HOMILY FOR PENTECOST
MAY 24, 2015
For the last couple of days, some members of our parish have been very focused and busy, representing you at the diocesan synod. The theme of our Synod this year was (BE)LONGING, which carries an intentional double meaning: Be longing (as in, take on an attitude of longing); and also, belonging (as in, being part of a community).
Both meanings express something central to Pentecost. First, that the disciples were longing for that life that Jesus had described would be available to them through the Spirit. The Gospels suggest that Jesus gave his disciples reason to believe that his work would not come to an end with his death, but would continue by virtue of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus apparently referred to as an Advocate (quite a positive and reassuring term).
That Spirit would be available and accessible to ordinary folks from that point on, as a way of fulfilling and continuing the work of Jesus himself (the connection between Father, Son and Spirit, which we celebrate as Trinity, is very obvious in John’s Gospel) but also proving to be a validation of hopes and promises expressed in the Hebrew scriptures of a new age of the Spirit
The disciples were longing, yearning, even desperate, for the life that Jesus had been promising. “Greater things than these will you do because I go to the Father,” he said. Having seen what Jesus was about, who wouldn’t want to embrace such a promise? Like any decent spiritual mentor, Jesus had instilled in them a profound hope, a sense that that their lives had significance, and that God is worth seeking and finding.
At Synod we had one group exercise that asked us to describe the God that we ourselves long for. It was not easy to put into words what we really long for. Do we really know what we most deeply need? That is, do we really know our own hearts?
People at our table expressed longings such as: loving relationships with each other and all of creation; balance; hope; forgiveness and acceptance; there were longings for grace; for truth; for meaning; for endless love without judgement; for the peace that passes all understanding.
St Augustine said “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.” You could say that the yearning itself is God – the God who is already central and intrinsic to who we are. Or, as some might put it, we are what we seek.
We are often led to believe the modern materialistic slogan that “this is as good as it gets.” But as St Paul says, hope that is seen is not hope.” We are given only a partial experience of something that in its fullness will be mind-blowing and absolutely awe-inspiring, and the accounts we have in scripture and in sacred tradition, of people trying to describe contact with the living God, all seem to make that point.
So the direction scripture seems to give us is that it is good to “be longing” – to adopt and cultivate an attitude of hope and expectation – to persist in a sense of optimism – to have a positive outlook — be looking for something great to happen. And to lose that is to lose track of something essential to human life.
As Paul says, “Who hopes for what they already have?” It’s not a matter of being dissatisfied; rather, it’s being aware that more is possible. So in response to the “It doesn’t get any better than this!” attitude, the Church says “Yes it does!” In fact, it gets infinitely better than that, so don’t settle for mediocre or superficial. We’ve all heard the story of Esau trading away his future for a bowl of porridge, and the sad fact is that this story is re-enacted millions of times over in our society. Pentecost proclaims a different reality and possibility.
To be longing is to become familiar with your own need for God – to be in touch with that desperate place at the centre of your being that you smooth over with nonchalance, with a kind of “I don’t really care” or “I’m above all that” kind of exterior. But it’s when we are honest enough, real enough, to acknowledge that desperation, when we are in a really vulnerable and open place, that the Spirit of God can come rushing in to our lives – like wind – like fire.
St Paul, in the second reading today (from Romans 8), is talking about that deep place within us, that place of yearning too deep for words, below our ordinary level of consciousness. Paul reveals that it is there that the Spirit connects with us and gives articulation and meaning and purpose to our lives, whereas so often we fiddle around with only the most superficial levels of our being and the most trivial of concerns, and we call it religion.
It stuck me that the text says the disciples were not only in an attitude of waiting for something, “they were sitting.” To me, that suggests the receptiveness of meditation, because sitting is the typical pose for most forms of meditations. They may or may not have been meditating, but the phrase suggests that they already knew that they had to go deep – they had to find that stillness that allows people to become aware of God’s presence.
