Pentecost Sunday – June 12, 2011 – St. John’s
This great feast is an end and a beginning. Pentecost brings the Easter season to its climax as we celebrate the risen Lord’s gift of the life and power of his Holy Spirit. At the same time it inaugurates the period known (rather pedestrianly) as “ordinary time,” which may be thought to correspond to the entrance of the Church into the history of the world in the lives of the community of disciples whom the same Spirit has enlivened and empowered, generation after generation, until it has enlivened and empowered us who gather here. We are celebrating our origins.
The first great difference that Jesus Christ made in human history was the community of the disciples on whom the Spirit came as fire and of those who came to believe when they began to preach about God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ. Our readings celebrate, first, the catholicity of that community: already, in the many different regions and peoples represented there, is anticipated the worldwide spread of the faith that the rest of the Book of Acts will describe being realized. The wonder of Pentecost was that the unity that was achieved did not obliterate their differences: all of them heard the Apostles’ message, yes, but they all heard it in their own languages. Their diversity was integrated under the word about Christ and in the Holy Spirit.
A modern theologian, Louis Bouyer, used a vivid metaphor to describe how all other Churches derive from that first Church of Jerusalem. He speaks of them as having come into existence by way of cutting and planting. A friend of mine has an African violet that she received from her father shortly before he was killed in a car accident over thirty years ago. In one sense it is not, of course, the same plant; but in another it is, because over the years she has several times carefully cut a leaf and nourished it until it grew roots and could itself flourish. The plant that she now cherishes is the result of many such cuttings and plantings, but it is still her father’s gift; and other cuttings and plantings she has given to nieces and nephews as a link to their grandfather.
That is how the Church has reproduced itself over the centuries. This is most visible, I suppose, in missionary work, when a Church sends some of its members to tell other peoples about Jesus Christ and, eventually, a new Church is planted and begins to flourish. But it is also true of how the Church continues to live where it has lived for decades, centuries, or even millennia. We are like that African violet: different in a sense because born in a different time and place, but in another sense the same, genetically identical, as it were, because united in the same faith, hope, and love as the first generation of Christians. We who gather here this morning are the children of the generation of Christians who lived before us–of our parents and grandparents in the faith. And they, of course, were the children of earlier generations, who were themselves children of earlier generations, and this all the way back to that community in Jerusalem on whom the Spirit first came in light, power and life.
Our identity with that mother Church can be vividly felt as we hear the second reading today, from the glorious eighth chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. This letter was written some 1,950 years ago, and yet as we listen to it we know it was written for us, as when we hear: “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit who dwells in you.” “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a Spirit of adoption, through whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’”
The Spirit who came upon the first disciples has come upon us. The Spirit who raised Christ from the dead raises us from the death of sin and fear. The Spirit of the Christ who taught his disciples to call God “Abba, Father” has made us God’s daughters and sons, able ourselves to address him as our very dear Father. To the extent that all of this is true of us, of each of us, and of all of us, then here today, in this congregation, the wonder of Pentecost continues.