Sunday, May 19, 2013

19 May 2013 -- The Day of Pentecost

The Day of Pentecost:  Whitsunday — 19 May 2013
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls – 9:15 am

Acts 2:1-21  |  Ps 104:25-35,37b  |  Romans 8:14-17  |  John 14:8-17,25-27

“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.”  [John 14:16-17]

The Feast of Pentecost, on which we celebrate and remember the gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples following the Ascension of Jesus, has sometimes been called “The Birthday of the Church.”  Perhaps you’re familiar with that expression; perhaps you’ve used it in Pentecost celebrations here.  I’ve never been very comfortable with that, and am not quite sure what we mean by it.  Do we mean, “this is the day the Church was born”?  No…  If by “the Church” we mean the community of the followers of Jesus, the Body of Christ, then the Church clearly is already in existence.  In a sense the Church came into existence with the call of Abraham and the establishment of the People of God.  Perhaps it might be better to say that Pentecost is the Baptismal Anniversary of the Church.  After all, just a few days ago Jesus reiterated to his disciples, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’ [Acts 1:5]    We might also think of it as the Commissioning of the Church; Jesus had also said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ [Acts 1:8]    And of course, in another narrative Jesus had said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”  [Matthew 28:19-20]  It crossed my mind to speak of this filling with the Holy Spirit as the Church’s “Ordination,” but I backed away from that pretty quickly.  The last thing we need is to encourage more clericalism!  And in any case it really isn’t too clear just who the recipients of the Spirit on this occasion are:  Although the New Revised Standard Version that we heard this morning says, “the disciples were all together in one place” – whoever “the disciples” included – the text actually just says, “they were all together in one place,” or perhaps “they all were together in one place” (or “all of them”) and it isn’t too specific as to just who “they” were.  Apparently the antecedent, at the end of the previous chapter, is “the believers,” who Luke notes “numbered about one hundred and twenty people.”  [Acts 1:15]  Thus it would be that the whole community, the whole Church at that time, is filled with the Holy Spirit.  And we should remember that although the Church, like any other human community or organization, has from the beginning had identifiable leaders with various duties, the idea of “clergy” (as distinct from the “laity,” the people) didn’t come along until many generations later.  (And like a lot of things that came along after many generations, it has been something of a mixed bag!)

Well, having said all that, we might also note that St. Luke, the historian, likes to tell narrative stories.  And that’s fine.  Jesus liked to tell stories, too, and Luke in his Gospel includes some of Jesus’ best!  Narrative stories are an important way, and often the most effective way, and sometimes the only effective way,  to communicate truths. But we might also take notice that many of the writings in the New Testament talk about important truths without apparently depending upon Luke’s narratives.  For example, the ascension of Jesus Christ and his seat at the right hand of the Father runs throughout the New Testament; St. Paul is full of it, the Letter to the Hebrews, the Revelation obviously; Matthew’s Gospel clearly implies it, John’s is pretty explicit, but only Luke, in his Gospel and the first chapter of Acts, provides a narratively described event.  So with the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the Church, in the people of Jesus’ community:  this theme runs throughout St. Paul’s letters, particularly the gifts of the Spirit and the Spirit as the basis of our relationship with God (as in the reading from Romans today).  The Gospel today from John recounts Jesus’ promise of the Spirit to his disciples, and later in the Gospel, following the Resurrection when Jesus appears to them, he says right out, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  [John 20:22]  This is not to deny the historical basis of Luke’s Pentecost event narrative, but to remind us that for the Church, in the first century and in the twenty-first, the gift and the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and our lives, individually and corporately, is more than a Bible story to be commemorated.

Next Sunday, you presumably recall, is Trinity Sunday.  Not to preempt Fr. L.’s sermon next week (I get to sit in the pew down at Trinity and hear Cathy Quehl-Engel!), but it’s no accident that Trinity Sunday comes on the next Sunday after Pentecost.  Despite what some not-really-very-good-historians imply, the doctrine of the Trinity was not invented in the the Fourth Century, nor is it based in Greek philosophy (although we did, and still do, adopt some Greek philosophical terminology to articulate it).  It is based in the lived and living experience of the Church of the followers of Jesus Christ, who knew the Lord God of Israel, who encountered that same God in a radically new way in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and who experienced that same God in the power of the Holy Spirit in them.  (How do we talk about that ineffable, transcendent, but experienced divine reality?  It took us a while to figure out how to do that without losing any of that reality.  But that’s what the Nicene Creed is basically all about.)

So I guess I am preempting Fr. L. next week!  But the truth is that the Day of Pentecost, and our understanding and experience of God the Holy Spirit, does indeed have a lot to do with what we developed as the doctrine of the Trinity.  That God is the creator of the universe who completely transcends and is far beyond and above (as long as we understand that those words are metaphoric, not literal) all created being – well, that may be hard fully to understand, but the basic concept is not too hard to grasp.  (Not everyone believes it, but (as the cell phone guy says to the kids) it’s not complicated.  That God became one of us, entered into our world as a human being, taught, healed, loved, died – and was raised from death – again, there are folks who don’t believe that’s true, but incredible as it may seem, it’s not really complicated.   The part that we tend to forget, that we often don’t pay much attention to (because the Holy Spirit does tend to hang out in the background) is that God is not just away up there (whatever that might mean), or away back then two thousand years ago, but that God is here now, God is here with us, God loves us here and now, God fills us with God’s grace here and now. God fills us with God’s power of life here and now, and through us here and now God is reaching out to all the world.

“This is the Spirit of truth…You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”  [John 14:16-17]

No comments: