Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Pentecost Sunday

Today in churches around the world, we celebrate the festival of Pentecost, the coming of the Spirit, the birthing of the church, the breaking in of God’s kin-dom. Congregations far and wide drape the church in red, proclaiming the Good News of the day with trumpet fanfares, dramatic readings and thrilling music. It is the least the modern church could do, given the chaotic, euphoric outburst depicted in Luke’s Acts, isn’t it?

The text, itself, reads like a summer blockbuster movie script. It is now 50 days since Jesus’ death and resurrection and 120 disciples have gathered in the upper room awaiting the coming of the Counselor, the Comforter, the One Christ promised who would bring them healing and hope. Perhaps still in shock from the tragedy of the Lenten journey and the miracle of resurrection, they cower in silent anticipation. While the city below bustles with the excitement of the Jewish harvest festival, the Feast of Weeks, the nascent community of Christ anxiously and quietly waits and waits and waits. As ten long days and nights pass, the tension mounts in the stuffy, closed up space, the music crescendos and the audience senses something exciting is about to happen.

Suddenly there is a sound like the rush of a violent wind that came from the heavens, and there appeared divided tongues, as if of fire, flaming tongues that came and rested on each person, filling them with the Holy Spirit. Can you imagine the surprise of the disciples who awaited a gentle comforter? Here was no quiet counselor…here was a chaotic, loud, flaming presence that sent unknown power coursing through their bodies, compelling them to speak in a language they had not before known.

As the fire descends upon the heads of each person, they begin to speak in other languages given to them by the Spirit. The text tells us that this riotous spectacle drew onlookers from the festival below. Those who had traveled from every nation and state to be in Jerusalem for the festival gathered round to see what was happening. As the diverse crowd of gawkers gathered, they all heard the Galilean believers speaking, but rather than hear the new, unrecognizable language of the Spirit, the diverse crowd of people heard the disciples in their own native tongue. Ecstatic jibberish flowing forth in a cacophony of sound, yet being understood as loud and clear as if spoken in one’s own native tongue!

The text tells us that the crowds were amazed and astonished, not only that by the flaming presence of the Spirit and the miraculous experience of intelligible Babel, but by the fact that this holy deed was being accomplished in and through mere Galileans, ancient hill-billies, supposed ignorant country bumpkins. How was this possible?

The Pentecost story is often interpreted as a story of fantastic surprise…for the disciples, for the crowds, for the audience, both ancient and modern.

Yet, I wonder why we find this story so surprising? The Spirit’s arrival should have come as no surprise to the people of faith for God had been foretelling of this event for generations upon generations. The Spirit was not a novel creation of God, post-resurrection. The Spirit was not a new force sent to birth the church and set the world on fire. No, the Spirit had always been with the people of God, dwelling in and through them.

From the very beginning of Creation, our sacred texts declare the presence of the Spirit…

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while Spirit swept over the face of the waters.”

And when God created humanity, the text tells us, "God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, So God created humankind in the Divine image, in the image of the Divine, God created them.”

From the very beginning the Spirit has lived and dwelt in humanity…an integral part of their very being. Yet, the Spirit lay dormant for generations as the people turned from their own power in search of Divine salvation. We read of prophets time and again trying to awaken the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in humanity, prompting them through prophetic calls to action and pleas to God to pour out once again the Holy Spirit upon the people.

It’s what the prophet Jeremiah longed for when he wrote of God’s new covenant, “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time . . . I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33).

It is what Isaiah prophesied, The spirit of God is upon me, because God has anointed me; and sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”

It’s what the prophet Joel predicted when he said, “And afterward, I will pour out my spirit on all people” (Joel 2:28).

The Spirit has always been with us…even if at times it has gone unrecognized.
Jesus, too promised the disciples of the Counselor, the Comforter, the One who would come after him to lead the disciples. The Pentecost experience should have come as no surprise to the disciples for they had been instructed to wait for the Spirit. Indeed, in this text we find them doing just that. The problem was that the disciples expected something much different. I imagine they expected One who would come and take care of them, who would shepherd and enfold them, like a mother hen, healing them in their grief and defend them from those who sought to persecute them. I imagine that they sought the fulfillment of the hope of Jesus as the Messiah, of One powerful and mighty, who would rule from on high and exercise power on their behalf.

But instead what the disciples discovered was an unruly, chaotic force that coaxed up out of the depths of their being power unimaginable. It was not the Spirit who was to heal the wounds, confront the unjust world order and preach the Good News…it was them! They had the power all along…it just needed to be re-awakened, ignited, called forth.

This was not what the disciples expected, but then again, the Spirit is often not what we expect.

You see Pentecost is not the first arrival of the Spirit, but rather the reawakening of the Divine presence that already resides in the people. The pentecost experience unleashes the power of the Holy Spirit that already dwells in the disciples, but has been forgotten, covered over and ignored through the ages.

Last week, we read from a translation from Walter Wink in which Jesus prays for the disciples before the ascension. Here, Jesus laments that the people have for far too long projected their power onto him. Remember, Jesus prays,

“Until now they have been limited in what they can do, because they have projected all their own divine powers on me and on you. But now, they will no longer have me to carry their projections. They will discover powers unimaginable within themselves--your divine power within them and they will do greater works than even I did. Right now they are content with theophanies, disclosures of divine love and power, signs and wonders. But the thing they lack is completion in themselves. Like a catalyst I have opened them to their utmost possibilities, but they have persisted in identifying them with me. In my absence they will be thrown on your power within them. When they discover that power, their joy will be boundless.”

