Friday, May 22, 2015

Pentecost Sunday: A Gathering of the Faithful Few or A Time to Receive the Holy Spirit?

This Pentecost Sunday, as I speak to those hardy souls who worship this weekend in the midst of the clamor of options for things "to do", I offer a word on the Spirit, who sees all of the planning and aspirations, confusion and certainties among the faithful followers of Jesus and lights a whole different kind of fire under the church. It's a day when the poor lector has to read all of those tongue twisting names of the nations and languages being suddenly spoken when the mighty Winds of the Spirit reminds them that Jesus wasn't just wanting his gospel to be preached and lived out close to home. 

This is a word for the entire world to hear, and the Spirit ensures that well above the Babel of the languages, everyone hears this good word at the same time, the same place and even in their own dialect! (Honestly, it's a reminder that the UN or even Google Translate has yet to catch up with what the Spirit did two millennia ago!)

From Acts 2 onwards, those who believe in Jesus are never the same. The Day of Pentecost is our day to remember the coming of the Holy Spirit who fills the Church with power to live in and testify to the fullness of the gospel. The Spirit descends to help the believers, still a bit dazed and confused from the events of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and subsequent ascension. From this small gathering shall come forth a movement of people, summoned for ministry and mission, aiming for the fulfillment of Christ’s parting words: “to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The Day of Pentecost serves as a witness to the Church, now two thousand years later, to remember that the winds of the Spirit have yet to quiet down. To understand Pentecost, you must not speak of it as a day long ago, or of the Spirit in a manner that presumes the “work” of the Spirit is done. The Spirit summons the whole people of God to the ministry and mission of the Church, gifting each Christian and calling the many to be “Church”. With the Spirit, Pentecost is the beginning and the winds of the Spirit have yet to die down.

Recently, I read a recent spiritual memoir by Episcopal writer Sara Miles, who coordinates a major food pantry ministry out of her home congregation in San Francisco. Miles is the grand-child of American Baptist missionaries, yet in her own upbringing, she had no connection to Christianity. She shares, “I came late to Christianity, knocked upside down by a midlife conversion centered around a literal chunk of bread.” 

Her previous memoir Take This Bread is a remarkable celebration of how the Eucharist became such a transforming experience for her. She became involved in a food pantry ministry distributing hundreds of pounds of food each week, using the very sanctuary of the Church as the distribution site. The Food Pantry has become a parable for what happens when the Spirit works in the midst of the gathered people. Miles writes, “The immediacy of my conversion experience left me perhaps freakily convinced of the presence of Jesus around me. I hadn’t figured out a neat set of ‘beliefs’, but discovered a force blowing uncontrollably through the world” (Jesus Freak, HarperOne, p. xi.) 

Sara Miles’ books celebrate this unshakable belief that the Spirit is moving in the world. Unfortunately, Miles has discovered in her encounters with churches around the United States, the feeling is not readily shared. When Miles serves as a guest speaker, she notes how many clergy and laity will praise her work with the Food Pantry ministry project or the creative energy that her home congregation is known for, all while claiming that such things are not possible elsewhere, especially in their own parishes. Miles finds the claims of insufficiency disappointing to hear. “What more permission do they need?” she asks her priest. “‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ isn’t enough?” (Jesus Freak, p. 42)

“Receiving the Holy Spirit” runs throughout the Bible, imaged as seemingly “tame” concepts. Trace the presence of the Spirit in the sacred texts, and you will see the Spirit as “dove” empowers Jesus for his ministry, the Spirit as flame ignites the Church for a worldwide mission, and the Spirit as wind can be a gale force wind, bringing new life and renewal to the people of God.

In the history of the faith, Celtic Christianity has an image of the Holy Spirit quite unlike any other. The Celts described the Spirit to be like “a wild goose”: a bird that is unpredictable, chaotic, and really could shake up the fellowship if turned loose in their midst. The Spirit as “wild goose” is a good image as we sometimes talk of the Church needing change or improvement, yet we are unprepared when the Spirit works in a manner that is unpredictable, chaotic, and really shakes up the fellowship. 

I shared this “Spirit as wild goose” image awhile back with a friend, who was just about to start a new ministry position. The other day he received a “welcoming” gift from one of his new congregants. The gift was a “goose call”, sort of a wooden whistle that mimics the sound of a goose. My friend remembered our conversation about the Spirit as wild goose and started laughing. What better sign of a new ministry about to begin, in my friend’s life as well as the life of the congregation he’s about to serve as their new minister?

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