The Day of Pentecost
May 23, 2010,
The Rev Sr Deborah Magdalene
This last Thursday I was driving home from a meeting downtown when I had an encounter with the Holy Spirit. Now, as is usually the case, I didn’t know it was the Holy Spirit. At the time, it felt like a crisis. Something happened that knocked me right out of my rhythm, off my game, and into a state of suspended animation. In the middle of the day, on a road I am very familiar with, I was suddenly in the middle of an accident.
I was waiting for the green arrow on the corner of Kissingbower and the Gordon Highway. I remember noticing, with gratitude, that the light turned green much earlier than I’d anticipated. I’m used to waiting at that light long enough to read all the area billboards and all my dashboard buttons.
As I proceeded, gratefully, into the intersection I became suddenly aware of a large black something coming up very fast on my left side. No sooner had that awareness flashed through my consciousness than I felt the hit. It was powerful and full of noises and smells – Crash, the engine is whining, gasoline fumes are filing my car, and pieces of car are landing in some very unexpected places.
My first thought was, “You are in the middle of the intersection – back up the car against the curb and be safe.” I began to back up my whining, wounded car, and became aware, in a flash of insight, that I was physically intact. “I am OK. Oh my God, I am OK. I am backing up my car and thinking like a normal person.”
Once I was safely out of harm I looked around to see if the “black hulk” had stopped. I was surprised that it had – it had been going so terribly fast. The speeding black thing was actually a pickup truck, with two young girls in the front seat.
I was quite slow in picking up the fact that they were not in the least bit concerned with me. I shouted over to them, “I’m OK!” before I realized what they were actually doing. The driver of the truck was screaming obscenities at me and at her truck. Then I heard her say, “I had a green light!!!!” This information seeped in very slowly. In fact, I even shouted back, earnestly, “Well, maybe the light is broken.” And I meant it. But reality finally sunk in. Those girls really don’t care that I am OK.
The rest of this event went down according to the law. I called 911. The girls called their mother. We each gave our diametrically opposed statements to the police and we had our vehicles towed away by two separate tow trucks. I asked the officer if he couldn’t make the driver of the truck take a lie detector test. No – it’s up to the insurance companies now.
So. That was the event. Where exactly does the Holy Spirit fit in?
Before I can explain that, it’s necessary to take a look at the disciples in the story from Acts this morning. Now they definitely had an experience of the Holy Spirit. But without looking at their understanding of what and Who the Holy Spirit is there would be no way to put my experience in the proper context. My understanding of the Holy Spirit is a direct result of the earliest Christian experience of Jesus, the God he called his father, and the Holy Spirit he promised would come.
The disciples had been through their own shared crisis. Luke tells us at the beginning of Acts that it was through the Holy Spirit that Jesus gave his final instructions before ascending into heaven.
This is Luke’s hint that the entire book of Acts is going to be focused on the workings of the Holy Spirit in forming communities. The earliest Christians believed that the Holy Spirit had no context without community.
The resurrected Christ told his friends to wait in Jerusalem until the moment arrived when they would be baptized by the Holy Spirit. He said, “It won’t be long.”
I guess it depends on what you do while you wait that makes time go by quick as a wink or slow as molasses in January. You be the judge – the apostles waited for ten days. Ten days of praying all night and all day.
Now I imagine that these ten days were quite agonizing for his friends. When Jesus said Not Long, there was no way to measure what he meant by that. After the Ascension there were no more experiences of the risen Christ to comfort and lead them.
Luke tells us that these ten days were spent in constant prayer, in the same upper room with the closed door that Jesus had walked right through when he first appeared to them. But after the Ascension they were all alone with a promise. Day after lonely day.
Ten days and nights of prayer, with only one brief intermission to elect a substitute for the disciple they had lost to betrayal – Judas Iscariot. Once Matthias was chosen, the community was whole again. They didn’t know it, but now they were ready for the coming of the Spirit.....and they kept right on praying.
This is not a coincidence. Luke wants us to equate a whole community, symbolized by all 12 tribes of Israel and the newly restored group of 12 apostles, with the united community of the new church. And he wants us to see the energy that comes from a community in prayer. The day that the Spirit comes to the whole and complete community of Jesus’ friends is the day that the church of Christ begins. Pentecost is the Church’s birthday.
The prayer-delirious group of apostles were baptized in the Holy Spirit as a community, In the Name of Christ. From this communal baptism in the upper room will come all the different forms of Christianity that we have today. Every definition of “The Holy Spirit,” “The Holy Ghost,” the “Comforter and Advocate,” the “Paraclete,” all comes from this original baptism by fire. And it is all good.
