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Whitsunday Sermon

2011/06/13

WHITSUNDAY, PENTECOST 2011

Old Testament: Joel 2:28-31

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 2:1-11

Gospel: John 14:15-31

As we gather to celebrate the birth of the Church, I want to spend some time dwelling on the church calendar. To many, the Church year often seems complicated and antiquated; the ritualistic relics of a distant past that have little relevance to us today. Only yesterday did I read in a newspaper about how many or most of the Evangelical churches do not celebrate Pentecost. According to one pastor interviewed, other than Christmas and Easter, and maybe Advent and Holy Week, “the rest of the church calendar is viewed as liturgical and ritualistic.” Another pastor was quoted as saying, “I also think we want Jesus to be the main thing. Can’t say if that’s right or not.” The article goes on to say that “in the history of the church, especially among Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and older Protestant denominations, special holidays were created and practiced with flourish. ‘Which ones are worthy of paying attention to?’ he asked. ‘It’s hard to pick.’” Here we are dealing with an age-old tension between individual preference and church doctrine, and I am not going to say more about that today other than noting that it is precisely due to the capricious nature of individual preference that we don’t get to pick.

Often, however, the complaint  about the church calendar is that we have these various themes that aren’t ordered in any obviously sensible way. For instance, we proceed from Annunciation through Advent, Epiphany—and then already three months or so later, we are at death, crucifixion and resurrection–with another eight months to go until the first of Advent is again upon us.

The Church’s “year of grace,” as it has been called, is intimately connected to the natural calendar’s yearly cycle. A problem today is that even the natural year has lost its significance in the modern industrialized world, at the apex of which are currently the United States and Europe. World travel and global trade have created for us a world in which we no longer need worry about the availability of fresh produce, for instance. My mother told me that when she was little, fresh cucumber was a summer luxury, and my grandmother would always go off to the grocer to buy half a kilo of fresh cucumber as soon as it was available; my mother and my uncle thought of this as a summer luxury. The rest of the year was pickle season. To me, the smell of tangerines is the smell of Christmas, because that was the only time they were available when I was a kid. Global trade, the speed of travel, and other features of the modern world have weakened our dependence on, and even our awareness of  natural cycles. Hold that thought.

I hasten to add that our exposure to other peoples, cultures, customs and beliefs is not a bad thing, nor for that matter is the availability of cucumbers in the middle of winter immoral. Diversity and difference is part of God’s plan for mankind. The people in the Land of Shinar were scattered for chastisement, in order to learn humility, not because there was a need to separate the good ones from the bad ones. In the fall, as in faith, we are all equals. In Genesis we read: And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them (Gen 11:6). There are many ways to read this account, but at the root of every sensible reading lies God’s ultimately inscrutable effort to protect humanity from its own arrogance and vainglory; an arrogance that lies in self-reliance, rather than reliance on Him, and a vainglory that the people express when they say, Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth (Gen 11:4). The old saying, “Man proposes, God disposes” has no better illustration than God’s response to these people: Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech (Gen 11:7). And the tower of Babel fell.

There is good reason to bring up Babel on Pentecost. As the Western liturgies began to evolve in the second half of the first millennium, the gift of tongues on Pentecost was thought of as having put right the ‘confusion of tongues’ visited upon mankind in the narrative of the Tower of Babel. In other words, the Babel account served as an image of mankind’s fall, reversed by the unity of one faith-confession made possible through the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Eucharistic preface from the ancient Ambrosian rite makes the relationship clear:

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,

to celebrate the joy of this most holy day,

which in its sacred numbering of fifty days

enacts the fullness of the paschal mystery.

Today the confusion of languages which human pride had brought upon the world

is resolved by the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Today, hearing the sound come suddenly from heaven,

the apostles received the profession of one faith and spoke in many tongues,

announcing the glory of your Gospel to all the nations of the earth.

And so, in joy of this Passover, earth and heaven resound with gladness.

The angels and the powers of all creation sing the ageless hymn of your glory:

Holy, Holy, Holy

To return to the issue of separation between ourselves and the natural world, this separation lies in our continued human craftiness, despite learning about the experiences in the Land of Shinar, to create distance between ourselves and our natural surroundings–from what God created and gave us stewardship over–and also to create distance between ourselves and the Creator. A hundred years ago, the church calendar would have made much more intuitive spiritual sense to folks than it does today. Farmers and others who work the land still seem to have a better understanding of the joy of Christmas–celebration of light in the midst of darkness,  of the seedling of redemption planted in the coldest and most barren season; of Lenten grief and Paschal death at the end of winter’s long stretch; and of the blossoming of the fruits of the Holy Spirit today, as the rays of the sun causes the world around us to blossom.

So the calendar is connected, it is a cycle, or a series of cycles, it follows a natural order. It is a coherent whole. There can be no Resurrection Sunday without Good Friday. Another way to put it is to say that the suffering of Good Friday brings us to the joy of Resurrection Sunday. Advent brings Christmas which in turn brings the Epiphany. The resurrection of our Lord on Easter Sunday leads us straight to the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. And all of it begins with that blessed greeting to the All Holy Mother of God and Ever Virgin Mary– treasured by the  Church throughout the ages: Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!… Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus (Luke 1.28-31) Mary’s response is the Church’s response: Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word (Luke 1:38).

