Harrowing Of Hell
June 8, 2014

Pentecost: The Church Becomes a Shame-Free Zone

Preacher: Rev. Doyt Conn

Today I’d like to suggest that Epiphany can be a Shame-Free Zone. I was thinking about putting up some “No Shame” signs. Then I realized they are already up. Jesus is up over there, and over there, and the cross is right there behind me. So instead of putting up signs, we’ll build a rack in the back of the church where we can hang up any remorse or guilt that we have been carrying around all week and that follows us into the church. The church when it is being what it is called to be, should be a Shame-Free Zone. Today is the church’s birthday, which is all of you. It’s Pentecost. Happy Birthday! The church was born of the fiery power of the Holy Spirit to burn away feelings of shame and inadequacy and free us to be the extraordinary people God created us to be.

Peter in the book of Acts today stands before the people and preaches. He preaches the power of the Holy Spirit, he preaches the person of Jesus, and he preaches the love of God. But of all of the disciples, I am surprised by the fact that it is Peter giving this sermon. For of all of the disciples, Peter could have been carrying a satchel of shame so heavy that he couldn’t even get out of bed. Peter could have been so overcome with feelings of remorse and guilt that it would have sent him slinking to the back of the crowd, haunted by the imaginary voice of Jesus echoing in his head: “See, I told you so. I said you would deny me three times. You are weak and predictable. I warned you, and yet you didn’t pay attention.” Even if Jesus never said these things, because he never did, it is easy to imagine them rolling around in Peter’s head because sometimes we have voices like that as well. “I’m not worthy.” “I failed you and I failed myself.”

“Shoulds,” shame, and guilt are sometimes triggered by church. I’d like to tell you that they shouldn’t be, but in truth the church, like so many institutions, including families, has used shame as a tool for compliance and conformity. For that I, as a representative of the church, would like to apologize. Religion may need shame. Religion may depend on compliance and conformity, but God does not, and God sent the Holy Spirit to burn it away! God is all about our freedom, and when our freedom is firing on all cylinders it brings us together for the dynamic purposes of God. That is the point of the church. That is what we celebrate on the church’s birthday.

I suspect that the passage from Joel that begins with “In these last days” is a passage that Peter had some previous experience with. Maybe it was the passage that his tutor made him memorize. Maybe it was the passage from the lectionary he read the day before or it was the passage his grandfather always quoted and pasted in the front of his Torah. Who knows? But this I know for sure: that God gave Peter this passage from Joel at some point in his past in preparation for this day. Nothing is wasted, unless it is wasted on shame. Everything made can be redeemed. No one is beyond the love of God; that is how God works. If shame is in your satchel, hang it outside when you come in. Epiphany is a Shame-Free Zone. Epiphany is a Shame-Free Zone because here we believe that nothing you have done, nothing you have experienced, nothing that has been told to you, is beyond the redemption of God. Nothing separates us from the love of God.

Look at Peter. He was the man who denied his Lord. Even when it was predicted, he fell into self-fulfilling prophecy. But then, the resurrected Jesus did for Peter what he has done for you and me. There, in the regular routine of Peter’s life, as he is engaging the work he was given to do, as a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus shows up. Peter sees him, stands in the boat, pulls on his clothes, and jumps into the water; baptized if you will, washed clean from his shame, and walks out into the Sea of Galilee to face his Lord. And Jesus asks, three times, as if to undo the three denials that Peter made, Jesus asks three times:
“Do you love me Peter?”
And Peter responds, “Yes, I love you.”
“Do you love me Peter?”
And Peter responds, “Yes, I love you.”
“Do you love me Peter?”
And Peter responds, “Yes, I love you.”

Shame cripples us and sends us to the back of the line with words or images spinning in our mind that we just can’t get out from under. But Jesus has undone those words. Jesus has reversed any shame we may carry with us. He has blown it up through the fiery power of the Holy Spirit, and that Holy Spirit has come upon you and me today!

Most people haven’t met the Cosmic Christ like Peter did, but all of us, I’d hazard to say, have encountered the Holy Spirit along the way: sometimes as an obvious command, sometimes as a small suggestion, but in each case toward the goal of burning away our shame and empowering us to be the glorious people God created us to be. We are given another chance like Peter. We are given another chance to say to someone, “I love you.” Maybe some of us need a second chance. If so, today say “I love you” to someone who is a little too far away from your heart. Maybe they live with you; maybe they live far away; maybe they are in the grave, but wherever they are say to them, “I love you.” If you do, I know one thing: it will start to burn away shame, and who knows what else it may do. Look at Peter. The most unlikely disciple is the one who starts the church. We hear his first sermon today. It was not planned or staged. Peter was moved by the power of the Holy Spirit. He was inspired at 9 o’clock in the morning. He wasn’t even drunk! There he was standing in the streets of Jerusalem preaching from the prophet Joel.

The name Joel means “God is in charge.” Peter may have known this or he may not have known this, but the words he spoke from Joel made that claim that God is in charge, that God can bring to sons and daughters the power of prophesy, that God can bring to old men and old women the power of new dreams, that God can bring to slaves, both male and female, the power of the Holy Spirit to flip the status quo on its head.

So if you are an old man or an old woman, Peter is speaking to you. You can have new dreams—dreams of youth—not because your body is younger, but because your relationship with God is longer than you ever imagined it could be. Today the power of the Holy Spirit is upon you.

If you are young and working, trying to pull it together, or keep it together, or get it together, Peter is speaking to you. Prophesy about your possibility. Own the vision that is welling up inside of you! Feel it and then release it upon the world. Forsake compliance! Forgo conformity! Be the unique person that the Holy Spirit is empowering you to be. Today the Holy Spirit has come upon you.

And if you are slaves—slaves to the voices of cruel people, slaves of sexism or racism or any other stereotype that history has put upon you, slaves of consumption, or achievement, or status, slaves to your parents’ expectations or the words of news commentators, slaves to your children, or slaves to your own “shoulds” and “dos” and “don’ts,” then today know that you have been set free. Today the Holy Spirit has come upon you.

That is what Peter is saying through the words of Joel, that God is doing what God does, and while it may look new, it only looks new because we now see it through the reality of the person of Jesus Christ. He died and was resurrected, so the shame of the cross would not be the last word. “Everyone,” Peter says, “everyone who calls on the name of Jesus will know the power of the Holy Spirit.” That includes you and me, which is why this is a Shame-Free Zone.

So what does a Shame-Free Zone look like? Let me give you an example. If you have been away from church for a while and someone says, “It is great to see you. What have you been up to?” Let the question be a question to answer, not a judgment or an accusation to internalize. In Shame Free-Zones people care about each other. In Shame-Free Zones people are interested in each other. But also in Shame-Free Zones we are invited to consider the voices we mix into the questions we are asked. We are invited to wonder how they influence what we hear and how we act. Shame-Free Zones are places for honest self-reflection in a way that liberates us from the tyranny of shame. At Epiphany we are invited to hang our satchels of shame at the door, and leave them there when we go home.

We are set free by the Holy Spirit and that freedom not only exists within these walls, but also within the world beyond these walls. There is nothing that happens in life that God cannot redeem. There is nowhere we can go that we will not be empowered by the Holy Spirit. For some it will mean a double portion of patience. For others, an absolute intolerance of injustice, bigotry, and meanness. For some it will mean stepping out, and for some it will mean stepping back. But for all it will mean empowerment by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has come upon each of us today to burn away shame and bring glory to God’s church. It is Pentecost! It is the birthday of the church! Which is you: an extraordinary people, redeemed by a loving God.