Pentecost marked my final sermon after 13 years at Aldersgate. A fitting holy day to close out my time given that I’m a flawed vessel of the message relayed to us by the Holy Spirit that God justifies flawed people. The texts were Acts 2 and Romans 8. The article I reference below can be found here. Her memoir here.
“Suddenly from the skies there came a sound like the rush of a strong wind and fire fell and all of us were filled…with terror, but it’s given me the power to proclaim.”
You’ve seen the picture, the image of a girl about the age of our confirmands. It’s a picture that made the world gasp and groan with sighs too deep for words. In the grayscale foreground she’s stumbling down a puddled road that cuts through rice fields.
Soldiers carrying guns in their arms but no expressions on their faces amble behind her- one solider looks like he’s checking his watch.
Four other kids are running alongside her, their shrieking faces match hers. She’s the only one who’s naked. You can see the tan line at her waist. She’s running with her arms out, like her body is playing hot potato, like she hurts all over.
In the background, across the entire horizon, there are billows, wind-filled clouds, of fire fallen from bombers in the sky, fire that had incinerated her village, then her clothes, and then her skin from her scalp to down to her heels.
The photo, titled “Napalm Girl,” was taken 46 years ago next month. It won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972. The AP photographer who snapped the picture, Nick Ut, took her to a hospital where he insisted that reluctant medics, who were convinced she was a lost cause, treat her.
The little girl, Kim Phuc, lived along trade routes traveled by Viet Cong rebels and bombed by the U.S. and the South Vietnamese. She wasn’t a target.
She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, collateral damage captured for all time on film.
The Napalm Girl. The Girl on Fire.
She’s a woman now, still being treated for her burns after 4 decades and 17 surgeries.
Everyone has seen the picture, the shrieking snapshot and the confused agonized speech on the children’s lips, but the fiery wind is only part of the story. What the picture doesn’t show, what the Pulitzer committee doesn’t have time for is what Kim Phuc calls “the mountain of rage” that followed in the days and months and decades later. In a first-person essay in Christianity Today, she writes:
“[I bore a] crippling weight of anger, bitterness, and resentment toward those who caused my suffering—the searing fire that penetrated my body; the ensuing burn baths; the dry and itchy skin; the inability to sweat, which turned my flesh into an oven in Vietnam’s sweltering heat. I craved relief that never would come. And yet, the most agonizing pain I suffered dwelled in my heart.
“I could not turn to a friend, for nobody wished to befriend me. I was toxic, and everyone knew it. I was alone, atop a mountain of rage.”
Everyone knows the image, the billow of fire falling from the sky but the fire is only part of the story.
The fire, Kim Phuc writes, brought more than rage and confusion. Years later, she writes, she found herself in a little church not a mile from where that photo was shot.
Though she had been raised a pagan, she found herself sitting in a church.
And pay attention to the passive voice- she didn’t go to church (like maybe you did today); she found herself sitting in church (like maybe you did today). She found herself at church. There’s an unseen agency at work.
The tinsel and the lights and the calendar said it was Christmas but it was for Kim Phuc a Pentecostal moment because that night, she says, she “was given Christ in word and wine and bread,” and she “put on Christ with water.”
She said yes to the Christ who had said yes to her.
And what she received in Christ, she writes, was a peace that moved her mountain of rage. It razed her mountain of rage into a mustard seed. Such that now, she writes, that image of the fire that fell like a mighty rushing wind symbolizes not only the sin and evil we do to one another, but also it symbolizes the opposite of sin.
The fire is only part of the story.
The real story, she says, is that “the fire brought me Christ.”
And that’s my first point-
When it comes to Pentecost, the medium is not the message.
Don’t get distracted by the imagery in the familiar picture of Pentecost: the fire, the ecstatic speech, the diverse crowd, and the understanding amidst such difference. The medium is not the message.
