or Numbers 11:24-30
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
or Acts 2:1-21
or John 7:37-39Psalm 104:25-35, 37
We celebrate Pentecost as the birthday of the Church. One of our mothers at Nativity, Katie Mullowney told me about her experiences as a child in the Episcopal church, she said that there was always a birthday cake and candles and that’s how she always thought about Pentecost. So I’d like to follow Katie’s direction today and ask what is it that we are really celebrating. Why is this a “cake-worthy” day? What happened to the first disciples that was such an important beginning that we still celebrate it every year, now two thousand years later?
As I contemplated this birthday of the Church, I got thinking about the way we celebrate birthdays. People send us cards or messages. Our parents tell the stories about when we were born. We have party hats, we have balloons and streamers. We have cake. We sing songs and give gifts. Our readings today touch on some of these same themes.
We remember the story of Jesus breathing on the disciples and saying to them: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” This is the moment when the disciples are enlivened, empowered and sent out to do Jesus’ work in the world. This is the day when they receive from Jesus the gifts of the Holy Spirit—the talents, skills, energy, temperments, courage, wisdom—everything they need is given to them for the purpose of doing God’s work in the world. The disciples rejoice because Jesus is with them and they can see his wounds and touch his side. But in this passage, the gift that Jesus brings is the Holy Spirit that moves through them. Without the Holy Spirit, they were a group of disciples anxious and afraid locked in a room hiding from the Roman authorities. But with the power of the Spirit everything is possible.
In our passage from the letter to the Corinthians, we hear the gifts of the Spirit enumerated by Paul to all the immigrants who are gathered around him in Corinth:1. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom,
2. and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit,
3. to another faith by the same Spirit,
4. to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit,
5. to another the working of miracles,
6. to another prophecy,
7. to another the discernment of spirits,
8. to another various kinds of tongues,
9. to another the interpretation of tongues.
All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. These gifts are given to each person without regard to their status. The Spirit is given not by rank or special position. The people of God are given everything they need for the common good. Each person has a different gift. It’s not just the priests, or the governors, not just the wealthy people or the teachers who have the gifts that the Church needs. It’s every single person of God. Each one is given a special gift by the Holy Spirit. And all of these gifts are to be used for the common good.
What is the gift that the Holy Spirit has given to each of us as we come together to be God’s Church here? We have some in our midst who are healers. I see those of you who reach out to touch people who need pastoral care, who know what genuine support looks like if someone is in pain or needing some sort of care. I know there are some who are teachers, some who by their words and example show the way to God. There are some who are organizers, some who are empathizers, some who bring the gift of their music, some who bring their project management skills.
I invite us today to take inventory of our gifts. What gifts has God given me. Am I using these gifts for the common good?
Our passage from Acts reminds us that when the gifts of the Holy Spirit come upon the disciples who were living in Jerusalem it was not a gentle experience. It was a violent wind, they were bewildered and perplexed. They were not amazed like when you see a magic trick, they were amazed by something that they could not explain or understand. The tongues of fire that the book of Joel mentions—these flames a sign of God’s work among the people. But this violent experience leaves them with a new understanding. After the Spirit came upon them, they could understand one another even though they spoke in many different languages.
And so it may be with us. When the Holy Spirit comes upon us, it may not be a gentle dove experience. It may be an experience that rocks our world or leaves us bewildered. What is it that happens when we suddenly feel that God has given us a particular gift to be used for the good of the community. Have you felt that call? How does it come to you—a realization that you were meant to be a companion to a teenager, or that you are called to be a support to people in a 12 step group. Maybe you know that you are called to care for God’s natural creation as a gardener. Maybe even though you always worked at home as a parent or a homemaker, you have a realization that God wants you to be an artist or a musician.
A calling that comes from the presence of the Spirit working in you might be a burning or yearning. When you hear it, it might turn your world upside down, letting you know that you need to make a big change in your life. Or it might leave you bewildered and unsure.
