When You Were Expecting Judgment . . .
Here’s the Pentecost Day sermon I preached yesterday at Joseph United Methodist Church in Joseph, Oregon.
Note: The “What’s Theology Got To Do With It?” webinar will not meet this evening. We’re taking this Monday off for Memorial Day, and will resume on June 5.
Joseph United Methodist
May 28, 2023
Thanks to Pastor Beth for inviting me to preach today in her absence. Her invitation was well timed. We are here this week for what we call “opening up.”
We come over, usually around Memorial Day, to see how our little cabin fared through the winter. My grandparents, who lived in Enterprise, built our cabin which is just shy of 100 years old. Like some of the rest of us, it usually looks a little forlorn after the long winter. But with a little TLC and elbow grease, and my wife Linda’s magic touch, it brightens up pretty quickly.
So, it’s wonderful to be back in the County and back here, at Joseph UMC, our church home in the County. Thank you for being such a welcoming and loving church for us.
Today is the Day of Pentecost; the day when the disciples received the gift of the Holy Spirit and were empowered by it to continue and spread Jesus’ ministry. Which is a pretty amazing promise: God at work in us — in you — and through us — through you — even now.
We have heard a bit of the most well known Pentecost story from the Book of Acts. That is the one with all the fireworks, tongues of flame resting on each, the disciples speaking all the languages of the known world. But there are actually two Pentecost stories. Our gospel reading, from John, gives us a second Pentecost story. Let’s have a listen. (Read John 20: 19 – 23)
“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the authorities, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them, if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”
This is a quieter Pentecost story. But the essentials are all there. As God breathed life into the first humans, Jesus breathes new life and the Holy Spirit into his disciples, and sends them into the world, to set people free from the terrible weight of sin and burden of sin.
Have you ever had the experience of expecting — fearing — rebuke, judgment, even punishment (you knew for sure you were in big trouble), but instead your were surprised — astonished — by grace, by mercy? When Linda and I were young we camped our way around Europe in a VW Bug. That’s right, I said “Bug,” not “Bus.” We were more flexible then! But so were Volkswagens. Back then you could take the back off the front seats and with a little ingenuity make something that passed for a bed.
So we got off the ferry one evening on a Greek Island and looked for a place to park/ camp. It was late evening. After we got a little out of town, no streetlights and completely dark. We found a flat grassy place. When I clambered out in the morning, it turned out we were basically parked on someone’s front lawn.
A young woman came out of the house. I anticipated that she would say something like, “What the heck are you doing here? Move, now!” Instead, she said, “Voulez-vous boirez?” Still, and despite her friendly if somewhat suprised countenance, what I heard, was “what do you think you’re doing? Get out of here!” Until my high school French kicked in and I realized the young woman had said, “Would you like something to drink?”
“Excusez moi,” I stammered, “mais oui.” They welcomed us in for coffee and pastries.
Do you know that experience? Expecting judgment, but geting grace. That’s what this Pentecost story is about.
Here Jesus, after his death on the cross, returned to his frightened disciples. He found them huddled together in a room where all the doors were locked, terrified of what might now be done to them because they had seen the terrible thing that the powers-that-be had done to Jesus.
But maybe they weren’t only fearful of the authorities and what they had done to Jesus? Maybe, now, meeting Jesus again was also frightening? Remember what the disciples had done. One had betrayed Jesus, another — the lead disciple, Peter — had denied that he ever knew the man, three times. And all the rest had run away, deserters.
When you got in trouble at school, were you eager to go home to face your parents? When you hurt and disappointed someone you called a friend, how were you feeling about facing the person again?
The disciples knew how the world really works. Those who been hurt, hurt back, or pass the hurt on to someone who is next in line. Today we call it “generational trauma.” The Bible knows about that. “The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children, to the fourth generation.”
When word first came that Jesus had been raised, had returned, the disciples weren’t brimming with Easter joy. No . . . they were frightened, terrified even. Now would they get it, now would he come to judge and to punish, to give them what they so richly deserved? For truly, they had failed him spectacularly.
Which is why, in this Pentecost story, when Jesus shows up in their midst he says — twice — “Peace be with you.” My guess is that he didn’t say it like we do, like I do, during worship. He doesn’t just kind of mumble “peace,” pretty much the way we might mumble, “Good morning,” or the way the clerk in the store automatically says, “Have a nice day.”
He comes — how we don’t know — into a room where they are huddled, hiding, the doors all locked, they are frightened. He comes, they expect, if they expect anything, for judgment. “Where were you when I needed you?” But that’s not what he says. He says to them, to those who denied him, who deserted him, “Peace, peace be with you.” He says it again, “Peace be with you.” They can’t believe it. He had every right to punish, to shame, even to exact vengeance. “What happened to all your big talk of never denying, never abandoning, me?”
Have we got any “Ted Lasso” fans here today? For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, “Ted Lasso” is a TV series, a heartfelt comedy about an American guy, Ted Lasso, a U.S. football coach, who takes a job coaching an English soccer team, a kind of football he knows nothing about. Moreover, it’s a set up. Even his boss, the team owner, wants him to fail. His players think he’s an idiot. The hapless fans do too. But over time, not without heartache and humor, things change. Ted’s graciousnes effects and infects those around him.
Except, that is, Coach Nate. Coach Nate, dealing with some Daddy issues, had taken it out on Ted, the very one who had been most gracious to him. Nate trash-talks about Ted, deserted the Richmond team that had given him a chance, snubbing Ted and the team for what seemed for the bigger time team and a wealthier, more powerful owner.