Just as the image of fire is inseparable from Kim Phuc’s story but it is not the point of her story, so too the fire and ecstatic speech and the diverse crowd are a part of the Pentecost story but they are not the point of the Pentecost story.
The message of Pentecost is not their experience of the Holy Spirit when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. The message of Pentecost is the message the Holy Spirit empowers them to proclaim: the mighty acts of God.
Every Pentecost we zero in on how they speak in tongues and how they each hear in their own language, but Luke, the author of Acts, zeroes in on the message they speak and hear.
The message about the mighty acts of God.
And the mighty acts of God, as Peter makes clear in his sermon in the very next verses, are what God has done in and through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The point of Pentecost isn’t the experience the Spirit brings.
The point of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit brings the work of Christ for them to them.
The Holy Spirit comes so that we will not focus on the Holy Spirit.
Rather the Holy Spirit comes so that we will know, through the Holy Spirit, that Jesus Christ is for us, which is exactly what Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would do the night before he died:
“When he comes, the Holy Spirit will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father; about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned…He will glorify me and declare it to you what I’ve done.” (John 16)
We get hung up on the imagery of it, the wind and the fire and their experience of the Holy Spirit, but those who experienced the Holy Spirit at Pentecost didn’t dwell on it at all.
Luke doesn’t mention Pentecost again Acts.
Peter never mentions his experience of the Holy Spirit in either of his letters.
Paul, who writes about the Holy Spirit than anyone in the Bible, never writes about this experience of the Spirit at Pentecost- evidently the apostles didn’t think it worth mentioning to him.
In fact, nowhere else in the New Testament does anyone recount the events at Pentecost the way the New Testament constantly recounts the exodus and the cross and the resurrection.
Those who had the Holy Spirit poured out on them at Pentecost never talk about their experience of the Holy Spirit.
The speaking in tongues, the seeing visions, the strangely warmed hearts- they don’t describe it or dwell on any of it. Nor do they even anticipate anything like it again after Pentecost.
Peter in his Pentecost sermon that follows our passage today does not exhort his hearers about what they must do now to get this experience for themselves.
He proclaims only what Christ has done for us, once for all of us.
The medium is not the message.
Because the message is the Gospel.
Not what you must do for God but what God has done for you.
Kim Phuc was raised in the Cao Dai religion. In her memoir, Kim Phuc compares the religion of her upbringing to a charm bracelet, something they’d turn to whenever times got tough, a talisman to handle in order to manipulate god’s favor towards them.
In such a religion, “the burden,” Kim Phuc writes, “was all on me to get in god’s good graces.”
In the religion of her parents, “the burden of success, the path to holiness, the way to salvation,” she writes, “all of it rested on top of my weary, slumped shoulders. I realized later the religion of my parents was what St. Paul calls the Law, what we, weak in our weakness, can never fulfill and so it only accuses us.”
And that brings me to my second point –
Because the Gospel is not the Law, this Pentecost in Acts is the fulfillment of the first Pentecost.
Even though we celebrate it every year by breaking out the red paraments 50 days after Easter, the New Testament doesn’t mention this Pentecost again because this Pentecost fulfills the first Pentecost in the Book of Exodus.
Literally, in the Greek, Luke tells you as much at the beginning of Acts 2: “When the day of Pentecost was fulfilled…”
All those pilgrims from the Jewish diaspora gather in Jerusalem at Pentecost because it’s Pentecost.
Shavuot, 50 days after the Passover, when Jews would remember and celebrate the giving of the Law by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai, not just the Top Ten but the 603 other commands God gives before capping them all off, like Jesus does on a different mountain with “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
The Holy Spirit was present at the first Pentecost as well in fire and thunder and lightning and smoke. So much so that Moses described Mt. Sinai as a kiln covered in billows of smoke.
And the people on that first Pentecost act drunk as well, drunk not with ecstasy with terror. So much so that they beg Moses to go before God instead of them.
When Moses returns to them from Mt. Sinai with the Law, Moses first sacrifices oxen and pours half their blood into buckets.
