Sunday, June 12, 2011

Whitsunday, 2011

Acts 2: 1-21

Good morning, and Hail thee, festival day! Whitsunday, Pentecost.

I was telling the folks in our Wednesday morning Bible Study about how this day was celebrated with a great afternoon fair at St. Mark’s Church in Berkeley back in the early 1970’s, when that was my parish as I attended the University of California across the street. They called it the “Pentecost Festival,” and I remember those days as always with California sunshine and with jugglers and musicians and glass-blowers and all kinds of food, games and a couple of small rides and a petting zoo for the kids, on and on. Everybody would wear something red, which seemed just right to inaugurate the summer, with lots of students and families, a real mix of people.

My rector then, George Titmann, used to say that it was the one great holiday of the Church that Hallmark Cards has nothing to say about. Ours and ours alone. The one great holiday where we’re unlikely to ask something like, “what is your family doing for Whitsunday?” Except of course to go to Church . . . .

As we heard in the lessons, and always with this very powerful way of entering into the story in the Acts of the Apostles, and as Fr. Bill Marchl reminds us in his meditation for Whitsunday printed on the back page of our service leaflet, we understand why this is called our Birthday: the Spirit surges through the Upper Room and then the friends of Jesus rush out into the street to proclaim the Good News in this miraculous explosion of language to the whole world, with energy and excitement, and all of a sudden here we are, Christ’s Church. You and I, all of us, around the world and across all the generations.

The Jewish holiday fifty days after Passover is Shauvot, the Festival to celebrate the Covenant in the Giving of the Law at Sinai, remembering this great moment when God in his generosity claimed a people for his own, called them into relationship. Before Shauvot they were a ragtag and random assembly of Hebrew clans and tribes. But as God gives and they receive the Torah at the Holy Mountain they become his Chosen People, God’s Israel. And if the in sacred story of God’s plan the Paschal Mystery of Easter is a new expression of the ancient Passover, so now this Whitsunday and Pentecost of the Holy Spirit is a new Shauvot, the birth in Christian witness of the New Israel.

And so we sing and celebrate and play croquet in the Churchyard and maybe even light candles on the cake. The miracle sends us out into the street speaking of what we have come to know, who we have come to know, in Jesus Christ, in a hundred languages.

Or perhaps not in any human language at all, but in what St. Paul will call the tongues of angels. Perhaps in the language of music, poetry. Mystic vision and ecstasy and the quiet assurance of his love.

A friend of mine said once and I believe it is true that very few people come to faith through argument and debate. That’s not unknown, of course, and reason and study and argument all have an important place in formation. But the spark of faith springs to life in us as we come near its radiance in others. How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. Not that Peter and the others were whispering on that first Whitsunday, but I think the attractive and compelling force of that great evangelistic moment was not so much about words as it was about the music. Communicating spirit to spirit, heart to heart.

Some of my friends who are recovering Presbyterians will know that Anglican though I am, one of the expressions of Christian faith that I find most inspiring and interesting from the era of the Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries is the 1647 Westminster Shorter Confession. Which some of you may even have memorized in your younger years. There are a few places in that great doctrinal work where I would add a footnote or two, or even express a theological difference or reservation, but I want to do nothing but highlight and speak an “amen” to its opening sentence. The question, “what is the chief end of man?” Who are we really? What are we here for? What is this cosmic story all about? Great questions for a birthday on this Whitsunday. If we are born here, and now, and of the Spirit, what are we born for? And the word, in its simplicity and grace: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

That is such a beautiful statement. A lot of Church committees have worked on a lot of congregational “mission statements” over the years, along with strategic plans and meeting after meeting--but this is what it is all about. Important to have before us on the Day of Pentecost. The Spirit rushes into the room like wind, like fire. All for us. To talk about what God made us for, about how we come into completed relationship to him, and completed relationships with one another. To glorify God and enjoy him forever. What we would seek to do in this service of worship. But to understand every breath and moment of our lives, every work of charity and compassion, of creativity and faithfulness, every relationship. Going to work. Raising our kids. All worship. To glorify God and enjoy him forever. Hail thee, Festival Day . . . .

The people in the streets of Jerusalem had a hard time figuring out just what was going on with the friends of Jesus that morning. “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?” Uneducated working men from some backwater village. Not by the farthest stretch of the imagination the sort of people you would turn to for religious insight and instruction and leadership. What has gotten into them? The jumble of languages, the excitement. Their very beings on fire, transformed, lifted up.

And even if they didn’t have the words for it, to communicate a new vision of God’s goodness, God’s hopeful future for us. The reconciling and graceful work of the Cross once and for all, and the transforming reality of the Easter miracle now flowing out in abundance. And it was all Holy Spirit, God present, Advocate, Comforter, New Life. Easter everywhere now, for everyone, a free gift. The invitation: come and be part of it! Come and see for yourselves! And we can say it is like a birthday. Like our birthday. Like a great birthday of the world and all new creation. All language and music and story and song, for all of us, and all for him, all our lives long. Glorify him and enjoy him forever.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Bruce Robison

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