Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Day of Pentecost – June 8, 2014
God’s love for us is as warm as a flame, reaching into every cold place and breathing new life as the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.
In his book, Non Campus Mentis, Professor Anders Henriksson cites jottings from term papers and blue book exams of college students in his course on Western Civilization. For example: “…The power of the church was based on soul control of the sacer mints. Pentecost was accustomed as a big feast of the Holy Spirit flying overhead.”
“…Monks were assigned to monkeries, where they were supposed to live as nuns. Many, however, simply preyed by day and played by night. Fryers were required to take a vow of pottery.” The confusion of his students perhaps provokes a smile but the fact is that the history of the church is messy and getting a handle on what this day of Pentecost is about is not that simple. Pentecost presents a challenge.
Theologian and author, Peter Leithart, says that “Pentecost is culturally invisible. There are no Pentecost sales at department stores, no jolly elves, heart-warming movies, bunnies or jelly beans—but without Pentecost, Christmas and Good Friday and Easter don’t mean much.”
For the Hebrew people, God’s Spirit—Ruach—the very breath of God, performed specific acts, giving power and wisdom to their leaders, inspiring the prophets, endowing their nation with the ability to rebuild itself after the Exile. In Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes and abides in him so that his every act is performed in concert with the Divine Spirit. Then on Pentecost Jesus pours out that same Spirit who has remained with him on the community of his disciples in Jerusalem and to be with us forever.
The first reading today tells us how it went down in that upper room. The giving of the Spirit was a massive outburst—not just a “flying overhead.” Just imagine the scene painted for us in the account from the Acts of the Apostles: a violent wind, fiery tongues descending, holy commotion, great excitement, heat and velocity—all of which leads this small gaggle of people to boldly proclaim the powerful works of God with a sense of urgency and conviction.
They caught the Spirit and discovered a force of holy energy they had never before experienced. They yielded to it, and opened their hearts to her power. What a scene that must have been—the beginning of church.
Writing in The Christian Century, Princeton Theological Seminary Professor Beverly Gaventa says that Pentecost is not an easy story to preach since “Pandemonium breaks forth! Sound overwhelms the room. Tongues of fire reach out to seize people. The walls cannot contain either the people or the spirit that moves them. With an instantaneous shift of venue, the believers are thrust into public view, and the image of order in the first chapter of Acts is shattered forever.”
Make no mistake about it. That power did not cease to be in the first century. We are all disciples and prophets sent forth to proclaim the mighty works of God.
The author of Acts does not say a word about any qualifications of the believers gathered on that first Pentecost. He doesn’t say that the Spirit descended on the brightest and best. He says that the Spirit descended on all of them. It doesn’t matter whether we are young or old, whether we have studied theology, what in what color God made us, what our gender or sexual orientation, marital status or financial status. God’s Spirit has been poured out on all of us.
We have been anointed. We are the great holy commotion the church needs today, called forth to go out and testify boldly to the mighty works of God, to let people know that, no matter who they are or where they’ve been, they are loved and are not alone, to invite them—intentionally and purposefully—to share in the gifts we have been given in this community, to be here with arms open for those not yet here, to be a church where the face of God is not masked and where religion is not toxic and where people may be fully affirmed as they are. That is the Great Commission call we have answered at St. Paul’s. That is outreach in its purest and simplest expression and we often miss it while we sit around and try to figure out what it means.
Author Sara Miles knows something about that. She grew up in a family with no religion and was raised as an atheist. Then one day she walked into an Episcopal church in California. In her book, Take this Bread: A Radical Conversion, she describes her introduction to church. “Holy Communion,” she writes,” knocked me upside down and forced me to deal with the impossible reality of God.
“Then, as conversion continued, relentlessly challenging my assumptions about religion and politics and meaning, God forced me to deal with all kinds of other people…It may seem crazy, at this point in history, to assert that any religion—much less Christianity, the religion of the contemporary empire, of the powerful and intolerant—can be a force for connection, for healing, for love.
“But this is my belief: at the heart of Christianity is a power that continues to speak and to transform us. And I found to my alarm that it could speak even to me. Faith, for me, isn’t an argument, a catechism, a philosophical ‘proof.’ It is instead a lens, a way of experiencing life, and a willingness to act.”
We have been given unprecedented power in the continuing, abiding, ever-present energy of the Holy Spirit—the very Breath of God. What do we do with that power? In the words of Sara Miles, “we don’t’ promise to erase suffering but to transform it, pledging that, by loving one another, even through pain, we will find more life. And that by opening ourselves to strangers, we will see more and more of the holy, since without exception, all people are one body: God’s”
Into that one body, we welcome today Allison Elizabeth Cofone, Amelia Jane and Evelyn Archer Collier-Lake, and A’Janae Dajoor Hazel Maye who join us in or call to work as God’s people to bring peace and justice and healing and restoration to the world, each in our own unique and gifted way. With them we will promise to receive the Holy Spirit and open our hearts to her power.
The Ruach, the Spirit of God, came in a massive outpouring to the first believers gathered in a room in Jerusalem, a blast of wind and tongues of fire, with warmth and great force—the great surprise of God—kind of like a little old lady who wades into a barroom brawl, shooting her six-guns into the air—and still surprises us— blowing in and out, stirring us up, rattling our cages, with a power that continues to speak to us and to transform us.
In a homily he preached on Pentecost nearly fifteen hundred years ago, St. Gregory the Great address the people of God with these words: “My friends, consider the greatness of this solemn feast that commemorates God’s coming as a guest into our hearts!” Come, Holy Spirit, come!