The Day of Pentecost: May 20, 2018
The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:12)
What are we doing?? It’s Pentecost, the great feast of the Holy Spirit, celebrating the experience of God as wind and flame, as gatherer and sender, swirling around a community and making new things happen. Pentecost is a celebration that always feels a little bit like license to go crazy in church, to parade and set things on fire and get people wet – in a few moments – and speak in tongues – in a few moments more. All in a restrained Anglican sort of way, of course, though not, perhaps, quite as restrained as yesterday’s royal wedding. Pentecost is Bishop Michael Curry preaching in the chapel at Windsor Castle. Pentecost is the Spirit coming in like fire to the midst of human protocol and getting everyone all riled up. Riled up in the name of love, and we know we need it. So today, a chance to go a little crazy. (I’m sure it’s for this reason that NYC chose this weekend for Thrive NYC, a time to focus on mental health. You can find some materials about this in the back.)
But in the spirit of teaching a little about what we do in church, it’s worth saying a few things about just what this feast day is for. Like so much else in our faith, its roots are in Judaism. Jewish tradition says that when God gave the Law to Moses and all the people gathered at Mt Sinai, a fire came down from heaven and divided into 70 flames, one for each nation of the world (as they saw it). Everyone on earth received the Law, the way God wanted all people to live. But only one nation, Israel, chose to respond, and so they entered into a special relationship with God, to serve as a sign and a blessing for all peoples. And so that event, the giving of the Law at Sinai, is celebrated every year on the feast of Shavuot, the festival of Weeks, which falls 50 days after Passover – this very weekend, in fact, in the Jewish calendar. In the early days, it was a time when Jews of the diaspora living scattered throughout the Mediterranean would bring the first fruits of the harvest to the temple in Jerusalem – and so it was a day of pilgrimage, of returning from wherever they lived to the holy city to give thanks to God for all God had done for them and their people.
So that’s why when all of Jesus’ followers were gathered together on Pentecost, as Luke tells it, ‘devout Jews from every nation under heaven’ were also gathered together in Jerusalem. The 12 disciples – back to 12 because Matthias came in to take Judas’ place – are with 120 new believers, like the 12 tribes of Israel gathered together. A rush of wind and fire comes upon them – just like what happened on Mt Sinai when God appeared there – and the fire divides into a flame on each one of them, and each one begins to speak in a different language. And every Jew gathered into Jerusalem for the feast hears his or her own language being spoken, and they hear and understand the good news of God being spoken to them. And, the story goes on to say, some 3000 new followers are baptized because of this, and the new Christian community begins to grow and grow, and ‘day by day…they spent much time together in the temple…and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.’ The divine flame that had been divided before, now brings all together into one community; the first fruits of the harvest are brought in, one new people for God gathered to Jerusalem from all over the world.
Now, for all of you who have been reading Acts this season, you know that Pentecost isn’t the only time the Holy Spirit comes upon people – the experience keeps happening again and again as the community grows. And this isn’t the first time in scripture that it happens either, as the Mt Sinai story makes clear. There’s kind of a pattern to how the Spirit works, actually. Whether it is to an individual or a gathered group, it is the same story: to Abraham, to Moses, to the Israelites in Egypt, to David the shepherd, to the prophet Jeremiah, to the fishermen called by Jesus, to Paul and all those who came along after Jesus: there they are minding their own business, stuck in their limited understandings of how the world is, trudging along in their routines or sometimes mired in their feelings of hopelessness and fear – and right into this drops the divine, like an arrow shot, like a sudden fast-growing plant up from the soil, like a lover’s voice – and everything changes. First there is joy, elation, exuberant ecstasy, laughter; and then off they go to do a new thing, to call to their friends and their people, to liberate the enslaved, to heal and preach, to prophesy and condemn injustice, to gather people they never knew before into a whole new family. Is this a great story, or what?
But of course there’s a cost – they can never go back to where they were before; everything really does change: no more watching the sheep and fishing for tonight’s catch, no more cowering in fear and sticking to just the people you know, no more playing by the staid, comfortable, safe rules of this world. All of that breaks down, and some people look at them and laugh and call them drunk, some raise their eyebrows when they get too carried away, some may even fight them and kill them and do all they can to stop them, but still all of these people – all of these unlikely people – just keep on doing this new thing.
And those people, my friends, are our ancestors, our religious gene-carriers, if you will. And that genetic pattern is still at work. God breaks in to the status quo, joy wells up, everything changes, and out we go to do a new thing. Or we should, anyway. But the status quo can hang on tight – our real, God-given, birthright nature can get lost. God appears, invites us into something new, we follow in delight, and then…well, maybe we don’t want everything to change exactly, maybe just a few things, and the joy really doesn’t last now, does it, and when’s the last time God really did show up in my life anyway, and maybe it’s perfectly enough if I just come to church every few months or so and leave it at that. Because actually I’m more comfortable just the way I was, thanks, even if maybe not quite so joyful.
And yet encountering the Holy Spirit does make us different, even past the moment of ecstasy. Being baptized like these five kids today (Kayra and Milo and Micah and Olivia, and EJ tonight) changes us. We might not quite realize it at first. We might still be in the midst of struggles in our own lives, and grieving over the hard things of this world. We might still know too well our own faults and those of our community. We may be restless, longing for things to be better. God doesn’t magically smooth out the way before us. The Spirit doesn’t solve our problems for us. But with God’s help, with God’s presence, we begin to see differently what might be; we find courage to face into what scares us; we step into an oasis of deep calm despite all the storms that rage. And things begin to change.
When the Holy Spirit shows up, things happen. Not just in the book of Acts. Something happens here too that we can’t quite explain. We go through the motions of worship and suddenly there’s a presence there, and everyone feels it and marvels at it. We sign up to take a class on listening skills and find to our surprise a deep community developing, new kinds of ministry unfolding before us. We pray at the beginning of a meeting, each praying in turn for each other, and we realize that now we see and know each other more completely. We gather to do some planning, and find ourselves naming our deep desire and need for real spiritual friendship. Over and over again, we find ourselves wanting more, more of that indescribable feeling together, more of that sense of purpose, more of that real relationship, knowing and being known. And I name just a few of the things that have happened at St Michael’s this last week.
Because the Holy Spirit, in fact, is active and rushing about right here among us. And not just because we’re getting a little silly – only slightly silly – with worship. The Spirit won’t let this community here stay the same. There’s too much longing to go deeper that’s been stirred up for that. We’re getting thirsty for real water, hungry for food that truly nourishes us, agitated to bring about changes that we know the world needs. And I’d bet the Spirit won’t let you and me stay entirely the same either, however safe we think we might be. I imagine that there’s more to come for each and every one of us.
So today on this day of Pentecost, welcome the Spirit. Remember your baptism and being marked as Christ’s own forever. Remember what brought you into a church, maybe this church, for the first time, even if that first time is today. Feel the holy restlessness God has put in you, the desire for more, for love, joy, the power of God. Taste if you can the joy of God being here, there, everywhere in our lives and our world. See what might happen. God is here; God’s Spirit is with us.