Is The Church Being Born Today
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on the meaning of Pentecost in light of the death penalty. Great anthem by Rasaan Bourke & The First Presbyterian Church Choir.
One of the problems when preaching on Pentecost just like Christmas and Easter is to tell the story as something that has happened. Past tense. But we must also see and tell the story as a story that happens today. Otherwise what we have is a nice history lesson and not much more.
By way of context the community that Jesus is speaking to is John’s community, which was marked by a divide between those who believed in Jesus and those who did not. The lines of demarcation were as strict as the tensions between Peter and Paul over the dietary codes.
But Jesus’ spells out for his disciples in no uncertain terms what the Spirit will do when it arrives. Rather than continuing to divide us the Spirit of God is going to bridge the two worlds. The world of man and the world of God. The Spirit will function both in the church and outside of the church.
For those outside of the church the Spirit will bring to their attention the meaning and reality of sin, righteousness and judgment. And for the church the Spirit will show us how to interpret the new contexts and ethical situations that will come our way. Just as Jesus guided the first disciples, the Spirit will now guide us.
So the question becomes where do we see the Spirit functioning in our world today?
As I write this there are conversations taking place all over our country about the sin and broken relationships between the races. But without the events in Missouri, New York, Baltimore that conversation about the reality of this sin among us could not have happened, because none of us would have wanted to deal with it. The work of the Spirit in the world helps us see that. The Spirit bridges the realms of the church and the world and calls us to be aware of how it moves back and forth.
But what is the Spirit telling us? Jesus tells the church that God’s Spirit will prove the world wrong about sin, righteousness and judgment. That it is wrong about sin, because the world does not believe Jesus, or anyone for that matter, can offer forgiveness.
Wrong about righteousness, because Jesus’ rising, at Easter, and again at the Ascension, are acts of justice that the world cannot see and so disbelieves. Since the world cannot see God’s Spirit it thinks real power lies in the hands of those who were able to put Jesus to death and in the laws that justified his death.
But the Spirit testifies to the church and asks the church to testify to the world that there is another greater truth: Death does not win. Death does not get the last word. Life does.
This past week a jury sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber to death for the four murders, dozens of maiming’s, hundreds of shrapnel and other injuries, including persistent deafness in many from the noise of the bombs that he and his brother planted.
His story and the story surrounding him illustrate the great tension that still exists between the world of man and the world of God.
The jury felt that Tsarnaev showed no remorse in his months of sitting before them while the testimony of these injuries was given.
There was no argument about his guilt: his lawyers admitted that from the start, and we’ve all seen the videotapes that showed us Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother in the crowd, placing their bombs behind the Richard family and their three children, returning to the subway as if nothing was about to happen – a complete indifference to life.
The jury was given strict instructions for making decisions on each charge, which were all legally framed. But missing from all this was the consideration of the Truth Jesus speaks about, that proves the world wrong about sin, righteousness and judgment.
From the man on the street to the jury in the courthouse, the common argument was that forgiveness was impossible here. Even Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s lawyers agreed with that. And for many ‘righteousness’ – meaning: justice – in this situation was the penalty of death.
There were some exceptions: polls of Boston’s citizens were overwhelmingly in favor of life in prison rather than death. Polls of the nation, though, were more than two thirds in favor of death; and some notable Catholic laity, the Chief of the Boston Police, for one, and the family of Martin Richards, the boy who died, whose sister and mother were badly injured, whose brother has PTSD and whose father has shrapnel wounds and some hearing loss, declared that not only their faith, but also their peace of mind, needed a sentence of life in prison.
One lonely Catholic keeping vigil outside the courtroom, an Iraq war Vet, said No one should be sentenced to death for the worst day in his life, echoing Jesus’ assertion that the world is wrong about judgment.
There was a battle in the court over allowing anti-death-penalty advocate, Sister Helen Prejean, to testify for the defense. If you saw the movie: Dead Man Walking she was the nun assigned to the killer in that case. In the end, she was allowed to speak to questions about her visit with Tsarnaev, but not to speak about the Truth, as she understood it, not to speak about mercy, justice, judgment, or the Spirit of Jesus.
There was a complaint among many that Tsarnaev showed tender feelings only once, when his elderly aunt, who had travelled from Russia to speak about his childhood, was so overcome with panic and hyperventilation that she could not speak. Tears came to his eyes, and he sobbed once. And people said he only had tears for himself.
But I think his tears were really for her and in her he had to face the Truth, that what he and his brother thought they were doing for justice for her and her people had actually caused her great pain. It was in fact the last thing she would have wanted and thus a condemnation like no other on what he had done.
Belief in Dzhokhar’s common humanity; belief in the possibility of his human transformation; belief that, at 21, he could still grow in spirit and in heart; belief that he is a child of God: all these beliefs were pushed away.
The herd of reporters covering the trial declared these things unconvincing. We are accustomed to proclaiming that Jesus committed no crime; but what he wanted us to see was that no one should be destroyed, that he embraced the guilty man beside him on Calvary and he embraces the guilt that is in us all today, offering the one thing ruled inadmissible, belief in the power of redemption.
And so once again the old adage an eye for an eye takes precedent over what Jesus would have us do. Each time, no matter the reason, that the church fails to proclaim and stand up for what Jesus proclaimed and stood up for, the church of Christ losses some of its vitality and credibility. Each time we decide to follow the dictates of another, be it the law of an eye for an eye, or our own desires we diminish the power of Jesus’ Spirit and beg the question. Why are we here? If we do not follow Jesus who will?
Frederick Buechner, some years ago, wrote:
Does the Spirit of God move over the face of the turbulent waters of our age? The Hebrew word for “move”, merahepeth, means to “brood” as a bird broods over its nest until finally new life begins to stir beneath the sheltering wings. Is new life stirring in this death-ridden world? Is light about to be created out of our darkness? This is the only question that matters. And this is the question before us, at Pentecost. Is the church still being born today? Amen