Musings on Pentecost
(This is a reprint from last year.)
This is not a Pentecost sermon. (This one is, from a couple of years ago.) But I always have some thoughts about Pentecost.....
Lots of people celebrate Pentecost as "the birthday of the church." Sometimes there are balloons and cake and other birthday party type things to make the experience of a church festival real, especially for the children. It's fun, it's tangible, it's not about saints in the sky or whatever. It's a day to celebrate! I get that, I really do. The church came about through the work of the Spirit, which was given at Pentecost, according to Acts.
But ultimately I think that thinking about Pentecost as the birthday of the church makes Pentecost much smaller than it really is. Pentecost celebrates the gift of the Spirit, the manifestation of the Third Person of the Trinity, the coming of that power promised by Jesus that leads us into all truth, that gives us the strength to love our neighbor and to persevere in doing justice and loving mercy and walking humbly with our God. The Spirit blows where it will and brings unexpected things into our midst; the Spirit gives us the eyes to see when God is doing a new thing. And so the coming of the Spirit is an on-going thing, the Spirit is always with us and always coming anew, and reducing Pentecost to a party commemorating an event in the past does not do justice to the place of the Spirit in our history, our present, and our future.
I don't want to argue that the church is not the vehicle for our following Jesus and being empowered to do so by the Spirit. At the end of the Eucharist, the deacon dismisses the people saying, "Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit!" We are formed through the church and the church is to be the symbol of Christ's body and Christ's mission in the world. And I don't want to argue about when the church was actually formed and how it was ordained by God or by Jesus. That's a discussion for another day. As is the fact that the Gospel of John gives us a different account of how the Spirit was given.
But what I do want so say is that the Spirit is not bound by or limited to the church. The Spirit is about fire, about wind, about peace, about standing up to hatred, about receiving the breath of God again and again. The Spirit is what powers us to go out and continue Jesus' work in the world that we've been talking about nearly every week in church since Easter (if you've been following the lectionary). And I would rather celebrate the giving and receiving of the Spirit - the Spirit as power, the Spirit as profound comforter, the Spirit as that which drove Jesus into the wilderness after his baptism, the Spirit that helps us bear the things we thought we could not bear, the Spirit that works through us and through the church to do the unimaginable - than the birthday of the church.
Bonus historical paragraph: "Pentecost" in the Acts of the Apostles is originally the Jewish festival that celebrates the giving of the Torah, fifty days after Passover. Pentecost is also known as the Festival of Weeks and was originally a harvest festival, when the first fruits of the harvest were brought to the Temple. The giving of the Torah was once, but it is received again and again - and this notion has been brought forward into Christian practice. The Spirit's original appearance is primarily what is celebrated on Pentecost - not so much our receiving it over and over. And yet just as at the Passover Seder the past is brought into the present and at the Easter Vigil during the Exsultet someone sings "THIS is the night...." so, I think, while it is certainly not wrong to commemorate the giving of the Spirit in its original setting, it is also traditional to see Pentecost as also a time to bring past into present and future.