Pentecost 2017

I believe in the Holy Spirit...
In the reaffirmation of the baptismal vows that we will undertake in few minutes, we are asked, after questions concerning the first two persons of the Trinity, “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit.” Our response will be "I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting."

At first glance this may seem just a clean-up clause that gathers what remains of the Creed, for expediency. In fact the response we make, and that set of things believed in, says a lot about the work of the Holy Spirit that we celebrate at Pentecost.

…the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion and Saints...
Today we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, as manifested in that remarkable story of multicultural communication at Pentecost from the Acts of the Apostles, that we have just enacted in reverse. In the story, Jewish pilgrims all understood the apostles’ speech regardless - but here, when we heard different members of the congregation contribute to the Acts story by reading parts of it in different languages, we did not understand them. So we realize that we sit somewhere between the ecstatic experience of a renewed humanity, and the reality of a broken one which the Spirit comes to heal and reconcile.

The Pentecost story is a bookend to that of Babel. In the Book Genesis (ch. 11), we are told an ancient story of humans who wanted to build a tower with a top in the heavens, and whose vanity was met by God with their dispersion “over the face of all the earth” and the confusion of their - and hence our - languages. Pentecost represents the reversal of this story, God’s gracious re-make of our history, and the restoration of a common humanity in service to God and one another, of which the Church is a sign. 

So our reenactment celebrates our diversity, and the diversity of the Church universal, but also reminds us that Pentecost, like Easter, is the mark of a new age whose reality has yet fully to arrive. For our forms of disunity and incomprehension actually seem to be multiplying at this point, do they not? London’s suffering this past week testifies to this. Or in the Wall St Journal last week two members of the current US administration stated that "The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.” As a description of sin, this view couldn’t be faulted. What you make of it as policy is another matter.

This reality of division is true whether we are talking about the wider world of society and politics, where the vulnerable and the marginalized are being pitted against each other, and ways of exacerbating our broken humanity are touted as solutions, or in the smaller scale of our lives. It is also true in the Church, where our denominational and congregational identities can be easy substitutes for unity across real difference - but we will affirm today that we believe, not in St James' or The Episcopal Church, or in the United States, but in the holy catholic Church and the communion of saints, the unlikely fellowship of the baptized across time and space, culture and causes - yes, a global community indeed, the City of God. 

…the forgiveness of sins...
That Pentecost story from the Acts of the Apostles is complemented today by a different account of the giving of the Spirit, a Gospel story from John which depicts Jesus - remarkably, the more you think about it - breathing on the apostles  (when did you last breathe on someone other than a spouse or child!?) and giving them the Holy Spirit with the authority to forgive sins. This somewhat different picture of the gift of the Spirit has in common with the other the centrality of reconciliation and unity. In both cases, the Spirit is the means by which what was broken in us and between us is restored. In this case however, something clearer is said about mission; the Spirit is given to the apostles not as a sign, but a charge; not, as one of our eucharistic prayers puts it, for solace only but for strength. 

So too in the Creed and the baptismal covenant we say that we believe in the forgiveness of sins; we believe in it, it’s an article of faith - and this is remarkable in a world where having the wrong opinion is unforgivable to some. We are saying not merely that our own and each others’ sins can be forgiven, but that the forgiveness of sins is a cause for us, a banner under which to rally.

…the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
Celebrating the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost sometimes risks giving the impression that the Spirit was not in existence, or not present in the world, before Jesus’ gift and departure, or that the Spirit is just about us. The Psalm for today however reminds us of a bigger picture:

"You send forth your Spirit, and [all things] are created;” it read, "and so you renew the face of the earth"

The Spirit of God is not a new idea that comes with the Church, or even just something that concerns humankind alone. Rather the Spirit of God is just that - the divine reality that sustains creation itself. The Psalm, like Acts, also has a Genesis story in mind, in this case the creation where we are told that the Spirit of God - in Hebrew just the same words as a “mighty wind,” which also features in the Acts Pentecost narrative - moved over the face of the primordial waters, pregnant with creative promise. 

That Spirit, our gift for the challenging work of reconciliation to one another in and out of the Church, is the same Spirit that animates creation itself. Pentecost, then, is a kind of new creation. The last clauses of the creed and the baptismal covenant allude to this, when we affirm the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. That awkward idea of bodily resurrection tells us that our destiny is not just to fly away to Jesus and leave the sinking ship of the world behind - the world is still sustained and upheld by the Spirit of God, and can and will be remade by that Spirit. Our bodies are a part of this, but do not exhaust it. As bearers of that Spirit we may have to play a part, not just in human reconciliation but in the affirmation that our world is God’s world, animated by the Spirit that "renews the face of the earth."

We were baptized in the one Spirit into one body. As we reaffirm our promises today, let us pray that the Spirit will indeed empower us to be reconcilers, that the unity of Christ’s body may be revealed, and that the whole earth may be filled with the glory of God.

[From a sermon given at St James' Church, Madison Ave, NY, Pentecost 2017]


Popular Posts