Sunday, June 04, 2017

Pentecost - Celebration of New Life

Day of Pentecost (Year A)
Acts 2.1-21; 1 Corinthians 12.3b-13; John 20.19-23
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

Imagine the awesome experience of that first Pentecost as described in Acts. Well, strictly speaking, it wasn’t the first Pentecost. In the Hebrew calendar, Pentecost was an ancient celebration. It was originally an agricultural festival. Also known as the Feast of Weeks, it marked the end of the annual grain harvest, which began seven weeks before, during Passover. Pentecost, from the Greek, meaning fifty. Fifty days after Passover. In time, Pentecost also become a commemoration of the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, which occurred 50 days after the beginning of the Exodus. Fifty days after Passover.

This was a time of double celebration. Celebration of the gifts God provides to sustain and nourish the people. And celebration of the gift of the Law as a guide for the people’s lives; as a means of sustaining and nourishing the people in their social and religious lives. Of unifying Israel as a nation, as the people of God. Sort of harvest festival meets Independence Day.

The disciples and many others were gathered to celebrate this double-whammy of a feast day. Undoubtedly, it began as any other Pentecost celebration, whatever form that generally took. A time to celebrate and to offer praises to God. But then, something spectacular happened!

“When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (Acts 2.1-4). In the midst of their celebration, of their offering praises to God, something completely unexpected and extraordinary happens. God himself actually showed up!

In hindsight, we know that this is the gift that Jesus had promised the disciples just ten days before, immediately before his Ascension. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1.8a). But, of course, in the chaos, there is uncertainty among those present as to what is happening. They don’t quite make the connection with what Jesus had told them. (Typical disciples.) But Peter recognizes what is happening. He points to the ancient prophets to help them understand. “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour 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” (Acts 2.17).

Peter recognizes that with the coming of the Holy Spirit, greater depth is added to their understanding of Pentecost. To their understanding of God’s interactions with his people. To what it means to be God’s people. That the Spirit is a transformative power, bringing new life to the people.

All the symbolism wrapped up in the Feast of Pentecost – the ancient symbols and the new – are signs of a gracious God giving life to his people. The celebration of the harvest, of God providing food for the people. This being the celebration of the gift of physical life. Celebration of the giving of the Law, whereby Israel became a nation and committed to serving God. With the Law being the means by which their identity as a nation to God is guided and upheld. This being a celebration of their corporate life, religiously and socially. And with the gift of the Holy Spirit, another whole dimension is added. God giving life in another form. Spiritual life.

Of course, as the people of God, they had always been spiritually connected to God. Only it wasn’t always evident. Particularly not to the people themselves. Particularly not in such a dramatic way as was exhibited in this new form of Pentecost. But with the gift of the Holy Spirit, they were connected to God in an even deeper way. In a more direct way. For the Holy Spirit came to rest upon them, to dwell within them. This Spirit was the means of fulfilling Jesus’ final promise to his disciples: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the ages” (Mt 28.20b). This Holy Spirit is the continuation of the presence of Jesus on earth. In the process, we ourselves are transformed. Because now, Jesus is present and active in the world through each of us, gathered into a collective body, the Body of Christ.

In this way, the celebration of Pentecost is a fitting culmination to the Easter season and the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection and our incorporation into the resurrected life. This celebration signifies the full realization of the transforming power of the Resurrection. A transforming power invested with the Church, which is empowered by God through the Holy Spirit to carry on the ministry of Jesus and thereby to be his presence in the world. And that Spirit continues to this day. The Spirit that continues to energize and empower the ministry of the Church in the world today. 

Pentecost is a reminder to us all that we, like the disciples, have been blessed by the power of the Spirit. The gift of Christ’s Spirit, whereby the followers of Jesus became the Body of Christ in the world. That is what we celebrate on this Feast of the Pentecost.

Of course, the means by which we are incorporated into the Body of Christ is through the sacrament of Baptism. While we generally focus on water as the key ingredient to Baptism, there is another equally important one. If anything, the Feast of Pentecost reminds us that it may be an even more important ingredient. Especially with respect to our ongoing life as members of the Body of Christ. After a person is baptized with water, there is the chrismation. The act of anointing the baptized with chrism – with holy oil blessed by the Bishop – as a sign of the giving of the Holy Spirit, whereby the sacrament of Baptism is actually completed. This is done with the words: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”

Today, the Holy Spirit will once again be at work in this place. In just a few moments we will baptize Vivienne Huynh Adams in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and she will be sealed by the Holy Spirit, marked as Christ’s own for ever, becoming the newest member of the Body of Christ. And in so doing, she will be transformed, as we all were in our own baptisms. And the Spirit will impart Vivienne with her own unique gifts. Gifts that, as Paul tells us in his First Letter to the Corinthians, are the unique manifestations of the Spirit given to us, offering life to and for the community of faith. Granting us the power to carry out its mission and ministry.

The coming of the Holy Spirit, be it at the first Christian Pentecost, or at this one, is an awesome thing. Again, recalling Peter’s words on that first Pentecost: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour 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” (Acts 2.17).

The Feast of Pentecost is indeed a celebration of new life. New life made possible through the gift of the Holy Spirit. A life in which we are called to be those who prophesy the will of God to the world. A life in which we are to have visions of the Kingdom of God. A life in which we are to dare to dream dreams about how to make that Kingdom a reality. A life in which we are energized and resolved to make those visions and dreams a reality.

As I look out, I see the Spirit active in this place. I see tongues of fire resting on each of you, ready to energize and empower each of you in your own unique ministries. Ready to set the world on fire.

Come, Holy Spirit, come!

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