“Continuing in Our Time What Jesus Began in His,” Susan Ryder

At the beginning of the Reflection I gave this past Easter Sunday, I read the version of the story that comes from Mark’s Gospel.

Mark 16:1-8 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them.

The focus of my Reflection was on the words the man in white spoke to the women, “Go, and tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee,” suggesting that the risen Jesus had gone on ahead, not only of the disciples but also ahead of us, calling upon us to continue bringing about Jesus’ vision of God’s commonwealth. Because the point of the Easter story is not to linger at an empty tomb, in wonderment and mourning – it is to head in the direction Jesus has already gone, to continue his mission. Jesus is out there ahead of us, let loose in the world, leading us into a future beyond prejudice, poverty, and politics. Jesus goes ahead of us into a future that cannot be defined or constrained by death or grief or loss. Jesus goes before us into a future of peace and love, justice and truth, restoration and reconciliation. For even in death, Jesus continues to lead us into the future that the Sacred dreams of – we are part of making it come true. My last line was, “WE are the ending of the story, and our work has just begun.”

What work was I referring to? Our mission statement says it well – “to continue in our time what Jesus began in his, working for the healing of our world as a compassionate, inclusive, joyful community.” Our Worship Planning team thought this continuation of the Jesus story, the beginning of OUR work, would make a meaningful theme for us to explore throughout the summer. We will hear from a variety of people, some from NCC and some from the community, who are continuing in their time what Jesus began in his; making it their story. David Hirst will share about his work with the Immigration Project, Brenda Huber will talk about her project to counter bullying in schools, Bob will continue sharing about Mindfulness, and Len Meyer will share about the work of the Central Illinois PRIDE Health Center, just to name a few. Next week, Nikki Brauer, Sarah French, and I will share a presentation we did for a recent ISU Student Affairs gathering – “From the Golden to the Platinum Rule: The Alchemy of Kindness.” As luck, or fate, would have it, we decided to begin the series on this first Sunday of June, which also happens to be Pentecost Sunday – the perfect time to begin a series on “continuing in our time what Jesus began in his” – because that’s what Pentecost is all about. Here’s an abridged version of the Pentecost story from the second chapter of Acts.

Acts 2 selected verses
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that each of us, in our own native language, hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power?’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’

What DOES this mean? I like to think of Pentecost as the time when the followers of Jesus finally “got it” – “it” being the whole point of Jesus’ mission and what they were supposed to do now that he was gone. In the Christian tradition Pentecost celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit among Jesus’ followers after his death, and marks the “birthday” of the Christian church. Most Christians celebrate it on the Sunday that follows 50 days after Easter, which is today. Pentecost did not originate within Christianity, but was first was celebrated as a Jewish Holy Day, known in Hebrew as Shavuot, or “the feast of weeks.” We heard about it last year from Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe. It was and is celebrated seven weeks after Passover to commemorate Moses’ receiving the Torah on Mt. Sinai while the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, which solidified the covenant between God and the Jewish people. It also includes a celebration of the “first fruits” of the growing season, an agricultural holiday that honors the earliest spring fruits that are ready to harvest.

According to the story in Acts, the disciples were gathered in Jerusalem to observe Shavuot, or Pentecost. But their hearts weren’t really weren’t in it that particular year because their teacher and friend had been brutally crucified during Passover, and they were left grieving, wondering what would come next and how they were to continue without him (even though the man in white had given them clear instructions). It is within this setting that the Holy Spirit swooped in and fired up the disciples. Peter, in particular, found his voice that day, speaking to the crowd about the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, and how even though they were the ones who called for his crucifixion, Jesus continued to live on through them even in death. He called for those in the crowd to join their cause – to repent and be baptized – and it says that 3,000 of the crowd answered the call and were baptized, and “devoted themselves to the disciples’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer.” In effect, those earliest converts to Jesus’ way were continuing in their time what Jesus began in his. Robin Meyers calls it a first-century spiritual insurgency, when the heart of the gospel vision was to work to bring about the Kingdom of God. A disciple is a student, a follower. Discipleship, therefore, is to be as much like Jesus as possible, which is what these outcast followers of the Way were doing as they tried their best to live out the teachings of Jesus. So before there were creeds and councils, before the canon was closed, followers of Jesus were preaching, teaching, touching, healing, and bringing the Good News to the people.

