SJF • Pentecost A • Tobias S Haller BSGLet me begin with one last, ‘Happy Easter!’ — because today, the feast of Pentecost, is the last day of Easter season, the fiftieth day that adds one to the seven times seven of days since Easter Day. This is the day that puts the exclamation point at the end of our Alleluia! For this is the day on which God’s Holy Spirit was poured out upon the disciples to empower them for the great mission of the church. This is the day that transformed a withdrawn group of believers into a force that would change the world as much as they themselves had been changed.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
We heard the account of what happened on that day in our first reading this morning: the signs and wonders of tongues untied in a torrent of praise to God in as many languages as they could possibly give praise. We heard of the bewilderment of that crowd of pilgrims in Jerusalem, and their amazement, as their ears were opened as effectively as were the mouths of the apostles, so that they could receive the good news.
This morning, however, I’d like to back up a bit from the Pentecost event itself, and focus on the prelude we find in John’s Gospel. In this incident, Jesus Christ lays the foundation for what is to come. In this encounter, he gives the preview of coming attractions for the feature that is rated PG: Praise God!
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John sets the scene: it’s Sunday evening, the first day of the week — and we know how important first days of the week, Sundays, are in the history of God’s work in the world! The fearful disciples are locked behind closed doors. Suddenly, Jesus is among them. And he first thing he says is, “Peace be with you” — the standard way of saying “Hello” in the Middle East for thousands of years. Whether you say ‘Shalom aleichem’ or ‘As-salaam alaikum’ this is how you greet people in the Holy Land: ‘Peace be with you.’ Isn’t it ironic that ‘Peace be with you’ should be the norm in a part of the world that hasn’t known more than a few years of peace at a time for thousands of years! But then again, maybe it makes even more sense, the same kind of sense that led Jesus to speak those words to the frightened disciples — as if to say, “Don’t be afraid... Yes we live in terrible times; there is a lot to fear, but I am here to bring you peace. I am on your side; your friend not your foe. Peace be with you!”
So it is that God speaks to us today through the church. Even in the midst of turmoil and struggle, still the church is the place of God’s peace; which is not simply the absence of conflict but the presence of God’s overarching rule and justice. God’s peace — that is what Jesus speaks to the disciples, and speaks to us today and every day: Peace be with you; not peace as the world gives, but as God gives.
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Next Jesus shows them his hands and his side: to certify by these tokens who it is that stands before them. And though we might think it odd of him to show his wounds as a sign of peace, surely this is proper: for these are the very wounds, the ones which could not prevail against him. The nails and the spear did not bring about his eternal death, only that time of a few short days, and then through the power of Almighty God he overcame death and the grave, and the wounds are now trophies of his victory over death, as if to say, ‘Even these couldn’t keep me down.’
So it is that the church, which is the wounded body of Christ, is still here. Our church, Saint James, is a physical symbol of this: we may have some bad patches in our ceiling up there around the roof-line, and cracks in some of our windows, but the power of death cannot prevail against us, it cannot keep us down. In the power of God we will prevail and remain to witness to his grace and loving-kindness to us and to all who believe.
We know that as people we have suffered as well, and yet been restored. We have been tested and tried, but have never, though, been forsaken by the one whose promises are sure. So there is cause to rejoice, as the disciples do when Jesus comes among them, certified by the very wounds by which the powers of this world afflicted him, yet standing there among them, alive.
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And breathing! For then comes the crucial moment, the moment when Jesus breathes upon the disciples. In this he foreshadows the coming of the Holy Spirit that will equip them to carry out his command: ‘As the Father has sent me, so I now send you.’ Remember: this is, as I said, the first day of the week — and Jesus, as he breathes upon the disciples, is pouring out that same Spirit of God that hovered over the waters on that first Sunday, the first day of creation. For this is the new creation, the creation not of the world but of the church that will be sent on its mission to the world. Jesus is preparing them for the great sending, the great mission of the church, the reason the church exists as his body on earth, to be sent to do the work of God just as he himself had been sent to do God’s work.
And for this work the Spirit is essential. There can be no mission of God without the Spirit of God: if you take the Spirit out of the church it will cease to be the church. Without the breath of God filling the church, it is like a balloon without any air in it, just a little scrap of rubber than lays there.
Sad to say, the church has sometimes been more like that scrap of rubber just laying there than a Spirit-filled ambassador of God. As I mentioned a few weeks back, among great disasters of the so-called missionary era of the nineteenth century was that the Gospel of God’s love was transmitted through a church that was not only intolerant but prideful, and sometimes hateful. The European missionaries too often made the mistake of thinking that anything European was superior to anything they found wherever they went. Here in America native children were beaten and punished for speaking the language of their parents; artifacts were destroyed and cultures ravaged. Yes, people became Christians, but many of them, too many of them, came to understand the church not as a place of love and charity, but as a place of strictness and judgment, of narrowness, a place not of peace, but of wrath. That message was delivered in so many places in the world: that the way to be a good Christian is to be intolerant and judgmental of anyone who thinks or speaks or acts differently. And we live with the results of that missionary message to this day.
How different from the missionary effort begun on Pentecost. The apostles did not tell those to whom they spoke, ‘You must speak our language if you are to be saved’ — on the contrary it was they who were filled with the power of the Spirit so that they spoke all those different languages themselves, so that the word might be spread to all hearers.
There is an urgent need to recover that missionary message by which England itself was brought into the Christian fold. When Saint Gregory the Great sent the monk Augustine to Canterbury, he gave him specific instructions to respect the people of England who, even though they were pagans, were created in God’s image. What’s more, Gregory told him not to destroy the pagan temples and shrines, but to use them as places for Christian worship, so that the people who were accustomed to worshiping their gods in those places might be gradually become accustomed to worshiping the true God.
The church is challenged today to exercise its mission in this way. Not imposing its view upon an unwilling world, but welcoming that world to the great feast. The church’s message is proclaimed most clearly by means of the church’s own being and substance, in the life the church as it lives in its many members, each equipped with spiritual gifts through the one Spirit of God. By this, Jesus assures us, the world will know that we are his disciples, if we have love for one another. How we act is as important as what we say, whatever language we may speak; perhaps even more so: the church is the message of love for the world, the world that God loved so much that he gave his only son not to condemn it, and it is by showing that love to the world that we lead the world to God, who is Love. The church is called and empowered to deliver and to be a message of tolerance, grace, hope and restoration in the midst of a world filled with intolerance, fear, division and despair.
The church itself is called to be a sign of God’s presence; it is the Body of Christ, wounded and yet risen and alive. It is filled with the breath of God’s Spirit to sing and to shout out the good news to the ends of the earth, and above all to proclaim God’s peace to the nations of the world.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, we are that church: let us be that church, let us be that message, that mission. Let us rejoice in the presence of God with us, and spread the word to all whom we encounter: Shalom aleichem! As-salaam alaikum! Peace be with you! Alleluia, He is risen! Now and unto the end of the ages, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+