The Day of Pentecost: May 24, 2015
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
Come, Holy Spirit, Come –the soul’s most welcome guest.
In the name of the one God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.
Happy Birthday to the Church! This day of Pentecost, the day we mark as the coming of the Holy Spirit into the world, is also considered the birthday of the Church. This is one of the seven Principal Feasts of the Church Year – one of the most important days in our cycle of worship.
But the Day of Pentecost is not quite like its more showy cousins, Christmas and Easter. Those days are about the salvation of the whole world; Pentecost is really about the Church.
It is a reminder to us of our place as an institution in the story of God’s people; it also helps us to remember our marching orders. One scholar says this: “Every year, on the Day of Pentecost, we are reminded of who we are as a church, what we proclaim, and the source of that proclamation. It is a message to the church from the church, passed down through millennia to each generation.”[i]
The primary event of the Pentecost story is a theophany—that is, an appearance of a manifestation of God. Interestingly, God doesn’t appear here as we might expect; as if deliberately setting up our understanding of the unique nature of God the Holy Spirit, God’s appearance is not visual, but is instead signaled in the rush of a mighty wind. It certainly seems like something new, even as it is familiar as well.
The God we experience as the Holy Spirit declares her entrance into our lives with events that indicate that we should expect her to surprise us. Remember that these first followers of Christ knew the stories of God’s appearance to Moses as a burning bush, as the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism, and of course in the person of Jesus, their friend.
But these events on the Day of Pentecost had to have been unexpected to the disciples. The surprise was not just God’s appearance as that rush of wind; what probably most shocked them was each of them speaking a different language.
Imagine that scene: The disciples were all gathered in one place—that reminds me of several scenes after the death of Christ, when the disciples were huddled together, seemingly stunned and unable to move beyond the events that had so changed them. Suddenly, they heard the sound of that wind. I wonder if it was just a roar of wind like we might hear before a storm, or was it more like that freight train sound that people in tornado alley describe?
The text then says that, “divided tongues, as fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” And then they began to speak, and as they did, they heard words coming from their mouths that they did not recognize. When the crowd, described as “devout Jews from every nation” arrived, the disciples discovered that they were speaking distinct languages that could be understood! I can imagine the surprise on the faces of everyone in this story.
Of course, some of the crowd that gathered was skeptical, just as we would be. It feels like a trick, doesn’t it? Like an elaborate ruse. It must be drunkenness, some say. This is not the way that God manifests Godself in the world. It must have seemed unseemly to those in the crowd who liked order and tidiness.
Speaking in tongues is a practice of some religious people today. I did a bit of reading about Glossolalia, as this practice is called, and it’s blossoming as part of the Pentecostal movement that began in the early 20th century.
In most settings where speaking in tongues is practiced it is understood that one should not undertake this gift of the spirit unless there is also someone present who has the gift of being able to interpret the tongues. That is, speaking in tongues alone is not enough. One must also understand what the Holy Spirit is saying.
I won’t burden you with an overview of the modern-day practice, or of the scientific studies that have been undertaken to examine this phenomenon, but it is worth a “google” Suffice it to say that, if you are prone to skepticism about this practice, you can find lots of experts to supply evidence in support of your position.
But in the moment on that Day of Pentecost, Peter, the father of the Church, gets what’s going on, and he quickly reminds the crowd of the words of the prophet Joel. God has promised an outpouring of the Spirit that will be marked by prophesy from everyone—sons and daughters, young and old, slave and free—prophesies that declare the desires of God for God’s creation.
In fact, for the disciples, this speaking in tongues is one of the first signs that the way of Christ is not just a continuation of their established way of life and worship. In this moment, God is presenting a new path, a new way of being. Here in this powerful story the disciples are called to something new—in this amazing moment, they begin to see themselves in a different way. They are empowered to preach the gospel, to be witnesses. As such they were called to offer to everyone the gift of God’s grace and forgiveness, freely offered by the Father, made possible by the Son, and embodied in the Spirit.
And that brings me to St. Michael’s Church. Are we open to the possibility that God may be calling us to something new? Can we let go of our preconceived notions of who we are, and what it means to do church in this space, in order to bring the message of God’s love to a wider circle? And if we are open to this kind of change, how will we know what is the right path?
