Pentecost 2020, Preached at Calvary Episcopal Church, Burnt Hills
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
John 20:19-23 or John 7:37-39
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
In my Christian walk, I have come to understand God’s relationship with humankind in fits and starts. Our understanding of God, like our understanding of other human beings, is ever evolving.
Beginning when I was very young, my father picked me up from my mother’s every Friday evening after work and we had a long drive through the desert to his house which made for long talks. I asked him lots of important questions, like “How much do mountains weigh?”
Even into my adulthood, my father and I talked almost every day, and I thought I knew everything there was to know about my dad. And then, sometime in my 30s, he told me a new story.
He told me that he had bussed tables at a women’s sorority to get through college. Not knowing the context, I joked, “You probably just wanted to meet girls.”
His tone grew serious and he told me that back then, in the 1940s, sorority girls did not date boys with foreign sounding last names. His name was David Kiwak, and he was the child of Russian immigrants. Our understanding of one another, even those we love the most, is always growing and changing.
Early on after my conversion to Christianity, I understood Pentecost to mean that Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to be with us so that God could be more fully present to us.
However, God has been with us since since He spoke the world into existence, since he gathered a handful of dust and breathed us into being. There is no place—or time— where God is not.
In the Book of Genesis, when Abram’s slave, Hagar, fled Sarai’s harsh treatment and took refuge in the wilderness///God met Hagar there. When the Prophet Ezekiel was exiled in Babylon, wind tore open the heavens and God appeared to Ezekiel in flashing fire.
God is immortal, omnipotent, omnipresent. God CANNOT be absent.
So what, then, is the meaning of this day, Pentecost, when tongues of fire rain down? It is not the invention of the Holy Spirit. The Eternal God—Father, Son and Spirit—has always been, as it was in the beginning, was on the day of Pentecost, is now and forever shall be.
Picture that day: Jesus’ followers are gathered and the wind begins whipping around them, fire falling down everywhere—like sitting near a huge bonfire and the embers start popping and flying. And while they’re trying to make sense of fire dropping from the sky, each disciple begins speaking in a different language,
real languages that the Jews from many nations who are within earshot understand. In the tumult of wind and fire and a dozen languages, Peter stands and addresses his fellow disciples to give context to what they are experiencing.
Peter quotes the Prophet Joel, who wrote:
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days. (Joel 2: 28-29)
Peter offers a reference for understanding their experience of flame and wind. The Prophet Joel wrote four or five hundred years before Christ in the midst of crisis, in a land threatened by an invading army, which Joel depicts using a metaphor of locusts decimating the land.
Yahweh speaks through the prophet saying, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” In Hebrew spirit also means wind, and in the book of Joel it signifies the dry desert wind that divides the seasons one from another.
Like the breath of God that animated the first man, and the stormy wind which heralded the revelation of God to Ezekiel, at Pentecost, the wind rushes and whirls around the disciples, signifiying a changing season for those who follow Jesus.
The followers of Christ on earth are transformed into the followers of Christ who reigns in heaven. In wind and fire, wind of change and fire of the presence of God, the Church is birthed into being.
Joel’s prophecy is at that moment fulfilled: God’s spirit is poured on the disciples through the risen Christ.
The followers of Jesus at Pentecost were in transition from the know to the unknown. The disciples have had to transition from 3 years of following Jesus, learning from him and witnessing his miracles, an immersion in God’s work on earth, daily contact with the living, Incarnate God, his wisdom and his parables.
And then they witnessed his arrest and torture and death.
As we heard in today’s Gospel, after the crucifixion, Jesus’ own disciples sequestered themselves behind closed doors in grief at the loss of the rabbi and in fear of what harm may also come to them, in the chaos and confusion in Jerusalem.
God is never absent. Jesus finds them there, stands in the midst of them and ministers to them. Jesus BREATHES the Spirit upon them.
Globally we followers of Jesus are also experiencing tumult and uncertainty. We too are sequestered.
We bear in our bodies the loneliness of isolation from loved ones and routines. We bear the nagging fear of illness, the angst of worrying about the weakest among us, parents and grandparents and the sick.
While performing the most mundane tasks of daily living, like grocery shopping and filling the gas tank, we come face to face with our mortality.
If you are black or Latino, you carry the extra burden of knowing Coronavirus disproportionately affects you.
Most of us have anxiety about timelines for the opening of our church buildings, about the safety of worshipping together.
But we should bear in mind that Jesus did not command us to worship him in charming, steepled buildings with red doors. Jesus did not command us to sit in pews in our better clothes, to embrace one another at the sign of peace and nibble on lemon bars at coffee hour.
These things are holy: charming old churches, and human touch and community and coffee— these are good and holy, and I miss them, but they are not what Jesus commanded us to do.
What did Jesus command?
“From anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” (John 6:29)
“Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” (John 6:35)
“When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”
And before he ascended, Jesus instructed his disciples to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And he said and “Teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Mt 28:19-20)
Here’s another way my walk with Christ has evolved. Very early on, I understood Christian perfection to be contained in the imitation of Christ. In Anglicanism, we call it the Anglican Virtue Ethic, which teaches “Christ reveals the shape or form of what it is to be human . . . Christ is [our] archetype, our exemplar, our model. . . ”
I interpreted this to mean following Jesus was a very private matter between my soul and God. But I was only grasping half the picture. Jesus DID SAY, “ Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.”
And he also implored us to obey all he has commanded: to give; to love; to invite, to make disciples of all. This is Church.
God’s spirit has been poured upon us, enabling us to see visions and dream dreams. God has empowered us to offer hospitality to the poor and the vulnerable. To invite to the table of justice and mercy the disenfranchised: the immigrant, the low-wage worker with no insurance who just spiked a fever, the African American afraid to leave his home because he is 2 ½ times more likely than his white peer to be killed by police.
Give. Love. Invite. Baptize. Speak to ALL. Invite ALL to God’s table, bring justice and mercy to all nations abroad, and to every demographic at home. This is Church. Church is not closed.
Like the disciples at Pentecost, we do not know what is before us as a people. But God is present to us, Christ has commissioned us and the Holy Spirit is our guide.
Let us pray in the words of the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer:
Lord, Holy Spirit,
You are the KIND fire who does not cease to burn,
Consuming with flames of LOVE and PEACE
Driving us out like sparks to set the world on fire.