About 23 years ago, Archbishop David Moxon, of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, and the local Roman Catholic bishop made an agreement that apparently still makes him feel hopeful. The two church leaders decided to share the rite of imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, and 23 years later, they are still doing that.
The article, carried in the Anglican Journal, was called “Reaping the benefits of Anglican-RC talks.” Let me suggest to you that word “reaping” a very strong word, a word suggesting large-scale success and fulfilment, that in this case seriously exaggerates the significance of what is happening.
The article went on to say “Outstanding doctrinal differences prevent the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches from being able to actually take communion together.” Those “outstanding” differences have been securely in place for 500 years.
Moxon, the Anglican co-chair of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), is “encouraged” about the prospect of ongoing dialogue. But it’s like we mistake the ongoing meetings and dialogue for the actual thing, like the pilot who is satisfied with the flight simulator and never actually flies a plane, or the kid who begins to think that video games are the reality.
He says “ecumenical progress” (a term that is not really meant to be an oxymoron) – “ecumenical progress is measured in decades, not in days,” he says. So maybe, in terms of Anglican Roman Catholic relational “progress,” in about 300 years, we might even be allowed to make a church banner together, or maybe even be encouraged to attend each other’s garage sales. It’s good to see possibilities in the tiniest of things, but really, left to our own devices, spiritual and religious matters move along at a snail’s pace – eating up and perhaps wasting the time of well-meaning people who hope to participate in some meaningful change. Young people especially, whose energy is all about changing the world, quickly get bored and move on, seeking other means of making a difference.
And we can get into a mindset in which we are no longer even expecting anything significant to happen. It’s interesting that they have chosen to be excited about sharing ashes – something inert, something that symbolizes death. Pentecost reminds us that God has something vastly bigger in mind, and that it’s very much about life and the future.
I don’t want to entirely dismiss what the article is about (partly because I have given a fair bit of my own energy to the ecumenical cause), but I want to say to you that I think this is a long way from what God has in mind when we’re talking about “progress,” and if we settle for this kind of thing, then we may be allowing the Grinch to steal Christmas, preventing the Church from receiving and using all of its gifts.
Our life in the Church is often characterized by futility and meager returns because we institutionalize these processes and no longer feel we have the courage or even the right to step out in faith – to walk right through the human constructions/obstructions like Jesus did – to allow the Holy Spirit to be an actual partner . These bureaucratic processes take so long because they are no longer personal or spiritual processes but simply functions of the institution. To use some jargon from the 1980’s, we would rather talk the walk than walk the talk.
On this Festival of Pentecost, I want to say to you in no uncertain terms, that the Church is meant to be a vehicle for transformation, not a perpetual kindergarten that expects its members (and the world) to say “Isn’t that good, Davey,” when we do even the simplest and most basic of things.
In the absence of anything substantial, sharing ashes may seem like a big deal, like some huge accomplishment, so our church newspapers have full page articles about some simple little thing like that, and we say “Good boy, Davey! Aren’t you special!” or “You’re really on the cutting edge!” as though this were actually something really exciting. But we’re distorting the picture; we’re not doing justice to the real thing we’re called to be about. Let’s not dumb down our expectations and our aspirations, especially in terms of what we believe God can do.
How do you explain an event like Pentecost? I think the fact is that you can’t, but we are game to try, but it seems that by the time we’re finished with all our rationalizing and explaining, the Spirit has already moved on. And judging from precedent and pattern, you can be almost certain that 400 years from now we’ll still be talking about what it might mean, and what might be implied. We talk about these things are really the work of the Holy Sprit, but then we leave virtually no room in our agendas for the Spirit to work, and we seem to want to wait until we have the definitive answer before we actually DO anything. There is a reason why the book we read from today is called the ACTS of the Apostles – because they acted on their faith.
Pope Francis has said: “If one has the answers to all the questions, that is the proof that God is not with that person. It means that person is a false prophet using religion for themselves. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble.”
It’s hard to make inspiration happen – in the end it doesn’t matter how clever or talented or creative you think you are, at some point you exhaust your own ingenuity and come to that place of needing to receive guidance and power from God. The Church is definitely at that point when it needs to recover its spiritual life – its faith, its hope, its love – its sense of connection with the living God.
