The Rev. Casey dunsworth

serves as Associate Campus Pastor to the Belfry, the Lutheran-Episcopal Campus Ministry to UC Davis

and as Program Director for LEVN, the Lutheran Episcopal Volunteer Network.

Happy Birthday, Church!—A Sermon on the Power of Pentecost

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.

Throughout Easter, we’ve been starting every service—and again every sermon—with “Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, hallelujah!”, right? And that’s true again today—because every morning is Easter morning—but today is also not just any Easter day. It’s the festival of Pentecost! There is, disappointingly, no Pentecost-specific call and response to kick off with. I think we should invent one. The one I have invented is that I say, “Happy Birthday, Church!” and then everyone replies, “Happy Birthday, Church” in a different language.

Feliz cumpleaños, iglesia!

Bon anniversaire, église!

(I also signed “happy birthday, church”)

Since we read the text from the Acts of the Apostles in a few languages, and the Holy Spirit empowered the disciples to go out and do the work in every place, I assume that you get it. This is, easily, in the top five nerdiest things I’ve ever suggested. Perhaps it will catch on? Perhaps we will never speak of it again.

This Pentecost day is a very important one in the history of Christianity, but it has not caught on in our popular culture the way that Christmas and Easter have. I’m not 100% sure why that is. Perhaps it’s because we get a little weirded out by the whole “tongues of fire” thing, or because that whole list of people—Parthians, Medes, Elamites, etc.—doesn’t mean much to us, or maybe because we agree with the person in the crowd who suggested that everyone was drunk.

I think, though, that being 2000 years removed from this spark of the Church, we’re just not amazed. 

We are the results of this day of Pentecost. We, the Belfry, and we the ELCA, and we the Episcopal Church, and we, Christians of any kind from any place are only assembled here today because those folks were assembled there that day. We have travelled to other cities or states and found church communities we recognize. We have heard, perhaps, about the Lutheran World Federation and the Anglican Communion and the World Council of Churches, so we are not surprised that the Gospel is proclaimed in every language in every nation. We are witnesses to 2000 years of preaching, teaching, travelling, and growing. We may be a ragtag bunch of bumbling disciples—we’re in good company—but we are not the only followers of the risen Christ. We are part of a huge community of believers and practicers that spans the continents and the centuries.

We are aware, too, of the dark side of this history. We know about colonialism and imperialism, how Christendom was and is violently forced upon people across continents—including ours. We know that Christianity can be used to limit people and to subjugate them. When we think about it that way, we know that there is a difference between Christian community and Christian empire. We know that we have power to wield, and we must wield it for the good of the world. 

The reading from 1 Corinthians reminds us that each of us is part of this Church’s history, its present, and its future. “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit,” the Apostle Paul writes. You are gifted with so many things—wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy—not to mention your more worldly gifts, like learning new languages, and math, and writing poetry, and interpreting the law, and dancing, and crafting, and telling jokes, and storytelling, and comforting your friends, and speaking truth to power, and playing soccer, and baking cupcakes. “All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses” (1 Cor 12). 

The Church has been built by millions of people working together throughout history, and it will continue to be built by us. In this 500th anniversary year of Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation, we are focused on what the next 500 years of change and protest will look like. The first Pentecost was the birthday of the Church; what is Pentecost 2017 the birth of?

It doesn’t have to be something quite so momentous as the start of the early church, or the Holy Roman Empire, or the Reformation, or the Great Awakening, or any other seismic shift in the life of the Church. In fact, I think we get into trouble when we expect things like that. The folks who were alive during those times probably didn’t sit around talking about how neat it was to be part of history—they may not have even really known just how world-altering those periods would turn out to be. They were faithful people, open to the movement of the Holy Spirit, going about their lives in a new way.

In what ways, on this Pentecost day, can we be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit?

How can we go about our lives in a new way?

Because of Easter, Pentecost is possible, and because of Pentecost, the rest is possible. Because Peter and the rest of the apostles before us were empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit. We are empowered to bring good news to the poor, liberation to the captive, wholeness to the broken, healing to the wounded, courage to the fearful, joy to the mourning, and hope to the hopeless.

After worship tonight, it’ll be time for our annual Pentecost balloon launch. Every year, we write our prayers for the church and the world on pieces of paper that we tie to—biodegradable, minimal turtle murder—balloons. We launch these prayers into the sky, in hopes that our words and our work will move far beyond these walls. 

This activity may feel silly; we live in a cynical world. Our cynical world routinely disparages or gives up on something before it has even begun, rather than risk being disappointed or rejected. In this environment, the bearers of good news are desperately necessary.  

To a world that says no, Pentecost empowers us to say yes.

To a world ruled by hate, Pentecost empowers us to say “God calls you beloved.”

To a world in fear, Pentecost empowers us to say, “Do not be afraid.”

To a world at war, Pentecost empowers us to say, “The peace of Christ is with you.”

To a world that says “Crucify him!” Pentecost empowers us to say, “Christ is risen, indeed!”



Happy Birthday, Church!


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