A sermon on Acts 2:1-21, 38-39; Eph 5:15-20, preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church
We’re probably all familiar with the idea of the “bucket list,” even if we didn’t see Jack Nicolson help Morgan Freeman create and then check the items off his own. Some of us may even have formalized such a list in writing. I haven’t yet, though having gotten an estate plan for my fiftieth birthday I suspect that developing a bucket list might not be too far away for me in the natural course of things. The bucket list emerges from a person’s confrontation with mortality – when a person realizes that the time left is limited and begins to think, “Wow! I haven’t really done what I’ve wanted to do in this lifetime; I haven’t gotten everything I wanted out of life.” So one gets serious about sorting out what one will and will not get to do before the buzzer, and begins to prioritize getting those things on the last pages of life’s calendar.
It’s unlikely that the person who is thus minded will list off: “open up more of myself and my life to God”; “get serious about investing myself in encouraging and supporting my sisters and brothers in Christ”; “seek out every opportunity to share Christ with others and plant the seeds of eternity in their hearts.” But Paul would urge his readers not to put even such rich activities on some “bucket list,” but rather to start living life to the full – for eternity – today so that we have no need of a “bucket list,” because we have made the most of our life all along the way.
Take care how you live your life, that it not be as foolish people but as wise people, getting the most out of the time, because the days are evil. So don’t be thoughtless, but understand what it is that the Lord wants. And don’t get drunk on wine, which is a waste of your life, but let the Spirit fill you up as you recite psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making music in your hearts to the Lord, giving thanks to the God and Father always and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Eph 5:15-20)
Paul is dealing with topics of the utmost importance here – it’s the difference between being foolish and being smart, between throwing away our lives and getting the most out of the limited span of our lives. If we’re going to be smart, we need to “understand what it is that the Lord wants,” and we need to invest the time that we have in the most profitable manner that we can.
Wine is a good example for Paul to use as a call out here. We could extend this to any alcoholic beverages now, but the only options in the ancient world were wine and beer, with beer being much more of a fringe drink. Wine was a principal beverage throughout the Mediterranean, so Paul is not promoting teetotaling here, but he does warn again using wine for more than or something other than a staple beverage, like using it to forget, using it to stupefy, using it to fill the evenings and the empty spaces and going where it takes you.
But wine is only one vintage of a great many varietals of time-killers and space-fillers – whatever we turn to in order to pass the time, to numb ourselves, to fill the empty spaces whether in our calendars or in our selves. Shopping. Just about anything on a television. Video games. Social media. Whatever you might use to fill the emptiness of a day and that leaves you feeling empty after you’re done. It doesn’t have to be just the obvious painkillers, distractions, and amusements. We can busy ourselves so much with “day-to-day life” and invest ourselves so much in questions and issues of fleeting importance that we are equally guilty of foolishness – of not getting the most for our time.
Paul warns us against going along with the flow in which the concerns of this world and distractions of this world carry you along, without our realizing that “the days are evil” and that the flow leads down toward the drain. Paul names the result of this way of life, “dissipation,” by which he means “sheer waste,” as in watching your energies, your resources, your time dissipate, evaporate, come to nothing.
For Paul, whether we have been foolish or wise, whether we have indeed “made the most of the time” or thrown the time away, will be discovered from the kind of answer we can give at the end of the day to the question: how does what I did with my day line up with what the Lord wants, be it for me or from me? Did how I lived out the day that is past, did the manner in which I spent all that time, grow out of a deep understanding of what the Lord wants?
Paul has a good alternative in mind to all those time-killers and space-fillers: Don’t fill up on those empty things; fill up on the Holy Spirit instead. Fill your head, fill your “self-talk,” fill your conversations with that which keeps your own focus and that of those around you on matters of eternal import. Fill your heart with the remembrance of what God has done for you and what God has yet prepared for you, so that your heart will feel how full God has made you and be stuffed with gratitude toward God. Then you will be impelled into your day not by a hunger for empty things, but by gratitude toward God, to discover and to do “what the Lord wants” to do in you and to do through you each and every day, with the Holy Spirit of God right there, dwelling with you, dwelling within you, animating you – giving you life in its fullness.
Today we celebrate Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, the day on which the promised Holy Spirit came upon the hundred and twenty Christ-followers in that upper room and impelled them into the streets to proclaim the mighty acts of God surrounding Jesus life, death, and rising again. The miracle of Pentecost was perfectly crafted for the diversity of the Jews and converts to Judaism gathered there in the cosmopolitan city of Jerusalem. There were no doubt many Jews from around the Diaspora that had relocated permanently to their mother city, but there was also an enormous swelling of the ranks of foreign Jews from throughout the Mediterranean during the three annual pilgrimage festivals. Passover had been the first of these; Pentecost was the second. The miracle was unmistakable, with all these pilgrims from every corner of the eastern Mediterranean hearing a bunch of Galileans shouting about the mighty acts of God in Chaldean, Lydian, Phrygian, Latin, Coptic, Mycenaean, and some precursor of Arabic. It was an attention-getting sign, to be sure, and it was pointing unambiguously to the fact that God was there doing something in the midst of Jesus’ followers.
