Pentecost B Sermon (1997)

Day of Pentecost
Texts: Acts 2:1-21;
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-11; Romans 8:22-27


I’m building this sermon around a homonym, two words that sound alike….”profit” p-r-o-f-i-t and “prophet” p-r-o-p-h-e-t [holding up signs with the words and spelling them out loud]. I’m also going to use these sound-alike phrases: “everyone profits” and “everyone’s a prophet” [again using words printed on signs which are used and displayed throughout sermon].

Let’s begin with “profit.” These days that’s the word we’re much more used to using. The basis of capitalism is about making a profit. In all the halls of greatest power around our world, the bottom line is profit.

In recent years, there has been some dabbling with the notion of “Everyone profits.” There is some sensitivity to the fact that in a capitalist society there must seemingly always be a loser. So some have asked, “Can’t there be a win-win scenario, in which everyone profits?” Generally, I think the answer of most capitalist purists has been “No. In the real world, it’s tough, but someone always has to lose. In the end, we can’t have win-win.”

Take the cereal I had this morning, for example [holding up box]. You may have heard about a suspected price-fixing conspiracy by the cereal companies. They’ve supposedly all agreed to set their prices high, so that, as far as they are concerned, everyone profits. All the cereal companies win. But even Congress has threatened to get into the act, saying in effect, “No, not everyone is a winner here! The consumer is losing out because of your high prices and high profits!” And so the cry goes up for greater competition, because greater competition in the market place means the greatest profit for the consumer. It is the consumer who profits from price wars.

But a not-so-funny thing happens with these price wars. Some of the companies will struggle to make it. Their profits will go down. They may have to downsize, let go of some middle management; or relocate a factory to find a better business climate. For those laid-off managers, and for those workers who must either re-locate their families or be unemployed, there is little profit and much pain. So in the situation of a price war, what I the consumer might not realize is that, behind this box of cereal which my family can more easily afford, might be another family who can no longer afford this at all, because their mother was laid-off by this company, or their father had to quit rather than pick up stakes and move.

For now I’ll leave it as a question: in the ways of this world, can there ever be a scenario in which everyone profits? Everyone wins?

Let’s move on to the other of our two homonyms for the day: “prophet.” In our Pentecost story, Peter chooses a text for his sermon from the prophet Joel, and it is a prophecy about prophecy. Here, according to St. Peter, is what Joel says (Acts 2:17-18):

‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.’

Joel is saying that, with the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, “everyone’s a prophet.”

Everyone’s a prophet.” Amazing to think about, isn’t it? These days, I’m not sure we are nearly as used to talking about “prophets” as we are about “profits.” Not to mention what it would be like for everyone to be a prophet. Yet that is precisely what St. Peter is trying to teach us about. It is precisely the situation that Peter holds up for us as a possibility with the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost: “Everyone’s a prophet!”

What could it possibly mean? Some might answer, “It means being able to speak in tongues, like happened on the first Pentecost when all these foreigners could understand one another.” But I’d like to suggest to you that that misses what St. Luke, who wrote the Book of Acts, means by everyone becoming a prophet. Let’s do a brief bible study on how St. Luke uses the word “prophet,” especially in the Gospel he wrote prior to Acts. And the amazing thing is that, in doing this bible study, I think we will find out how these homonyms, “prophet” and “profit,” relate.

Crucial is the place where Luke begins his story of Jesus’ ministry, right in Jesus’ own hometown of Nazareth. It is the Sabbath, and Jesus stands before his hometown crowd and chooses a text. He reads from the prophet Isaiah (Luke 4:18-19):

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

To me the folks listed in this prophecy sound like the losers in any given society–in other words, those who aren’t sharing in the profits. The poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed–these are typically the folks who can tell us that not everyone profits. Yet Jesus concludes his reading of this passage by telling his audience that this prophecy has come true with his presence among them. Jesus the greatest prophet will fulfill the good news to just these sorts of folks, the losers in our game of profits.

