David A. Davis
May 15, 2016
A few weeks ago I was in West Philadelphia at the federal office of Homeland Security and Immigration. I had an appointment to get my digital finger prints and facial recognition for my application for a temporary religious worker visa to serve the Church of Scotland this summer. Though I had an appointment, as you would imagine there was still a bit of waiting involved. I had the opportunity to observe what was going on around me. I noticed that the federal officers and the staff members were incredibly helpful, calm, polite to everyone in what was quite the hustle and bustle. From another room I could hear the National Anthem being played and then lots of applause. Later I saw the folks all dressed up, celebrating their new citizenship. I looked around the waiting room where I was sitting and it was clear I was the only one looking to get out of the country. I listened as one anxious young woman explained that she had lost her Green Card. I noticed that everyone else had a friend or family member there for support, for translation, for company. The room was quiet and tense. Every couple of minutes, a man would appear from behind a partition. We all had numbers but instead of calling the next number he would pretty much whisper, “Next.” He said it with no inflection, little volume, like he was trying to not contribute to the anxiety already in the room. He said “next” with neither a question mark or an exclamation point.
Usually it comes with one or the other; “next.” At the deli or in a pizza shop or down at Hoagie Haven, someone says “next” with an urgency, a demand. It’s an exclamation point that implies frustration, even disdain, if you are not absolutely ready to respond. In another setting, like at the barbershop where men wondrously honor and keep an order in such a respectful way, one of the barbers honestly doesn’t know who is next so it comes with the question mark; “next?” Or sitting with your child at the pediatrician waiting for the nurse affectionately known by all as the “shot lady.” When she says “next” it’s not necessarily a good thing for all involved. It’s a question mark for her, an exclamation point for the kids. “Next.” Question mark or exclamation point.
The story of Pentecost is a story about who is next. It has all the bells and whistles of a good Bible story: a rush of wind, divided tongues as of fire, a polyphony of language. But as with most Bible stories that have such bells and whistles, the bells and whistles aren’t the point. The special effects can so easily be a distraction. Here in the story of Pentecost, it’s easy to miss is the “who is next” part after the Risen Jesus is gone. The “who is next” part and God’s implied punctuation is what makes Pentecost relevant to you and to me. It’s not the bells and whistles. It’s about “whose next” when it comes to the unfolding story of gospel proclamation and carrying forward God’s kingdom way and the midwifery of the church of Jesus Christ.
Here in the Book of Acts, Jesus has been lifted up. Luke tells that a cloud took him out of their sight. After staring too long up into the heavens, the eleven return to Jerusalem to an upstairs room that must have been very familiar to them by then. The Bible says they devoted themselves to prayer together with a few women and the Mary the mother of Jesus. They selected Matthias to be added to the eleven apostles. And when the Jewish festival came they were still all together in one place. The now-twelve apostles, together with the women, they were still sort of Upper Room-centric. Set apart. Gathered together. Jesus was gone. There was a lot of prayer. Probably still a lot of fear. It doesn’t say, but the door was locked again. There in the one place where they were sequestered away from it all, away from those whom they feared. They were away.
That’s when God calls “next.” Yes, there is the wind and tongues of fire (whatever that means) and all those languages, all those people, each hearing in their own language from the twelve Galileans. The story tells how the Jews were gathered from every nation. It’s quite a litany of area names. The accusation of drunkenness sort of stands out. But what happens amid all that stuff of biblical proportion is that each of the twelve was given a word. A word to the world. They had something to say to the world. They told of God’s deeds of power. No more upper room. No longer sequestered away. No more hiding from the world. The Risen Jesus is no longer there so its time for someone to stand up. The cloistered upper room isn’t a long term option. God rattles the twelve with the Spirit-driven call of “next” and each one of them turns to face the world with something to say.
