hearts. Stop sinning and turn to God, he calls to us – and then, this haunting question with a very uncertain answer: “Who knows if [the LORD] will turn and relent,” who knows if He will stop the judgment we deserve, the hell we deserve, the death we deserve?
But by the end of the passage, which Peter uses in his Pentecost sermon, the uncertainty is gone: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Saved from what? Not this or that problem in your life. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved, saved from God, i.e., God’s judgment. We are saved by God, from God, for God.
If we kept reading in Acts, we would find that everything changed in Jerusalem for those who took to heart what Peter said. They were baptized, they received the Holy Spirit, and this changed not only their future but their present.
The future was changed because those who are joined to Jesus by baptism are joined to His death. And God’s promise, in Romans 6, is that if we are joined to Jesus in His death, we will be joined to Him in His resurrection.
The Paschal Candle, or Easter Candle, has been up at the altar since Easter, burning to celebrate the resurrection. Now it lives by the font, and we light it whenever there is a baptism. There’s one other time we light it: at a funeral. That candle preaches a beautiful sermon to you then: Jesus is risen, so your death doesn’t get the last word: your Jesus will raise your body.
That change of the future—that death’s power is stripped of its finality—means that your now is changed. All of our thinking that leads us to sadness and anger, lust and greed, the desire for revenge, the desire to quit – it all comes from giving death power it doesn’t have. We are angry and sad, we rage or give up, because it seems as though everything is out of control, that nothing will turn out as we hope. But when we know that the one hope, the great hope for the renewal of the world, has already begun in the resurrection of Jesus, and has been promised to us in the gift of the Holy Spirit, then no disappointment, no trouble, no loss can overwhelm us. These sufferings, be they ever so great, are like brief pricks of a needle when we get a shot or our blood drawn. Although unpleasant, we know it is but for a moment, and even the pain is working for our good.
So the hope of the resurrection made those Pentecost Christians ready to endure any suffering – even martyrdom. Because everything had changed with the change of Jesus from dead to resurrected.
That change also changed how they lived with each other. They sang – they sang Psalms and hymns; they shared – they shared their food, their money; they prayed – for each other, and for those who didn’t know Jesus; and they told – they told their friends, and their enemies, what Jesus had done by His cross and resurrection.
And that changed the world. The message spread, and the world began to change. The poor were fed and clothed, beautiful churches were built, and alongside them, hospitals for the sick. They loved their enemies, freed slaves, took in orphans, and swore not to kill children by abortion or exposure.
The world around us doesn’t look like this, for the unbaptized rage still, and even those who are baptized have forgotten what Jesus has done by His cross and resurrection, and grieved the Holy Spirit He gave on this day by selfish lives, foolish arguments, and giving in to harmful lusts.
Repent. Return. For the Holy Spirit given to you at Baptism still calls to you. Return while you can, and receive anew your Jesus who conquered death and gave you His Spirit and the remission of your sins. Jesus is risen, and everything is now changed. The Holy Spirit is returning to dwell with man, and you are now being changed. These words of Jesus, how can they not change everything? “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” +INJ+