Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
So, if you have already decided that you know what the feast of Pentecost is, what it means, then what you understand is not Pentecost. Bridging the historical event to our world means stepping with great humility and care into the task of taking into account what the event says about God and holding those claims as the basis by which we implore the Spirit of the God who was present in the upper room. The Holy Spirit comes to expectant and open disciples, yet on her own time and in her own way. The Holy Spirit is not a respecter of barriers between persons and effects understanding across different languages and cultures and begins to make of many a new oneness that transcends labels and hierarchies. The coming of the Holy Spirit is a promise fulfilled and an ultimate fulfillment that awaits us. This reality is given fresh meaning and hope.
A bit of unpacking these ways of the Spirit…
Because Acts 2 is often characterized as a joyful coming together of divided peoples, it is good to remember that in that social context this shared understanding of separated peoples in the one Spirit would have been absurd, irrational, offensive, and dangerous. Ethnic and racial divisions and identities gathering together and understanding one another undermines the social order and fractures a system of empire built on perpetuating rivalry and violence. And yet both in the gathering and its shared experience of humanizing the enemy, as St. Peter explains, God’s long-promised dream of justice and neighborliness based on mutual respect and sharing is coming into being. No longer is identity and security based on the terms of Rome - in subjugation, victimization, and capitulation - but in the divine image given by God from which all persons derive value and acceptance. Thus the first moments of what will come to be called the Christian church are characterized by barrier-dismantling respect and equality of men and women, young and old, Jew and Gentile, slave and free. As Paul will say later in the letter to the Galatians, those labels are no longer authoritative, but oneness in Christ is the eternal reality of human life. And so these believers find themselves in an either/or of the story of prejudice and segregation or hospitality and reconciliation.
Let’s apply this vision to the current state of American Christianity. If Christians are to be known for our love for one another, our care for the outsider and needy, our welcome of the stranger, our focus on reconciliation and respect, how are we doing? Certainly followers of Jesus live out all of these new creation ways of being in countless acts of care. But there are also ways in which data point to the opposite: the sad realities of decline, scandal and widening and deepening polarization within and among denominations and churches. The world of just a few years ago which was relatively familiar and stable has slipped through our fingers. In the face of such change, some Christians are choosing to hunker down and cling to a romanticized vision of the past, ignoring or attacking the swirl of social, political, and religious change happening around us. Others view this isolation as fundamentally unfaithful to Jesus’ call to love the outcast and victim and have decided that the church in its current institutional form is basically hopeless and that direct engagement with practical justice work is what is needed.
The story of Pentecost gives us a way forward that is better than either being stuck in a past we cannot recover or seeking to bring about a future that is beyond our power. We can be realistic and hopeful. We can believe that the vision of Pentecost community is still relevant, still God’s dream, and acknowledge that this dream will bring suffering - misunderstanding, suspicion, rejection. In liminal time, we are invited to grieve and hope. Grieve what is dead and is not coming back. Hope toward what is possible, what new opportunities unfold within our imaginations. I saw a conversation with a bishop recently who said, “we are experiencing Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday all at the same time.” I regularly see stories about the increase of anxiety, loneliness, depression, and isolation. That churning of disorientation, anxiety, and excitement you feel? Welcome to the club. There is no magic fix, no instant escape in a new structure, program, movement, or event that promises to alleviate our fears. The gift the disciples received was about how the Holy Spirit would blow through their prejudices, their grievances, their privilege, and their entitlement to make possible a church where brother and sister were the only labels that had any meaning. From that gift, the community has an identity and purpose.
The Holy Spirit is offering us two gifts needed to be disciples in this era: expectant readiness and prophetic imagination. In expectant readiness, we remember that the Spirit takes the initiative, the Spirit brings illumination and clarity for action, the Spirit is the reconciler and unitive power of the church. We almost always prefer order, control, predictability, and immediacy. When we are humble and trusting, we have to suffer the death of what we think God should do, what would benefit us, and how we can take credit. God ushers us into the unknown and unknowable to remind us that being fragile, mortal, finite creatures is not a problem to be solved - God knows that is what we are - God made us that way! - but that it is in our very need and limit and dependence that the Holy Spirit blows in and through us - not because we are special and own the copyright - but so that we know we are earthen vessels of the holy, the treasure is sheer gift that we do not control or possess even as we are instruments of its glory.
The phrase “prophetic imagination” comes from Walter Brueggemann, who wrote in the book of the same name, “The prophet engages in futuring fantasy. The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. The imagination must come before the implementation…. We must do what we can to open up our imaginations to a radically different set of future possibilities…” Brueggemann goes on to point toward the practices of prophetic hope that subvert the cosmic and social powers of division. Generosity, hospitality, and forgiveness which continually seek to recognize and honor the human dignity of the neighbor - these are the ways we dissent from empire and declare that Jesus is Lord. Our identity and vocation is to disrupt and subvert the forces of division and domination through acts of hopeful resistance in the power of the Holy Spirit.
We Christians believe that in the end, in a new heaven and new earth, what is now obscure will be made clear, what is now partial will be made complete, what we have not seen will be seen, what we cannot imagine will be real, and we will enjoy Christ face-to-face with brothers and sisters from every tribe and language and people and nation forever and ever. The end that began with Christ, continued at Pentecost, and breaks into our present with fresh wind, renewed hope, awakened imagination, can continue its presence and work in us and in our world. To the One who calls us, prepares us, prospers our efforts, and holds us in life be glory and praise, now and forever. Amen.