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Sermon: Lit. May 23, 2021

May 24, 2021

This is the sermon I preached on May 23, the Day of Pentecost, for Bach Cantata Vespers at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, IL. The texts for the day were Acts 2:1-13 and John 14:23-31. You can view the bulletin and view the service.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace this day in the name of God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. On a warm summer Saturday fifteen years ago, Erika and I met each other at the head of the aisle at First English Lutheran Church in Appleton, WI, to be joined together in the holy estate of marriage. The day was warm, but the preaching was warmer; Uncle Johan brought his A game. Hotter yet was the music in worship. The dance party that followed? Absolutely scorching. I mean, Erika’s cousin tore his ACL on the dance floor. The party was, as the kids would say, lit. Shortly thereafter, we moved from my bachelor’s apartment into the church’s parsonage, excited for the future but gradually realizing that we had no idea what we had gotten ourselves into. Life together was so new. It’s been a grand adventure so far; three children, two cross-country moves, and one hectic but fulfilling family life that bestows grace upon grace, from the breakfast table to the t-ball field to our nightly prayers. We never could have guessed what would be the contents of the new life with which we were gifted that day, and goodness knows what’s coming next – what joys or sorrows we’ll encounter – but I wouldn’t trade this life for anything.
  1. It is perhaps not surprising that, when Bach was preparing a new cantata for Pentecost, he chose to parody an earlier wedding cantata; if, in fact, the wedding cantata came first. If not, it’s equally unsurprising that he would parody a Pentecost cantata upon the occasion of a wedding. The opening chorus works for both: O fire eternal, O wellspring of love / Enkindle our hearts and consecrate them. This could be the prayer of the disciples in Jerusalem on Pentecost, or the cry of the church today, as much as it could be the shared prayer of two beloved souls, alone together in the midst of the congregation, preparing to have their two hearts, lives, joined as one. We wish, O most high, to be your temple / Ah, let our souls in faith be pleasing to you. Warmth, fire, home, new life – the themes and imagery are present from either perspective. And like a newly married couple, the earliest church could not have known what they were in for. We, too, live out this journey of faith as, well, exactly that: Faith. Following Christ by the power of the Spirit through difficulties unimagined but always into joy beyond measure. New life in Christ; new life through the Spirit, new life together that is always new.
  2. Our reading today from Acts is the same as it was this morning, except we hear less of it, just as less would have been heard in Bach’s day on this day. Again, we hear the rushing wind and see the tongues of flame. The Holy Spirit opens tongues to speak and ears to hear. The roll call of those present, from the Parthians to the Arabs, is pronounced, announcing the sweep of God’s new Kingdom. And we hear the sneer: “They are filled with new wine.” This afternoon, that’s where our reading ends, leaving us without Peter’s defense of their sobriety. Hearing the Pentecost story only in part, ending with the comment about new wine, recalls an earlier moment in Luke’s narrative. This is not, after all, the first time that he has included a reference to new wine. All the way back in chapter five of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus proclaims the newness of God’s activity, reminding the people that new wine cannot be put into old wineskins. It would burst the skins, ruining both wine and wineskin. No, new wine must be put into new wineskins. While Peter and the disciples are not drunk at nine in the morning, they are filled with the wine of new life. They are the community of forgiven sinners connected to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They have been made new, able now to receive the gift of the Spirit that tethers them to Christ. The people gathered that day in Jerusalem for Pentecost were there to celebrate the giving of the law at Mount Sinai. But the new gift of the gospel cannot be contained in the old vessel of law. God has a new home in mind. God, in Christ, by the Spirit, is coming to make God’s home with us.
  3. If we keep God’s word, Jesus tells us, his Father will love us and will come to us and make God’s home with us. In this love song between lover and beloved, between Christ and church, a new home is created with room enough for us all. We are the resurrected vessels, the new wineskins, in which God chooses to abide. As will be sung by Susan in the cantata’s central aria, Happy are you, you chosen souls / Whom God has destined for his dwelling. We dare not overlook the beautiful mystery of what God accomplishes on Pentecost. God, who through our sin was once far off, was incarnate as the living Word who is Jesus of Nazareth. This Jesus, crucified for our salvation, has been raised and is now seated at the right hand of God. But he is not gone! The new life poured out upon us not a second gospel; it is our connection to the first. The work of the Spirit is ever and always the work of the Christ who continues to comfort us, teach us, and give us peace. New Testament scholar Craig Koester writes, “The Spirit did not bring new revelation on the same order as Jesus had already given but manifested Jesus’ presence and disclosed the significance of his words and actions to people living on earth after his ministry on earth had ended.” Life in the Spirit, therefore, is always new and unexpected, but always grounded upon the same promises, ancient and dependable, spoken to us by Christ.
  4. This promise is one we need as much as ever. Jesus, here in John’s Gospel, speaks peace because he knows we need it, have so little of it. We have watched with a mixture of horror and helplessness as violence has rocked the Holy Land in recent weeks. We know that the cease fire is fragile. We have long prayed and worked for peace in this and in other parts of the world, only to see violence erupt again. The librettist of today’s cantata included a prayer for peace in Israel that becomes our prayer for the people of Israel and Palestine today. This short little prayer is drawn from Psalm 128, in which the psalmist prays for Israel not as a prayer of national pride or strength; it is a prayer for a lasting peace, a peace that will allow for one, as the psalmist sings, to “see your children’s children.” Is this not the prayer at the heart of any new family? Is this not the heart’s cry of the people of the Holy Land, wanting to know that their children will live, and that they will live to have children of their own? In Christ, we are inheritors of the peace long promised, the peace that enables us to live without troubled hearts amid this troubled world. Given the peace of the Spirit, we are free to become peacemakers, working for true and lasting peace for all people, as distant a goal as that may seem. This is the work to which we are called, new and surprising work grounded in the Word of God who was present at creation and cross, the Word who dwells in and among you now. Where will this work lead us? Who can say? But the Spirit calls; freed in Christ, we follow.
  5. The very fact that we are here today bears witness to what happens when the people of God, forgiven and freed by Christ, are caught up in the Spirit. 50 years ago, Paul Bouman and Carl Schalk brought this new ministry of the Spirit to life, a ministry of making music to God’s glory, music from another time pointing back even further in time to Jesus, made fresh and new for us by the Spirit’s power today. To be in this room on a cantata afternoon is to know the presence of the Holy Spirit, moving and blowing through this music. I don’t know that Paul and Carl, or Vickie and Noël for that matter, knew what would come of this vision. I do know that we are grateful to them, and to all who have faithfully stewarded this ministry through the years. Thanks be to God for these moments of peace and joy, of grace and unrivaled beauty, in the midst of this broken world. Foretastes of the feast to come, truly, proclaiming the mystery that God has made a home with us, right here at Grace and wherever else we happen to find ourselves, until we are brought home to God.
  6. You, friends, are the temple of the Most High God, forgiven of your sin and born to new life, eternal and abundant. Christ is with you. The Spirit falls upon you. Today, let us rejoice in that gift. We don’t know what the next steps in our journey will bring, what joys and sorrows we will navigate. But Christ has joined himself to us. He will not fail us or forsake us. Enkindle our hearts, O Lord. Set our lives aflame with your gospel. And loosen our tongues to sing the ancient and always new song of praise. On earth today even as we will one day gather at the marriage feast of the Lamb, to sing praise to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, forever and ever and ever. Amen.

And now may the peace that passes all human understanding keep you hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

From → Sermons

One Comment
  1. L G Detweiler permalink

    Great sermon, Dave! It made my heart glad.

    George

    >

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