Dear Wisdom Community,
I was asked by our own dear Laura Ruth if I’d share my Pentecost sermon from St. Gregory’s in Woodstock with our community here. Of course! I’m copying the text below; you can also listen to an audio recording here, if you’d prefer that. And here are the Scripture readings for the day.
If you’d like to explore a bit more about the roots of Pentecost in Judaism, as well as my own reflection on this particular feast day’s relationship to our contemporary interspiritual movement, check out my article Pentecostal Fire, which first appeared over at Contemplative Journal.
Come Holy Spirit, set our hearts on fire,
I speak to you in the Name of the Holy Spirit, the holy Breath of God who breathes in all things, giving life, shaping justice, and calling us all into the fullness of love. Amen.
Happy Pentecost, Church! Happy birthday, Church. Happy Feast of the Holy Spirit. Today is the day when the disciples of Jesus—that’s us—when the disciples of Jesus, scared and waiting and in prayer, keeping vigil in the Upper Room, bereaved of their Jesus, today is the day when they are charged with the Holy Spirit, set on fire with the Spirit, and sent out to proclaim good news, to proclaim the liberating, life-giving love of God that they have known in Jesus, and that this morning they find poured, overflowing, into their hearts—despite the brokenness of the world, for the brokenness of the world.
This morning the fire that they feel and that they see resting on one another, burns away their fear, their despair, and they are sent.
And it’s this morning that we call the “birth of the Church.” The birth of the Holy Spirit-filled, charged, energized people of God who are sent out to change, to heal, to renew the face of the earth through the power of love. The birth of the Church is not the birth of Jesus, it’s not the calling of the Twelve, it’s not even the Resurrection; no, it’s today, when we are sent.
We live in the same broken and hurting world. This past Friday in Texas, 10 more were killed, 10 wounded, in yet another school shooting. This past Monday, as the United States opened a new embassy in Jerusalem, after we were begged by the Christian churches there not to do so, this past Monday 1,350 protestors were wounded by gunfire, 58 were killed, including teenagers and a baby who inhaled too much tear gas. We live in the same broken and hurting world.
And we gather this morning to pray Come, Holy Spirit. Come, set our hearts on fire, to make a difference in this world.
We gather to rekindle the fire. To see the fire resting on one another, to be charged again and sent out with love to heal God’s broken world.
Pentecost is the “christing” of the disciples. In the Gospel this morning, Jesus says, “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send her to you.”
She will arise within you, she will be poured into your hearts.
This has something to do with the growing up of the disciples. As long as they have Jesus there beside them, Jesus who will be their hero, Jesus who will do all of the work for them, they won’t be able to find the fire of the Spirit within themselves.
It is to your advantage that I go away, because only then will you discover me within you. He’s pushing them out of the nest. And he’s pushing all of us out of the nest this morning too.
He’s saying, It’s your turn, Church—it’s your turn, together, to be Christ for the world.
And it takes time—ten days in the story, maybe ten years for you and me—but the fire smoldering beneath their grief at his departure—it finally catches, and they see it in each other, and they know, and they are sent. Today, on this Feast of Pentecost, we are christed. Jesus Christ, and Margo Christ, and Julia Christ, and Ted Christ, and St. Gregory’s Christ. Today, we are christed and sent to be Jesus’ love in the world. Today the Church is born. In the reading we heard for the Feast of the Ascension, the angel said,
“Why do you stand looking into heaven?” Look around yourself, look within yourself. It’s all right here.
Back in the 12th century, there was a wild and crazy mystic named Joachim of Fiore who imagined all of history unfolding in three great ages—the Age of the Father, the Age of the Son, and the Age of the Holy Spirit. The Age of the Father was for humankind in our infancy, based on rules and laws and obedience to a paternalistic, external God—which, perhaps, we needed at that stage. But he said that with the coming of Jesus, the Age of the Son had come, things were changing, human spirituality was moving out of a rigid legalism, and he said that in his own time he was still living in the Age of the Son. But he looked forward to what he called the Age of the Holy Spirit, which he believed would be a time when all people would know God directly, when we would each be aware of our own innate connection to the Holy, and there would be less of a need for institutional church structures, for clergy.