And then Moses reads the Law to the people, all 613 commands including that final one about perfection. And the people respond to the Law by promising: “All the words the Lord has spoken we will do.”
And then Moses dashes them with the blood from the buckets.
Blood being the penalty if they fail to live up to the demands of the Law.
Of course they do.
Fail to live up to the demands of the Law.
No sooner did Moses go back up to Mt. Sinai after giving them the first commandment than they start to worship not God but a golden calf, and in the fullness of time our worship of false gods becomes our murder of the true flesh-bearing God.
Because the Law, St. Paul says, only increases the trespass. Even a Law as obvious and good as the Golden Rule- it just increases our trespasses, such that we’re captive to doing exactly what we don’t want to do and captive to not doing what we want to do.
And that’s why the Gospel is not the Law.
The Gospel is not more of what we must do for God, the 613 plus our Jesus-flavored additives. The Gospel is what God has done for us despite our failures at doing.
And that’s why- notice- on the first Pentecost the people promise: “All this we will do.”
But on the final Pentecost that promise gets turned into a question: “What must we do?”
Not a thing.
Peter doesn’t invite them to make any promises about what they will do.
He invites them instead to trust the promise of what God has done.
Peter tells them not to do the Law but to trust the Gospel, to trust this news that, as St. Paul says in Romans 8, another Pentecost passage:
“The Spirit has set you free from the Law…for God has done what the Law could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just demands of the Law might be fulfilled in us.”
This promise is yours, Peter and Paul promise. Not as your wage- something you must earn. But as your inheritance- something earned by another, something given to you by by way of death. And this inheritance is bestowed on you, St. Paul says, at your baptism into Christ’s death, which Peter then invites his Pentecost hearers to receive.
This Pentecost fulfills that first Pentecost because Christ has fulfilled the Law by his perfect faithfulness and by his blood he has suffered the penalty for all our failures to be faithful.
And because his perfect righteousness according the Law is reckoned to you as yours by your baptism, now baptism is Pentecost.
That’s why you don’t hear any more about Pentecost in the New Testament.
Now, pentecost is baptism.
The gift of the Holy Spirit is poured out henceforth not by fire but in water.
Before she was baptized on Christmas Eve, Kim Phuc was browsing in Saigon’s central library when suddenly, she writes, “something compelled” her (again, pay attention to the passive voice) to pull the library’s religious books off the shelves.
Books on Hinduism and Buddhism and Baha’i.
And finally a New Testament.
An hour later, she writes, I’d picked my way through the Gospels and I was bowled over by the straightforward claim of the New Testament: that the Gospel is not religion at all.
Religion is what we do for God. Religion is what we do for ourselves, really, to get right with God and get God on our side, but Jesus presents himself in the Gospels as the opposite of religion. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is the one who takes us to God in his own scarred body.
Hers point is my final point-
This Pentecost in the Book of Acts isn’t just the fulfillment of that Pentecost in the Book of Exodus.
It’s the end of religion.
It’s the end of religion
Which maybe sounds like an odd thing for a minister in a robe to preach from a pulpit in a sanctuary on Confirmation Sunday, but the oddness is exactly why you can trust it to be true.
Christianity is the medium for the message about what God has done in Jesus Christ in whom there is now and forever no condemnation.
And this work of Christ is given to us by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Therefore, Pentecost is the end of religion. Christianity is the medium for the message that religion’s days are over.
As Robert Capon says:
“Christianity may use the forms of religion, but it does so only to proclaim not a new religion, or even of the best of all possible religions, but the end of religion. The cross is the sign that God has gone out of the religion business and solved all the world’s problems without requiring single human being to do a single religious thing.”
What’s that mean?
It means you’re free. As St. Paul says in his Pentecost passage: “The Spirit of Christ Jesus has set you free from the Law.”
It means you’re free. Free to doubt God’s done any of it. Free to question all of it.
