Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The great, Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski once remarked that in the theatre, “there are no small parts, only small actors.” Well, believe me. I have played plenty of small parts in my life, and a few good sized ones. When I was a student at St. Olaf College, I was active in the college’s theatre program. There I played the role of Don Quixote’s sidekick Sancho Panza in the musical Man of La Mancha, and that of a talking head in the Robber Bridegroom. The smallest role was in William Shakespeare’s comedy, Twelfth Night, where I portrayed the very minor character of Fabian. The spoken lines were few, but Fabian participated in the secret plot against the play’s antagonist Malvolio. The vain, pompous and puritanical steward was tricked into wearing gaudy yellow stockings and smiling gleefully in order to win the heart of his employer, the beautiful and wealthy Olivia. Malvolio didn’t know that yellow was actually Olivia’s least favorite color, and that she was silently mourning the death of her brother and didn’t want to see anyone cheerful in her presence. When questioned about his odd change in behavior, Malvolio offered one of the most quoted lines of Shakespeare, “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” Yes, there are no small parts, only small actors.
Surprisingly, in the night before his own death on the cross, Jesus told his twelve disciples that they would play great parts and perform even greater works. But perhaps, even more astonishing, he offered that same invitation to you and me as well.
My friends, the story of Pentecost with its mighty winds and fiery tongues often overshadows the real wonder of that groundbreaking morning for the church in Jerusalem. Pentecost is more than the dramatic and extraordinary events of the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is really the story of ordinary men and women accepting a part, regardless of the size, to do even greater works in the name of the Jesus. That is the message that I would like to share with you today.
In the context of Shakespeare’s quote, you and I may accept the notion that some people are born into greatness, all because their family is great or powerful. There are those who believe this truth today. Indeed for some, family name instills a sense of personal responsibility and purpose. While for others, unfortunately, this feigned greatness emboldens a sense of privilege and entitlement. Or perhaps, you prefer to accept the truth the greatness can only be achieved by some great act or by working hard. It is what we have celebrated this past week in our D-Day commemoration of the “greatest generation.” Young men went off on the winds of war to distant shores to fight for the freedom of a people they had never known. And others still, believe that greatness is never truly achieved, rather it is thrust upon them, meaning that it is pushed to them by someone or something that believes that they deserve it. Greatness is not gained, but it is bestowed by the words of others. Yes, greatness is the praise of the reluctant warriors who merely did their duty. So what greatness does God expect of you and me?
Perhaps, you think Jesus’ invitation is all a Shakespearean theatrical trick. What works could you or I do greater than Christ himself? After all, Jesus kept the Law of God perfectly. He performed miracles, feeding the thousands, healing the sick, stilling the stormy sea, giving sight to the blind, making the deaf to hear, and even raising the dead. Jesus voluntarily took on death as atonement for sin so that we would be right with God. That is what Jesus did. So what could we possibly do that would be greater than what Jesus did? And yet, he insists that his followers will do greater works.
But then notice the reason Jesus gives for the greater works that his disciples will perform. It is because he will no longer be here to do them himself. He is going to the Father. And when he goes to the Father, he will send the Holy Spirit, the Counselor to encourage, and inspire and strengthen his followers to play their part and do the greater works he would have done- had he remained. “Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you.” As the Spirit of God comes into human hearts and dwells in them, these things Jesus promised on that night before his death will come to pass. Pentecost, you see, is not simply about tongues of fire and the rush of a violent wind. It is about the followers of Jesus, having greatness thrust upon them, and taking on the role of their loving and caring Jesus in the world- because he is no longer, physically here.
Throughout gospel, notice what happened to the crowds who followed Jesus when he did those amazing deeds. Entire cities would turn out to hear his message, yet when Jesus came to the end of his life on Good Friday, where were the people? Where were the hundreds he healed? They were all gone. Only a handful stood at the foot of the cross. His miracles did not change people; the miracles merely touched the surface of their lives. That was the challenge for the disciples..
It’s interesting that the ones whom Jesus healed would not stand with him through the test of the cross, but that when Jesus’ disciples went out and preached in the power of the Spirit, they won the faithful by the thousands. And when the testing came for the new believers, these men and women were willing to face lions, to be crucified, and to be burned as living torches rather than deny Jesus.
These were the greater works the disciples performed. That is your responsibility and invitation as well, as a follower of Christ. Anything which is done to the flesh is merely temporary. All those whom Jesus healed or raised from the dead, died again. But that which is done to the Spirit of a person is permanent. There are no small parts, only small actors. And sometime, we have to choose.
Eric Liddell, whose story is told in the movie “Chariots of Fire,” was a successful athlete, but fame and honor didn’t sway him from what he knew was his life calling, he had a part to play, –to preach the gospel in China. Eric was born in China, to missionary parents. He attended school in London, where he trained and became known for his athletic abilities. He went on to compete in the Olympics but remained true to his convictions. In 1925, Eric returned to China and used his skills to minister and influence many young Chinese for Christ. He was captured by the Japanese during World War II and passed away of an inoperable brain tumor during his imprisonment. His death left a great empty place in the lives and hearts of the many people who he had spent his life serving.
My friends, “Be not afraid of lasting greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” That is the story of Pentecost. There are no small parts in God’s kingdom, and all of us will be empowered by Holy Spirit to do that greater work. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.