Homily for Pentecost – June 8, 2014
Being Spiritual Means Connecting with the Spirit
As Luke tells the story of the advent of the Spirit, beginning in the latter part of his Gospel and continuing into the Book of Acts, the disciples, having lost their mentor, their guide, their rabbi, their reason for being disciples, were tending to scatter, to lose focus, to give up, or perhaps to think that the onus was all on them going forward.
But Jesus had ordered them not to go anywhere or do anything, except to “wait in Jerusalem for the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4).
I remember being told to go to my room and wait for MY Father, although, unlike the disciples, I was pretty sure what was going to happen when he got there, and I knew it wasn’t going to be a pleasant experience! Waiting can be a terrible time of uncertainty and anxiety (as anyone who has tried to sit and meditate will already know).
How do you react when you’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed or confused? What do you do? Where do you go? In crisis, we tend to want to do MORE – we can get panicked and anxious and try all kinds of desperate strategies, everything except learning to allow God to be a real part of the equation. It seems to me this has been an aspect of church life in recent years as well, and it has made for less enjoyment of God’s presence and the fellowship of other people in a joyful and caring environment and more of a hectic, action-oriented “we’ve got to save the sinking ship” mentality (whether the “ship” is the world around us or the church itself).
This might be seen as a challenge not only for the Church but for our individual lives, as we all have to engage in this struggle of how much of life is perspiration and how much is inspiration.
Jesus suggests that instead of trying to “do it all,” try doing less – try spending some real time waiting on God, resting in God, listening for God and looking for insights because they do come when we give it a chance. Pentecost is one of our assurances that this is true.
Apparently the disciples respected Jesus enough to take what he said seriously, so they waited. And Jesus did not steer his disciples wrongly. He urged them to wait – to be open to the Spirit – and the Spirit becomes present to them in a dramatic way, generating a sense of empowerment and a new vision, and a realization that their life in Christ was not over but just beginning.
The account of Pentecost in the Book of Acts says in no uncertain terms that, from the beginning, the Church is an institution that relies DIRECTLY upon God, promising direct access, and believing that empowerment by the Spirit is not only possible but essential, and it is portrayed not as some great act of achievement or discipline on our part, but simply a matter of trust – a matter of learning to trust the insights and words of Jesus and to wait upon God.
As Luke tells the story, the Holy Spirit is a blast of new energy and enthusiasm, a breath of fresh air, an influx of passion and purpose and an activation of their apostolic ministry, which then plays out in the Book of the Acts (or Actions) of the Apostles. Luke is no doubt aware he is describing something that cannot really be captured in words, and more interested in the results than in the details of precisely what it looked like. He portrays it as a kind of cataclysmic, other-worldly experience, which can make it hard for us to identify with. We have all had such moments when the Spirit became intensely present – we just may not have connected those moments with the grand event that Luke is describing.
So, what happens when the Spirit is present? What does it look like? As Luke tells it, people are drawn together, they develop new ways of understanding each other and they are able to communicate; racial and cultural distinctions are overcome; ancient misunderstandings (as had been described in the Tower of Babel story in Genesis) are instantly undone; people are liberated from the past, and they find their own voice and purpose; a new sense of hope emerges.
In the way Luke tells the story of the advent of the new age of the Spirit, the sudden presence of the Spirit in some caused others to ridicule. Those affected by the Spirit were so ecstatic – so exuberant – so overjoyed – so liberated from normal — that to some they seemed to be drunk! That was the only analogy that they could come up with, because, as today’s Gospel reading suggests, until that point, there had been no experience of the Spirit – no encounter with God – that looked quite like this.
When we were in Hawaii we were blessed by many things – the ocean, the flowers, the sunsets, the food — but also by the people around us. Every day we were able to swim and float and have fun in the water, and part of the fun was watching kids letting themselves be taken by the waves and rolled up onto the beach and then pulled back down into the water again. We saw toddlers laughing so hard it made us laugh as well. In itself this is such a great image of the Spirit – how all we have to do is let ourselves be moved, and what a great ride it is when we can let go and let God. As Jesus taught us, watching children at play is always a great way to see the Spirit of God at work.
