Pentecost May 28, 2015
Three of the most important feast days of the church’s calendar are Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. Christmas is surrounded by stories, legends, and traditions all addressing the incredible mystery of the birth of the Messiah. Easter has its own embellishing traditions symbolic of the resurrection. Pentecost however presents a problem. In fact it is theologically considered the birthday of the church but there are not the plethora of stories and traditions and symbols that are attached to its celebration as there are to Christmas and Easter. At the heart of Christmas is the birth of a baby. At the heart of Easter is the resurrection of a dead man. At the heart of Pentecost is the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the church with the sound of rushing wind and the sight of tongues of flame. Humanly speaking, this does not give us much to work with in terms of repeatable symbols and the stuff of legends and traditions. Christmas says Santa Claus, a corruption of St. Nicholas but still a symbol of giftgiving. Easter has the Easter Bunny, certainly of pagan origin, but the giver of Easter eggs, a symbol of new life. The best we can do for Pentecost seems to be a dove and there is not really much we can do with that.
Nonetheless, Pentecost is an extremely important feast day. It inaugurates the era of the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament we have the era of God the Father, in the Gospels we have the era of God the Son, but in the Acts of the Apostles and in the subsequent history of the church since the first century up until today and indeed until the second coming of Christ we have the era of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost is a birthday. A birthday begins with the birth of a child and, in this case it is the newborn people of God, the mystical body of Christ, the assembly of the faithful, the church. Once born, a healthy child grows through the stages of childhood into adulthood and so forth. And so it is with the church. The church is a spirit filled reality which began 2000 years ago and is still growing onto its maturity in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is as real and operative today as she was in the upper room when she came upon the disciples with the sound of a rushing wind and the tongues of flame.
For me this reality is beautifully and powerfully expressed in the words of Jesus at the Last Supper. He knew he was about to die and to return to his father and to leave his followers. He said to them, “I will not leave you orphans, I will send to you a comforter who will remind you of all that I have taught.” This is why the Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of Jesus. The ongoing presence of the risen Jesus in the church is the presence of the Holy Spirit.
There are two very important facets to the existence of the church, one is human and the other is divine. Throughout the passage of human history and awareness of the human aspect of the church is only too present. We see it even in the Acts of the Apostles, a somewhat idyllic presentation of the early life of the church, yet not without its problems and its human weaknesses. We see disagreements between St. Paul and St. Peter, between St. Paul and Timothy and St. Mark, between the Judaizing faction of the early Christians and those who are dealing with pagan converts. Even a superficial glance at the subsequent history of the church up until the present day is apt to scandalize us when we look at the all too human aspects laid before us.
But we must never lose sight of what we might call the soul of the church, the reality of the Holy Spirit directing, correcting, supporting, nourishing and giving life to us individually and collectively. We must never lose sight of the fact that we are the church, you and I. We are sinners who fail but we begin again. We have the Holy Spirit to bring us forgiveness, to reconcile us to one another, to remind us of all that Jesus has taught us. As the church we are a strange mixture of the human and the divine, the holy and the sinful. As Jesus taught us, we are a mixture of the wheat and the weeds which will be found growing together until the judgment of God separates them.
Today we celebrate our birthday, our divine aspect, the presence of the living risen Christ in our midst. But we cannot celebrate that without in some strange way celebrating also our shadow side, our deficiencies, our failures. As Jesus said to Julian of Norwich, “Julian, sin is necessary. Otherwise how could I show my love, compassion and mercy.” As we acknowledge our own faults and failings, we are then led to view the faults and failings of others in the church and outside of it with love and compassion.
I think the celebration of Pentecost is an occasion for optimism. This does not mean we ignore or deny the all to present realities of our dark side, of our unloving activity, of our pride and selfishness and greed. But it does help us to view them with the eyes of God which are eyes of forgiveness, compassion and love. And it does allow us to remind ourselves of that beautiful message which Jesus gave to Julian of Norwich
All will be well
and everything shall be well
and you will see for yourself
that all manner of things shall be well.
May you be happy,
May you be free,
May you be loving,
May you be loved.
Father William Meninger