The Mystery of Community
Updated: Jun 9, 2021
A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on the Day of Pentecost [ 23 May 2021]:
Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
When the day of Pentecost had come,
the disciples were all together in one place.
And suddenly from heaven there came a sound
like the rush of a violent wind,
and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.
Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them,
and a tongue rested on each of them.
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to speak in other languages,
as the Spirit gave them ability. [Acts 2:1-4]
In last Sunday’s sermon, I spoke to you in terms of thresholds and transitions, mentioning the implicit question that each and every transition presents: namely, “What’s next?” I also mentioned that engaging honestly with the question of “What’s next?” is in and of itself an act of faith. After all, to cross over from where we’ve been to what is next, risks changing us. And if it is God who is beckoning to us to take this next step over a new threshold, we can be certain that we will be changed – changed into becoming more of what we see in the risen and ascended Christ, which after all is the prime purpose of living our faith.
But the threshold we now face and are asked to cross on this Day of Pentecost is a big step indeed. In fact, this Pentecost threshold indicates a moment of graduation – graduation from being those who follow Jesus to being people who are empowered representatives, personal witnesses, and ambassadors of the God-life in our midst. From spectators to followers to representatives: it’s a big change. It’s a big step.
So it is that on this day, the Christian community completes our celebration of Easter. In fact, the word “Pentecost” means “fiftieth day”, and indeed we are fifty days removed from marking Christ’s resurrection. Consequently, tomorrow – and for the next six months – our focus will be a bit different. For in the liturgical tradition, Pentecost is known as the “green season”, “green” not only in terms of the liturgical color but more to the point “green” in terms of the promise of the church’s life and growth as Christ’s Body. While our essential focus is always on what the Father has done in Jesus the Son, in these next six months of the Pentecost season, it will be our responsibility to do more than follow Jesus. God, through the Spirit, calls us to represent the Christ, reflecting outwardly and visibly in our lives what we have inwardly absorbed about Easter.
In this sermon, I want to note what happened on that first Day of Pentecost and use these qualities as a template to guide our own personal and parish responses to the “what’s next?” question. And the central point I want to make about Pentecost is that Pentecost is essentially about the Spirit’s “miracle of community”. Let me explain.
As those who have shared in scripture study with me know, I am prone to ask what words and concepts mean before we engage in sharing our reflections. So it is that my first question for this day is: What is the Holy Spirit? For an answer, I have always regarded St. Augustine’s comment as helpful. In essence, Augustine said that the Spirit is the love the Father has for the Son and the Son has for the Father. Again with reference to the 4th century Christian thinker and leader, Augustine saw the Trinity as love; and love requires a lover, a beloved. Love also is needed, by which one loves the other. This is Augustine’s important legacy and understanding of the Trinity, something next Sunday (being Trinity Sunday) we will focus on.
But refocusing on this Pentecost Day and the reality of the Holy Spirit, two things need to be said about this love and life the Father and Son share, which is precisely the Holy Spirit.
The first is to say that Jesus, the Son of God, would rather die than break Communion’s love with the Father. The cross is the ultimate test and symbol of this most Holy Communion. Everything Jesus said or did speaks directly to this transforming, life-giving, and sacred relationship. God is love, and that sacred and eternal love breeds true, unconquerable life, which is the power and reality of the Spirit they share.
The second thing to say about the Holy Spirit as the manifestation of Godly love and life is that in Christ we share in this love, this life. It is a gift we receive through Baptism, we are grafted into Christ’s life, which means we are given the gift of the life the Father and Son share. Like a divine blood transfusion, it is the reality of the Holy Spirit in us and among us that fosters new life in us, God’s life in us.
The gift of the Holy Spirit is uniquely of God, but it is not new. In fact, today’s Pentecost experience is deeply rooted in the first creation story in Genesis. You will recall that in that poetic rendition, the cosmos is described in terms that resemble a dark and fecund womb: “without form and void” [Genesis 1:2], over which God’s “wind”, God’s “breath”, God’s “spirit” moved, generating a new creation. What we miss in English’s translation of this ancient and provocative story is that in the ancient biblical languages of Hebrew and Greek ,the word for “spirit”, “breath”, and “wind” is all the same word. The result is an expression not just of stirring actions but also of stunningly dramatic images of God’s creative action: And by God’s “wind”, God’s breath, God’s Spirit, there was life; and it was good.