I think the answer is that there is no one right path. Just as on the first Day of Pentecost the word of God was heard by each listener in his or her own language, so God comes to each of us in the way that we can embrace it. The job of the church is to open the doors to all and to be open to many different ways of being the church – all under one roof.
Now, I think that we aren’t too bad at being adaptive and flexible and around here – I’d give us a good, solid B+ on that front. My prayer for us is that we will continue to be open to the manifestation of God in our midst – to the theophanies that are still to come – that we will trust God the Holy Spirit to blow through this place, and that we will allow ourselves to be moved and changed by it.
As we think about our work together in this place, I think we need to continue looking forward and outward—thinking about the intersection of our assets and abilities with the needs of the community around us. Sometimes I think we get stuck looking inward—worrying about property and endowment funds, or just upkeep on this stunning, but old building. And we are also often unsure about our ability to find time to do what the Holy Spirit might call us to. “Sorry God – that is good work, but the kids have to get to soccer practice, and I have to get the apartment picked up, and I’m so tired, and…”
Just as the Holy Spirit came to the disciples to move them from that “one place” where they were gathered and out into the world, so must we continually move out of our comfort zone here and into the world—a world that so desperately needs us. We are called not only to be the church here inside these walls, but also outside of them. I am not sure exactly how we should move forward on this front—I am praying about it and thinking about it, and I hope you will too.
But the one thing that I hear clearly in the story of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit will surprise us – and that we are called to be open to that surprise, and ready to live into it. I have one friend, an Episcopal monk, who often talks about our sneaky God. Our job is not just to be prepared for and open to the unanticipated ways that God will call upon us, but also to be ready to understand what God is asking of us and to act on what we hear.
We must be open to the appearances of God here in this place—in our worship, in each other, and most importantly (and most hard to discern), in ourselves. That’s the real challenge, isn’t it? How do we understand the ways that God is acting and wants to act in our own lives?
I was particularly struck by today’s reading from Romans: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” Paul is acknowledging the difficulty of life on earth. I think these words—this affirmation of the difficulty of human existence—is particularly meaningful for many of us today.
These are hard times. I know that some of you are experiencing difficulties now. Whether it’s economic uncertainty, or difficulties in relationships or family, or a battle with inner demons, or any of the many other challenges that life presents, it can be hard to see God at work in us. Or perhaps you doubt your place in God’s realm. I remember a pastoral conversation I had once with a woman after a service at the Cathedral. She had been let go at her place of employment, and she was convinced that it was punishment from God.
I certainly didn’t see it that way, but it was difficult to convince her otherwise. I ached for her.
And God does too, I am sure. Listen again to the 26th verse of Romans, chapter 8: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Sighs too deep for words – what a beautiful idea. God the Holy Spirit is with us, and knows the depth of our pain. And that God is there for us, even when we think the odds make any redemption impossible.
Peter Storey, the Methodist Bishop of South Africa during the time of apartheid, calls this this the “great nevertheless of God.”
“Even while surrounded by the strong-armed agents of oppression, Storey knew that the Holy Spirit was active in his nation. The government had all the power; nevertheless, God was with the poor in South Africa. The South African regime did not hesitate to use force in order to stop rebellion; nevertheless, Storey, along with Desmond Tutu and others, led the black South Africans in a peaceful revolution. The odds were heavily against the peaceful revolution; nevertheless, with God on their side, they were victorious.
In the end, there was a strong temptation to retaliate; nevertheless, God gave them a means of forgiving enemies and forming a reconciled nation. No matter what the odds, if God is in something, no obstacle can block the great nevertheless of God.”[ii]
Theology Professor Clayton Schmit says this:
“The Spirit is not always as visibly active in the church as we might desire; nevertheless, the Spirit is unceasingly attentive to our pleading, even to the point of bringing our prayers home to God when we are unable to articulate them for ourselves.
We may not know what God has in store for us; nevertheless, the Spirit knows the mind of God and leads us toward the will of the One who made us for God’s own purposes.”[iii]
I close with a prayer that is contained within our communion hymn today: “Pray we then, O Lord the Spirit, on our lives descend in might; let your flame break out within us, fire our hearts and clear our sight, till, white-hot in your possession, we too set the world alight.” Amen.
[i] Saldine, Kristin Emery. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 4.
[ii] Ibid, Clayton L. Schmit, p. 19