LIFE IN THE SPIRIT
Homily for Pentecost Sunday, May 23, 2010
RCL appointed readings: Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:14-17; John 14:8-17, (25-27)
How do we best convey the meaning, the experience, the feeling of the moment of Pentecost? For centuries, the Church has commemorated the event by looking back on it, reflecting on it, and offering interpretations and explanations. But like the burning bush, the Transfiguration, and the vision of Christ that confronted Saul (St. Paul), Pentecost was an experience of the presence of the Spirit of God, and therefore quite beyond being adequately described by words or even comprehensible to logic.
Apparently, the result of it was powerful: the disciples were transformed; those present were amazed; and an intensely committed community formed, and with an amazing sense of confidence that community proclaimed a new way of being base on the life and teaching of Jesus.
Pentecost was, first of all, a surprise! The disciples were simply asked to show up – to trust – and they got the shock of a lifetime. The Spirit was about to take them all on a wild ride that would turn the world upside down. “It blew me away!” This has become a common expression for moments of extreme inspiration, excitement and insight. Like wind, like fire, the presence of the Spirit “blew them away.”
Acts portrays it as a moment in which barriers came down between the divine and the human, and between people of many different cultures and languages. The Holy Spirit enables community to come together “out of the blue” as it were. It was an ecstatic, wild moment, when people seemed to lose their normal composure. Some cynical types standing at the edge of the experience sneered and accused them all of being drunk.
Think of it! The first known sermon of the Christian Church involves Peter attempting to explain that those present are not drunk! Peter’s first sermon was an attempt to show that the experience wasn’t something weird and abnormal. Emphatically, they are not drunk – “it’s only 9:00 in the morning!” But it’s interesting that the ecstatic reaction to the movement of the Spirit was likened to drunkenness, in which people lose their inhibitions, come together with others, and generally have a good time. When do you last remember a church service when there was that kind of enthusiasm? The accusation suggests the riotous, energetic manner in which people were pulled out of their ordinary reserve and beyond their normal relational boundaries. As Peter proclaims is, this moment was not something drug or alcohol induced, and not something bizarre, but was in fact the way things had been intended for ages. So he quotes a centuries-old prophecy from Joel, which promised that God’s Spirit one day would be “poured out” upon all.
Jesus told his disciples that if they had truly “seen” him they would have seen “the Father,” meaning that the Spirit of God was not off somewhere in space, but present in human form, in human life, in human relationships. Jesus had already given them the gift of being able to look at a human being and see the face of God – the realization that God is with us, and in us, already. They just needed the inspiration of the same Spirit that motivated him in order to allow those connections to become real, to allow them to do “even greater things than [Jesus] had done.” Joel predicted the day of the Lord as a rough time – a terrible day. Through Christ “the day of the Lord” becomes a time of renewal, a time of joy, a time to dance, a time of re-connecting and the purpose of God’s people is re-focused on simply sharing the love of God and allowing that Spirit to be poured out on all people.
That moment that Joel longed for has come, Peter asserts! And it’s so wonderful, so delirious, that some mistook it for drunkenness. We wonder what the author was attempting to describe, but what a moment it must have been! Since then however, we have by and large looked backward to the event and viewed it historically, rather than celebrating the possibilities of the present moment, trusting that that same Spirit is just as accessible now as then. Like the prophet Joel, we need to yearn for that day to come, we need to yearn for that day to be now. Like Joel, we need to look forward in hope, not just backward in reminiscence.
Pentecost is often described as the birthday of the Church and from the account in Acts it was quite a party! The Holy Spirit is described in terms that suggest ecstasy, enthusiasm, energy – a blast of inspiration likened to wind and fire. I think that, when we are trying to celebrate great moments like Pentecost, our worship truly ought to show some signs of joy and wonder and awe and enthusiasm. It seems to me that we don’t celebrate birthdays with dirges and solemnity unless the person whose birthday it is, is dead.
Our experience of church usually isn’t that dramatic or dynamic. We come, we reflect, we may say, “isn’t that interesting,” but typically we return home pretty much the same. Is it appropriate to be looking for something different – to look for transformation? Is it appropriate to attempt to provoke a deeper, more heartfelt response?
How can we best teach people today about the significance and power of that moment – how can we help people open up to the possibility of connecting with the Spirit in the present moment?
We’ve planned and prepared very hard for this to be spontaneous (how’s that for a contradiction?). To help you experience Pentecost we created a bit of a surprise by decorating the church differently. You knew the moment you walked in something special was going on. Automatically, it shifted your expectation about what will be going on. This is definitely a step out of the usual – out of the comfort zone – into some other place – a liminal place perhaps – where the insecurity and uncertainty we experience may oblige us to be more open to Pentecost as a faith experience, something open-ended, and holding new possibilities before us, rather than a typically predictable liturgy.
An archdeacon of the Diocese of Toronto by the name of Arthur Brown (who later became Bishop Arthur Brown) apparently used to leave virtually everything about worship to the last minute – even preaching assignments. So everyone had to be ready, on the spur of the moment, to preach, to pray, to serve. That would drive some people crazy, but there is a point there about leaving room for the inspiration of the Spirit to affect our carefully laid plans. (as described in James Ferry’s book In the Courts of the Lord).
We decided to try to do something to encourage you to engage and embrace the spontaneity – the openness – the potential – the expectancy – the exuberance of the moment – as the disciples did – as children do. Spirit has a way of being present when there is trust and openness and a willingness to allow our imaginations to be captured by wonder.
In the early Church, for about the first three centuries, as worship developed, there were virtually no books, no leaflets, no set order of service. Then as now time was spent interpreting the sacred scriptures, singing, sharing eucharistically, and praying, but there was a powerful emphasis on expecting the Spirit to be present, and the bishops were expected to be spirit-filled people, so they simply prayed spontaneously and trusted that in doing so they were giving voice to the Spirit of God. I am going to attempt that approach today in praying the Great Thanksgiving (Eucharistic prayer). There is something about being out in deep water without the “floatation device” that set prayers provide. I believe that trying to find words in the moment, from within, can create an opening, a certain vulnerability, through which the Spirit can become present, and lift us to a new place of experience and trust in our prayer and worship life.
It has become customary to ignore the presence of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit has been called the forgotten “person” of the Trinity. In the Creed, we speak of the Spirit as the Lord, “the giver of life.” At ordination, and at moments like Confirmation, we pray for the descent of the Holy Spirit, but then act as if the Holy Spirit is non-existent. If the Holy Spirit is the source of life, and if Liturgy is kind of a metaphor of life, it seems to me that the liturgy can’t be entirely mapped out, or predetermined, any more than our life can.
What do we expect when we invoke the Spirit of the living God in our worship? Do we expect the Spirit to be present? If so, what do we expect the Spirit to do?
How we approach it, and how we celebrate it, makes a world of difference. Jesus promised a day when true worshippers would worship in spirit and in truth. It suggests a kind of creative dynamic between the intellect and the spirit, the head and the heart. At the very least, it means being inspired, spontaneous, and creative. Pentecost is one of those celebrations of the Church Year that creates an opportunity for all kinds of possibilities, but like the disciples, it’s up to us to show up with great expectations.
I hope today will reveal to you that Pentecost is not just a reminder of some moment in ancient history, but an incentive to open up to the presence and power of the Spirit of God now. And perhaps it will serve as motivation to ask, if not demand, from God, at least something of that energy and life that seemed to descend on those first followers of Christ. God is meant to be present in our lives – like fire, like a powerful wind –I pray that the Holy Spirit of God will set us on fire and blow us toward the future in power and purpose.