Sunday, May 31, 2009

Pentecost, Year B, Sunday May 31, 2009

Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

“If I go, I will send [the Advocate] to you….[and] he will lead you into all truth”.

Imagine that a new movie is coming out, with great fanfare and much publicity. We are promised amazing animation effects, exciting action, a dramatic plot, and a surprise ending. Bring on the popcorn. It would be a sure hit. Now, here’s the biggest surprise of all: the plot of this film --- could be the story of Pentecost! It’s amazing to me that with all the other Biblical stories and themes that have been represented in literature and cinema, I don’t know of any that tell the story of Pentecost.

The feast of Pentecost is as important as the other two great feasts in the Church calendar: Christmas and Easter. Those other two feasts are observed in style! At Christmas we fittingly re-enact and celebrate of the birth of the Savior of the world and God incarnate. We love to celebrate with flowers, and family dinners, as well as our most beautiful music and Christmas liturgy. We also celebrate Easter with even more beautiful music, flowers, and the drama of the liturgies of Holy Week and the Easter Vigil.

Pentecost on the other hand sometimes gets lost in the shuffle of spring graduations, Memorial Day, and just a good day to go to the beach. This is too bad, because story of Pentecost is one of the most dramatic and important stories in all of Christianity. It brings full circle the story of Jesus’ birth, ministry, passion, and resurrection. Just think – without Pentecost, there would be no celebrations of Christmas and Easter. There would be no Church. Not to mention – it’s a marvelous and miraculous story in itself.

The Pentecost story as told in the Book of Acts is an event of great dramatic action: the disciples were gathered in an upper room and were still reeling from the events of the past several weeks. They were still trying to understand what had happened and were still trying to figure out – now what?? They were probably still afraid.

Then, suddenly, a violent wind swept into the room and “filled the entire house”, and a tongue of fire rested on each one of the disciples. (What could one of the animation studios do with that!) As the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit, they spoke not gibberish but in words of greatest clarity, we are told, in all the languages of the world. They were in-spired as they received the Holy Spirit. They were empowered and impassioned to walk in the way of Jesus and to tell the story of Jesus. The Holy Spirit gave them courage to overcome their fear and propelled them out of that little upper room into all corners of the known world.

In the ancient world at that time, there were many, many cults and sects and religions, and it was also enormously difficult to travel from one region to another. The chances were very small that any one of those cults would make a lasting impact. There was little chance that the words and ministry of a Jewish carpenter from the backwater town of Nazareth would resonate with people in the great intellectual centers of the age. It was highly unlikely that this new faith would prevail against the massive power of the Roman Empire and the religious authorities of the day.

There was small chance that the earliest Christians could withstand and endure the brutal persecution that they faced for nearly 300 years. Yet in 313, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. All over the world, people listened and heard the message, in their own language, and it resonated and spoke true to them. They heard the words of God’s faithfulness and compassion, and saw the fire that enflamed the believers. They heard and saw the power of the Holy Spirit working through the disciples, they saw the joy and commitment of the faithful, and they saw how Christians loved and cared for one another. They said, “Whatever this is, I want to learn more; I want what they’ve got; I want to be part of this; I want to live in love as they do.”

That was then, at the time of the first Pentecost. What about now? Where is the flame of inspiration and fire of passion for the Good News today? At a parish where I used to serve in New York, there is a stained glass window that shows the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The disciples are seated in a circle, and there is a little flame coming out of each of their heads. They look a bit like bunch of little birthday candles on a cake, with a tiny flame on top of each candle. This seems a parody of the story in Acts. Have the violent wind and flames of fire turned into tiny flickering birthday candles?

The Holy Spirit is with us today, as we celebrate the “birthday” of the Church, as we wear liturgical red, and as we prepare to receive, once again, the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit reminds us to dream, to pray, to hope, and to believe that miracles are all around us and are possible and are even to be expected. The celebration of Pentecost reminds us that the Spirit isn’t just a tiny flickering candle, which could be blown out with a puff, but instead the Spirit comes to us as powerful as a forest fire that carries the miracle of God’s passion and love for us.

Today we will witness such a miracle in the baptism of William Brady. There is no greater miracle than the gift of life, and today we celebrate William’s new life in Christ. Today he will become a full member of the Church and we will promise boldly and confidently, as a community, to assist his family and godparents in bringing him up in the Christian faith. And we will also re-commit ourselves in the renewal of our own baptismal vows, to turn away from evil, to turn again and again to Christ, and to love and respect the dignity of every human being.

As we celebrate and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit in our midst, this is also an occasion for us as a community of faith to dream, to hope and to have patience for what is promised, for what we do not see or understand now, and for the miracles that are to come. The miracles that we receive are not necessarily what we ask for or exactly what we think we need and want right now, but in God’s own time our prayers and dreams are to be fulfilled in the powerful gift of God’s grace. The Spirit is both the powerful presence of God, and at the same time a gentle presence that will support us in times of greatest need, “with sighs too deep for words”.

Christ promised the gift of the Spirit to the disciples so that God’s presence would be with them to sustain them and guide them, and so that they could become Christ’s hands and heart in this world. As Theresa of Avila wrote: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which to look out on Christ’s compassion to the world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless people now.”

We are blessed with the presence of the Holy Spirit, and we are, like the disciples, commissioned in the Spirit to follow Jesus and to walk in love, and to spread this love to everyone we meet. I know of no greater story than this.

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