Pentecost Sunday, the “Birthday of the Church”, is tomorrow. It is the day – celebrated 50 days after Easter – that marks the descent of the Holy Spirit onto the Apostles. It also supplants the Jewish feast of Pentecost, celebrated 50 days after the Passover, which marks the sealing of the Old Covenant on Mount Sinai.
Pentecost is referred to multiple times in the New Testament, and three immediately come to mind: in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles where the descent of the Holy Spirit is recalled, in the twentieth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles and in the sixteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In both of those chapters of their respective letters, Paul talks about traveling from Jerusalem through Macedonia to the community at Ephesus. He is under guard during this period of his life, having already been arrested by the Roman government for sedition. And it is telling that he is talking about something that is so positive in the life of the Church – its beginning, in fact - while he himself is undergoing adversity...
What follows is another one of my friend Fr. Don’s homilies – he sent it out to those of us who are on his mailing list this morning. He describes the detail of what I talked about above regarding the second chapter of the Acts. It is great reading; I wish I could be in North Conway to hear it.
PENTECOST 31 May 2009
When I first longed to travel overseas in the early eighties, I had it in my head that it made good sense to go only to countries where English is spoken. What I got was exposure to foreign culture that had as much an American flavor as I could find. I remember being in Venice looking for a Thanksgiving dinner, hunting for McDonald’s in Lucerne, laughing at the tiny Fiats cruising Roman streets. With limited Italian, I blindly ordered a Margherita Pizza from an Italian menu not knowing what it was, to get what ended up being a mushroom pizza, but unlike anything I ever had back home!
So, I changed my tune about such things rather quickly and allowed myself to really venture into foreign travel the way someone should. I hired or sought out a local guide whenever possible...getting a flavor of the land like never before. I learned to accept invitations to a family home, to live as they lived, stay with them, asking as many questions as possible in broken, jagged foreign languages. Catching fresh fish for supper on the Mediterranean was far better than just going to market or to a restaurant. Finding guides though, in every country I’ve been to since those infantile days, was the best move ever. Guides teach a person to appreciate and treasure the local turf, but they also teach us the value in letting go of our American need to be in total control. Surrender is a tough nut to crack, a rather large pill to swallow.
In my life of faith, I’ve found that guides still overturn stones and broaden spiritual vistas for me, far faster than my historical way of approaching the living out of faith. I was a run-of-the-mill Catholic, with a scripted way of living faith...a ritualistic, blah & legalistic understanding of rules, average and primitive ways of thinking, without creativity or a true sense of challenge. Guides, more experienced than us in spiritual things or life in general, serve as interpreters, teachers, fellow discoverers, companions, challengers. That is precisely what God's Spirit starts to do in our lives when we make the leap from our most familiar territory of living as uncommitted followers, to a completely new country of committed Christian faith. The Holy Spirit interprets the unfamiliar landscape of Christianity to us, accompanies us on our journey, makes us feel at home, gradually teaches us the language and helps us understand customs.
Pentecost is a never-ending story, not a one-time happening. It happens whenever and wherever people live empowered by the Spirit of Jesus. But if it’s not rooted in our own experience, and tested with or against that of other people, then it is a flame that will soon grow stale or die. We may speak in tongues, we may wish to live guided by the Spirit, we may seek community, but if the Spirit of the living God has not burned a path down into the depth of our experience, then Pentecost still awaits us. There's a great, but ancient description of the Holy Spirit in today's Gospel reading where the Holy Spirit is described as the Comforter. The Greek word parakletos , literally means "the one called alongside". The Holy Spirit is the one who God calls alongside us, to help us on the Christian journey. In John's Gospel, Jesus describes the Spirit four times in this way, the idea of a traveling companion, of God always being present.
If Christmas is the festival of the Incarnation, and Easter is the festival of Resurrection, then Pentecost is the festival of liberation. Pentecost is about freedom. It is about the Holy Spirit setting us free, enabling us to walk new pathways, fine-tune our relationship with God as guide and companion. We don’t discover a kind of freedom that means no more responsibility or suffering, nor freedom from having to make decisions, but a freedom to live in the truth of the promise that we are loved and we have been saved and we can live changed, new and different lives. All of which, of course, sounds tremendously comforting. Most of us would sign up quite willingly to the notion of a divine traveling companion on the road of life.
So much for the Gospel's description of the Holy Spirit. It all gets a lot more uncomfortable when we turn to the Book of Acts which, incidentally, is often described not as the book of the Acts of the Apostles but the book of the Acts of the Holy Spirit. We can't escape the fact that Christianity is propelled onto the world's stage in the space of half a century following Vatican II, by a process which makes modern-day Christianity look all rather tame. It begins at the first Jewish Festival of Pentecost, after Jesus' death and resurrection. The story of what happened to those disciples there, is recorded for us today in Acts Chapter 2. Quite simply, they were overshadowed by an experience of God so strong, so powerful, that it is described in words that we can’t fully understand...celestial, elemental and almost primeval words: ‘sounds coming from heaven’, rush of a ‘mighty wind’, ‘tongues of fire’ dancing and resting over human heads.
If one aspect of the Holy Spirit's work in a Christian's life is to comfort us, there’s another that shakes us to the core of our being. This can be unsettling, disturbing, even frightening because it involves letting God be our guide, come close to us, closer than we probably dare to let even our most intimate human relationships become. It’s not that God delights in disturbing us. God longs to transform us into the people we often long, deep down, to be.
Most people, Christian or otherwise, are drawn to and attracted by the life and message of Jesus of Nazareth. He’s an inspiring figure on the stage of human history. Inspiration is not always enough. I can be inspired when I watch someone at the top of their game. Maybe an undiscovered singing Scottish spinster, Susan Boyle or an exacting dancer or an M.V.P. baseball star, inspire us. But, however inspired I feel, that doesn’t help me sing or dance or play sports, like them.
Millions of people have been inspired by Jesus down the ages but have found that it’s a different matter trying to live like Him. The theology of the Holy Spirit is, at one level, quite simple. The same Spirit of God, expressed so fully in the life of Jesus, is equally available to us here and now, if we want to be people who learn from the life of the Master.
If we want to be more than inspired, but changed, we need to open up our lives to God's Spirit, in the same way that Jesus did. Here's the tricky part. We can't open ourselves up just a little bit. We can't have just a fraction of the Spirit. It truly is "all or nothing", being filled with the Spirit. We’re invited not to take a sip but to take a drink of the fullness of the presence of God. As those early Christian disciples drank deep of God's Holy Spirit they experienced a radical transformation of their lives, as individuals and in community. This is not a possibility consigned to the dusty pages of biblical history. It is every bit as real, a possibility for us today.
Old dogs CAN learn new tricks. May God make us brave enough, adventurous enough to want the powerful, yet disturbing presence of the Holy Spirit as our traveling companion in life. We need Pentecost in our own lives and in the life of the world. The freedom of my own personal relationship to others has to overflow into a passion to create a new world. There’s much to be done. As Paul says: all of creation groans in labor….straining to give birth to the world as God wants it to be.