In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ Jesus, today we celebrate Pentecost. Although we are correct to call this the Church’s birthday, our celebration is really meant to focus our hearts and our minds on what the Church is today and can be tomorrow, rather than be a dutiful remembrance of a past historical event. We are not pulling out our dust-covered movie projector and Super 8 reels from the closet, popping some corn on the stove, and watching faded and badly cut images from an old birthday party. We are not reminiscing about long dead relatives and friends on the movie screen, and then waxing nostalgic about the good ol’ days. Now, I am not putting down the family traditions that revolve around home movies and after dinner cocktails, for there is something good to be said about recapturing now and then memories and feelings from the past. What I am saying, though, is that Pentecost is fundamentally about the work still to be done. We are celebrating a birthday so that we may do a better job tomorrow of being stewards of God’s grace and workers in His Kingdom.
On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends upon the faithful as a rushing wind and as cloven tongues of fire. The experience is totally kinetic on every level, spiritually, sensually, and intellectually, like in the Genesis account of creation when literally God’s Spirit sweeps as a wind over the face of the waters. Or when the wind blows over the face of the Great Flood so as to reveal to Noah that it is starting to recede. God appears before Moses as a deafening wind, and leads Israel through the desert as a fire in the night sky. Wind and fire gather up the Prophet Elijah and transition him into Heaven while he is still alive. An angelic wind envelopes Daniel’s friends, when they have been tossed into the fiery furnace. In every instance, the wind and the fire, sometimes in opposition to one another, other times working together as components of a great storm, tell us that God is near. Divine intimacy is intrinsically eschatological, which is to say that when He is closest to us He has an impact that is life transforming and earth shattering. God so loves that His love is forever pushing outward, a wind sweeping up the lost sheep back into His fatherly arms, or a flame purging the chaff away from the wheat in time for the harvest. To be nearest God is to be like a sailboat with the wind at its back and with a fire in the towering sky up ahead: The wind provides the force, the fire the direction, and the destination is our eternal home. We choose either to hoist the sails, or not. We choose either to flow with the current, or to try to defy it in favor of some other shoreline that we imagine will be more pleasurable, more in line with our own prejudices, more in sync with our own pet peeves, and ultimately more self-affirming. Regardless of the choice we make, when God is nearest us we are forced out of our comfort zones and onto the stage of our own lives. God’s immanence means that our lives do matter, one way or the other. God’s transcendence means that He has the power to help us, ultimately even to save us, and that no matter how precarious we may be confident of victory. Pentecost reminds us that we must act, we must pursue whatever vocation God has in store for us, but also that with His Spirit in us we can and shall do so much more than we know. Our actions may be small, our gestures anonymous and unheralded, but if pursued in faith, and with the aid of the Holy Spirit, our work is caught up into God’s work, our lives into His eternal life, our hearth and home into His Kingdom.
And so in today’s Gospel reading Christ Jesus promises “the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, He shall teach you all things and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.” Though we must act, sometimes outside of our comfort zones, we may be comforted in knowing that God is with us. When beholding God’s messenger in the burning bush, Moses is worried that he will not know what to say when he makes his appeal on behalf of his fellow Hebrews before Pharaoh, but God replies: “Certainly, I will be with thee, and this shall be a token unto thee, that I have sent thee: When thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve God upon this mountain.” Moses will worship God not simply as a sacrifice unto God, but as a living sign of God’s faithfulness unto him. Similarly, just after receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, St. Peter stands up to make his appeal to the crowd. Peter had not been known for his eloquence, and yet he takes the stage God has set for him with the comfort of knowing that God is there with him. The sign of God’s faithfulness to him and to all of us is the Resurrection of Our Lord; and so with boldness Peter proclaims that though King David even then remains dead and buried, in the case of Christ Jesus, “His soul was not left in Hell, neither His flesh did see corruption; this Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses.” With God’s Spirit, Peter finds his voice, and the Church begins even then to hoist her sails and to move forward from his sermon to our eternal home.
St. Peter preaches his sermon before a multitude of people from every part of the Roman Empire. For all intent and purposes, it is as if the entire world has come to this very spot. The people speak in their native tongues, and yet after the descent of the Holy Spirit everyone understands everyone else. No matter how many languages are spoken, “we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.” In the Tower of Babel, the people of the world had convened to construct a tower up to Heaven on their own terms. In essence, they wanted to take another nibble at Eve’s forbidden fruit, except this time on a much grandeur scale. God derailed them all in their impiety. He removed from them the common language they shared, so that the more the languages multiplied the less they could conspire with one another in sin. Now, at Pentecost, Heaven has come down to the people in the wind and in the fire. Though still divided by many languages, in virtue of the Holy Spirit they all share in one understanding, one profession of faith, one worship in grace, one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Once divided by sin, they are now united by grace. The Tower of Babel has been turned on its head, and so now we have the Epiclesis, the descent of the Holy Spirit into the Sacraments of the Church; the coming together of Heaven and Earth, not as an expression of man’s impiety, but as a revelation of God’s love.
As we celebrate the Church’s birthday, let us pray for that grace by which we may be empowered to do God’s work and comforted by God’s Spirit. We are Christians. That means that no matter the unique gifts we have been given, we are each called to live our lives with our sails hoisted and our compasses calibrated. Put away the ego, the nonsense, the pet peeves, the prejudices, whatever keeps us from doing the work at hand. The Kingdom is here. Pentecost reminds us to take up our staff and to go forth.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.