SJF Pentecost • B 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus came and stood among them and said, Peace be with you.+
On Pentecost, fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead, and in fulfillment of the promise he had made, the apostles saw and felt the Spirit descend upon them in tongues of fire, and began to proclaim God’s saving deeds in many languages. But given the amount of woodwork in this church, if we were to see tongues of fire distributed and alighting anywhere we would likely sound a fire alarm! Clearly, when the Spirit comes to us — and I have no doubt of the Spirit’s presence, as I shall explain in a moment — when the Spirit comes to us it is in a less inflammatory fashion. We don’t see flames alighting on the tops of each other’s heads, we don’t find ourselves speaking languages we never learned to speak. How, then, do we know when the Spirit visits us?
We might begin by noting that even with such marvels as tongues of fire and the miraculous gift of languages there were still some folks who failed to see the Spirit at work on Pentecost in Jerusalem on that day so long ago. They attributed the disciples’ inspiration to hitting the bottle rather early in the morning, accusing them of being drunk and disorderly. Some, it seems, can not recognize the Spirit even when the Spirit is most obvious. So how, then, do we recognize the Spirit?
+ + +
The first sign of the Spirit’s presence with us is community, for the Spirit calls and summons us, drawing us together, or rather back together: re-membering us as members of the church so that we can remember God together.
There have been great souls who have been able to go it alone, great saints whose solitary encounter with God is the stuff of legend and sacred history. These are the spiritual athletes who encountered God flying solo, out in the wilderness, like Moses and Elijah, or the monks who dwelt in the Egyptian desert, some of them going so far as to live solitary lives on the tops of pillars, as far away from human society as they could get. But unlike such rare souls as the desert hermits, most of us will not find God in solitude on top of a pillar, but in community. If we are spiritual athletes, it is only as team players.
Moreover, the Holy Spirit appears to favor the public assembly over the private audience. “The disciples were all together in one place” when the Spirit came upon them. They were not pursuing their own personal holiness, but praying together — for and with each other — when the Spirit blew through the windows and set their souls on fire. It is in community — from the most intimate community of a loving couple, to the wide community of the church — that the Spirit comes to us, revealing Christ in our midst. Community, then, is the first sign of the Spirit.
+ + +
And the Spirit reveals Christ gathered with us too, revealed in our midst, revealed foremost as one who serves, who before his death washes the feet of his friends, and afterwards responds to their betrayal and lack of belief with words of peace, who offers them forgiveness so that they might be able to forgive in turn. This service and forgiveness find their natural home in community. For just as it takes two to tango, so it takes at least two to serve, two to forgive. Service and forgiveness flow from community as naturally as dance flows from the music, when you simply have got to move your feet to the persuasive beat.
So the ministry of hospitality, which combines service and mercy, and grows from community, is the second sign of the Spirit’s presence: as I have said many times before, “see how they love one another” is Christ’s identity badge for the church, a sure sign of the Spirit’s presence.
Hospitality takes many forms, in a parish coffee hour or visit to the shut-in; in an act as simple as an outstretched hand to help someone up these steps to the altar, or as formal as baptism. We offer a hospitable welcome to each newly baptized person, welcoming them “into the household of God” — a dwelling for the Spirit whose building-stones are ourselves — our selves, souls and bodies — as the church’s members.
Remember the children’s game: here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors, and see all the little people. The outside of a church looks like a building, but when the doors are opened the living, human construction is revealed — as a community. So hospitality is the natural response of the gathered community we call the church, the second sign of the Spirit’s presence.
+ + +
And what the disciples did upon the Spirit’s arrival was to proclaim the story of salvation to each other in many languages, so that those outside the house were attracted by the sound, and were astonished to recognize their native tongues.
This proclamation is the third sign of the Spirit’s powerful presence. The children of Israel knew this, and they were always telling their story to each other. Their story sustained them through exile and captivity in Babylon; and through and beyond the destruction of the Second Temple, and even up to this day — as we are reminded of the bombing attempt at two synagogues right here in the Riverdale section of the Bronx — through and beyond the most terrible and single-minded efforts to exterminate them. The Jewish people have told and retold their story to each other, in synagogue and schul, down through the years, and the Christian church’s story is added to theirs; and each of us has a story, too, like footnotes and annotations expanding the history of salvation — so that the whole world could not contain the books that might be written.
As if the world even cared! “The world” that confronts us today, is a world where community is shattered, a world that doesn’t know how to serve, a world that has forgotten its own story. The world will not stop talking — or Twittering, or blogging — long enough to hear the gracious possibility offered to it.
Well, the world needs a wake up call. And the responsibility to give that call falls on us, the members of the church, the Body of Christ: to tell the story of salvation to the world. If we at Saint James Church faithfully proclaim that story, the world may stop its chatter for a moment and overhear: that’s how it worked on Pentecost, and it can again. People who have forgotten that they are God’s children, in the midst of this great but terrible city, might suddenly hear a voice speaking a language they haven’t heard for a long, long time, but which they recognize at once: a language from home, reminding them who, and whose, they are.
If we at Saint James Church then open our doors and our hearts and welcome them in, we will be magnified, and together we will offer glory to God such as never yet has rung from this corner of the Bronx.
+ + +
The Spirit reveals Jesus’ presence in the gathering of the community, in the hospitality they shared, and in the telling of the greatest story ever told. But the Spirit also reveals Jesus to us through a last sign unlike any other: in broken bread and a cup of wine. In the fourth sign of the Spirit’s presence, in the eucharistic feast, the one serving at the table reveals himself as the bridegroom, and the story takes a classic turn: like Richard the Lionheart casting off his pilgrim’s cloak, revealing the king’s bright red cross on his chest to an astonished Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men. And suddenly, everyone drops to their knees.
Suddenly, though the doors be locked, we realize who has been among us all this time, and we can hear his breathing. Suddenly the Holy Spirit descends upon us and upon these gifts and we remember and are re-membered into the Body of Christ.
Once one special Pentecost, that ancient Jewish harvest festival, the Spirit gathered the apostles together like a harvest of grain once scattered on the hillside. And together they welcomed, served, proclaimed, and feasted: in fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in prayer. We, their successors, can do no less. The Spirit has gathered us together. It is the Spirit’s doing, not our own. Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us, and the Holy Spirit our Pentecost has come to us. So come, let us welcome; come, let us serve; come, let us proclaim; and come, let us celebrate the feast. +