Sheepscott Community Church May 23, 2010 Pentecost
Acts 2: 1-21
John 14: 8-17, 25-27
This Is the Day
Fifty days after Easter, here we are, balanced on the cusp of extraordinary time––Easter, Ascension, Pentecost––and ordinary time, which will commence next week with Trinity Sunday. Ordinary time lasts until the liturgical year ends in late November, when Advent begins yet again. ‘Round and ‘round the liturgical cycle we go, year after year. What keeps the worship, and perhaps the adventure of it all fresh enough that we keep coming back? The answer is the Spirit of God, the so-called Holy Spirit, formerly known as the Holy Ghost, who entered the vocabularies and thus the imaginations of children of previous generations to confound and frighten and amaze. Not a bad thing, I don’t think. Would that we could recover some of the native awe that is characteristic of children.
On this birthday of the church, we celebrate the renewer of the church, this Spirit of God, named in scripture as Sophia, the Spirit of Wisdom, the Comforter, the Counselor, the Sanctifier, the Advocate. We celebrate that One’s coming upon the apostles in Jerusalem in fulfillment of the promise of Jesus, “The Advocate whom the Father will send in my name will teach you everything and will remind you of all that I have told you.” The reference is to the Holy Spirit who brings home to us internally the teaching given externally by Christ.
So, this is the day, folks. The big day, which Jesus promised to us before his death on a cross and subsequent resurrection and ascension. In Buddhism we have the concept of the bodhisattva, the enlightened one who returns to earth to help those still caught in samsara, the daily grind that obscures the light and meaning of life. One way of thinking of Jesus is as a bodhisattva, the embodiment of compassion, who comes back to help the rest of us find our way to where he has gone, and that way is love. The master teacher comes as the Spirit of Love to enable us to find our way back to love.
I think the reaction to that first descent of the Spirit was amazement and confusion in Jerusalem when those who were there from places as diverse as Libya, Rome, Cappadocia, Asia, all heard the apostles speaking in their own languages, their own tongues. As people tried to process what they did not understand, some joked about it, as in, “They have had too much wine!” I think we’ve all seen people try to deal with what they can’t or don’t understand by mocking or ridicule. Others present at that first Pentecost had the curiosity, interest and wonder to ask, “What does this mean?” Perhaps they and their legitimate philosophical offspring, who would ask the same question today if that same event occurred right here in this church, would be in a better position to discover what that event did in fact mean because they had the humility to question it rather than to prematurely name it in a mocking way.
Which reminds me of a story my father told more than once at the dinner table when we were kids. He was an Irish Catholic kid in the early 1900s in a city where people were worshiping in the new––at that time––Pentecostal way, viz., with shouts and crying and God knows what all. These Pentecostal worshippers were called “holy rollers,” and you know when you hear that that it isn’t a complement. My father and his friends would watch through the windows and be amazed at what would go on in these places of worship, so different from the solemn ritual of the Roman Catholic Mass. The story was told to us in a way that would encourage mocking. I know better now, that the Spirit of God draws forth all manner of worshipful expression, and that offered up with a clean heart and without judgment on others is wholly acceptable to God.
Think beyond these Pentecostal worshippers of the early twentieth century to whirling dervishes of Sufism, which is the mystical branch of Islam. You have probably seen pictures of these, their ample skirts––on men and women––flying out around them as they whirled in a kind of religious ecstasy. Or the Shakers for that matter, founded in eighteenth-century England by Mother Ann Lee, who fled to America where her religion took solid root for more than a century. The inspired music of the Shakers and the shuffling group dancing isn’t that far from the dervishes in expression and meaning, or the early Pentecostals for that matter. Shape note singing as well is inspired by that same Spirit. All of these expressions of spiritual activity and worship come from and return to God as praise in different forms. The One God who is myriad in expressions of that One’s self––only look at the natural world with eyes to see–– that One likewise welcomes myriad expressions of worship. How fitting that seems.
The ascetic practices of medieval Christianity, including self-flagellation, protracted fasting, deliberate exposure to extreme temperatures, self-denial of sleep were all attempts to draw down or draw up the Holy Spirit of God more fully into the life of the practitioner. The use of drugs in the twentieth century, including the peyote of those influenced by the writer/visionary Carlos Castenada; of opium specifically in the nineteenth century by such known figures as Coleridge the poet and the writer DeQuincy, were also attempts to open the consciousness wider to the influence of what is severally called the Muse or the Spirit.
