As B., who is to receive his First Communion this morning, and his mother and I were learning about the Eucharist meal together, I so worried that the stories of Jesus we were reading about all the meals he shared with the his followers, with sinners, with Mr. Zaccheus, with his disciples on the night he was to die, were so far away. I worried they felt hopelessly distant for B.
As the space of time between the present and the days of Jesus get longer and longer… It is so easy to experience the Church as “old.” For many, instead of the new and renewing source of vitality it is there comes the real feeling that the Church is an old thing, desperately preserving delicate and boring and antiquated traditions. There is a sense that we are out-of-sync—obsolete.
And if that is true, many folks conclude (myself included once when I was young), this means God too is old and out-of-sync. And if God is used up like that, then that god of church people isn’t the real God. But the God of Scripture, the God we confess that we believe in, is eternal, never beginning, never ceasing, neither old nor new! What does, however, get old is habits—private traditions.
But the God we believe in, as our Psalmist writes this morning, is always doing new things. God’s lungs, you could say, are always breathing. God’s Spirit is always blowing. The Psalmist says to God, “When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust,” But, “When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” God renews the face of the ground. God renews because God is life.
Communion may be old, but for Brian and his family, today, it is brand new. And our experience of this renewal, this life, this breath, we call the Holy Spirit. In our lesson from Acts this morning—our Pentecost story—we have seen the pattern of God’s “breathing” in action. We have heard of God’s renewing and doing new things.
Jesus promised his disciples, his apostles, that God’s Spirit would come in our lesson from John’s Gospel, and, there, in Acts that wind, that Spirit, arrives. God promised to do a new thing, and formed a new people who themselves were shaped and formed by their experiences of Jesus.
Our lesson from Acts about this new thing is so great because it shows what to expect when God does new things for us too. For starters, these new things are scary! They are unexpected because they are new! Acts says: “Suddenly from the sky there came a roaring like a blast of wind!”
The other thing that these new things do is bring people together, they are not new things that divide, new things that condemn or destroy. Those gathered in Acts hear and understand together God’s power.
It is so important too that as this new thing—this model of all new things—as it happens we hear words in Acts like bewildered, amazed, astonished, and perplexed. These are the reactions of the devout people gathered in Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost that comes 50 days after Passover. A quick look at the words in Greek and you could also say: jumbled, confounded, troubled. Or: out of our wits, beside ourselves, out of our minds Again: wondering, marvelling, And: puzzled, at a loss for words.
This all, in a very mysterious way, also describes us here at St. Andrew’s—us, God’s Church in this time. When it has come to church, we have all been confounded, puzzled, and amazed at some point in these time of COVID. We are being made new, we are being renewed, and yet it is both very bewildering and very astonishing. Old patterns are falling away. We have new technology to serve us, new ideas. New ways of worshipping. New ways of gathering. New insights about how we will teach our children and young ones in the faith.
Those gathered in Jerusalem as well, believers from all nations and cultures and languages, wondered together—What is going on? How could this be? But very quickly some, out of fear, turn their wonder to rejection. They famously deride the Holy Spirit, the newness, by saying: “They are filled with new wine.” We say that livestreaming is silly, it’s not real, it doesn’t compare. Or we say that church can only be done in this particular way. Church is a habit and now it is broken. Sunday school can only be done the way we recognize it. And so forth, and so on. “My traditions are my own, we say, do not by renewing them also break them.”
But in response to this sneering, Peter, or the Rock on which our Church is built (as his name literally means), Peter stands and testifies. “No, this is not nonsense. In fact, even though God has done a new thing today,” Peter explains, “This new thing has been promised by God in days long ago.”
The prophet Joel, himself filled by God’s lungs, said that God promised in the last days, or in these latest days, that God’s newness, God’s Spirit, would be poured out. A new thing will happen, new things will always continue to happen. And so the Church built on this first defiant testimony of Peter testifies anew in our time. And as Paul in his letter to the Roman’s explains, as Peter quoting the prophet Joel alludes to, when God does a new thing: it feels scary, it feels painful.
Just as a mother in labor is filled with agony and panic, just as the portents of change in Joel, solar and lunar eclipses, are alarming, just so, God’s people shiver and squirm when a new thing appears.
But filled with God’s Spirit in our Baptism, filled with God’s breath of life and wisdom, that same Holy Spirit helps us testify when a new thing is truly from God. And I believe now is one of those times. As troubling or confusing, as unpleasant as church has been over the past months, it has also been new.
And like those devout ones gathered from all nations in Jerusalem who heard one another, who understood one another anew: we are in a time of great newness. And across distance, across illness and death, across division and violence—God gathers us anew. And so today, this Sunday, we celebrate and remember that our eternal God renews us. When we were overwhelmed with change and pain, the Spirit encouraged us with hope. When we needed guidance to see, to understand, the Spirit interceded for us. And when we recognize God’s newness in our lives the Spirit now testifies through us.