Spirit in the material world

The Feast of Pentecost; 31 May 2020; Pentecost A (RCL); Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23.

When this shelter-in-place all started back in March (March 22, the Fourth Sunday in Lent, was our first virtual service), I though that perhaps my Pentecost, we might be gathering for in-person worship again. That was optimistic. We are still weeks, if not months, away from in-person worship. It has been an event-filled eight weeks so far.

A week ago, President Trump declared houses of worship ‘essential’ and demanded that governors allow them to open. Of course, he has no power to do that, and here in New York, Governor Cuomo has put the reopening of houses of worship in the state’s phase four, which would happen at the earliest on June 26. There were many reactions to Trump’s declaration, my favorite being that, yes, churches are essential, but they didn’t need to reopen because they had never closed, because the Church is not the building.

Pentecost, following Luke’s chronology, celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church, and hence, as Luke would have it, the birth of the Church itself. Luke divides history into three periods: the age of the prophets up until John the Baptist; the age of Jesus; and the age of the Church. The Spirit plays an active role in each.

In the story of the first Pentecost, Luke compresses an amazing amount of biblical story into a few verses. The sound of the mighty rushing wind alludes to the wind blowing over the waters of chaos at the creation of the world, as well as to the east wind the blew back the waters of the Red Sea. The tongues of fire resting on each of the worshipers in the room alludes to the glory of God in the cloud and flame overshadowing the desert tabernacle. The profusion of languages ‘undoes’ Babel. Pentecost itself celebrates the gift of the Law on Mount Sinai. And of course, Peter’s citation from the prophet Joel connects the Spirit with the Day of the Lord, and God’s ultimate purposes in history.

The world is being re-created; Israel is being re-formed on the desert way; the unity of the peoples of the world is accomplished; the Spirit brings a new way of life; and God’s ultimate restoration of the cosmos is guaranteed by the gift of the Spirit. That’s some heavy lifting.

Paul grapples with the meaning of the Spirit in community life. This passage in 1 Corinthians is, in my mind, one of the earliest pieces of evidence for an emerging Trinitarianism even in Paul’s day. Varieties of gifts, but one Spirit; varieties of services, but one Lord; varieties of energies but the same God who energizes all of them in everyone. And all of them for the building up of the community. This would be a perfect description of a just economy — everyone’s gift goes toward the common good. This would be a community in which God might dwell.

And in John’s Gospel, the gift of the Spirit (breathe is the same word) is for the forgiveness of sins. The disciples are locked in the room out of fear, and Jesus shows up, bids them Peace, shows them his hands and side, and then breathes on them. He sends them just as the Father has sent him, and then gives them authority to forgive or retain sin.

The forgiving and retaining of sin is one of the building blocks of any society and culture. How blame is assigned and removed is one of the first things an ethnographer records in encountering a new culture. It determines who is in and who is out, the boundary lines of the community.

I had hoped we might be worshiping in-person on Pentecost, not for any particularly theological reason, but just because it seemed like a good target date. And now that we know we will not be in-person, it seems like we might need the message of Pentecost more than ever. This world-wide shut down has shown us that the earth itself needs some re-creation (the Biblical Jubilee comes to mind), and we are in fact capable of changing our habits under enough pressure. The social fabric needs some mending, and Paul’s vision of the gifts of everyone for the good of all is particularly attractive at this moment. And, we need some deep forgiveness, facing fearlessly the harm our current system can do, and our complicity in it. The gift of the Spirit is there to help us redraw those lines.

We have the long ‘green’ season after Pentecost to begin to try and live out this new reality given by the Spirit on Pentecost.

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