Pentecost was the name Greek-speaking Jews gave to the spring harvest festival (the first fruits of the grain harvest), which was also a celebration of God giving the Law, the Torah, to Israel on Mount Sinai. Pentecost comes from the Greek word for “fiftieth,” since this festival was held on the “fiftieth day” after the first day of Passover. What happened on the fiftieth day after the Passover of Jesus’ crucifixion, however, was a new Pentecost, the giving of the Holy Spirit in fulfillment of Israel’s expectations of what would happen “in the last days.” Peter quotes at length from the prophet Joel:
I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young ones will see visions and the elders among you will dream dreams; yes, I will pour out my spirit upon my slaves and my maidservants. (Joel 3:1-3)
The old Pentecost celebrated God’s giving of the Law to regulate his people; this new Pentecost celebrated God’s pouring out of the Holy Spirit to inspire his people with all manner of divine communication and guidance, and to empower them for righteousness and mission – indeed, to make himself wonderfully present in their midst and, through them, in the midst of the world.
I want to elevate two verses in particular as very important for us to hear this morning. When the crowds asked the disciples what they should do to fall in line with God, Peter answered straightforwardly: “Turn your life around and be baptized, each one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, for this promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off from here – for as many people as will call upon the Lord our God” (2:38-39).
We have explored together at some length over three of the past four weeks what this promise means for us:
The Spirit brings the power for you to know who you are in Christ and to know God’s love and presence intimately, as intimately as we might know a father’s love: “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God…. You’ve received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Rom 8:14-16). The Holy Spirit alive within us allows us to experience the intimate communion with God for which our souls yearn, into which God longs to draw us.
The Spirit also brings direction and power for living in alignment with God’s righteousness, the power for a transformed life. “Live by the Spirit,” Paul urges, “and you won’t fulfill the desires to which your self-centered nature drives you.” Rather than the “works of the flesh” – sexual impurity, idolatry, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, factions, and the like – your life will show forth the Spirit’s fruit – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:13-25), with the result that we do from the heart what God’s righteousness has always sought from us. The Spirit empowers us to stop contributing to the brokenness in the world because of Sin and selfishness, working through us instead to contribute to God’s redemptive activity wherever he moves us. It is this Spirit, coming alive within us and taking over within us, who allows us to live the kind of life that God will approve as “righteous.”
The Spirit brings power to build up other Christians as you become the instruments through which God encourages, counsels, and strengthens them – and they, you!
“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses” (1 Cor 12:7-11)
The people around you right here reach their full potential as disciples and as a community of disciples as you, as you, as each of us gives the Spirit freer rein to work through us for the others’ encouragement, edification, and equipping. As a corollary, any one of us also depends on our neighbors’ exercising the gifts that the Spirit wants to give them for the strengthening of the whole Body of Christ.
And, of course, the Spirit brings power for effective witness. This was a major purpose highlighted by Jesus himself in the episodes prior to his ascension: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). And what a witness was borne on that Day of Pentecost! And the disciples’ witness is convincing and convicting because the Holy Spirit that drives the witnesses also moves upon those listening to their witness, and they join themselves to the community of Christ-followers by the thousands. The more we hear about the trials and tensions and tragedies besetting people throughout our world, the more we must know that the people who are not in this sanctuary with us need this witness – and we need the Holy Spirit to drive us to bold witness and to make our witness effective, for their sake.
Several weeks ago, I had invited us all to wait in our own metaphorical “upper rooms” with the expectancy of being clothed with power from on high. I invited you to pray to God about your receiving more of God’s Holy Spirit yourself and about his releasing more of God’s Spirit in our midst. Today, I want to invite the Holy Spirit to come upon us in a new Pentecost. I want to invite God to fan into flames what we have doused, to stoke the fires of the Spirit within us so that our hearts are not merely “strangely warmed” by our weekly visit with God but our whole lives are rather set ablaze by God’s power at work within us and through us.
I want to invite you to surrender to God’s desires for us. Here is where faith – trust – really comes into play. Open up to God with no negotiations, no bargaining, no parameters (“you can come in, Lord, as long as you don’t do this or change that”). Just give yourselves over to live for him who died for us and rose again on our behalf, and let him pour his Holy Spirit – his very life – into you to live in and through you. In this way, I invite you to know all that God has for us, to experience and to become all that he has redeemed us for, to do all that he wants to do through us for his Church in every place and for the world.
I would invite you, if you are willing, to a new Pentecost.