“On The Verge of Comprehension”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
May 15, 2016: Pentecost
Romans 8:12-17, John 14:8-17, Acts 2:1-21
Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “The Murders at Rue Morgue,” follows the path of the brilliant detective C. Auguste Dupin and his friend, the unnamed narrator of the story. One night, as the two rack their brains trying to piece together the events that took place leading up to the murders at Rue Morgue, the narrator is having trouble following the logic of Dupin. The narrator says, “I seemed to be on the verge of comprehension, without the power to comprehend—as men, at times, find themselves on the brink of remembrance, without being able, in the end, to remember.”
“On the verge of comprehension.” This is a most appropriate way to describe where the disciples of Jesus were in the time between Easter and Pentecost. Easter and Pentecost are separated by fifty long and interesting days, but there are not enough days, weeks, months, or even years to really comprehend all they had been through.
For three years, these twelve men and many, many women had followed Jesus all over the countryside of Judea; sitting at his feet while he taught, listening attentively as he preached, watching in awe as he cast out demons and healed the sick. In the days leading up to Easter they had watched their friend and teacher ride into Jerusalem on a donkey as the crowds shouted with joy and lined the streets with Palm Branches. They were filled with such joy because Jesus was doing what he said he had come to do: take the throne of Israel and establish a new kingdom of peace and justice. They watched as Jesus taught each day in the temple, healed more sick people, and chased away the money changers who had set up shop in the temple. Jesus was not quite the king they had expected, but the week was not over.
On Thursday of that week the disciples gathered with Jesus in the upper room of a house to eat the Passover meal. If ever there was a time for Jesus to announce his grand plan of ascension to the throne of Israel, it was now. The Passover was the time when the Jewish people came together each year to celebrate their liberation from bondage in Egypt, so now was the time to put a new king on the throne to set the people free again. The Passover was a time to remember how powerfully God had acted on behalf of the poor and oppressed, so now was the time for a new ruler who would set the record straight. The Passover was the start of the journey that took the Israelites out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, so now was the time for Jesus to take the helm and lead the people to a land flowing with milk and honey.
But there was no military uprising that night, no storming of the royal palace. Instead, Jesus ate a simple meal with the disciples and taught them about love and servanthood. At one point during the meal, Jesus got up from the table, took off his cloak, filled a basin with water, and got down on his hands and knees to wash the feet of every person at the table. Peter was uncomfortable; why was the teacher doing the work of a servant? Jesus told him, and the others, that he was setting an example for them: if they want to his followers, they must wash each other’s feet and the feet of the entire world. When the foot-washing was done, Jesus took a loaf of bread, blessed it and broke it, and gave it them. “Whenever you eat this, remember me,” he said. Then he did something similar with a cup of wine. After blessing it he said, “This is the cup of my blood, a new covenant for the forgiveness of sins.” It was then that Judas got up from the table and slipped into the night.
There was no military uprising that night, no storming of the royal palace. Instead, while he was praying in the garden, it was Jesus who was arrested and dragged into court. Peter stood outside as the fake trial raged on, warming himself by a fire. When asked on three different occasions whether or not he knew Jesus, Peter denied it each time. When the rooster crowed, after Peter’s third denial, Peter wept bitterly. He wept bitterly because earlier that night Jesus had predicted that Peter would turn his back on him, his friend, his pastor, his teacher.
The next morning, Friday, the disciple’s worst fears were realized. Jesus, the one they hoped would take a seat on Israel’s throne, was instead crucified on a cross on a hill outside of Jerusalem. Because of the kindness of Joseph of Arimathea, there was a place to lay Jesus’ body when he breathed his last.
And then there was silence; deep, deep silence. Their hopes had been shattered, their dreams cracked open on the rocky terrain of injustice. He was gone, dead. Had the last three years of their lives been a waste? Was Jesus just another imposter who just so happened to get people’s attention? Was everything he taught them a lie? What where they to do now?
It was Mary Magdalene who shook the disciples from their silence and sadness early on Sunday morning. She came to them—actually, she ran to them—with a crazy story that she had been to the tomb and Jesus was not there. She told them how there had been a earthquake and how an angel came and sat on the stone that covered the tomb door. She told them how she wept when she saw that Jesus was not there, and how she had asked a man near the tomb if he knew where Jesus was. She told them how she thought this man was the gardner, but also how he knew her name. She told them that when he spoke her name, she knew who he was. It was Jesus! It was Jesus standing in front of her, breathing and talking and telling her to not be afraid. Jesus had risen from the dead and Mary ran as fast as she could to tell his other followers.
In the days and weeks after Easter, things got strange. And wonderful. But mostly strange. Jesus would suddenly appear in a room even when the door was locked. He let Thomas touch his hands and feet where the nails had held him to the cross. Jesus appeared on the beach one day as the disciples were fishing, and though they all knew it was him, they wouldn’t say anything. Jesus cooked them breakfast on the beach and took a walk with Peter to wipe away Peter’s denials. Jesus did this a lot in the days after Easter: appearing out of no where, cooking and eating with the disciples, showing mercy and offering forgiveness even for those who betrayed and denied him. As the finale of these mysterious and confusing and unbelievably sacred things, Jesus ascended into heaven, gone from the disciples, leaving them room on earth to do all the things he had taught them.
