Day of Pentecost May 23, 2010

Acts 2:1-21                                                                          

Romans 8:14-17                                                                

John 14:8-17, 25-27

Our celebration of the Day of Pentecost at Holy Cross today is one of our periodic “Come With Joy” Sundays. Six or eight times a year we do these, incorporating elements of art and drama into the liturgy, playing a little loose with the order of some of the parts of the service, involving members of the congregation (especially teenagers and children), and opening the homily time to discussion. Like most clergy, I’m pretty much a law and order guy myself when it comes to liturgy, so I’m always a little anxious about these occasions, but almost without exception they’ve come off well. We just have to understand that we can worship God in many ways, not just the semi-monastic, cathedral-style worship that Anglicans have traditionally been accustomed to.

 The “drama” for this day involves the reading of the passage from the Acts of the Apostles, which describes the original Pentecost event: the Holy Spirit descending upon the gathered followers of Jesus after his ascension into heaven. The scene is described as disorderly, with some who witnessed it assuming that the disciples were drunk. The disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking “in other languages” – presumably “in tongues” as we would say now. But all of the gathered crowd heard this “in the native language of each.”

Peter, the senior among the disciples, explains what is going on by quoting from the prophet Joel. This, he says, is an event of “the last days,” when the Spirit of the Lord will be poured out “upon all flesh,” inspiring people to prophesy, see visions, and dream dreams. Significantly, even slaves will prophesy! This will be accompanied by signs of chaos and calamity – “blood, and fire, and smoky mist” – but “those who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

The Romans reading tells us that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” It contrasts this with those who “fall back in fear,” trapped by “a spirit of slavery.” But it cautions that this Spirit of God comes only with suffering, joining us with the suffering of Christ.

These readings are complemented with a gospel in which Jesus is speaking to the disciples at the Last Supper, essentially reassuring them in their anxiety about his impending “departure,” telling them to hang in there together; to keep his commandments, loving one another; and abiding in his peace – their hearts untroubled and unafraid.

When I was recruiting members of the congregation to participate in the dramatic reading of the Acts passage, one person, though agreeing to read, expressed the hope that the drama would not be “hokey.” I well understand that person’s misgivings. We Episcopalians have a great fear of “hokeyness.”  (It’s sort of our analog of the Catholic fear of sex or the Baptist fear of alcohol.) Our liturgy is very ordered, very under control, refined and careful in is language, its music, its ritual. As a parishioner once expressed it to me, “we don’t like surprises.”

But of course the Pentecost event was nothing if not surprising, indeed one might say even “hokey.” And a little liturgical experimentation is mild compared with speaking in tongues and “blood, fire and smoky mist.” We live in times that are extremely chaotic, filled with a babble of voices that beat on our ears with discordant messages trying to assert their interpretation and control. For we would all like to find a way to bring this chaos into order, bring it under our control. A careful, refined liturgy is a vehicle for trying to do just this – as, in other traditions, are such things as biblical literalism and secretive and authoritarian hierarchies.

But in the end, I think we realize, all such attempts at control end in failure. They have to do with our control, not God’s. They end up stifling visions and dreams, blocking prophesies, particularly from the young and from those not in institutional positions of control – women, gays, the poor, lay people, guitar players (!), the “unexpert,” the “unprofessional.” And it is through just such people at the margins of institutions that the Holy Spirit has characteristically spoken. You know what Jesus said was the one unforgiveable sin: the sin against the Holy Spirit – closing our minds to the possibility of new truth, new ways of expressing and understanding old truth. So on this day in particular, I think it is okay to risk a little hokeyness for the sake of the Holy Spirit!

But let us also attend to the counter note that runs through these readings. Note that St. Peter interprets what is going on in the Pentecost event by reference to Holy Scripture – in other words, tradition. And Jesus comforts his disciples by explaining that the Father will send the Holy Spirit “in my name” to “remind you of all that I have said to you.” So the new is continuous in an essential way with the old, the future with the past. The essential link is that the newness be of God. The peace in which you and I are called to abide, the peace which we will exchange as we prepare to celebrate the Eucharist, is the peace of Christ – a peace that the world cannot give, that comes instead from God.

So here is the challenge we face in our present time of chaos and confusion: how do we discern the true Spirit of God, how do we abide in the true Peace of Christ, as we try to live lives of courage, lives of hope and generous love, in our world today? For this is not, of course, in the end about how we worship, or even about the Church. All that is secondary. It is about how we renew ourselves in the Holy Spirit to be Christ’s hands and heart in the world.

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