Saturday, September 6, 2008
Anthony van Dyck. The Descent of the Holy Spirit c. 1618-20.
May 11, 2008 The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday (RCL Year A) John 20: 19-23
In the calendar of ancient Judaism the observance of the Passover coincided with the beginning of the spring planting, and then, fifty days later, the holiday of Shauvot, sometimes called the Feast of Weeks, would come more or less at the end of the planting season.
In the Biblical narrative beginning in the Book of Exodus with the story of the Passover, God saves his Chosen People by raising up for them a new leader, Moses, and then by bringing them across the waters of the Red Sea and miraculously delivering them from their Egyptian slavery. And then this part of the story and the holiday season concludes with Shauvot, in Greek “Pentecost,” referring to “50 days,” which is centered on the Biblical story of Mt. Sinai, as Moses brings the Word of God, the Holy Torah, down from the mountaintop, the Word that is to be the sacred covenant, to give the people their life and meaning and identity forever.
Two parts of the same story across this season, bookends, and each with the theme and message to center on the absolute and total dependence of Israel upon the goodness of Almighty God. Existence and identity, salvation and purpose. “Without God, we are nothing. He is our life, the source of all that we have ever been or can ever be.” Pasch, and Shauvot. Passover, and Pentecost.
And so how meaningful and powerful it must have been for them in that Upper Room, as they gathered for prayers at Shauvot, just these few weeks after the Passover at Jerusalem, the Passover at the Cross, that had changed their lives forever and turned their world upside down. In the excitement and confusion of the days after the Ascension. What does this all mean? What next for us? And as the Holy Word of God had once in ancient times come down the Mountain with Moses to make a new people of Israel, so now, all of a sudden, with breathtaking power, sweeping in, roaring in, with Tongues of Fire, the Holy Spirit of God speaks this new word and brings in the first morning of a new kingdom. A new people, a new covenant, a new Israel of God. What it means, who we are, where we are headed: all gathered into this one great gift and moment of being lifted up into the Spirit of God himself.
At St. Mark’s Church in Berkeley when I was there as a college student back in the early 1970’s it was the custom on this day to serve Birthday Cake at Coffee Hour, and then to have a great festival of music and crafts and games out in the churchyard. A great party. Happy Birthday Church, Happy Birthday for the mission and ministry that we are called to as we are made new in Christ and as we become part of his Greater Life in the wide world of time and history. And so, indeed: Happy Birthday to you, to all of us, this morning.
As I read through the propers appointed for Whitsunday (another name for the day, because this was often a day of baptisms in the early church—the last Easter decorations of the season and the parade of newly baptized in their baptismal gowns creating a “White Sunday”) -- I was struck once again by the connection between the Pentecost story in Acts and the parallel Pentecost moment in St. John’s gospel, which takes place not at Shauvot but on the first evening of Easter, as the disciples are hiding out in the Upper Room in fear and confusion, and as the Risen Christ appears to them and breathes Holy Spirit upon them in this dramatic moment. And then he begins to explain to them what this will mean, what their lives and their life-work and ministry and mission will be about from this moment forward and all the days of their lives. And he begins by talking about how they are now filled with this extraordinary grace and gift and power, to bring forgiveness into the world. In all the pain and suffering and guilt and recrimination and brokenness of the world, for them and now for us, the power to bring healing, reconciliation, blessing. Forgiveness.
There was a wonderful moment in an episode of The Simpsons a number of years ago, a conversation between Homer and Marge and their neighbors, the at once loveable and annoying Ned and Maude Flanders, who are characterized by an insistent, fundamental Christian piety. Maude tells Marge that she is about to go on a Christian Women’s Retreat Weekend. Marge asks, “What do you do?” And Maude replies, “Mostly we study the Bible and learn how to be more judgmental.” Which is just tragically what most of the world these days probably thinks about when they would think at all about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. A kind of intrinsic mean-spiritedness. And we don’t need to point any fingers, except simply right back at ourselves, and to say that perhaps that reputation is not wholly undeserved.
But under this light this morning, in this new day, his word for us is about healing the broken hearted and binding up the wounded and embracing the forgotten. Again: about what it all means, Easter and Ascension and Holy Spirit, about who we are, where we are headed. About the tenderness of compassion. About forgiveness. Just hold on to that word. Forgiveness and blessing. The goodness of God speaking from the Mountaintop and across the miles and the centuries to lift us out of the desert of our sinfulness and into his love. By his Cross, and in his Resurrection. Where our warfare comes to an end, all warfare, every last broken piece of us: finding our peace and fullness and restoration to life in him. Pentecost, and peace in Jesus.
Breathe on me Breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what thou dost love,
And do what thou wouldst do.
So friends: indeed, blessings and peace, healing, forgiveness, a new start, reconciliation and renewal, new, abundant life in him, grace, kindness, gentleness, all his tender mercy and love: All for you, for us. Happy Birthday, Happy Pentecost. All new life in Christ.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.