How so? Well, that’s the surprising part; and we immediately get a glimpse of it, because the people of his hometown try to turn him into a prophet right there on the spot. But this would be a prophet in Jesus’ sense of the term, not theirs. For what his hometown crowd tries to do to Jesus is to run him off a cliff. They try to lynch him! Murder him! That certainly wouldn’t be a prophet in their book. But it is precisely being a prophet in Jesus’ book. In other words, a prophet is one who risks joining that crowd of losers–the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed. Yes, the prophet joins them to such an extent that the prophet also risks rejection and suffering. The prophet will be numbered among those who do not profit.

Wow! Does this sound too far out? Does this sound too extreme? If we’re honest, I’d think we’d say “Yes!” But quickly listen to other places in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus tells us about prophets. First, Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20b, 22-24, 26):

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the falseprophets.”

This can be scary stuff! It seems to be saying not only that the true prophet is one who is numbered among the profitless, but also woe to those who are numbered among the profit-ful. True prophets suffer rejection, while false prophets get the world’s praise.

I don’t know about you, but this picture of being a prophet makes me very uncomfortable, because I generally have a picture of myself among the profit-ful, not the profitless. But it gets even worse. Here is what Jesus the prophet had to say precisely to those who profited the most in his days. Here is what Jesus said to the Pharisees (Luke 11:47, 49-51):

“Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah… Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation.”

In other words, prophets are those we murder, like Jesus. Prophets are those who die because we live in a world that sets itself up with winners and losers, with some who profit and some who don’t. Yet the prophet comes to expose this and show us another possibility. Could we say with St. Paul in our second lesson this morning, that the whole creation is groaning and laboring, waiting for us to get our act together, waiting for us to be redeemed and to accept our adoption as God’s children? Could it be that God intended and planned something different for us and for God’s world, that God truly intended a world in which everyone profits? And if so, wouldn’t these two worlds collide in a terrible way?

That is the kind of language and perspective that we hear most clearly from St. John’s gospel as we’ve heard it the last two weeks. Last week, we heard Jesus say to his disciples, whom he called to be his prophets, that they were not of the world and that the world would hate them. This week we hear Jesus telling them that when the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, comes, he “will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.” Can you hear the fundamental clash between these two worlds, the world which we human beings in our sin have created and the world that God originally created for us to live in? And I believe that our understanding of the prophet that we have come to today helps us to hear this clash between two worlds as a clash between our human world, in which not everyone profits, and God’s world, in which everyone does profit. To the extent that the Holy Spirit helps us to see that, then everyone’s a prophet.

But I’ve done it again. I’m up to the time, if not past the time, when I should stop, and we’ve hardly begun to get at all that this entails. We’ve barely scratched the surface. Even worse, I’ve seemingly left it at a point of bad news, not good news. I’ve left it at the point where we who can count ourselves as profit-ful might come to see ourselves as responsible for those who are profitless. To use Jesus’ most crass way of putting it: to see ourselves as killers of the prophets.

So let’s quickly end with the good news, or at least where the Good News begins. We have to go further along in Peter’s Pentecost sermon. Peter is addressing we who are killers of the prophet and says that this Jesus “whom you crucified” is the same one “who God raised from the dead.” In other words, our way doing things may lead to death, but God somehow transforms it into life!

Even more important is the reaction of the crowd who heard that sermon. St. Luke tells us that (Acts 2:37) “when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?'” And, folks, this is the beginning of the Good News! Just listen to Peter’s response (Acts 2:38-39):

“Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

The promise is for us! This Jesus comes to us again today to offer us that same promise of forgiveness, so that we might repent, so that we might begin to live in the world that God created for us, instead of the world we have created for ourselves. Jesus offers us a Holy Communion, an entirely different way of coming together in the Spirit. He offers us this community to live in that we might learn to come together in ways where everyone profits, and, filled with the Holy Spirit, it can be a place where everyone’s a prophet. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, May 17-18, 1997

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