Spirit in the City, Part 2
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, May 31, 2020
Reading: Act 2:14-36
Many university and high school graduates are not able to have their usual graduation ceremonies this year. Their accomplishments will be recognised virtually instead. Last week my cousin’s grandson graduated from university in the UK. As part of the graduation ceremony, and as part of the recognition of all the ceremonies in Britain, the great actor, Sir Anthony Hopkins, delivered a special message to those graduating this year. My family shared it with me, and it is one of the most powerful things I have seen in a very long time.
In it, Hopkins stands up and congratulates the graduates. He then uses a powerful illustration from 2 Kings, Chapter 3 to suggest that they remain strong, even in a time of uncertainty. He borrows the notion of Elisha, and the importance of building ditches to collect water in times of uncertainty. He draws on the thoughts of Carlos Castaneda, a mystic Mexican writer, who says that in a time of drought, you build the ditches, you pour in the water, anticipating something good happening. Hopkins leans into the camera and says, “You need to believe, for there is power. Never give up!” And he pounds his chest and says, “Believe, believe, believe.”
Of course, he was giving a pep talk. He was talking about believing in the future and trusting their own accomplishments as they go into that future. But, regardless of the foundation, the passion with which he spoke and the encouragement he gave to those young graduates was profoundly inspirational.
As I listened, I couldn’t help but think just how amazing Peter’s first speech at Pentecost must have been. He was not giving a pep talk. He’s not just saying to build ditches or prepare for the worst. Rather, he is giving a statement known in the New Testament and in Greek as the kerygma, the basic understanding of the Christian faith. And he’s doing it in Jerusalem, before those disciples and apostles who had received the Holy Spirit. He delivered this message to the people in the city of Jerusalem, who questioned the experience of the Spirit that those disciples had, but he boldly proclaimed the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He was saying to those who were listening, “Believe, believe, believe.”
A couple of weeks ago in a parking garage, a person I know came up to me and said, “Reverend Stirling, I have a few things on my mind, and I'm wondering if you could give me a quick answer. I'm wondering, was COVID-19 prophesied in the Bible?” She wanted to know that. She also wanted to know whether we were in the last days, and whether God would bail us out of this situation. She basically wanted one-word answers to those three questions.
Don’t ever ask a preacher for a one-word answer to anything, because you're not going to get it! I said to her, “You do realise that these are some of the most complex questions you could possibly ask?” And so, I said, “In order for you, and for your sake, one, yes, but qualified. Two, yes, but qualified. Three, yes, but probably not qualified. There’s my answer, but you need to watch what I have to say in a future sermon.” This is that future sermon.
I believe the great sermon Peter gave at Pentecost, moved and empowered by the Holy Spirit, was not a direct answer to her questions because what he is offering is the Gospel in its totality. Nevertheless, the structure he uses around this brilliantly formed message, is what’s so inspirational. What strikes me, and what I always thought, was why and how Peter would give a speech of this clarity and of this power? After all, Peter was the one who, when he was a disciple, had doubts about Jesus. He fell asleep on a boat in the garden of Gethsemane. He cut off the ear of a soldier in anger. He denied Jesus three times. He hardly had a stellar resume. He was also a fisherman and went about his normal daily life as a fisher would in those days. That was his level of being, that was his life and his thought. He wasn’t a theologian.
Yet Jesus changed Peter by reinstating him and saying, “Go, feed My sheep. Three times Peter had denied him. Three times Jesus said, “Feed My sheep” and restored him. He was given the privilege of witnessing the resurrection and being with the Risen Christ. He was given the opportunity to be, as Jesus said, “The rock on which the church would be built.” Jesus then had taken this penitent fisherman, who he called and who followed him for three years, and now, by the power of the Spirit, empowered him, giving him the words to say in Jerusalem at the time of the greatest need. The words that he was given, gave him this incredible structure. He makes a number of affirmations, and to the woman in the garage or people who are asking these questions, these are the things that we really should understand.
The first of which is that God promised to act. The coming of the Holy Spirit upon those disciples was not an accident. It is there, rooted in the tradition of the Old Testament that the day would come when God would pour out God’s Spirit on the people who were faithful. He makes no bones about it. Peter draws heavily, for example, on Isaiah, Chapter 44, where there is the promise that the Spirit will be poured out upon the descendants of Israel. Joel, in that incredible passage in Chapter 2, reaches the point in verse 28 where he says that in the day of the Lord, the Spirit will be poured out on the people. He’s borrowing from the image of Ezekiel, Chapter 37, and that incredible image of the valley of dry bones, where everything that was dead would come to life, and that the Spirit would be breathed into the bones, and the bones would rise up. The Spirit of God. The ruacḥ hakodesh is what they call it in Hebrew; the Spirit of God, this is what would be poured out on God’s people. Peter knew that this experience was something that had been promised.
But the Spirit had also been very active in the life and the ministry of Jesus. If God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then the Holy Spirit was at work in the life of Jesus as well. When, for example, he comes into the temple in Luke, Chapter 4, He says, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” to proclaim good news to the poor. Similarly, when Jesus gathered with his disciples, as I alluded to last week, and said, “I will send you a comforter, I will send you the Spirit.” He had said to Peter and to the other disciples who were gathered in the Upper Room, in the first chapter of Acts. In so many of the things that happened in the life and the ministry of Jesus, there was this continued promise that the power of the Holy Spirit would come upon the faithful. If they would repent, and if they would turn their hearts to God, the Holy Spirit would be given them.