One day we watched as an older man (we figured he was about 80) started rolling in the surf, letting the waves roll him up onto the beach and carry him back down again as the children had been doing previously. Until that point most of the adults had avoided being knocked over and tumbled by the water, except for one extremely drunk woman who after falling over spent about 10 minutes loudly expressing her amazement about how and why that had happened. The contrast between a person merely drunk and a person reveling in the Spirit could not have been more obvious. This old guy wasn’t drunk – after all, it was early in the day. To watch this old man tumbling, laughing, having fun, free to enjoy the moment, oblivious of the opinions of others, was an inspiration in itself — in his freedom he had the ability to bless and inspire others. This kind of behavior is often characteristic of the great saints and mystics. The Spirit liberates us from the tyranny of the conventional, that self-consciousness which is so limiting, not just to ourselves but to those who encounter us; the Spirit animates us so we can be who we truly are.
Peter speaks of this event as a new beginning, and identifies it as the inauguration of a new age which had been promised and expected for generations. Peter reminds them of the prophesy of Joel, which offers a vision of a time when the Spirit would be poured out on all people – young and old, male and female, even the poorest of the poor, the least among us, will have that Spirit, and the Spirit will speak through them. Presumably all that is required is a kind of humble openness to the possibility, and a willingness to trust in the witness and the word of Jesus.
So, living as we are in that post-Pentecost era, are we not meant to assume that we live in that reality? Do we believe the Spirit is as close as a gesture, as close as a word or a breath or the frolicking of an old man? Can we trust that the Spirit is already present in each of us? in our church? in our community?
Like the ones who stood apart from the experience and mocked, and like the adults on the beach who looked a bit scandalized by the old man rolling in the surf, it is difficult for some of us to let go, to step out of the very controlled and programmed ways of being that we inherit from the world around us. Pentecost reminds us there is another world and other ways of doing things that are for some hard to imagine.
I am sure the old man would not have called himself an agent of the Holy Spirit – in fact, when people get self-conscious and contrived about that sort of thing it usually gets awkward and weird and goes off the rails pretty quickly. But he instinctively and naturally demonstrated what St Paul was talking about when he said that our individual gifts of the Spirit serve the common good. That man’s actions had a real impact on us and upon many other people on that beach. I think that is often how the Spirit is at work among us – in little moments of unexpected joy and connection and liberation, and those moments are plentiful, but they are also all too easy to dismiss, as today’s reading from Acts suggests.
As with the people on holiday in Hawaii, the festival of Pentecost in Jerusalem was already a celebration – a holy-day — but the coming of the Spirit turns it into Mardi Gras or Disney world.
The word holiday derives from the term “holy day,” yet we almost never see the connection between the two. Think about how you are when you are on a really great holiday – how you enjoy that freedom, the departure from routine and time constraints, the carefree, restful and restorative aspect of it – the joy, the fun, the good times with family and others – the openness that you have as a tourist compared with how you normally are. I look at pictures of myself on holiday and I see the contrast, the conflict between my mundane self and my liberated self, and I am provoked to ask, who am I, really?
Feasts are made for laughter” as the Book of Proverbs tells us. Typically though, our usual church celebrations (our holy-days) don’t convey much of that sense of “rejoice in the Lord always,” as our Psalm today says. But Luke tells us in no uncertain terms that the original moment did look like that – in spades! If Pentecost is the birthday of the Church, its defining moment, then the way we celebrate our life together ought to reflect that spirit.
Church festivals are not just for the purpose of remembering some great event of the distant past. We are meant to re-engage with that Spirit – re-constitute the moment as it were. This is what we are doing each time we celebrate the Eucharist. The word “remember” is not meant to convey simply a looking back at the past and thinking about some past event. The word “remember,” as we use it in the Eucharistic prayer, is meant to bring us back into the moment – the event itself. To re-member in a Eucharistic sense is to make Christ present in this moment, not just as an historical figure but as living Lord. This is what the Church means by “real presence.”
As we wait on the Spirit today, let us do so in an attitude of expectation and hope, and be open to the many ways in which that one Spirit can inspire and activate our true selves, and inspire this gathered group of individuals to become one in Christ.
The Ven. Grant Rodgers+
RCL-appointed readings for Pentecost:
Acts 2:1-21 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs–in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
John 7:37-39 On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.'” Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.