RCL Year C, Pentecost
So I’m going to start today with a little teaching, because just the other day, a faithful member of ECA asked me in all confidentiality, just what exactly is Pentecost? And if he wanted to know, perhaps more of you want to know. Some of the big church feasts have translated into lots of celebration and activity in the secular world, like Christmas and Easter. Some of them have not – Pentecost, for one. So why have this special service, these decorations, all that foreign language stuff in the gospel? Why isn’t today normal?
First of all, Pentecost isn’t just a Christian feast. Jewish tradition says that when God gave the Law to Moses and all the people gathered at Mt Sinai, a flame came down from heaven and divided into 70 flames, one for each nation of the world (as they saw it). Everyone on earth received the Law, the way God wanted all people to live. But only one nation, Israel, chose to respond, and so they entered into a special relationship with God, to serve as a sign and a blessing for all peoples. And in Jewish tradition, that event, the giving of the Law at Sinai, is celebrated every year on the feast of Shavuot, or Pentecost, which falls 50 days after Passover. In the early days, it was also the time when Jews living scattered throughout the Mediterranean would bring the first fruits of the harvest to Jerusalem – and so it was a day of pilgrimage, of returning from wherever they lived to the holy city to give thanks to God for all God had done for them and their people.
So that’s why when all of Jesus’ followers were gathered together on Pentecost, Jews from every nation in the known world were also gathered together in Jerusalem. The story tells us that a rush of wind and fire came upon the followers of Jesus, and the fire divided into a flame on each one of them, and each one began to speak in a different language. And every Jew gathered into Jerusalem for the feast heard his or her own language being spoken, and they heard the good news of God being spoken to them. And, the story goes on to say, some 3000 new followers were baptized because of this, and the new Christian community began to grow and grow, and ‘day by day…they spent much time together in the temple…and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.’ The divine flame that had been divided before now brought all together into one community; the first fruits of the harvest were brought in, one new people for God gathered to Jerusalem from all over the world. There’s a whole lot of symbolism that’s part of this story.
That’s how the book of Acts says our church started – our church with a capital C, the great universal Church of all Christians, the one holy catholic and apostolic church that we name every Sunday when we say the creed together. One church, holy because the Holy Spirit dwells in it, catholic because it proclaims the whole faith to all the people, to the end of time, and apostolic because it continues in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles, the very first Christians, and because it is sent (the meaning of the word apostle) to carry out Christ’s mission to all people. And so this one holy catholic and apostolic church celebrates its birthday every year on the Christian feast of Pentecost, 50 days after Easter.
But wait a minute. This all sounds great to talk about our one church. But how many people here were born and raised in the Episcopal Church? How many of you were raised Roman Catholic, or come from a Catholic family? Methodist? Presbyterian? Baptist? Evangelical? Lutheran? Congregational? Orthodox? How about Unitarian, Disciples of Christ, American Methodist Episcopal, Christian Reformed, Church of Christ, Quaker, or Pentecostal? Researchers have identified 41,000 different denominations of Christian churches worldwide. Just think of it: in our area the Baptists alone have American Baptists, Bible Fellowship Baptists, Conservative Baptists, General Baptists, General Conference Baptists, Independent Baptists, Independent Fundamental Baptists, Missionary Baptists, North American Baptists, and Southern Baptists listed. I don’t understand the differences between all those Baptists, but I bet if you asked one of the pastors of one of those churches, they could tell you quite clearly just what distinguishes them from all the others, and just why it is they’re not affiliated with those others. The Roman Catholics can’t take communion in our churches and we can’t take communion in theirs; the evangelical churches don’t recognize our baptism of infants as a valid moment of salvation; certain bishops in our own Anglican Communion won’t take communion with other bishops; and so it goes. And it’s not just the modern church: in the early days of the Christian community, it was only a few weeks after Pentecost that the Hellenists started complaining against the Hebrews, and then Paul fought with Peter, and everyone started arguing about whether you had to be circumcised to be Christian, and so it went. So what was all this about the one holy catholic and apostolic church?
Somehow, from our earliest days on the playground right through to our churches and our governments, we tend to divide ourselves up into groups and factions and tribes. Which in itself is perhaps not so bad – when you have a lot of different people, you have a lot of different ways of seeing things. That’s there in our Acts story too: all of those Jews gathered in Jerusalem heard the gospel each in their own language; the one gospel was preached and taught in all the different idioms and cultural understandings of different languages. Diversity itself is not a problem. The problem develops when the differences become a cause for beating on each other – when the kid with the accent gets teased on the playground, when the beliefs of one church are derided by another, when a tribe or a nation seeks to eliminate another – whenever our way becomes the only way, and your way becomes wrong.
In the adult ed class we’re doing right now on what church is for, we looked at what our catechism says about the church. It reads, ‘The mission of the church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.’ Notice, it’s restore to unity – to bring all people back to the original unity we had, with God and with one another. We seem to work our way into disharmony and suffering; and yet human nature was not created to be that way. Besides this tendency to beat on each other is a tendency, a desire, to love one another – for every story of teasing on the playground there is a story of children befriending the ‘wrong’ person, a child from an enemy tribe or family. We have it in us to live in unity, we have at least the desire and the longing for it. We want our sad divisions to cease; we just can’t quite seem to get there. But on the day of Pentecost, Jesus’ disciples were gathered together in that room and the Spirit came upon them, the wind and the fire, the presence of God blowing through their midst, shaking things up and making new things happen – making them speak languages they didn’t even know, communicating the gospel to people of cultures and tribes that they had never had experience of before. The Spirit blew through and they found themselves reaching out beyond the walls of the room where they were to peoples from all over the world, people who had customs and beliefs that were different from theirs. The unity of the Spirit did not just come for that little community gathered together; it came and blew out the walls of the community, gathering all peoples together, with all their differences and ways of seeing things.
Today, in other words, is not the day when God came to us in our club and affirmed us and our way of doing things. Today is the day when God drove us out to serve and minister to others – the day we all became apostles, sent by God to the ‘other,’ wherever the other may be. Every year we read this story to remind us of our task: to actively look outside the walls of the room and find ways to speak the languages of those we meet. It’s a day of evangelism for us as a church, both the church with a small c, us at ECA, and the church with a capital C, the Christian church universal. And it’s a day of evangelism for each of us apostles – for each of us to seek to restore all people to unity, in our schools, among our friends, in our workplaces; and in the larger forces of politics and society as a whole. The Spirit at work in our lives may lead us to cultures and peoples we have never experienced before, but she also gives us the language to speak and the understanding to do so. May we be strengthened and empowered to do just that.