Who can comprehend any of these things? A king who turned out to not be a king; foot-washing; a meal of his body and blood; a sick trial and wrongful execution; resurrection. Even with our modern and rational minds, we can’t comprehend the Easter story of our faith. Like the disciples fifty days after Easter, we too are on the verge of comprehension, on the edge of getting what all of this means.
So what can push us over the edge? What is it that we have to have in order to understand the things that have happened and then have the courage and energy necessary to act on them? What pushed the disciples over the edge and then pushed them out into the world to spread the good news of the Gospel?
Well, you see, Jesus knew that the disciples would need some help in comprehending his life, his death and resurrection, his ascension into heaven. So he sent them the Holy Spirit, the rush of a mighty wind that danced like flames on their heads. They were all gathered together in one place, men and women from every nation under heaven, speaking in their own native languages. When the Holy Spirit blew threw that place and danced on their heads like fire, each person was able to understand every other person there, even though they were speaking in different languages. Some thought they were drunk, that they had had too much to drink. But it was not wine that had opened their hearts and minds to one another…it was the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit came upon them and they finally got it. They finally got it that Jesus had come into the world not with a sword to vanquish his enemies, but with a word that was life for all people. They finally got it that Jesus wasn't about war or overthrowing the government, but about establishing justice through peace. They finally got it that Jesus had washed their feet to show them that his followers must be servants. They finally got it that the meal they shared was not just bread and a cup of wine, but a meal used to symbolize the death Jesus died for all people. They finally got it that Jesus had died such a painful death on the cross in order to feel their pain and their suffering. They finally got it that Christ’s resurrection was not some magic trick, but a robbery of any power death thought it had over God’s people. They finally got it that Jesus was who he said he was and all the years they spent with him, all the things they had learned, everything they had done together—it was not a waste of time…it was the essence of their life.
And even more than all this, the Holy Spirit helped them to comprehend that following Jesus is about faith, and nothing more— not perfect doctrine, not perfect theology, not perfect worship or music, or pretending that they follow all the rules perfectly. The Holy Spirit helped them to comprehend that the Church is not a building that should have opened doors, but rather a tent that Christ’s followers are always expanding wider and wider to cover all of humanity with God’s grace and mercy. The Holy Spirit helped them to comprehend that the love of God is a gift that is given because the giver is so generous, not because they recipient is worthy. The Holy Spirit helped them to comprehend that God’s grace is sufficient, that there is nothing they could do to earn it and nothing they could do to have it taken away. The Holy Spirit helped them to comprehend that sin and darkness and evil are real and really active in the world, yet there is nothing on earth or above it, no powers or rulers or principalities, and certainly nothing out of hell that can separate them from God. And the Holy Spirit helped them to comprehend that when Jesus said he came and died and rose again to draw all people to himself, he meant all…without any condition…and his followers are wise to never prevent a single person from coming to him.
On the verge of comprehension. That is where the disciples were after the incomprehensible events of Easter, and I believe that is where we are right now, too. Each year were celebrate these events and sing the hymns and pray the prayers, and then come away from it all wondering if anything will be different, if anything will change, if all of it was worth it or just a waste of time. Each year, as we walk with Jesus in his life, stand by as he dies on the cross, and look with wonder into the empty tomb, we are on the verge of comprehending everything he said and did and what it means for us, his followers. Will we finally understand the freedom and joy he spoke into our lives? Will we finally hear the call to serve those in need and welcome all people into the community of God’s people? Will we finally take the bread and cup of Christ’s table seriously and then extend radical hospitality in all we do? Will we finally give up our pretending, give up our love of being right, give up our self-righteousness and greed and anger? Will we, can we be, pushed over the edge and get it and live in a new and transformed way that transforms the world we live in?
Yes. An eternal yes to all of it, because today we receive the Holy Spirit, that mighty wind and the tongues of fire that Jesus promised. Yes. An enteral yes to all of it. Yes, because today we move from being on the verge of comprehension to living imperfectly in the presence of a perfect God. Yes, because today we commit to breaking bread together and praying for one another. Yes, because we will continue study with one another and enjoy each other’s company. Yes, because we will share all that we have and care for those in need out of the abundance we have received from God. Yes, because today is Pentecost. The Holy Spirit has come, and we will never be the same!
The Pantheon in Rome has been a house of worship for many different religions throughout history, and has been a Christian church for about 500 years now. The main attraction of the Pantheon is a hole in the central dome that has never been covered; it is the world’s largest unreinforced dome, standing open to the heavens for nearly 2000 years. On Pentecost each year, firefighters from Rome dump hundreds of thousands of red rose petals through the hole in the dome onto the worshippers below to symbolize the Holy Spirit. Some speak the common language and understand everything that is going on inside, some don’t. Some there know the story of Jesus while other’s don’t. Some know what the Holy Spirit is, and some never will. Some there understand the Scriptures, some don’t. Some know how to pray, others don’t. Some have lived holy lives, others have not.
But no matter what, when those rose petals rain down, everyone there get its. And not one person leaves there the same.
Receive the Holy Spirit today. Receive the Holy Spirit’s wisdom and insight. Receive the Holy Spirit’s illumination and understanding. Receive the Holy Spirit’s power to bring you closer to God, to your neighbor, and to the world. Receive the Holy Spirit and have faith. Receive the Holy Spirit and be enrobed by God’s grace. Receive the Holy Spirit and go into the world as Christ’s faithful disciples. Receive the Holy Spirit and turn your faces towards love..towards God. Amen.