"RECEIVE" - from Acts 2 and Pentecost

            Today, Pentecost Sunday, is the one of the few Sundays of the year when we wear RED. If we were in our Sanctuary, and you are familiar with this church, it is the Sunday when we have those wonderful “tongues of fires” banners hanging and slowly twirling over us. Let’s pause and just imagine them. 

We are most grateful to the Arts Committee for the cascading red scrolls hanging in the back of the Chapel today. Pentecost is about the Holy Spirit – the peace, presence, power, and purposes of God coming upon God’s people to give life, focus, faith, and charge them for God’s work in the world.

            Listen to these verses from Acts 2:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

. . . . 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” . . .

14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.19And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ 

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

This is an account of something very strange happening. Things are coming loose, breaking open. It is all most unusual: sounds from heaven and a wind. Could this be the same wind which, on the very first morning of all mornings, swept across the dark waters, the wind of creation? Could these images, tongues of fire, and speaking and hearing, be the power and presence of God bringing about life and setting a new course for all things? Everyone present is at once amazed and perplexed.

Pentecost is the story of God present, with power and purpose, giving life and directing toward new life.

This story could not come at a more appropriate time for me. I feel like I have been going along as if I had a couple of flat tires this week. Flat tires – NO AIR in the tires to keep going. You know what the word in Greek is for “air”? Pneuma – which is the same word for “Spirit.” Without air, tires are flat. Without the Spirit, pneuma, we can feel flat.

With another nasty terror event, with the continuing gun violence in our city, with horrible news of the killing, and memorial service yesterday of the devoted State Trooper, it is easy to feel flat – no air, no spirit, no pneuma. 

With the recent announcement about the Paris Agreement – it is easy to feel flat, no air, no pneuma. As Romans reminds us, “the whole creation is groaning” for redemption.  . . .

With various pastoral situations, and heartache that many of us carry around – about our lives, our loved ones - it is sometimes hard to experience the pneuma - the presence of God; so we feel “flat.”

Pentecost comes at a good time for all of us.

Jesus’ words from John today have a sacred power. The scene is Easter – the evening of his resurrection, and he encounters the disciples, full of uncertainty and fear, locked in a room. He speaks with such care: “Peace be with you.” He shows them his hands and his side, to alleviate their doubts and strengthen their resolve. When he had done this, it says “he breathed on them, and said to them: ‘RECEIVE the Holy Spirit.’”

That word – RECEIVE – really gets my attention. To RECEIVE means “to come into possession of something.” In this case, it is the very presence and power of God in, through, and around us, which changes everything! To RECEIVE is “to act as a receptacle, a container of something.” In this case, it is very vitality and purposes of God, in, through, and around us. To RECEIVE is to acquire something. In this case, it is the love of God, the light of God, the comfort of God, in, through and around us. It is air - pneuma to a flat tire; it is Spirit – pneuma - to empower, guide, and bless us for God’s important work in the world. And perhaps most importantly, when we really RECEIVE something, it changes our lives; and that is the very point. Jesus breathed on them and said, RECEIVE the Holy Spirit, and the lives of the disciples were changed forever.

Then, some days after Easter, we see this Spirit coming and covering the people again in Acts, with strong wind, powerful sounds, and tongues of fire. God is present, with power and purpose, and they speak and everyone understands. Eventually they go, and they become the church, carrying out the teaching and healing, the courage and convictions of Jesus, bringing about the promised reign of God. To really RECEIVE the Spirit is to be full of vitality for God’s work in the world.

So, . .  we may feel flat, or fatigued; Jesus says, “RECEIVE the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit comes and brings life and purpose in a way that could never be imagined or matched. We are never left on our own, or alone in our burdens or work. God is present, active, empowering us always.

            I want to relate this coming of the Holy Spirit to two stories that inspire me this week.

            First, I read again some of the memoirs of Andy Young, who was present in many of the civil rights struggles of the early ‘60’s, working with Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, and others. In the heat of that struggle, in Birmingham, AL, King and Abernathy were locked up in the jailhouse. Bull Conner, the Birmingham police chief was the law and order man. In trying to control civil disobedience, even the peaceful approach of the civil rights movement, Bull Conner became infamous for his aggressive tactics. He would unleash police dogs and turn fire hoses on marchers and bystanders. Some of us know about this firsthand. Others of us have seen the vivid pictures which focused the world’s attention to this struggle.

            On Easter, 1963, 5000 people gathered at the New Pilgrim Baptist Church, in Birmingham, with the plan to march to the jail to pray for King and the other prisoners. But when these marchers left the church, they encountered Conner, and the barricades, the dogs, and the fire-trucks blocking the street. The crowd – 5000 people - came to a halt at the barricade. The people stopped and knelt in prayer; Andy Young and others tried to reason with the police chief.