All of these means of opening the deeper self, or mind expansion, imitate or touch on what happened spontaneously on Pentecost in fulfillment of Christ’s promise, and in fact, of Joel’s prophesy, which Ernie read as part of the reading from Acts.
“In the last days, God says,/I will pour out my Spirit on all people./Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams./ Even on my servants, both men and women,/I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy,” and so on.
This quotation from Joel, which an inspired Peter spoke to those gathered on that first Pentecost, was not just for that time. I would guess that Peter saw that extraordinary day as the once-and-for-all fulfillment of Joel’s prophesy, and I expect if I had been there I would have thought the same thing. But I have lived long enough to know that when something is true, as with Joel’s prophecy, it is true for all time. The words of the prophet Joel are for us now.
There’s another scripture from the prophet Joel that would make a perfect opening for Cyndi to say what she has to say vis-à-vis the action of he Spirit of God in her life. And that is Joel, chapter 2, verses 25 and 26, which has been one of her favorite scriptures right along.
“I will repay you for the years that the locusts have eaten––the great locust and the young locust, the other locusts and the locust swarm––my great army that I have sent among you.
“You will have plenty to eat, until you are full,/ and you will praise the name of the Lord your God,/ who has worked wonders for you;/ never again will my people be shamed.”
It’s fitting that I should follow that with a quotation from the Oswald Chambers book My Utmost for His Highest, which Cyndi gave me as a gift in 1977. In this day’s entry Chambers talks about the graciousness of uncertainty, what I call the adventure of the life that is Christ, that is his Spirit. Chambers notes that certainty is the mark of the commonsense life. Gracious uncertainty is the mark of the spiritual life. What he is talking about is trusting God from moment to moment to continue to reveal our lives to us even as we’re making them according to the guidance of the One whom I am advocating for today, the One whose coming we are celebrating: the Holy Spirit of God. The Spirit of Love who is the personified life of God: wise, loving, one.
I mentioned last week that the creeds which formed many of our beliefs are words. It is important to codify and ritualize––that’s what we are doing here this morning, ritual out of belief––but if we become advocates of creeds themselves, something goes a-missing, and that something is the Spirit that gives life, by filling out the words of those creedal statements with meaning. We need to walk in fear of believing only our belief about God rather than living in trust out of faith in that One from moment to moment.
Last Sunday I encouraged you to read the Book of Acts in anticipation of Pentecost, mostly to give you an idea of the extraordinary events that took place in the early church and were recorded for our benefit as much as anything else. To give you an idea of what God as Spirit does in the world. I won’t ask for a show of hands of who actually read Acts because counting isn’t the name of this game, and God being sovereign, we never know how that divine partner of ours in this game is going to play his hand. I alluded earlier to the Pentecostal movement that began in California in 1908, and I want to mention also the Pentecostal revival that began in about 1964 among some college students who decided to pray for the Spirit to come down on them as a group just as it had on the apostles in Jerusalem that day, and by golly it happened. It was at that time and over the next two decades that the Pentecostal or charismatic movement swept through the mainline churches, and by that term I mean Episcopal, Methodist, Congregational, Catholic, Presbyterian, etc. It really was a breath of fresh air and firsthand experience of the power of prayer to bring about what the Spirit of God wants to do in a life. You just heard Cyndi’s testimony.
Just an aside. When I first went to a prayer meeting that was starting at St. Patrick’s Kelly House in Newcastle in 1972, it was one of the quietest two hours I ever spent. Did you ever pray spontaneously with a group of Catholics? Spontaneous Catholics in a worship setting is an oxymoron. But we were in the school of the Spirit, and all of us loosened up over the next few years. More than loosened up. Many of the gifts of the Spirit were in evidence at our prayer meeting. People prayed in tongues, one of our group received the gift of healing which she exercised whenever the need arose. There was prophecy, which in this context is not prediction of future events usually, but words of comfort and instruction for the people of God. There were those who wished we would tighten up and button up again. But today, this great feast of Pentecost, I claim the right to speak as I will, to attest to the truth that God is alive and well and wants more for and from me and you.
I remind you that Cyndi and I will be in church this afternoon from 2 to 4, before the Board’s planning meeting to pray for whatever you want to pray for, yes, but especially for the release of the Holy Spirit of the living God in your life in greater measure. I note that God always comes to us as we are, honoring, not overwhelming our personalities. You need not expect or fear a public emotional breakdown. No. What you can expect is a very deep. quiet coming of the Spirit of God to reveal inwardly in your understanding, thus making it come alive in your life, what Jesus taught outwardly. Amen.