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Maryland State Convention - Vietnam Veterans of America
Worship Service, June 11, 2000 - Pentecost Sunday
Ocean City, Maryland
Acts 2:1-12

"Discovering the Covenant"

Most of you this morning could probably not build an internal compustion engine -- although there are a couple of you who probably could! But most of us understand the principle. You take one kind of substance -- in this case gasoline -- and put it together with another kind of substance -- in this case oxygen -- and add a spark, and you have an explosion. Channel that explosion and you have the driving force for your engine.

As we heard in this morning's reading, the Christian Church experienced an explosive experience on the day of Pentecost. Because of that experience, Pentecost is often celebrated as the birthday of the Church, the day the Holy Spirit became real to us. A lot of the time we focus on the experience of Pentecost, but this morning I'd like us to look at what went into the experience. There are two things which put together with a spark made that explosion.

I. Pentecost's Trauma Background

The first is something that we who are Vietnam veterans have a special access to because of our own experience. Listen to this story:

It is early in the year somewhere on the continent of Asia. A squad-sized unit of young men walk on a dusty path. They are lightly armed. They operate on their own, not with a larger unit.

They come to a village, their objective to win the hearts and minds of the people. They gather a crowd, provide some healthcare, talk to the crowd, then continue on their way.

The enemy is always near, usually unknown. Who among the villagers are friendly, and who are on the enemy side? They don't know; all they can be sure of is that they are there. The enemy's network of informers reaches deep into each town and village.

They have been together for many months and come to know each other quite well. Some are quiet ones, others have tempers. They look forward to the day when all this will be over; they joke among themselves as to who will do best when this part of their lives is done.

Then one night on the outskirts of the capital their position is compromised, and their leader is taken prisoner.

Helpless, they watch from hiding places while their leader is subjected to a show trial by the enemy and then publicly tortured to death.

This is a story of combat veterans who have undergone a traumatic experience. The way it is written, everything in it could have taken place in Vietnam.

But see it now through different glasses: everything in it is also true of what the Bible tells us of Jesus and his disciples.

It's important when we walk into a church that we not just leave our experiences at the door, because our experiences can help us understand the stories in the Bible in a way nobody else might understand. How often have we actually thought of Jesus and the disciples as being like us who are veterans? How often have we thought of dangers they faced going through Palestine and the trauma they went through when one of their own betrayed their leader? How often have we thought of what it was like to be hiding out in a little room after their leader was killed, not sure of what to do next, with no chance ever to DEROS?(5)

No, the disciples didn't wear jungle fatigues and carry M16s; they probably wore garments of white cloth and their weapons were the swords they mentioned when Jesus asked them on the Mount of Olives at the moment of his betrayal. But because their clothes were different and their weapons were different, don't assume that their emotions, their hopes, their fears, their sorrows, their traumas were different.

The days leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus were stressful days where like Vietnam you never knew where the enemy was who might betray you. The betrayal and capture of Jesus at the Mount of Olives had the disciples so fearful for their lives that Peter proclaimed loudly three times that he'd never known Jesus. By the time Jesus' body was taken from the cross and laid in the tomb, these disciples were veterans who had known anxiety, fear, betrayal, and death.

And when you think of it, what we're told of the Resurrection must have carried its own stresses. Imagine the disciples -- already traumatized -- reacting when the women return to tell them of an empty tomb. What were their emotions to have experiences of Jesus present among them -- a real flesh and blood person who asks them for a piece of broiled fish, but yet he shows up and disappears suddenly in ways he didn't use to. That would put me under some stress, no matter how happy I was. I think I would have been up and down like a yo-yo.

So the first element that went into the Pentecost experience is something that doesn't get talked about very much. A very traumatized group of people. So now let's look at the second element that went into that experience.

II. The Covenant of the Heart

A follower of Jesus named Luke wrote the gospel according to Luke-and then went on to write the book of the Acts of the Apostles from which we read this morning.

Now I want to point out something interesting. The gospel writers don't assign specific dates to most of the things that happen. When did Jesus preach the Sermon on the Mount? When did Jesus feed the five thousand? If the writers knew the date, they didn't tell us, because the date wasn't important. But today's event -- this experience of people feeling passionately connected to God and those around them -- is tied to a specific date -- the day of Pentecost. I think we miss a big part of what Luke wanted us to get from this story if we don't pay attention to the day itself -- Pentecost -- on which this explosive experience took place.

Pentecost is actually an old Jewish festival called Shovuot or "Weeks". The festival dates back to the times of King David, when it was an agricultural festival. That festival began with the reaping of the barley following Passover and ended 7 weeks later with the harvest of the wheat. So Shovuot is an even 50 days from Passover, and from the 50 days we get the word Pentecost.(1)

By the time of Jesus, Pentecost meant something more to Jews than just harvesting the wheat. By then this Jewish festival was a celebration of God's covenant with the Jews through God's gift of the Torah, especially the Ten Commandments, to Moses on Mount Sinai. So if you were Jewish like Jesus and the disciples and the gospel writers, you might have just as easily thought of Pentecost as Covenant Day.

But for some Jews the idea of covenant needed to mean something more than rules inscribed on stone. Things hadn't worked out very well. Jeremiah wrote,

"The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt-a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people."(2)

I am sure these words of Jeremiah about a new covenant of the heart were on Jesus' mind as he led the disciples in the seder service we know as the Last Supper. At the time after the meal when the leader of the seder offers the "cup of the blessing", he thanks God for "thy covenant, which thou hast sealed in our flesh, and for thy Torah which thou hast taught us.(3)

That was the moment in the seder when Jesus turned to the disciples and said, "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.(4)

And I believe all that they had heard and learned and known and experienced about covenant was the second element that was present that explosive morning.

III. The Day it Came Together

Pentecost was the day the traumatized disciples and the new covenant came together.

When I read the story of Pentecost now, what I see is the day when the disciples "got it."

It wasn't accidental that on this day the disciples - demoralized, traumatized, confused, like veterans who have been demobilized and don't know what to do next - become bold and powerful. What made the difference?

This was the day they "got" the covenant of the heart. This is the day they "got" that God did not abandon us in the days of trauma. God kept the faith and so can we.

This was the day they understood in their hearts, looking at that terrible day when their leader was tortured and died, that God was right there, going through it on the cross with them.

This was the day they understood the words of the seder, "sealed in our flesh," and the words of Christ, "the new covenant in my blood," and saw God's covenant transforming trauma.

This was the day they "got" that God came through on the Easter side-and so can we.

And so Luke tells us their joyful message was telling others of the mighty acts of God.


What prepared the way for it all to come together on Pentecost, the trauma, the despair, the covenant, the power, the joy?

We sell Pentecost short if all we remember of it is the disciples talking in langauges everyone could understand. They could talk to the heart because they were talking from the heart-about a covenant of the heart with a God who had been with them ---and has been with us -- all the way.

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1. References: "The Festival of Shovuos", pp. 86-95, in Hayyim Schauss, The Jewish Festivals: History and Observance, Schocken Books: New York, 1962, originally published 1938 by Union of American Hebrew Congregations as "Guide to Jewish Holy Days"

2. Jeremiah 31:31-33, NRSV

3. Nahum N. Glatzer, The Passover Haggadah, New York: Schocken Bros., 1953, p.71

4. Luke 22:20, NRSV

4. "DEROS", in the Vietnam War, was an abbreviation for "Date of Expected Return from Overseas Station." The abbreviation became used as a verb, "to DEROS", meaning, "to return home at the end of your tour."

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The sermon is © copyrighted by Jackson H. Day. Page updated December 18, 1999
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