We are told that Jews from every nation under heaven came and heard the apostles, each in their own language. And they saw tongues, “as of fire” dancing on the head of each of the Christians.
Have you ever seen someone’s face light up, as if they are lit from within by some mysterious goodness? It is almost like they are aflame with their love of God, but without fire.
Like the burning bush in the wilderness, that is aflame, but not consumed, the Holy Spirit lights us from within for the benefit of others – not for our benefit. Faithful Jews from nations around the world were drawn to Jerusalem in order to experience people aflame with joy and praying in the name of Christ.
The Pentecost experience is the exact opposite of the tower of Babel. If pride is the cause of the tower collapsing, and if human pride is the reason that a people once united under God are now scattered and unable to understand each other – if pride is that powerful – Luke wants us to focus on the opposite of Pride.
The opposite of pride? It is prayer. And the power of prayer comes from communities gathering and praying with purpose and passion. As weary as those disciples were they knew that their lives depended on the power of their communal prayer.
It was just this week that I understood for the very first time what the miracle of Pentecost actually was. Individuals from all nations, from all those strange sounding countries, heard the entire group of apostles praying in their own language – all at the same time.
It was not that one of the disciples was praying in the language of the Elamites and another was praying in Mesopotamian slang, and another in some strange Asian dialect. But, each person from each country heard the entire group praying in a language they understood, while the first Christians were praying the whole time in Aramaic. They were praying in their own language, AND they were praying in 15 other languages all at the same time.
It would be like members of the United Nations coming in here and listening to us recite the psalm for the day and understanding the intent of our prayer as if we spoke each of their languages.
And that is what the Holy Spirit does. It speaks in heart language – breaking through our thick skins, stubbornness, and stuckness, even when we least expect it. And always for the benefit of the Kingdom of God.
Luke is clear that not everyone in the room believed what they saw and heard that day. When logic can’t explain a phenomenon it’s actually rare that the majority will interpret it as an experience of God’s presence. But many did, and many were baptized by the apostles, who then began to leave Jerusalem – bringing Christianity to the very nations they’d just met.
The Holy Spirit works through and for community. My accident was just an accident. My experience of the Holy Spirit was the intense gratitude I had for the miracle of my life. My sisters said it was a miracle that I had survived. A few more inches and my side of the car would have taken the impact and I would be toast.
But I don’t believe God rescued me from the jaws of death. It was just an accident. God does not rescue some and let others die or get hurt. God is not capricious. But God does send the Holy Spirit to fill us with the truth of the miracle of life.
Each of our lives is a miracle – every day. It is a miracle that I can get up in the morning and walk and write and sing and pray. I had a near death experience this week that helped me to appreciate the miracle of my life. What joy to be able to frame my experience within the context of my life as a Christian. My sisters at the convent and you at St Alban’s give such deep meaning to my life.
The first Christians believed that the Holy Spirit worked for and through communities of the faithful. Miracles had no meaning without communities to interpret them.
Our liturgy in this Eucharist service is a beautiful example of the communal quality of the Holy Spirit. We begin with this prayer, “Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that we may perfectly love you...”
At the height of Eucharistic Prayer D we pray that God’s “Holy Spirit may descend upon us, and upon (the bread and wine), sanctifying them and showing them to be holy gifts for holy people.”
The service ends with a call to the Holy Spirit, “Let us go forth into the world rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. Thanks be to God.”
Our communal Eucharist service is not possible without the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that stirs our hearts to listen for God’s word, sing God’s praises, and pray for God’s mercy.
In John’s gospel message for today we hear that the Holy Spirit, or the Advocate, only comes to us after the fully human Jesus is gone. Before his death he says to his disciples, “I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever...this is the Spirit of Truth.”
This Advocate, or Holy Spirit, is the presence of Jesus that we experience in our shared faith. The Advocate is a witness in defense of Jesus, a spokesperson for Jesus, a Consoler of all who believe in Jesus, and a teacher and guide for us in our times of need.
What gives the Spirit power is the fact that Jesus overcame death. Once the apostles recognize the Holy Spirit blowing powerfully through them they can finally believe that Jesus abides with God, and that they are now abiding with the same God, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
We gather on Sunday mornings in a place of great power. Christ is risen from the dead and we are alive for a purpose. The Holy Spirit is none other than the breath of God, breathing us in blowing us up against each other for one reason. To show forth the great love of God – who loved us enough to become one of us. We are to mold our lives around this profound love and draw others into our fire.