Day of Pentecost–May 20, 2018
Acts 2:1-21, Romans 8:22-27, Psalm 104:25-35, 37, John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
As Anglicans and Episcopalians we focus on Jesus, the Jew from Nazareth, who as Willimon says, “lived briefly, died violent, and rose unexpectedly”. He is the center of our faith—that is, our faith is in his faithfulness for us and with us. He is the Word made flesh, the image of the invisible God, the Beloved Son…on and on we could go using Biblical images. And nothing I say today will seek to diminish one bit this focus on Jesus. But because we are often a one trick pony we can be blind to the other dimensions of the Jesus story. Partly because we only see what we’re looking for and partly because to focus elsewhere can scare us.
And let’s be honest the Holy Spirit scares us—especially us Episcopalians! I remember my Atlanta parish in the late 1960s fighting to make sure the Holy Spirit didn’t show up in any unusual ways at worship. We wanted no part of the Charismatic renewal shaking the Episcopal and Roman Catholic Churches. An important book at the time was by Dennis Bennett, an Episcopal priest and rector of a large church in Seattle, Washington. The title of the book came from the reading from Acts this morning: when Peter says, “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.”
In Bennett’s book, Nine O’clock in the Morning, he tells how the Holy Spirit burst out into a new Pentecost in his traditional Episcopal Church.
And Episcopalians across the land rose up to resist this movement or to embrace it—often in the same congregation—which meant many churches split right down the middle.
At various times in my life I’ve been on both sides of this struggle and can see virtue in both. But what I see now, as I ponder Peter’s speech, is this whole Charismatic-Traditionalist split was then and can be now “A red herring” which that “misleads or distracts from a relevant or important issue.”
You see, if church members were fighting over styles of music—do we use the organ or guitars—and over whether one raised hands in worship—do I raise them or keep them folded in my lap. These controversies had the merit of keeping many churches from facing the really scary thing about Pentecost.
Luke points us right to that scary thing when he lists all the countries that were represented on that first Pentecost: He says there were “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.”
When I was in fourth grade one of the worst things you could call someone was a Cretan: in our minds a Cretan was an ignoramus, a blockhead.
There were Cretans, and Arabs—this story has something to do with Arabs? Not to mention folks from Libya.
The Holy Spirit empowers the disciples to reach all these people with the Good News of Jesus Christ such that thousands are so touched they join the Jesus Movement.
While we were fighting about how we worship we didn’t have to worry about our bigotry and white privilege; we didn’t have to ask questions like, “why were we living on the rich side of town going to great schools and people of color weren’t. And why in the world were we fighting a devastating war in Southeast Asia?”
So on this day of Pentecost, we pray for the courage to look at the Holy Spirit’s role in the Jesus Story.
At the beginning of creation described in Genesis 1, the Spirit hovers over the chaos and void, as God’s creative power. Prophets of Israel are anointed by the Spirit to proclaim God’s agenda for the world: Prophets under the Spirit, like Micah say: “Nations shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks and nation shall not lift up sword against nation and neither shall they learn war anymore; Micah 4:3
“What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” 6:8
Holy Spirit overshadows the Virgin Mary and the same Spirit descends on Jesus at his baptism in order to empower him for God’s work of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Holy Spirit reminds Peter of the Prophet Joel’s vision of what God is doing in the world.
“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
on your sons and your daughters…on your young men and old men….Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit…on all flesh….
and they shall prophesy…that is they shall proclaim and live God’s agenda for the world.”
Beloved we are living in “those days”, which began at the cross and resurrection of Jesus and we need Joel’s vision now more than ever because our world, just like our nation, is splintering into tribal groups which sustain themselves with injustice and violence—and find expression in well-armed teenagers who kill their classmates in school..
Yes it’s the story of Jesus AND Holy Spirit who together perform God’s agenda for the world. That’s why Jesus says at the Last Supper: “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.”
Joel’s vision millions was heard by millions yesterday in our brother Michael’s sermon at the royal wedding. Dave Homes writing for “Esquire” magazine, not known for its support of Christ, gives a short review that starts this way: “When we all dragged ourselves out of bed before sunrise on Saturday to watch the Royal Wedding, we expected tradition. Stiff British upper lips. Fascinators. We did not expect to be taken to church. But I’ll be damned if The Most Reverend Michael Curry, the first African-American Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, didn’t take us right there.”
He ends the review by saying: “Raw displays of emotion such as Bishop Curry’s are profoundly un-British, but we as Americans are free to eat them…up. And at this point in history, when the world seems to be getting crueler by the minute, an impassioned plea for self-sacrifice, a call for a life centered on love for one’s neighbor, is exactly what we need to be hearing….We really did not expect to get inspired by a Royal Wedding, but there you are. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I am going to join the Episcopal Church.”
The issue is most decidedly not how we worship but that our worship involves surrendering to the Spirit of Jesus, to be empowered by Spirit to practice Jesus’ agenda —Practice loving God and loving neighbor, even loving enemies. Practice radical inclusion. Feed the hungry, comfort the sick, and transform those social systems that favor rich over poor, white people over people of color, and maybe hardest of all—practice forgiveness 70 times 7 times toward everyone.
This is why the Holy Spirit continues to descend on all flesh today: to empower us to practice Jesus’ Way, his Truth, and his Life.
And, yes, we should be scared, because this work requires going outside our comfort zone.
And here’s a promise: as we step out and practice living Jesus’ vision we will experience Holy Spirit—and know her direction, her comfort, and the fire of her love which we see in Jesus.