Today’s reading from Acts reveals a very different picture of the way God works among us – as a powerful, unpredictable, transformative, and motivating presence. Looking at much of what we do and how we do it, who knew the church could be exciting, dramatic, ecstatic and delirious with joy to the point that bystanders thought the disciples must be drunk! Well, they were high all right, because they were suddenly plugged into the power of the living God. There is an enormous difference between merely thinking or talking about God and actually experiencing God. Pentecost is one of the festivals that reminds us that this experience is not just helpful but essential to a full and authentic Christian life.
The scriptures we read today witness to the possibility that every now and again there can be major breakthrough moments, moments of sea change, immediate paradigm shifts, as the Creator, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the Universe, the Author of Life (whatever we might want to call God) suddenly manifests.
I think the current Pope is one of those people who wants to push the Church to that edge – to be Christian not in name only but in terms of how we are and what we do. He is obviously aware that it’s not just about finding formulas or programs to “make” it happen – it’s not about better management or technique, or waiting until we have the right answer. It’s about being open to the leading of the Spirit, humble enough to be faithful, willing to go forward in our uncertainty and inadequacy, believing that God is actually and already present to guide and support us.
Again and again, St Paul urges the Church, and individual Christians, to trust in the reality, the presence, the power of the Spirit, to live an authentically Christian life. The Spirit doesn’t need to come from anywhere else but from within you, because that is where the Spirit already resides.
Writer Caroline Myss: “Do you really want to look back on your life and see how wonderful it could have been had you not been afraid to live it?”
Pentecost is the birthday of the Church and I want to suggest that life in the Church is meant to look a lot more like that picture in Acts 2 than the dry, droning, dreary and terminally safe picture we usually display. It is a picture of people becoming enthused, filled with the Spirit. It is a picture of people coming together, really sharing themselves and committing to the building of a new kind of covenant community; it is a picture of people discovering what a profound and meaningful thing it is to walk by the Spirit of God in the name of Jesus Christ.
People shouldn’t have to go around the church or avoid it altogether in order to make spiritual progress. And while older folks perhaps wisely might say that at their age they can’t be expected to run off and change the world, you can make sure you aren’t preventing and discouraging others from doing it; you can make sure you are helping to create priorities for the Church that allow it to grow and change and move forward, rather than trying to make it stay exactly the same as you have always known it, and tying it to the past. What if we did that with our children? The prospect of a 60-year-old man with the mindset of a five-year-old isn’t attractive or compelling.
You could say that the most deadly sin the Church could ever commit would be to be boring. The Book of Revelation suggests we must be anything but mediocre, but too often we have actually prided ourselves in our mediocrity; Anglicans in particular have always wanted to find the middle ground, which is good to a point, but it has meant that we have little patience for enthusiasm, creativity, passion, innovation or imagination. It can seem like we don’t know where God fits into the equation. It concerns me sometimes when we want to talk about the church only in terms of being a nice safe place. Any place where God is, is not necessarily that safe.
Let’s not be like that guy in John’s Gospel who sat by the healing pool for 38 years without anything ever happening, without ever being transformed, without ever even getting into the water. When we celebrate Baptism or the Eucharist, we are already that close to the source – we are that close to the Spirit of the living Christ who yearns to be present to us, to bring us to life, to heal our deadness.
The feast of Pentecost is meant to be an energetic celebration that not only reminds but enables us to connect with the unfathomable power we have been given. For weeks we have been celebrating and reminding ourselves of the fact that Jesus is all about Resurrection and new life. Jesus, in some of his final words to the community he created and loved and placed his hopes in, said: “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” The Church always has great things to accomplish; NOW is always the time to trust in the presence of the Spirit of God and to respond faithfully, to allow the Spirit to open up the future,
Energy, fire, enthusiasm, power, inspiration, passion – these are words we associate with the Holy Spirit of God. Let us be open enough to God’s Spirit working through each of us, and all of us, that we too might do as the Book of Acts suggests, and turn the world upside down.
The Ven. Grant Rodgers+
RCL-appointed readings for Pentecost:
Genesis 11:1-9 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
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.’
John 14:8-17, (25-27) Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.