Peter knew that this moment he was experiencing in that sermon, was not an accident. He was also proclaiming that God had acted through the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. He goes to great lengths in this passage to show that the events of Jesus’ life were no accident. They had occurred for a purpose. That he had come from the lineage of David and this theme of Davidic inheritance and the notion of the Messiah, the rootedness in Judaism, is right there in this text. He refers to David anticipating One who would not actually be dead but would be eternally risen. He roots it in that, and he knows that the continuity between God’s covenant with Israel and what was happening at that moment in the power of the Spirit, was not broken, because Jesus was the Messiah and he came from the line of David.
It’s the same about the cross; the cross of Christ was not an accident. It was something that God knew would occur. It does not mean that God was responsible for the death of his son, but through his death God redeemed the world. It wasn’t an accident. When Peter looks out at the crowds of Jerusalem and says, “You are the ones who put Jesus to death,” he’s talking about everybody, not singling out a particular group. “You have crucified this Jesus.” Jesus is the one God has chosen and God has been with to redeem us. The resurrection is central. The resurrection is not an accident either. It is not an addendum to the Christian faith. It is central to the redemptive power of God.
Peter uses this phrase, “This Son, whom you crucified, now sits at the right hand of God the Father.” He does this because he is the Messiah, the Risen One. There’s no accident here. As I read this sermon I'm moved. I can't believe how good it is. I can't believe how rich it is. Sometimes God will use even the most ordinary of people, even those like Peter, who was a failure, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, transform them. There isn't any one really, if we’re honest, who proclaims the gospel or promises to live by the rule and the law and the love of Christ, who is perfect. None of us are. Yet in a flawed biography like Peter’s, the Spirit can still stir the heart and the soul and bring something very good into being.
I read a fascinating piece – it’s one of those things that someone sends you in an email. I don’t know whether they were implying that I am a failure, but anyway, I took it as a gesture for something to use in a sermon. It was a biography of a man who had less than three years of formal education and failed in business in ’31. He was defeated in the Legislature in ’32. He again failed in business in ’33. He was elected to the Legislature in ’34. He was defeated for Speaker in ’38. He was defeated for elector in ’40. He was defeated for Congress in ’43. He was elected to Congress in ’46, and then defeated again in ’48. He was defeated for the Senate at 55; he was defeated for the Vice-Presidential nomination in ’56, and he was defeated for the Senate in ’58. He was a loser, and his name was Abraham Lincoln.
I think what Anthony Hopkins was saying to those young graduates is that you might think that things are not going your way, or you might find that there are challenges before you and your life is not all neatly sorted and everything going as it should. A lot of young people in particular right now - and I know, and I can feel it in you – are saying, “I don’t know what my next steps are, because I don’t know what next steps are available. It’s not like normal times.” A lot of people feel the same way about their spiritual life. Do we have the hope in the future? Do we have what we need going forward?
Look at Peter. The power of the Spirit came upon him and he relied solely on God. He relied solely on the Holy Spirit, and he gave one of the greatest, if not the greatest sermons ever given. He did it because he was empowered by the Spirit. It wasn’t his biography that made him great in the eyes of God. It was the power of the Spirit working in his life. That’s what gave him the power and the wisdom of that moment. He based it on the fact that God acted in Jesus Christ. He also believed that God will act.
This goes to that woman’s question of me: “Will the Spirit, will God help us in this time of difficulty?” The answer is an unequivocal, yes. For Peter, God was going to begin something, not end something. Pentecost wasn’t the final statement at the end of a gospel revelation, it was the beginning of the life of the church that was to proclaim Christ. It was based so much on his own notion as a Jew. The notion of what is called the present age and the age to come. The notion of the present age is an age of trouble, trial, tribulation, and difficulty. The age to come is the age that we wait for the consummation and for God’s glory to shine.
In between those is what is known as the Day of the Lord, and for Peter the arrival of the Spirit was the Day of the Lord. It was the sense that God is intimately involved in transforming the world, taking on the powers of death, being the source of life, leading to the age to come. This through Christ and the Holy Spirit, Peter said, had occurred.
It was also a path forward. Listen again to how he quotes from the Psalms and from David.
I saw the Lord always before me because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore, my heart is glad, and my tongue rejoices, and my body also will live in hope, because You will not abandon me to the grave. You will not let Your Holy One see decay. You have made known to me the paths of life, and You will fill me with joy in Your presence.
This from David, through Peter, to you, that He will show us the path of life.
I believe that this current uncertainty is a time of spiritual struggle. When the forces of death, when the viruses of evil take human life, it is a challenge to the life-giving power of the Spirit. It is never God’s intention and it is never God’s will that human lives are lost, for he is the Lord of life, who shows us the path of life. In a time like this, we should turn to him. In a time of uncertainty, we should seek his guidance and the strength and the power of His Holy Spirit. What we should do this Pentecost, more than anything, is to seek and to ask the Holy Spirit to come and save our world. I base this on something that I read. During the great plague of 1665-66 in London, they lost 100,000 people in a city of 400,000 – a quarter of the population. The church was turned to and asked to be a source of support and encouragement and prayer. One of the prayers that was used, was taken from the Prayer Book, (I think it was 1549 when the Prayer Book was originally written). The prayer is one that all of us should be thinking about right now. Would you pray with me:
We humbly beseech Thee, of Thy goodness, O Lord, to comfort and succour all them who, in this transitory life, are in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity. Help us to minister them Thy strength and consolation, and so endow us with the grace of sympathy and compassion, that we may bring to them both help and healing. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This is the prayer for healing, and we need an outpouring of God’s Spirit if we will humble ourselves. Then we can pound our chests and say, “I believe, I believe, I believe,” because Jesus is Lord. Amen.