On one level, Pentecost is straightforward. We celebrate the realization of Christ’s promise, as we heard in the gospel reading, that the Father will send the Holy Spirit on his faithful, the Comforter, to help and sustain the church. The words of Christ: But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid (John 14:26-27). This statement is part of Christ’s explanation, in parables and simple language, of what will come to pass.

The disciples are bewildered and occasionally scared, certainly they realize that they have no clue what is really about to happen, and what is really going to be expected of them. Several of them will not die of natural causes, but will receive the crown of martyrdom. They must surely have suspected a tremendous task lay ahead of them, and what comfort—what wonderful reassuring comfort these words of Christ must have been to them. The Comforter will teach you and sustain you in the truth that I have given to you. This morning of grace, friends, we are called to reflect on the grace, the joy, and the reassurance that those very words are directed also at us.

And then Jesus is killed, doubt sets in among the disciples, joy is replaced by grief and anticipation turns into trepidation. And then—Pentecost. This feast exists in the Jewish calendar, referred to as the Feast of Weeks. It is an annual day of thanksgiving for the wheat harvest and also a commemoration of God giving Moses the law in Mount Sinai. As the old foreshadowed the new, the first Christian Pentecost was a celebration of the harvest not of wheat, but of souls; and a celebration of God’s gift of Grace through Christ, in whom the Law is fulfilled.

Pentecost marks the foundation of the Church, and there are some images that may help us to reflect on the importance of this day. The following is a description that I cannot claim credit for, that must go to Pius Parsch, the distinguished German theologian. At Easter, Parsch wrote,

Christ, the divine Sun, rose in splendor. At Pentecost it is high noon, as he sheds upon his vineyard the bright, warm rays that redden and ripen. At Easter the garden of the Church is abloom with beautiful blossoms, Christians newly baptized and confirmed—it is the traditional baptismal feast of the church. At Pentecost, these blossoms have developed and matured into fruit, hanging heavily upon the trees. The gardener who tends the trees is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; the Sun that ripens the fruit if the Holy Ghost. At Easter we were born anew as children of God. Like infants we sought our Mother’s nourishing milk, the Holy Eucharist, carefree and happy we grew up in our Father’s House. As we became older, Mother Church warned us that the happiness of childhood would pass, taught us that we were strangers and pilgrims on this earth, that we must suffer and be patient, in the various readings and themes throughout Pascaltide. Now, at Pentecost, we have come of age. This is why this day is the traditional day for confirmation, the rite of initiation into God’s Holy Church.

Strangers and pilgrims. Suffering and patience. Pentecost is a time when we are called to leave our comfort zone, to trust that the Spirit is with us, to move out in the world and proclaim the good news, but also to move inward and contemplate, meditate, on the great gift that had become our inheritance. We are the church. The days of our being individual followers, apprentices, freely roaming seekers are over. We are now, by grace and in the Holy Sprit, transplanted into a family, the church, where we are all brothers and sisters. And through the divine love that sustains us, we are called to see all of humanity, without exception, as brothers and sisters for whom Christ died, and to whom we have a responsibility. A responsibility of love; a responsibility to serve.

By service to others are we able to grow in faith; through closeness to strangers are we able to draw closer to God. But by serving others we are also living witnesses to the transformative power of faith. By going out into the world in truth and love and spiritual joy to proclaim Jesus as Lord by means of the ways in which we lead our lives–that is a journey that ultimately takes us home to the Father, and a journey that has the ability to change the lives of others. A life lived in the footsteps of the apostles is a far more powerful witness than any pithy tract or glossy magazine. Imitate me [mimetai mou], Paul writes to the Corinthians, even as I imitate Christ (1 Cor 11:1). He is referring to his work to save souls for the Kingdom, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved (1 Cor 10:33b). ‘The work’ is not for our own benefit, for our own salvation, but for the benefit of the souls of others, to the greater glory of God. Not by words only, but by deeds, by showing how God redeems and transforms.

We are called, as the Israelites once were called, to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation; a light capable of kindling the divine light in the hearts of those who are still on the outside. We have an incomparable example of what it means to lead a Christian life, an account found in the Epistle to Diognetus, a 2nd century description of Christian church and its relationship to the world around it:

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. To sum up all in one word–what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world.

Love, humility, forgiveness—these are not abstract principles but rules of life. And that rule of life is the best witness to the transformative power of faith. We need to take this seriously: by our lives we can change lives. Love humility and forgiveness are not things we merely talk about in here, but things we must live out there. Love and humility are suffocated and will die if we keep them hidden from the world and do not put them into practice. This is what it means to leaven the bread, to be the salt of the earth, to walk in the footsteps of Christ. This is what the Church was anointed to do on that first Pentecost, and that anointing continues to summon us to do for others what Jesus did for us. Guided and comforted by the Holy Spirit, the Church can and must continue to be ‘the hands anf feet of Jesus’ in the world.

May the Lord continue to have mercy on us. Amen  

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