Sermon: Pentecost RCL C

The podcast is available here.

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

A defendant was on trial for murder. There was strong evidence indicating guilt, but there was no corpse. In the defense’s closing statement, the lawyer, knowing his client probably would be convicted, resorted to a trick.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I have a surprise for you all,” the lawyer said as he looked at his watch.

“Within one minute, the person presumed dead in this case will walk into this courtroom.” He looked toward the courtroom door. The jurors, somewhat stunned, all looked on eagerly. A minute passed. Nothing happened.

Finally the lawyer said, “Actually, I made up the previous statement; but you all looked on with anticipation. Therefore, I put to you that you have a reasonable doubt in this case as to whether anyone was killed and insist that you return a verdict of not guilty.”

The jury, clearly confused, retired to deliberate. A few minutes later, the jury returned and pronounced a verdict of guilty.

“But how?” inquired the lawyer. “You must have had some doubt; I saw all of you stare at the door.”

The jury foreman replied, “Oh, we looked, but your client didn’t.”

Mark Galli is the Editor in Chief for the magazine Christianity Today and has recently been writing a series under the heading the “Elusive Presence.” It is actually some of the best writing I’ve read on the state of the church in quite some time. Perhaps what makes it so good is the fact that he is so desperately honest about himself. For example, here he is, the Editor in Chief of one of the largest Christian magazines, but he writes about his own crisis of faith: “It occurred to me that I didn’t feel any love for God. I also realized that even though I prayed and read Scripture regularly, not much in my life would be different if I didn’t pray and read my Bible. That is, I was living as a practical atheist, meaning my personal relationship with God did not really affect much inside me.” Throughout the article he continues to wrestle with this doubt and the reason behind these feelings. His conclusion is simple and sad: “We have forgotten God.” (Source) That is some serious soul searching.

As part of his efforts to understand this, Galli went back through the history of the church in America to the Great Awakening, a series of revivals, that took place in the 1730s and 40s, where he found the writings of Jonathan Edwards (considered one of the greatest American preachers) who gave an account of the ‘atmosphere.’ Edwards writes, “In all companies… on whatever occasions persons met together, Christ was to be heard of, and seen in the midst of them. Our young people, when they met, were wont to spend the time in talking of the excellency and dying love of Jesus Christ, the glory of the way of salvation, the wonderful, free, and sovereign grace of God, His glorious work in the conversion of a soul, the truth and certainty of the great things of God’s word, the sweetness of the views of His perfections.” (Source) That reminded me of what they said about St. Dominic: “Wherever the Master was, he always spoke either to God or about God.”

I spend a good bit of my time talking about God, but I don’t recall a conversation when I sat around with others discussing the excellency and dying love of Jesus. I spend a good deal of time teaching about the nature of God, but the glory of the way of salvation is not one of those topics. I can spend time with family and friends, but I don’t ever recall getting together with others with the soul intent of talking about Jesus.

I remember the first time I heard the expression “whitewash.” It was in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, when Tom got in trouble and was forced to whitewash a fence as punishment. Whitewashing is a cheap way to cover a surface to make it look a little better, but that’s about it and everyone knows, so something that has been whitewashed is generally associated with the poor, therefore the saying, “Too proud to whitewash and too poor to paint.”

I understand what Mark Galli was saying about himself. Would it really matter if I stopped praying, studying, etc. Do I even love God or is my faith simply whitewash? Those are hard but important questions to ask, and just to make it a bit more difficult, I read about one of the desert fathers, Abba Theodore.

He was made a deacon at Scetis but he refused to exercise the office and fled to many places from it. Each time the old men brought him back to Scetis, saying, ‘Do not leave your diaconate.’ Abba Theodore said to them, ‘Let me pray God that he may tell me for certain whether I ought to take my part in the liturgy.’ Then he prayed God in this manner, ‘If it is your will then I should stand in this place, make me certain of it.’ Then appeared to him a column of fire, reaching from earth to heaven, and a voice said to him, ‘If you can become like this pillar, go be a deacon.’ On hearing this he decided never to accept the office.

I worry about being a whitewash priest and Abba Theodore won’t even function as a deacon because he can not be a pillar of fire that reaches from earth to heaven.

I suspect that to one degree or another, depending on the day, the hour, or even the minute, we can all feel this way. And we’re in good company. The great Apostle Peter: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Paul: “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Mother Teresa: “Where is my faith? – even deep down, right in, there is nothing but emptiness and darkness.” Yet—and here is the Good News—even in the midst of these doubts, there is Pentecost. There is this Spirit of Fire, the very Spirit of God that has been placed in us all and it continually burns.

When I lived in Montana, I would help friends bail hay and then put it up in the barn for the winter. However, the hay had to have the right moisture content. Too dry and it lost all its nourishment. Too wet… at least once a year you would hear about someone who had put up their hay in the barn and when winter came along started using it. It would be stacked in bails as much as a dozen bails high or more. The outer rows would be fine, but after removing a few rows… completely burned up. The entire center, hundreds of bails, nothing but ashes. Why? The hay was too wet when they put it up, causing a chemical reaction that resulted in spontaneous combustion. The fire started at the center and burned very slowly outward, consuming everything. That’s not so good when when talking about hay barns, but it is the same idea when talking about this Spirit of God.

The Spirit is continually at work within us, burning away the impurities and leaving behind the pure image of God. When we are honest with ourselves and see how much work that remains, then we can doubt our worthiness and wonder if we really are just whitewashed Christians, and there is nothing wrong with these kinds of doubts, a much greater issue would be pride in thinking we’ve got it all worked out. There is no sin in the doubts, the only sin is when we truly give in and walk away. The doubts simply tell us of the work to be done, so instead of walking away, we call on the Triune God:

Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,
And lighten with celestial fire.

We call on God to fan the flames of Pentecost within our souls so that we may become those pillars of fire that reach to the heavens, so that the light of Christ and the fire of the Spirit may be seen by all.

You are no whitewashed Christians, even if you doubt. You are tabernacles of God Most High. His Spirit burns brightly within you all. On this day of Pentecost, ask the Lord to renew that Spirit within you and to let it burn even more brightly.

Let us pray:
“Unless the eye catch fire, God will not be seen.
Unless the ear catch fire, God will not be heard.
Unless the tongue catch fire, God will not be named.
Unless the heart catch fire, God will not be loved.
Unless the mind catch fire, God will not be known.”
(William Blake, “Pentecost”)
Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,
And lighten our eyes, ears, tongues, hearts, and minds,
That we may burn as pillars of fire
As testaments to the work you perform in us.

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