The Courage to Testify
For the disciples, I imagine the days before Pentecost were scary, lonely days. Jesus was gone. There was that brief moment when he appeared to them in risen form, but now he had ascended to heaven. He was gone. Again. And he had left the disciples behind. Left them in Jerusalem. The same Jerusalem who’s leaders had arrested Jesus and had him crucified.
Jesus was gone. What were they to do now? It was Jesus after all who had brought them here. It was he who was the healer, the teacher, the miracle worker, the leader. He was the Son of God. They were merely his followers. They had had an incredible experience with him, during and after his death, but the world was still the world. It was still dangerous, and cold, and threatening. But now, with Jesus gone, if they were to face it, they would have to face it without him. They were alone and they must have been scared.
In the 2,000 years since Pentecost, the world has remained a scary and often lonely place. There is plenty to fear now as well. Human action is warming the planet at terrifying rates, causing sea levels to rise and wreaking havoc. And we, the world’s wealthiest country and largest polluter, have just decided that we won’t help the rest of the world to solve the problem. In the second attack in the Uk in just two weeks, last night a van ran over innocent civilians in London while others went on a stabbing spree, killing 7 people and wounding nearly 50. Here in our own city we have already reached 300 shootings for the year, a figure we didn’t meet until August the last two years. These are terrifying realities. And to people who believe that earth is sacred and to be cared for, to those who believe that all life is precious and worry that violence will only lead to more violence, they can have the effect of making us feel alone. Is no one else seeing this? Does no one else care?
On the day of Pentecost, everything changed for the disciples. Before Pentecost, the disciples had kept a low profile, they had mostly hidden out in the upper room. Afraid for their lives and unsure what to do next. Then, in a moment, The Holy Spirit, blew into that room and all around them. It came with a mighty rushing wind and tongues of fire descended upon each one of them. And suddenly they got up, they spoke out. They went into the streets, into the public square, and they began testifying to the mighty acts of God. Every bit as incredible as their sudden emergence from hiding and silence, as amazing as the tongues of fire, was the fact that they spoke so that all could understand them. People from every corner of the world, people who spoke every language known to man. All of them could hear and understand the disciple’s testimony in their own language. Through the Holy Spirit, each and every one of them could hear and understand the mighty acts of God.
This phrase, the mighty acts of God, comes from the Old Testament. Though it refers to all of God’s actions, it is most often associated with God’s liberating action in the Exodus, the freeing of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. That story is a particular story, it belongs to a particular tradition, and it tells the story of a particular event in history. It is a Jewish story. But at the same time, the exodus is a universal story. For it is a story of liberation. And bondage and liberation are universal experiences. So too are sin and forgiveness, love and sacrifice, mercy and grace, beauty and learning, healing and life, creation and stewardship. These are all the mighty acts of God, and they are universally experienced and known.
We have experienced many of these mighty acts of God. In our own lives we have felt God’s grace and forgiveness. Through God we find the courage to confess our sins and through God we have the experience of forgiveness. Though we have felt lost and unloved in our lives, we have come to believe that God loves us deeply and we have had the feeling of being found. Although we have been held in bondage by sickness, by addiction, by self-doubt, by depression, through God we have found liberation. Though fearsome and deadly at times, we have come to see the beauty of all creation and identified with God’s handiwork. These experiences are part of our story, part our lives, they are our particular experiences.
There are times, times like now, when it seems as though these experiences of grace, love, liberation, and the glory of creation, are unique to us. What can a state that sentences people to death know about grace and redemption? How can men who proclaim to know God kill innocent people? How can our country claim to know God and abandon the responsibility of caring for Her creation? It is as though our experiences of God are at odds with the world, as though God must not be out there. Seeking shelter from the dangerous, cold, world, we huddle together in our sanctuaries where we last felt God’s presence, where we feel safe from the world.
So too did the disciples. Their incredible experience of the incarnate God had ended with the world rejecting and killing him. Although he had come back to them in the Resurrection, the world didn’t seem any kinder. So after he left them, they went back to the place where they last experienced God, where they felt safe from the world.
But God was not done with them yet. In fact, God was only beginning. When the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples that day it sent them out of their upper room and into the streets. It made them testify about their experiences of God’s mighty acts to a world they believed was hostile to them. And the Holy Spirit demonstrated to them, that the mighty acts of God are both particular and universal. The love of God can be spoken in all the languages of the earth. The mighty acts of God are understood by all people in creation. The disciples had had a particular experience of these acts of God, but acts of liberation, love, healing, and creation are universal, experienced by all people in all times and places. The Holy Spirit gave the disciples the courage to testify and it brought others to them, people of all ages, tongues, and races, people who all knew and understood the mighty acts of God.
This action of the Holy Spirit, the bringing together of all ages tongues and races to testify to God created the Christian Church. This action of the Holy Spirit did not just happen once, but it continues to happen each and every day. We here at St. Paul’s have all had our own experiences of God. Deeply personal, particular experiences. Experiences that often seem at odds with the dangerous and cruel world around us. But these experiences are not unique. The beauty of creation, the joy of liberation, the freedom of forgiveness, the warmth of love. These are not secrets that only we at St. Paul’s have found. They are not unique to the United Church of Christ. Nor are they found only within the Christian faith. These experiences are as universal as the God to whom they testify.
On this Pentecost, my prayer is that the Holy Spirit will again call us to testify to the mighty acts of God in our lives. I pray that the Holy Spirit will remind us that our sin-sick world, is also the world that God created and loves and is redeeming. I pray that the Spirit will again show us that all people are loved by God and capable of sharing God’s love. I pray that the Spirit will give us the courage to proclaim the truth about climate change and the audacity to work towards a solution for the world’s biggest problem. May the Spirit descend again on us at St. Paul’s, may it remind us that we all are children of God, and may it guide us in our work and may it give us the courage to testify to our experience of God’s universal love. Amen.
Rev. Andrew Greenhaw
Eternal Student, Christian Minister, Buffalo Wing Enthusiast