Homily for Pentecost Sunday
May 19, 2002
St. Agnes church, Cincinnati
(Based on Acts 2:1-11; PS. 104:24, 29-30,21,34; 1 Cor 12:3b-7, 12-13; John 20:19-23)
Behold, I make all things new!
I make all things new.
At the end of the story of Pentecost that we just heard, the text goes on to say "they were all astounded and bewildered, and said to one another, 'What does this mean?' But others said, scoffing, 'They have had too much new wine.'"
What does this all mean? What is this outpouring of the Spirit all about?
Well, from the account in Acts, the first thing it's all about is confusion, bewilderment. Something very new -- something that never happened before -- is happening. And the first result is that it disorients. One sure sign of the possibility that the Spirit is at work is that it can make us uncomfortable. There's a certain irony here because we just heard Deacon Royce in the penitential rite call for the Spirit -- the Comforter -- to come. Indeed the Spirit is the Comforter, but only after stirring up the waters and making us uncomfortable so that our eventual comfort is not just complacency.
So we have to ask ourselves: are we really ready for the descent of God's Spirit? Do we really want to be renewed? Do I? Do you?
We have to be careful not to give too fast an answer to that question: oh, of course we want the new life that comes from the Spirit. Before we answer we'd better be clear who this spirit is.
All our media tell us that these days (and perhaps especially after 9/11) there is a great upsurge of people seeking spirituality. In the field of book marketing books about 'spirituality' just fly off the shelves (and especially about angels). People are rushing off to every kind of spiritual get-away. Gurus abound.
Is this what is meant by the outpouring of the Spirit?
Remember, for Christians the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus of Nazareth. The incarnate one, who lived our life, in the midst of our world, who experienced our joys and our pain, our fear and our hopes. The one who indeed has risen -- but out of death.
This is not some sort of New-Age-communing-with-the-trees 'spirituality'. And it's not some sort of content-free emotional frenzy. (I had a seminary professor who used to refer to that as 'chest-muscle' spirituality.)
Some people in the early church got all caught up in the enthusiasm of that kind of spirit: speaking in tongues, falling into ecstasy. So much so that Paul had to bring them back down, to seeking what he called "the greater gifts". And what were they? The gifts of love; the hard work of caring. The Jesus who pours out his Spirit in the upper room is one whose hands and side are pierced.
Some people want a religion of the Spirit which bypasses the life and example of Jesus of Nazareth, when Jesus himself tells us that the Spirit will reveal "all that he said and did." The genuine presence of the Spirit will always point us back to Jesus and his way.
And some want a Spirit which comes to them as individuals apart from the mess and confusion and discomfort of the entanglement of human relationships. Whereas we read that the Spirit was given when "they were all in one place together". Indeed when they have received the Spirit they will go out on individual journeys, in mission to different parts of the world. But the Spirit comes to them first as a gathered community. The Spirit is given to us in communion, as gathered, in relationship to sisters and brothers, as church. As Paul tells the Corinthians, the Spirit is given "for the common good" -- not as some precious individual gift I hug to myself.
And what is the message they will proclaim, symbolically enacted in this gathering?
That all barriers are to be torn down. Luke is reflecting back on the experience of the tower of Babel, when the world became fragmented and communication became impossible and people became strangers to one another through confusion of tongues, and Pentecost is telling us that Babel is to be overcome. There are no foreigners in God's kingdom, no aliens, no outsiders.
As I heard our readers proclaim the Gospel today in multiple languages I was reminded of a piece of wisdom I once heard. The question was: When you hear someone speaking broken English with a heavy accent, what is really going on? The answer: you are in the presence of someone who knows at least one more language than you do. . . .
No more strangers, no one left out, persons of every culture valued and seated at the table as peers. Are we ready for that kind of newness? And we need to remember that if the new is to come, we will have to give up the old. Are we ready to give up our old ways of division and one-up-man-ship and superiority? Are we ready for the costs involved in that kind of unity?
You know, it's easy -- it's even exciting -- to read about it happening to all those Medes and Cappodocians, and all those other places we couldn't find on a map. It's 'out there', removed, safe. But in our world and our country, our city our own home? That begins to pinch, to make us uncomfortable -- a sign of the presence of the Spirit?
This community may remember how uneasy we all felt a couple of years ago when we were confronted with the possibility of losing St. Agnes' unique identity. When it was possible that we might have to merge with those Mesopotamians from across the Mill Creek, up in Lincoln Heights. And what about the Cappadocians in Cumminsville and North Side, or the Phrygians down in Over-the-Rhine. Can we hear what they're trying to communicate in their languages, their tongues?
Behold, I make all things new!
This New Year's Day of Pentecost is the first day of a new beginning. The Spirit will give us the gifts for a new start toward peace in our world and city and home. The Spirit will bring life out of the death of the innocent church we have known. The question is: can we let go of our old ways, can we allow the illusions we had built to make us comfortable to be stripped away? Last year we prayed for the outpouring of the Spirit but we never anticipated that we would have to face the loss of our illusions of security as a country in a world of warring interests; we never thought we would be asked to give up our illusions of priests and bishops as ethereal, disincarnate holy men. These were the unrealities on which we built comfortable worlds that could enable us to avoid our adult responsibilities as citizens and Christians. Can we let them go and allow the Spirit to touch us at a much deeper level, where we can learn vulnerability and our need for one another and for all the cultures of this rich world?
There is a word which recurs again and again in the story of the Acts of the Apostles. It is "boldness". In the power of the Spirit they went forth boldly. They proclaimed the Good News boldly before hostile audiences, before power-grabbing high priests and a hollow Sanhedrin and strutting Roman governors.
We must be no less bold in asking for the outpouring of the Spirit. We must ask with courage. Jesus said again and again, "Be not afraid."
But through it all we must know that it will cost us our lives.
Behold, I make all things new!