Sunday, June 04, 2017

Straight Talk About Pentecost

For Christ Church, Old Durham Parish, Nanjemoy, Maryland

I’ve often said that as long as it’s possible to walk into a CVS or a Target and not find a section of Pentecost cards, the Church might have a chance at having at least one holiday that is not totally co-opted by popular culture.  To my knowledge Pentecost has not become a growth industry, and I think I know why.  First, it has no symbol that is easily packaged to appeal to popular imagination.  There is no baby, no barnyard, no cemetery, no open grave.  We look in vain for three crosses on a landscape made rosy in the dawn.  There is no handsome or beautiful saint, like a Patrick or a Mary, nor any ethnic group that associates itself with Pentecost. 

Pentecost is out of this world.  Not because it really has to do with some world beyond our own, but precisely because it blasts our preconceptions about this very world we live in.  Most of the time we imagine that this world is knowable, subject to scientific investigation or logical dissection, and that is, of course true.  Except when it’s not.  There are dimensions of life that don’t lend themselves to analysis or reason or clear explanation.  They are the stuff not only of poetry but fairly bizarre poetry.  They are mysterious, beyond taming, defying ordinary experience. 

 Pentecost by J. Garemijn (1750) one of 14 paintings of the mysteries of Rosary in Saint Walburga Church, Bruge, Belgium

Take for example Luke’s description of The Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, an account that the Church reads every year.  The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the disciples sends them reeling into tongue-speaking, a phenomenon certainly not unknown in some Christian circles as well as in other religious groups, but which surely doesn’t lend itself to mass marketing.  The account itself tells us that people at the time didn’t know what to make of the cacophony of languages, authentic languages that could in fact be understood by people who actually spoke and understood them.  So what did the masses do?  They pooh-poohed the whole event as a bunch of people who were drunk.  That’s the sort of response that our own culture tends to make to things it patently doesn’t comprehend.  Well, it’s some sort of aberration, we say.  Or there must be some mistake in the story itself.  We kick out of serious discussion what doesn’t fit our worldview.

What is with Pentecost, then? 

To begin with, Pentecost is an unmistakably hard thing for many to grasp exactly because it is something that doesn’t originate with human beings.  The point of Pentecost is that it is a grace-filled event that is initiated by God.  And it is not in the strictest sense God’s response to human prayers, for example.  Nobody in the story is asking for such a thing as Pentecost.  Quite the contrary.  From heaven, that is from some place outside predictable experience, comes a sound like the rush of a violent wind.  It fills the house where the disciples have gathered, still a band of directionless people not knowing quite what to do, though they have been told to “wait.”  They do nothing to provoke this wind or its results.  Weird stuff:  divided tongues as of fire alight on the heads of these disciples.  They begin to speak in tongues not their own. 

Like so many things in the Bible, this story is a combination of a historical event, an interpretation of the event, and a whole trunkful of symbols that point to truths far beyond bare facts, symbols that attempt to convey things well outside ordinary experience.  So tongues of fire, a house full of wind, an outbreak of strange speech all point to something here that is new.

You’ll notice that one of the things human beings constantly do is to try to understand the new by putting it side by side with something that we know, or at least something that relates the new to the past.  So it is with Pentecost.  If we go on to read what follows the wind, flame, and tongue-speaking, we hear Peter addressing the people of Jerusalem, saying, “These people are not drunk, as you suppose, at 9 AM, but this is what the Prophet Joel prophesied, when he said, ‘In the last days… God declares, “I will pout out my Spirit upon all flesh and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.  Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit and they shall prophesy.”’” Now what is interesting is not just that Peter finds an old piece of scripture using it to explain the newness of the event, but that he chooses something that itself is laden with radical newness.  If ever you wanted something ancient that blasts open all kinds of preconceptions, Joel’s passage will fit the bill:  he talks about the spiritual capacity of both sexes, the obliteration of the distinctions of age and experience, and even sees that slaves and free people are on a par as far as being filled with God’s Spirit is concerned.  To Joel this is exactly where history is moving.  His prophecy is about the “last days.”  So, if Peter is on to something in pulling Joel into his sermon, he is saying that this Pentecostal phenomenon is in fact the opening up of a whole new world. As much later the Book of Revelation will say in a similar vein, this is “a new heaven and a new earth, for the former things have passed away.”  And, “the One who sits upon the throne says, ‘I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end,” and “Behold, I make all things new.”