But before you do so, realize-
It means you’re free too to take off the masks you wear.
And you’re free to let go of your pretense that you have your shit together. Because it means you’re free to be imperfect. Because if there’s now no condemnation then all your sins are free. There is no cost to any of them (other than what they cost your neighbor).
And if you’re free to be imperfect, you’re free from regret.
And you’re free from anxiety, free from worrying that you should believe more, have more faith, give more, serve more, pray more….you’re free from being anxious over any of it.
You’re free from anxiety because, really, you’re free to forsake to God even.
Go for it. Try it out and you’ll find out:
He won’t forsake you.
There’s no condemnation, remember.
He’s taken away the sins of the world- and he didn’t miss any.
He’s chosen you, in fact, from before the foundation of the world.
So how are you going to gum that up?
You’re free to be as faithful as you like in whatever way suits you.
Because your good work and your pious believing doesn’t get you a key to heaven nor do any of your bad deeds get you locked out. You see, you’re free to be every bit the hypocrite as all the rest of us. Which means- pay attention, now- you’re also free not to judge others.
You’re free from keeping score.
The Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments, the Greatest Commandment- because the Gospel is the news that God is not in the religion business the Law is an exam that God doesn’t grade.
You’re free to honor your Mother and Father. You’re free to serve the poor. You’re free to forgive 70 x 7.
But doing it doesn’t get you any credit. It doesn’t get you even extra credit because, by your baptism, you already have all the credit that is Christ’s own.
Not even your faith can add to that credit given to you already.
You’re free from measuring your faith against another’s.
Because your faith, your belief, your trust- it doesn’t earn you this gift. It doesn’t even enable you to access this gift. The gift is yours already and it’s irrevocable.
All that your faith does is let you enjoy the gift.
All your faith is- is the way you enjoy the gift. And this gift of grace, this Gospel of no condemnation- it’s freaking fun, people. Sure, it’s crazy, but God forgive us if we’ve made anyone think it’s anything but crazy-good fun.
In a world where everyone is counting, keeping score, measuring, judging, telling you what you must do and who you aren’t but ought to be, in a world of “forgiveness” without forgetting- in such a world this gift of grace, the Gospel of no condemnation is fun.
And your faith in it is your way into the fun.
Your faith doesn’t change anything.
Your faith doesn’t add anything.
Your faith doesn’t access anything extra that isn’t yours already.
Which is good news on a day when our confirmands make a profession of faith in God and make promises to be faithful to God.
Because, brass tacks time confirmands:
Your faith will ebb and flow.
You’re going to fail at these promises as often as not.
Don’t let anyone here fool you.
The Church is a fellowship of failures and frauds, hypocrites and haters, liars and louts, deadbeats and dolts and drinkers, sinners not saints.
And that’s just the people on staff.
And it’s MORE THAN OKAY because, in this case, the medium-that-is-us IS the message.
The message that your success as a Christian has NOTHING to do with your loyalty to Jesus Christ or his Church. Your success as a Christian has EVERYTHING to do with Christ’s loyalty to you.
Really, at confirmation, on Pentecost of all days, instead of asking you all to make promises, we should just read at you Christ’s unconditional promises to you:
“I am with you always to the end of the age.”
“I am the resurrection and the life whoever trusts me will never die…”
“Come to me all of you who are weary, and I will give you rest.”
“Take and eat. Drink. This is my Body and Blood given for you for the forgiveness of sin.”
“I am the Bread of Life whoever feasts on me will live forever.”
“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
Kim Phuc, the Napalm Girl, she says in memoir that, upon discovering the Gospel through the Holy Spirit, she held Christ’s promises in her mind like holding a gem in her hand, relishing the light they cast from all sides.
Instead of asking our confirmands to make promises, we should present Christ’s promises to them like the light-casting, life-giving gems they are.
And all they’d need to do is all any of us need to do.
Say“Amen” to them.