When I think of Joachim’s vision, I can’t help but think of the times we live in—when the institutional church, which once reigned supreme, is struggling and declining. When more and more people say they’re “spiritual but not religious,” say that the Church as it has been does not meet their heart’s longing. Could it be that God is calling us as Church into a new way—a less hierarchical, less patriarchal, a less institutionally heavy—way of being Church?
On Friday at Morning Prayer, we heard these words from the Prophet Jeremiah: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant… It will not be like the covenant that I made with [your] ancestors… But this is the covenant that I will make… I will put my law within [you], and I will write it on [your] hearts… No longer shall [you] teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for [you] shall all know me, from the least of [you] to the greatest…” (Jer. 31:27-34).
That sounds an awful lot like the Age of the Holy Spirit to me! You may remember, Jesus says elsewhere in the Gospel that if you blaspheme against the Father, it will be forgiven you, and if you blaspheme against the Son, it will be forgiven you. But if you blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, it cannot be forgiven. I wonder if he’s saying that if we blaspheme against the Father—against our externalized God concept—well, no big deal, really. And if we blaspheme against the Son—against our externalized Savior-hero—well, Jesus certainly doesn’t have an ego that needs protecting, and he’s already said “It’s to your advantage that I go away.”
But if you blaspheme against the Holy Spirit—against your own direct, innate connection, the very breath of God within you—that can’t be brushed off, that’s serious stuff.
Now when the Scriptures say that something “can’t be forgiven” it doesn’t mean it can never be repaired, what it means is that you can’t escape the consequences of that kind of action. The consequences of blaspheming against your own innate holiness, of God moving and living and breathing within you—that’s big.
It seems to me that most of the people who are leaving the Church these days—and they’ve been going in droves for decades—that it’s because the Church feels far too externalized, that the institutional Church itself is perhaps guilty of the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who is alive and well and moving in all people, outside of any structures, the Spirit who Jesus promised will “guide us into all truth.”
Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading, “I have many things to say to you, but you can’t bear them now”—you can’t understand them now—but revelation is not over! Truth and love and justice are still unfolding—“When the Spirit of truth comes, she will guide you into all the truth.” You’re not ready for it yet, but she will teach you about the equality of women within the life and leadership of the Church, she will teach you that slavery and racism in every form is an abomination, she will teach you about the beauty and dignity of her lesbian and gay and transgender children. She will teach you how big this love of God is. Hohoho, you are not ready for everything she has to teach you!
She’s still unfolding in the world today. We’re still not ready for all she has to teach us. The Holy Spirit that we celebrate today is the most feminine and fluid of the persons, the faces, of the Trinity. She’s associated with wind and fire, with birdflight. She can’t be pinned down.
Her pronoun in the Hebrew Scriptures is “she”; in the Greek New Testament it is “it” not “he.” So of course we’ve focused on the Father and the Son and not on this mysterious, fluid, impossible to capture Holy Spirit. But, Jeremiah is right, and Joachim is right. It’s her time now. She’s leading us into the future. And where is she calling the Church? Today we celebrate the birth of the Church.
What Church is God wanting to give birth to now?
It won’t be the same one God birthed two-thousand years ago, or even the same one God birthed yesterday.
“You must give birth to your images. They are the future waiting to be born. Fear not the strangeness you feel. The future must enter you long before it happens. Just wait for the birth, for the hour of the new clarity.”
The Holy Spirit planted God’s longing, God’s dream, God’s future in our hearts long before this birth-day. St. Paul said in our epistle reading, “The whole creation is groaning in labor pains”—the whole creation is in an act of birthing God. Our opening hymn said:
“She sighs and she sings, mothering creation,
Waiting to give birth to all the Word will say.”
I believe she is birthing something today, in this community, in St. Gregory’s. I believe that St. Gregory’s—and the Church at large—is in a time of Pentecost; that the Spirit is seeking to light a fire within our collective heart, and within the world’s heart—at a time when it is so needed.
We’re birthing an image planted in the earth long before we were here.
An image called Jesus; an image called Mary and Mary Magdalene and Salome, and Peter and James and John; an image called Pentecost, when all of the disciples gathered together and were set on fire with the Holy Spirit and sent out to proclaim God’s liberating, life-giving love for a broken, fear-filled, and hurting world.
We must give birth to our images, to God’s image. We must see the fire in each other—look around, and see it!—the fire in everyone here, and together let it kindle us into a blaze.