Some thoughts on Pentecost

Some years ago I went to the small Theater in the Square in Marietta, Georgia, to see the one-man performance of The Gospel of John in which the actor Brad Sherrill dramatically recited the entire Gospel by himself. Certain seats in the front rows were designated by the actor to be the place where he would go when Jesus interacted with certain characters in the story.

I happened to be sitting in the seat where he would be encountering Philip. I didn’t know this when I sat down, but I was rather pleased at the beginning of the performance when the actor stopped in front of me and said, “Follow me.” I glowed with a bit of pride, as if Jesus had come to me himself.

It was a little less exciting when he stood in front of me sometime later and asked me, “How are we going to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” I suddenly felt put on the spot. Thank goodness he walked away to deliver my answer that six months’ wages would not buy enough bread to feed the 5,000.

Then he got to Chapter 14 and stood in front of me and said, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’” And I wanted to jump out of my seat and fall onto my knees and ask forgiveness. 

Oh, I was convicted. It was as if Jesus himself stood in front of me, looking me in the eye and saying, Penny, have I been with you all this time and you still do not know me?

It’s as bad as when Jesus, who said I am the way, the truth and the life, stood in front of Pilate who asked him, “What is truth?” My mother had a phrase she used to describe people who, shall we say, had trouble staying on the up and up. "He wouldn't know the truth if it were standing right in front of him." Yeah, that was me.

A poet-friend and member of St Bartholomew’s, Atlanta, Kendall Lockerman, wrote a poem a few of years ago about Pentecost, and in it he ventures that “Pentecost... is the day when the Holy Spirit came down to roost on the heads of the apostles and the Holy Spirit set their hair on fire. The apostles appeared to know from the very beginning that dealing with the Holy Spirit was going to be weird....The Holy Spirit is as weird now as she ever was. Rock on, that.”

Life accompanied by the Spirit is often unsettling. Jesus’ work itself was unsettling - eating with sinners and outcasts, touching women and lepers, doing unauthorized things on the Sabbath, preaching love and forgiveness, turning things upside down, relentlessly providing abundance through ridiculous amounts of wine and bread and fish. First century weirdness, that.

In our day, this time of constant noise and distraction, a time when it is not cool to go through the day with a sense of wonder but rather to be a pessimist, ever ready to get into it with people who don’t agree with us, it can be hard to discern the work of the Spirit, which is more likely to present with a lot more subtlety than people with their hair on fire. Karoline Lewis, a New Testament professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, says that Lutherans call the Holy Spirit “the shy person in the Trinity.” Our rector here likes to quote Parker Palmer that the Spirit is like a deer that can be scared off by people crashing through the woods looking for it.

Nonetheless, Jesus is right. The Spirit is with us all the time and does the kind of work that turns the world upside down.  But always for love and always for reconciliation. The Spirit kindles a flame and leads us by that light, as Paul says in his letter to the Romans. 

When I think of our friend who has been in Greece helping with the refugee crisis there, I know it was the Spirit that led him to get on a plane and bring his skills as both an EMT and a lawyer to bear on that roil of human suffering. When I read about families both Palestinian and Israeli who get together to listen to one another’s stories about their loved ones who have died in the never-ending conflict there and vow to work for peace, even though they're supposed to be enemies, I know it is the Spirit that is at work there both to spur on and to comfort. When I think of our own parishioners going even into solitary confinement to bring communion and love into the Richmond city jail, I know it is the Spirit that prompts them to go and share love and also to find the Spirit already at work among the incarcerated.

So my prayer for you and for me today as we celebrate Pentecost is that we continue to look for the Spirit’s work kindling the flame of love, leading us toward each other in reconciliation, which may well be right in front of our eyes. The Spirit has been with us all of this time. May we have the eyes to see.