In St. Luke’s description of the Day of Pentecost (the one we read in Acts 2) you will notice a few things about the day of the Spirit. First, the disciples are once again gathered in Jerusalem, “in one place”. That place seems to be the same Jerusalem Upper Room we first encountered at the “Last Supper”. It was also the place where we bumped into our friend, Doubting Thomas. Today’s Pentecost story is the third meeting of Jesus’ followers in the Upper Room, and this time the disciples meet there at Jesus’ post-resurrection command to go to Jerusalem and wait for the gift of the Spirit. Of course, we know that the climax of this meeting come with the sound of a great “wind” (there’s that reference again] – a great wind that filled the entire house. Those of us who have been through a wind shear (like the one that struck Mt. Tom in 2014) or a tornado or a hurricane can resonate with this tumultuous and stunning occurrence. With the howling “wind”, God’s “breath”, the Spirit of creation, there also came “tongues of fire” which lighted upon each disciple’s head, cauterizing at it were the God life into the disciples’ hearts and minds and souls. And there was life – new life.
(By the way, that is the significance of a bishop’s miter, that pointy hat bishops often wear in the liturgy. The miter represents these transforming, cauterizing “tongues of fire”, a sign of what our bishops are called to be among us – agents of Pentecost life and transforming ministry.)
As a result of experiencing God’s “Genesis” wind, God’s life-giving breath, God’s Holy Spirit of life and love, the disciples began to speak of this experience in ways that all the diverse populace of Jerusalem understood in their respective languages, a repairing reversal of the effects of the Tower of Babel story [Genesis 11].
Originally, “Pentecost” was known as a Jewish harvest festival, celebrated fifty days after the garnering of the first fruits. This initial harvest festival drew great and hopeful crowds to Jerusalem, which accounts for Luke’s reporting that in receiving the Holy Spirit, the disciples were able to speak about this life-changing gift in the many languages of that festival gathering. But now, with the gift of the life and love the Father and Son share, there is a different kind of harvest at hand, not of the land’s first fruits but of God’s first fruits, intended and given to all God’s people. And this is the reason I have posed that Pentecost is the “miracle of community” and why we still need Pentecost so badly.
Most succinctly, the Spirit is given to those who are open to receiving the life and love of God. The Spirit changes us because God-in-Christ reclaims us all as the Holy One’s Beloved. The Spirit is personal, therefore, not abstract, just as true love is personal and not abstract. Yet, the Spirit also re-establishes what is between us: God’s Communion life.
At the risk of sounding too theological about all this, I see the Spirit’s action between us (that is, creating the reality of the Beloved Community) being like an Oreo cookie. God’s people are the crackers, but what makes a cookie – and what makes it delicious and holds it together --is the filling in-between. This is the reason that I have described the essence of Pentecost as “ a miracle of community”. From the beginning, God’s will has been Communion, and with the giving of the Holy Spirit (that holy and divine “cream filling”), all creation is made new, is redeemed, is restored to its sweet and delicious state.
But there is resistance to this new creation – in the world and in us; and we can see it in the immediate after math of what happened in that Upper Room. Once the wind and the tongues of fire had done their work on Jesus’ people, they simply had to go out and share the gift in pure and selfless gratitude. And as they conveyed the gracious news in languages of the diverse, festival groups, some ridiculed and dismissed these new ambassadors as sodden drunks. In the face of the implicit Pentecost question (“What’s Next?”), rather than take responsibility for the amazement and bewilderment over all this sacred, Pentecost kafuffle, many let themselves off the transformational hook by ridiculing the Pentecostal folks as “losers” and “low-life’s”, to the extent that Peter himself has to explain that it was too early to start drinking but that in fact what had happened among the Jesus followers was a fulfillment of what God had promised long ago: namely, that creation continues; and all lives shall absorb and reflect God’s will and glory.
So, it is God’s gracious will that folks like you and me are joined together by the Holy Spirit, by the eternal life and love of the Father and the Son. This is truly what Holy Communion is all about. The God-life we encounter at the altar rail is only a taste of the God-life. So it is that we never allow ourselves to limit the reality of Holy Communion to what happens at the altar rail; but rather in the power of the Spirit and with thanksgiving, we take what we have been given and absorbed into our very selves – take it out into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.
The world needs Pentecost. The church needs Pentecost. You and I and St. Philip’s need Pentecost. Let the Spirit’s message of hope, redemption, and new life ring out from this little church and through each of us. What’s next is new life. Thanks be to God. Amen.