Both Jewish and Christian Pentecosts have significance to their faith traditions. For the Jews, it represents the giving of the law. For Christians, Pentecost brought the Holy Spirit. Both Pentecosts came when people were lost, confused, unsure of their direction, arguing among themselves, afraid of the future. Both Pentecosts offered a sense of unity across differences. Both Pentecosts helped with the formation of a people with a common story, understandings, and sense of identity. Pentecost helped the Hebrew slaves who had been taken out of Egypt by Moses to become free people, end their aimless wonderings/wanderings, and establish a nation, a religion. Pentecost helped the various types of people who had been brought together by Jesus, people of different tribes and languages, but who were confused and frightened following his death, to learn how to be free and become a faith community organized around a common understanding.

But then we become lost along the way. A few hundred years after Jesus’ death, a major shift in the nature of Christianity occurred when a focus on right beliefs and dogmatic creeds became more important than compassionate works. Robin Meyers wrote in Saving Jesus From the Church: “In the beginning the call of God was not propositional. It was experiential. It was as palpable as wine and wineskins, lost coins and frightened servants, corrupting leaven and a tearful father. Now we argue over the Trinity, the true identity of the beast in Revelation, and the exact number of people who will make it into heaven. Students who once learned by following the teacher became true believers who confuse certainty with faith. We have a sacred story that has been stolen from us, and in our time the thief is what passes for orthodoxy itself (right belief instead of right worship). Arguing over the metaphysics of Christ only divides us. But agreeing to follow the essential teachings of Jesus could unite us. We could become imitators, not believers. We know that before the fourth-century fork in the road, there was but one road. The disciples called it the Way, and it was the only road that did not lead to Rome. It took travelers into the heart of God, singing all the way. It welcomed all who would come, especially the poor and the lost, and the only trinity that mattered was to remember where we came from, where we were going, and to Whom we belong.”

Echoing Meyer’s suggestion for a return to the Way of Jesus, I believe that Pentecost is the very thing can bring us back together and carry us forward on our common journey. Because like the Hebrews lost in the desert, and like the disciples grieving in despair and confusion at the loss of Jesus, we too are at a cusp in history in need of new paradigms and meanings to help us through these disorienting, troubled times. The life of humanity – the life of our very planet – depends on it. We need Pentecost – the world needs it. We’ve needed it ever since we lost our way in this post-modern world, struggling to be freed from the devastating shackles of imperialism, colonialism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, and all the modern “isms” and phobias which have poisoned our planet and our spirits. Pentecost proclaims that a new age had begun: life in the Spirit, characterized by love, unity, compassion, and understanding. Pentecost can help us find the power to BE that comes not from a transcendent outside-of-ourselves power, but rather that comes from the very elements of our own universe and planet. We are made of stardust: we are earth and fire and wind and water. We have been in existence since the beginning – taking many different forms and shapes – but still in this cosmic soup together. The inspiration which might be the core of this New Pentecost must come from within, understanding ourselves as part of the earth and the universe, made from the earth and universe. (from Rev. Linda Olson)

The Pentecost moment 2000 years ago brought people from every nation under heaven were brought together. “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other languages, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Pentecost built no arrogant towers or walls. It broke the barriers of race, religion, and nationality. Peter announced that this event was the beginning of a new life in the Spirit that would be available to all from that point on. They would continue in their time what Jesus began in his.

A Pentecost moment 2000 years later happened just within the last few days when, in response to President Trump’s announcement that he would pull the US out of the Paris Agreement, to-date 187 mayors joined the Climate Mayors agreement. The group of mayors, who represent more than 52 million Americans and some of the largest U.S. cities, outlined a plan to align with the other 194 nations that adopted the accord: “We will continue to lead. We are increasing investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency. We will buy and create more demand for electric cars and trucks. We will increase our efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions, create a clean energy economy, and stand for environmental justice. And if the President wants to break the promises made to our allies enshrined in the historic Paris Agreement, we’ll build and strengthen relationships around the world to protect the planet from devastating climate risks.” A handful of governors, millionaires and corporations have also pledged to continue to abide by the Paris Agreement, and two CEO’s resigned as advisors to President Trump – Elon Musk tweeting, “You quit Paris so I quit you.” Disney’s CEO joined Musk in resigning, and Michael Bloomberg pledged up to $15 million to cover America’s financial commitment in the Paris climate accord.

They are continuing in our time what Jesus began in his.

As we pick up the story – continue the journey of Jesus – we will be inviting you to consider what your project, or projects are. Some of you will share with us during worship, while we may hear from others of you in different ways. The challenge this morning is the same as it was on Easter Sunday – “WE are the ending of the story, and our work has just begun.”