It should come as no surprise that this power dwelt within the disciples all along…God created it, the prophets foretold it and Jesus promised it. Pentecost simply offered the disciples a second baptism, a reawakening of the divine fire, of the soul-force, of the grace, of the Spirit that resided in each of them from the beginning of time.

The disciples were not meant to cower in quiet fear after the resurrection. They were meant to live out resurrection through their own lives, going forth into the world to do as Jesus said, even greater things than I. Yet, it seemed the trauma of the cross and the miracle of resurrection had locked the disciples in their own tombs of fear and self-doubt. What Pentecost did was awaken and enliven the Spirit each of them already had dwelling within and ignited the fire of God’s love in all whom they encountered.

It is no coincidence that today we celebrate the baptism of Lucas Nguyen-Powell. It was a divine syn-croncity that this day was chosen for it is not only the church’s celebration of the second baptism of the reawakening of God’s Spirit in each of us, but it is also on this day 19 years ago that Jen confirmed her faith and entered the Church as a full member. Life come full circle…the Spirit poured out on one and passed down to another.

Pentecost indeed is the second baptism of the spirit. Our baptismal liturgy speaks of a dual baptism…one of water and the spirit. This day, this penetcost we celebrate that baptism of the Spirit. But we must remember, it is not a bestowal of God’s grace and Spirit, but rather a re-awakening, a recognition, an affirmation of the grace and Spirit of God already dwelling in and through Lucas. Our sacred scriptures tell us that even as we are formed in our mothers’ womb, God’s spirit enfolds us. Each of us here is born with that grace and that Spirit dwelling in us. The problem is that we sometimes forget that it is there, allowing it to become covered up, tarnished and neglected by the world around us.

This is exactly what had happened to a young woman, named Fayette, who was a new member at Edgehill United Methodist Church years ago.

She had come to the church one summer, pacing back and forth outside the open doors, listening intently to the music, the laughter, the words. She looked weary and worn by life. She walked with shoulders’ hunched and head hung, not daring to catch anyone’s eye for fear of them noticing her. There was no spark to her…not anymore…just a tired soul who longed for more, but expected little. Whatever life had dealt her the years the before, left her seemingly but a shell.

Occasionally she would crouch down on the front steps engrossed, amazed and astounded at what she heard. Little by little that summer Fayette moved from the sidewalk to the steps, from the steps to the door and finally one day from the door to the pew. It was as if something was being reawakened in her Sunday by Sunday.

Months passed and finally Fayette decided to join a membership class. As part of this class, the began to explain about baptism. She began, “You see, in baptism, each of us is named…” but before she could finish, Fayette jumped up and with excitement and enthusiasm, and began to finish her sentence….“each of us is named by God as bright, brilliant, beloved children of God and beautiful to behold.” “I know. I know those those words. I heard you say them before at all those other baptisms.”

“That’s right, we say them as a response to everyone’s baptism.

“Well,” said Fayette, “I can’t wait till you say them at MY baptism!!”

It seemed from that day forward Fayette began reciting those words over and over again whenever she could. During prayer time, in the middle of the sermon, in the midst of a hymn, you could hear Fayette shouting out, “You are a bright, brilliant, beloved child of God and you are beautiful to behold!”

Finally the day came for Fayette to be baptized. As she emerged from the waters, she sprang out of the baptismal, pool dancing and leaping for joy down the aisle. Turning to the congregation she said, “And now I am…” and the whole of the congregation responded to her, “bright, brilliant, and beloved child of God and beautiful to behold.” Clearly the grace and power of the Holy Spirit had been reawakended in Fayette through baptism and she was indeed a new person.

Well, not long after that, the pastor received one of those dreaded middle of the night phone calls. It was the local hospital calling to say that Fayette was there, having been brought in after a brutal assault. As the approached Fayette’s room, she could hear her mumbling to herself, “bright, brilliant, beloved…bright, brilliant…bright, brilliant, beloved child of…” Standing in the doorway Janet could see Fayette pacing back and forth. Her face was swollen and bruised, muddied and bloodied, hair going this way and that.

She turned to see Janet standing there and she said “I am bright, brilliant, beloved child of God…” but she couldn’t quite finish it. Again she started, “I am bright, brilliant, beloved child of God” and turning to see herself in the mirror with the reality of the words not matching the image staring back at her, she went on, “And God is still working on me! And if you come back tomorrow I’ll be so beautiful to behold you won’t recognize me!”

You see, Fayette knew, even in the midst of the tragedy and trauma that was so often her life, that there was nothing that could ever hide, tarnish or cover over the power of the Divine dwelling in her. No matter what people might say or do to her, no matter the reflection in the mirror, Fayette recognized the image of the Divine looking back at her in that mirror, for her baptism had re-awakened it in her. Fayette knew more than most of us that nothing could ever take back, erase, or wash away that mark she had been given in baptism…she was forever permanently and powerfully marked as that bright, brilliant, beloved child of God and she was beautiful to behold! There was nothing that could ever again

Today, we gather to repeat that ritual once again for Lucas in hopes that as he is marked as an infant the Divine spark within him is affirmed and re-awakened so that he might grow all his days with the knowledge that he is indeed a bright, brilliant, beloved child of God who is beautiful to behold. We do this ritual as a community, because we recognize that this rite is not only for Lucas but for all of us. Baptism is a pouring out of grace, but also an initiation into the life of the community…the community that is charged with reminding, not just Lucas, but each and everyone of us gathered here, just how very powerful we are. For it is only in and through each of us that we come to know the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling within.

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