Professor Tom Long put it this way in a Pentecost sermon. “When all is said and done the gift that we get on Pentecost is not the superficial gift of energy and excitement, an injection of artificial adrenaline. And it’s not the kind of power that the world thinks of as power.” To use my image, Long is affirming that the gift to the church is not the bells and whistles. “The gift we get on Pentecost,” he continues, “is the one gift we most desperately need and the world needs… the gift of Pentecost is the gift of something to say, a Word to speak in the brokenness and tragedy of the world that is unlike any other word.” When the church received the Holy Spirit, Professor Long concludes, the church stood and spoke. Pentecost is more than God’s sending the Holy Spirit and birthing the church in a spiritual, ethereal way. It’s God offering the Word to the apostles, to the twelve, to the followers of Jesus, and telling them “now it’s your turn.”
When Peter takes the floor, notice that Luke describes him standing there with the other eleven. Peter is preaching now but all twelve are standing there with him. Peter quotes the Hebrew prophet Joel on the Spirit of God pouring out on all flesh: sons, daughters, old, young, slaves, men, women. Peter doesn’t start to tell of that mighty wind. He doesn’t give testimony to the tongues of fire. He draws upon the prophetic tradition that affirms the Spirit of the Living God pouring out on all flesh. Joel and then Peter proclaiming that the Holy Spirit comes to sons, daughters, old, young, men, women, you and you and you and you and you.
“Next? Next! Next…” God’s call. It doesn’t come with a question mark. God wondering who is next. Any sense of exclamation doesn’t come from God’s disdain or frustration. It comes with the world’s need, that brokenness that cries out for a healing word. The despair that yearns for hope. That death and destruction that always assumes the last word. “Next.” God’s next is the sending of the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes, the church stands up to speak. To speak a word to the world. When the Holy Spirit comes, the church can no longer be an upper room-centric, fear-filled, cloistered band of Christians who think they are under siege. Because God’s next is the sending of the church smack out into the world with that Word, with that Living Word. God’s “next.” It comes not with a question mark or an exclamation point. It comes with a promise. Emmanuel. God with us. I will be with you always. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. My peace I give to you, not as the world gives, give I unto you. Go therefore to all the nations. When the Holy Spirit comes, God rattles the church with the Spirit-driven call of “next” and each one turns to face the world with something to say.
Nassau Presbyterian Church: on the edge of campus in the heart of town, proclaiming in Word and deed the love of God. Come, Holy Spirit, come. That the church might let the world know that as a child of God, a beloved child of God, a sense of self has nothing to do with how smart you are or how successful you are or how much money you make, and it has everything to do with how much God loves you and that God created you and that God goes with you. That this church might be about God’s love and embrace. Come, Holy Spirit, come. That the church might have something to say in response to how the world stokes fear, how the world responds to fear with might, how the world always thinks a bigger hammer, a bigger weapon, a bigger wall is the answer. How the world idolizes “security.” That the church might then sing, “Our hope is in no other save in thee; our faith is built upon thy promise free; Lord give us peace, and make us calm and sure, that in thy strength we ever more endure.” That this church might look to a future in God’s hands.
Come, Holy Spirit, come! That in a world that tries to argue that “charity begins at home,” and “to thine own self be true” and “what have you done for me lately” and “it’s all about me” and fearing them, that the church might have something to say about “doing justice, and loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God.” And loving the Lord God with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind and our neighbor as ourselves. That this church would always be about God’s welcome and inclusion. Come, Holy Spirit, come! That in a world where election cycles and political rhetoric have forever brought out the darker side of humanity’s willingness to do anything to win, that the church, that this church, might be a beacon of light and civility standing on the gospel truth and the theological tradition that people of good conscience can disagree about important things and still be bound together by the love and power and grace of Great God Almighty. Come, Holy Spirit, come!
So today marks my last Sunday in the pulpit for a while. This gift of a sabbatical is so very gracious of you. But the pulpit will be filled by Lauren and Joyce and Cindy Jarvis and Tom Kort and Jacq Lapsley. Our preaching life will be in capable hands. Please don’t take a sabbatical with me. You can show up at the Round Church of Bowmore in July, but don’t stay away from here, from Nassau Church. Because the proclamation part, the proclaiming the Love of God part, it is so much more than this pulpit… and have you paid attention much to the world lately?
© 2016 Nassau Presbyterian Church
Contact the church to obtain reprint permission.