But the presence of the Spirit in each of us can be both our motivation, our courage, our perseverance and also our comfort.
In the Gospel of John, we see Jesus’ disciples locked in a room. They are afraid because Jesus has been crucified. Jesus comes to them and promises them peace. “Peace be with you,” he says. What a comforting way to begin his conversation with his followers. Then he identifies himself by his wounds, and his disciples rejoice. Again he reiterates his promise of peace. Then he commissions them—as my Father sent me, so I send you. And he breathes on them, and they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Christ grants the disciples peace when they are feeling afraid and under attack. He shows them that he is their teacher, the Son of God, identifying himself to them. Then he reminds them that he was sent by the father, he gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit and he sends them out to do the work of forgiving and reconciling, bringing the people everywhere into the community of God.
Our celebration must be about all of these things—the moment when our anxieties are answered with the promise of peace, the moment when we see and know that Jesus Christ is in their midst, and the gift of the Holy Spirit that comes through Jesus’ breath and the commissioning to go and do God’s work in the world.
We say this same thing when we greet one another after the Prayers of the People. I say, “The Peace of God be always with you” and you all respond, “And also with you.” In that exchange we acknowledge that our prayers are answered (in the present). We pray to God about our anxieties—we pray for people who are suffering, we pray for seasonable weather, an end to violence, for good leaders, for people who serve our country, for an end to poverty and for reconciliation among alienated groups in our society and around the world. As we pray, we articulate our hopes. But God is not going to respond because we prayed. This is not a situation of I’ll offer myself to God and THEN (after I offer myself) God will grant my wishes. That would be a very limited God who would work that way—and that is not the God we love. The God we love is the creator everything.
Our psalmist speaks to the wonder that we feel when we acknowledge God the maker of everything.
“the earth is full of your creatures.
26 Yonder is the great and wide sea
with its living things too many to number, *
creatures both small and great.27 There move the ships,
and there is that Leviathan, *
which you have made for the sport of it.28 All of them look to you *
to give them their food in due season”
We know our God as both the original Creator and the ongoing Creator. We are from God. We are God’s gift. Everything is in God’s hands. And so when we offer one another Peace of God, we are acknowledging that God is present, working--working and reconciling, healing and creating with us. The problems of the world are not something that God has forgotten, or something that God has done to punish us. God is working in the world with love and goodness and in spite of the problems that exist, God is bringing peace everywhere. Our prayers bring our attention to God’s work. Our supplications invite God to show us the creative work that God is doing in us and in the world. Help us to see with God’s eyes, help us to know the suffering that Jesus suffered. Show us the wounds in people’s sides, the marks on their hands and help us to know that new life is possible. Grant us your peace—the peace that comes from relying on God who is the beginning and the end, the almighty, the eternal.
Maybe this is part of the birthday of the Church. All creation born of God. We celebrate an annual acknowledgement of this creative beginning. Just like humans acknowledge the day they were born of their mothers, we as a community celebrate God giving form to the universe. Jesus bringing us new life through our resurrection with Him in our Baptisms by water and the Holy Spirit.
When Jesus Christ breathes on the disciples he says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Let’s collectively take in a deep breath. Feel that breath coming through your nose and mouth, into your lungs. This breath brings you the oxygen that is necessary to your life. Breathe again and feel the Spirit coming into you. This Spirit is the essence of your life. Our creator God made us to live fully as a perfect part of creation. When we breathe, we breathe because we are beautifully made to take oxygen and circulate it throughout our bodies in our blood. Our human existence depends on this breath. But could we be human with breath and no Spirit? It is this gift of the Spirit that connects us to the divine. It is Jesus’ breath that brings us each our unique gifts.
In a moment we will renew our Baptismal Vows. As we make our promises, we remember that we were baptized with water and the Holy Spirit. We have been given unique gifts for the common good. We pray to our Creator God who gave us life itself, to Jesus Christ who gave us new life and to the Spirit who moves within us, sustaining us and motivating us with every gift that we need as a community of God’s people—the body of Christ in the world.