The second aspect of Pentecost which got our attention at Synod is the word “belonging” which is so appropriate as we celebrate Pentecost because Pentecost is traditionally the day on which we see the Church come into being, no longer a haphazard cluster of individuals, but a body authorized and empowered by God to carry on the work of Christ. The re-constituting of the 12 which we heard in last week’s readings is a sign that this is not just a group of people who happened to follow Jesus around for a while. This is the new Israel, this is a sacred community, meant to be a symbol and sacrament to the world.
The historical Jesus moves on, but the work of the Christ continues. There is an ancient legend that when Jesus arrived in heaven the angel Gabriel asked what plans he had made for his work to continue. He replied that he had left it all in the hands of the disciples. “And if they fail?” asked Gabriel. And Jesus said, “I have no other plans.”
People in our time, whether they consciously articulate it or not, are yearning for community – for a place to be centered, rooted, grounded. They are longing for a meaningful life, and for recognition and acceptance. Belonging is fundamental to our well-being. People need a place where they belong, where they matter, where they are known and valued and supported, and more importantly, they need a place where they can be encouraged and enabled to grow into the fullness of who they are and not be stifled or discouraged or shamed into being something less.
Jesus gathered together a diverse and unlikely group of followers, and gave them a place of belonging. This is a gift the Church already and always has – the gift of community.
People who walk into a church looking for like-minded people – people of a similar age, or look or style, or for people who have the same interests and means to fulfill them, are going to be disappointed – and if they persist in that attitude they are going to undermine the true gift that the Church has to offer.
So often I have shared with people a vision of what the community of faith can be and people have come to church with high expectations – only to say to me afterward – THIS is what you were talking about? This is it? Well, yes and no. It is not the final manifestation of the presence and glory of God (so don’t expect it to be), but it is a place that points in that direction. Even with its most obvious flaws, it is still a place that gives us a foretaste of what the kingdom is like, so even though we may find an absolutely wonderful parish community, the “perfect” parish that so many people seem to long for, our longing continues, and our search continues, because the final fulfilment is in God.
Community in the Christian sense is much more complex and interesting than finding people who are exactly like yourself. Like the scene in Jerusalem at Pentecost, our parishes are full of diversity – people of many backgrounds, languages, values, experiences and hopes. The glue that brought them together and held them together is the Spirit of God. So it is with the Church. The church is an odd but intentional mix of people rich and poor, successful and struggling, broken and whole, old and young, men and women. I say intentional because I believe that the Spirit calls people to be part of communities. Our being in a certain community often doesn’t make sense even to us. As a priest I have certainly felt called to communities that I would not have chosen. But we know somehow that we are meant to be here — or we wouldn’t be here. Our being here is evidence of some action of the Spirit within us.
The intensity and integrity and even the direction of the community are largely up to us, but let us begin to realize what a gift it is that we already have and are part of, and figure out how we might better offer that gift to the world around us.
We are people of the Spirit – spirited people – people animated by the Spirit that animates the universe. And so one of the challenges of the Christian journey is to listen to the Spirit and live by the Spirit. Pentecost is a yearly reminder and celebration of an everyday reality – the power and accessibility of God – the potential for transformation. God is that fire within us, that wind that in an instant can blow all our tiresome theories about God away. As the song says, “Our God is an AWESOME God!”
I have come to believe that humour and irony are gifts of God, and also signs of God’s presence. Synods often provide unintentional moments of humour. During one of the readings at Morning Prayer, as we stood there half awake, looking anything but inspired, some of us clutching coffee cups as though they were life preservers, a line from 1 Peter reminded us: “the Gospel was proclaimed even to the dead.” Talk about a wake up call!
But (lest you think I am simply mocking my fellow Anglicans) I have also come to believe that when people who are tired and stressed and demoralized persist in trying to do the right thing, that is also a sign of the Spirit at work.
The pattern of death and resurrection always continues in the life of the Church, and we must believe that the Spirit is always at work to bring new life in even the most unlikely places and people – even here, even in us. Our longing and belonging are signs of the Spirit of God stirring us out of despair and into hope – out of isolation and into community – out of death and into life.
The Ven. Grant Rodgers+
RCL 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.’
Romans 8:22-27 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. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise 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. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15 “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning. “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.