Young writes later that after about five minutes, the Rev. Charles Hillups stood up within the crowd and said, “The Lord is in this movement. We are going to the jail. Off your knees!” And everybody in the front rows of the crowd calmly, peacefully, got up and started walking right to the barricades and the police. Stunned at first, Conner yelled to his officers, “Stop ‘em! Stop ‘em!” . . . . BUT the police did not move. Young says they just stood there transfixed, not moving a muscle. Even the police dogs, which were growling and straining, . . . became calm. The firemen just stood there too. Conner yelled, “Turn on the hoses!” BUT, they didn’t move. One fireman even dropped the hose. “Our people,” says Young, “walked right between the fire-trucks, singing ‘I Want Jesus to Walk with Me.’ Not rushing, just a slow, serious march.”

            Young says, “We marched on to the park across from the jail where we reconvened to sing to those in the jail. I will never forget one older woman who got so happy when she marched through the barricades. She shouted, ‘Great God Almighty done parted the Red Sea one more time.’ Conner stood there fussing and cussing. His police had refused to arrest us,” writes Young. “His firemen had refused to hose us; his dogs had refused to bite us. And from that Sunday on, the movement gathered strength.” (See Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 1994).

            If God’s Spirit can move over creation to bring order out of chaos, and if God’s Spirit can turn a bunch of ordinary folk into the powerful people of God spreading love and hope in the world, and if God Spirit can transform even Bull Conner and his barricades, we can certainly look to God – to God’s presence, and power and purposes to guide us in our times. We can certainly seek to RECEIVE the Holy Spirit – be receptacles, let the pneuma of God, melt us, mold us, fill us, use us - for God’s work in these days. We can certainly commit once again – today, tomorrow, through the week – to be courageous instruments of God’s help and healing, wherever we find ourselves.

            The second story that inspires me was something I discovered just this week. Perhaps you recall the horrible bombings that took place in Egypt on Palm Sunday of this year. There were twin suicide bombings in two different Coptic Christian churches in Egypt and 45 people were killed and many were wounded. Naseem Fahmi, an Egyptian Christian, was serving as the guard at St. Mark’s Cathedral in the seaside Mediterranean city, Alexandria. Fahmi had redirected a suicide bomber through the perimeter metal detector, where the terrorist detonated, killing so many. Likely the first to die in the blast, Fahmi saved the lives of dozens inside the church.

Soon after this tragedy, Naseem’s widow, Samira Fahmi, was interviewed on national TV in Egypt. She was sitting in her apartment, surrounded by her children and other family, with a reporter holding the microphone as this widow spoke. “I ask the Lord to forgive them and let them try to think,” Samira said. “If they think, they will know that we didn’t do anything wrong to them.” She continued: “May God forgive you, and we also forgive you. Believe me: we forgive you. You put my husband in a place I couldn’t have dreamed of. Believe me, I am proud of him. And I wish I was there beside him.”

While Samira Fahmi is speaking, the TV has one of those split screens. On the left is the interview coming from the Fahmi home, with Samira speaking these words of forgiveness: “May God forgive you, and we also forgive you.” But on the right side of the screen is the national host of the news – he is watching this interview along with us. And after Samira stops talking, there is a ten second pause, . . .  (that’s a long time on TV). There is this 10-second pause because Amr Adeeb, the host of Egypt’s news, is so stunned at what he is hearing.

And then the host of the news – after the pause - says this: “Egyptian Christians are made of steel! . . . Egyptian Christians for hundreds of years are bearing many atrocities and disasters. The Egyptian Christian deeply loves his country. … How great is this amount of forgiveness you have? . . . . If your enemy knew how much forgiveness you have for them, he would not believe it,” he continued. “These people have so much forgiveness. … These people are made from a different substance.” His voice cracked. “If it were my father, I could never say this. But this is their faith and religious conviction.” (see Christianity Today, and TheBlaze.com) . . . So inspiring!

            “Jesus breathed on them and said, ‘RECEIVE the Holy Spirit.’”

            We keep opening our hearts and lives. We keep seeking to be changed and charged by the PNEUMA of God. As recipients of God’s Spirit, as receptacles, we seek to become the purposeful people of God – full of love, grace, courage, . . . and forgiveness. May it be so for us, and all people everywhere. Allelulia. AMEN

Prayer of Commitment: Breathe, O breathe your loving Spirit, into every troubled breast. Let us all in Thee inherit; let us find the promised rest. We seek the way of Christ our Lord. Amen.

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during morning worship on Pentecost Sunday, June 4, 2017. This is a rough manuscript. 

Alex EvansAlex Evans