Now you get the idea.  That’s why Pentecost doesn’t sell particularly well.  You know as well as I that “all things new” is not something that the human race is exactly good at wanting.  Sure, we’ll take a new house, a new automobile, a computer upgrade:  it’s fine for things to be new, as long as we have them.  But we?  There is a tremendous resistance on the part of human beings for us ourselves to be made new.  Transformation is something that by its very nature means that we’d be turned inside out, our values upended, our opinions reversed, our thought patterns rearranged, our behavior overhauled, our vision radically altered.  People don’t want that kind of change as a general rule, and they jolly well don’t want to pay for it.

So here is a great and puzzling irony.  Religion, or at least Christianity (if by it we mean the Jesus kind of spiritual practices) turns out not to be nearly so interested in change as it is in preserving the status quo.  It isn’t that what’s old is no good, but that the refusal to be open to what the old (like Joel’s prophecy) actually points to in many cases is ignored and rejected because it’s disruptive. 

Now you would be a rare congregation indeed if at this point some of you are squirming in your seats wondering who this guy is who is preaching the possibility of life-altering change when what we pay preachers generally to do is to assure us that everything is all right even as it is.  You have a venerable history at Christ Church, and you have been in business since 1661, which means your ancestors in this place were using the Prayer Book of Queen Elizabeth I. Who am I to tell you anything? 
Christ Church, Old Durham Parish, Founded 1661, Chartered 1692

Let me assure you that the issue at stake here is not just any kind of change as if change itself involved transformation.  No, sometimes transformative change calls us back to ancient truth, things that native and aboriginal people, or indeed people in the ancient world, knew and understood, and which the power-enchanted ages succeeding them have forgotten.  That’s the difference.  When you’re talking about eternity, there is no past or present or future, none.  Eternity is far beyond “future.”  It transcends time and space.  Which is the point of Pentecost.  The Eternal (heaven) breaks into time.  The Divine infuses the human.  Spirit comes like a shattering wind and fills the material.  This is neither a matter of idolizing the novel and new or getting defensive and picky about protecting the old.  Suddenly, the message of Truth is that all the categories that separate us—sex, age, race, social status, intelligence, experience, and anything else—are out the window, blown away by this wild, powerful Spirit.  And behold, we are at last what we’re created for:  dwelling places, sanctuaries, of that very Spirit.

That’s where the rubber hits the road, folks.  That is what Jesus embodies, Paul taught, the Apostles all came to realize so much that most of them gave their lives living it and teaching it.  It is what precious few people have dared to live out fully because it is never easy and it often looks crazy.  St. Francis was one of the best examples.  St. Clare was another.  And if you start poking around in the stories of others that we call holy, or saintly, or models, or virtuous, we begin to find out that, yes, there really have been hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, of ordinary souls that have caught the vision and have been so altered by it that they’ve too dreamed dreams and have turned them into little and sometimes gigantic pieces of Spirit-filled reality.  Samuel Issac Joseph Schereschewski, Lithuanian Jew turned Episcopal missionary, pecking out on a typewriter translations of the Bible in Chinese with the middle finger of his partially crippled hand; Sojourner Truth, former slave, preaching to the poverty-stricken and to white congregations, working to abolish slavery and to secure women’s rights; Margaret of Scotland, queen who took loaves of bread to the hungry sat listening to and counseling the poor; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose faith led him to plot the assassination of Hitler for which he was hanged; Thomas Gallaudet, son and husband of deaf-mutes, who closed the border separating the deaf from the hearing; and on and on the list goes, of ordinary people filled with the Spirit who have defied odds, championed the outcast, faced down the powerful, resisted oppressors, stood up for the vulnerable, spent their livelihoods lifting up the miserable, who have painted, written, chiseled, designed, invented, believed, struggled, lost, won, lived.  
Sojourner Truth

Pentecost may be out of this world, but it is not out of your reach.  If you feel the impulse to be more loving, to exercise more care, to tone down your dislike of difficult people, to resist the forces that eagerly pit people against each other and sic the privileged on the vulnerable; if you feel a stirring in your soul to become more the person you know yourself to be but can’t quite pull it off:  stick with it.  Seek and you will find.  Wait till the Spirit has come upon you and power of the Most High overshadows you.  It will take you to places you never have imagined you’d go, doing things that even you may not understand.  But you may be sure that the Spirit of Comfort, Truth, and Love will never leave nor forsake you.  For it is in the likes of you and me that love creates a space where the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling.

Queen Margaret of Scotland disembarks among the poor she served.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017