But Nate, like a prodigal son, finally woke up to his mistake. He gave up his glamourous job and wealthy owner. Now, there’s a movement afoot to give Nate a second chance, to bring him back to Richmond, to rejoin Ted, who is all for it. But Ted’s right-hand-man, Coach Beard, won’t have it. Forgiving Nate is the last thing on earth Beard will ever do.
But then Coach Beard remembers that he too had needed a second chance. And that when he came out of prison, Ted gave him one.
One night Beard went to see Nate. Nate, seeing Beard standing at his door is anxious, even terrified. He expects to be judged, to be shamed, to be punished, maybe even beat up. Beard tells Nate his own story, of drugs, of prison, of a second chance and Beard says he will support Nate’s return to the team.
Expecting judgment, Nate received grace.
At the end of their conversation, Nate who can’t quite believe it says sheepishly, “You sure you don’t want to head-butt me or something?”
Beard drew close to the shorter Nate, taking his head in his hands.
Was Beard going to give Nate a head-butt after all? Beard, holding Nate’s head in his hands, slowly, gently places his own forehead against Nate’s and rests it there, head-to-head, heart-to-heart, a communion of forgiven sinners, a fellowship of the guilty, given a second-chance.
Expecting judgment but receiving mercy.
That’s what Jesus does when he returns to his disciples. That’s what Jesus does for us. The blood of Jesus does not cry out for vengeance, does not demand retribution. As it says in the Letter to the Hebrews, “the blood of Jesus speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” The blood of Abel, that first victim of fratricide, cried out for vengeance. The blood of Jesus speaks a better word, a word of mercy, of grace, of a new creation.
The blood of Jesus washes away sin in a waterfall of grace. You and I are washed in the blood of Christ’s mercy and set free to live again. “All sad things come untrue” is the way Frodo puts it In the Lord of the Rings. “All sad things (there are so, so many) come untrue.” We have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. Peace be with you. Rest in the Lord, rest in this assurance.
And, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you. When he had said this, he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit, if you forgive them sins of any they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
On the last day of last year a Lutheran pastor, Jim Nestingen, passed away. Jim was a big man, huge really, 6’ 5“, a grizzly bear of a man. He spoke in the Norweigen accent of his North Dakota prairie upbringing. Jim laughed a lot and told stories, lots of stories. I heard him tell this one.
He was on a Delta airline flight. Given his size, it’s a tight fit in one of those seats which works just fine for my 11-year-old grandson. To make things worse, the guy next to him, in the middle seat was of a similar size.
Well, the two of them got to talking. The man next to Jim said, as men do, “What kind of work do you do?” “I’m a preacher,” said Jim. The guy asked him some about that, and then he began to talk about his own life.
He talked about being in Viet Nam, in the infantry. He’d been in some of the worst battles of that war. He talkd about this through the whole flight. And he told Jim Nestingen that he had trouble living with that, that he was plagued by nightmares. Story after story poured forth as the plane continued its flight.
When they were about to land, Jim said to his seatmate, “Are you done confessing?” “Confessing?” said the man. “I haven’t confessed a thing.”
“Sure you have,” said Jim, “You’ve been confessing this whole flight. Telling me all the burdens you carry, the things that you can’t forgive and can’t live with. And when I hear a confession like that I’ve been commanded by Jesus Christ to speak to that. Now,” Jim asked, “do you have anything else you want to throw in or are you finished?”
“No,” said the man, “I guess I’m done.”
Well, by now the plane was about to land, and everyone, Jim included, was supposed to be buckled in, seat-belt strapped, tray table up, all that. But Jim got to his feet, which sends the flight attendants into a tizzy. “I’m sorry, sir, you really must be seated.”
Jim got to his feet. He put his big hand on the forehead of the man next to him. He tilted the guy’s head back so he could him in the eyes.With his big hand on the man’s head, Jim said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I forgive you all of your sins. All of the sins you’ve been confessing are forgiven right now by the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son.”
The man began to sob. He wept uncontrollably.
The flight attendant was not buzzing around like an angry hornet. “Really, sir, you must be seated.”
Through his tears the man said to Jim, “That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard. Can you say that again?”
“In the name of Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins.” The man continued to sob. Jim did then sit down. He took the man into his arms and held him as he wept. The plane landed.
Again the man said, “That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard, I don’t believe it.”
“Of course you don’t,” said Jim, “but you will. And I’m not going to stop until you do.” They exchanged phone numbers, and the man called Jim Nwstigen every day for the next two weeks and asked him to repeat what he had said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I forgive you all of your sins.”
And he did come to believe it. “That sweet guy,” said Jim, “came to love the absolution. A resurrection from the dead happened on that plane.”
Like Jim Nestingen, you and I get to be messengers of him who — when we fear judgment and condemnation — says to us, “Peace be with you,” of the one who breathes the New Creation and its Holy Spirit into each of us, of him who saves us and sets us free. “Peace be with you,” you have been washed clean by his blood. New life has been breathed into you this day by the new Adam. It isn’t our own doing. God has done this.
“As the Father has sent me, so I have sent you.” The power to forgive sins, to release people from the burdens of fear and shame they carry has been given to you in the Holy Spirit.
We may do this as directly as Jim Nestigen did on that Delta flight, where a resurrection from the dead occurred over the protest of the flight attendants. We may do it as quietly as Coach Beard did when he took Coach Nate’s head into his hands and rested his own forehead on Nate’s. We may do it by sitting in an AA meeting, not judging someone who tells their story of failure, but sharing hope and strength. We may do by hiring someone who has a record. We may do it by giving someone a second chance. God is already at work in and through you, Joseph Church.
Receive the Holy Spirit and go — trusting Jesus, the One who has made all sad things untrue — and who sends us into a world where so many are in desperate and urgent need of grace.