Acts 2:1-11 | 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13 | John 20:19-23
Oh God, who by the mystery of today’s great feast sanctify your whole church in every people and nation, pour out, we pray, the gifts of the Holy Spirit across the face of the earth, and with the divine grace that was at work when the gospel was first proclaimed, fill now once more the hearts of believers. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
This Feast of Pentecost is the culmination of what we began on Ash Wednesday, weeks and weeks ago. What we’re looking at here is the fullness of what it is that God longs to share with you and me. The journey has been long, the work of God drawing human beings back into a place of wholeness, a place of peace, a place of freedom, and I suppose in order to understand more fully where we have been led, where we are now, after this great Feast of Pentecost, we need to look at where we began. And certainly where we began is in the garden when there was a lie presented to human beings, and the lie was, “Why not go in on your own? Why not do what you want to do? Why not be separate from God and yet not turn your back on him?” It’s subtle that lie. It’s like, “Why not be strong like he wants you to be, but be that on your own.” It’s almost like asking God to make me into something autonomous and capable of taking care of whatever God wants me to do, and then I’ll be rewarded for that, and I’ll feel good, because I’ll be the one that made it all happen. That image of separation, isolation is the key problem that human beings have, and in place of it, there is a call to unity, to oneness, to community. All religions — all religions have, in a sense, the same goal, to bind us to the God who created us, not in any kind of bondage sense but in a sense of being connected and, through that connection, to find fullness, to find wholeness. We’re made for a relationship with divinity. It’s not really an option if we’re going to evolve and develop into fully who God has created us to be.
So we’re looking at this moment now that we are in. We’re sort of going back to an historical moment in the church, and Jesus has walked this earth for three years. He has gone through his, confusing to many people — the end of his life is nothing like people expected. Everyone thought the Messiah would come into the world and be the great wielder of justice and would conquer all evil and would destroy all those who are evil and would save all those who are good, and it would be some kind of triumphant experience of good over evil. That’s the way everyone thought the world would be saved and should be saved. And then in comes this strange figure that doesn’t have any real credentials for power, in the sense that he came from a very simple background in this small, little town of Nazareth, and he comes onto the scene, and instead of wielding a great sword of justice, he seems to almost be soft on evil. And instead of forcing people to see what they have done and then to change or to be killed, he does something radically unexpected. He seems to engage himself in the lives of those who are failures with the sense that that’s the way he gets into their life. That’s the way he enters them, through their weakness, and then when he’s there, he teaches them that the only way to deal with evil is through forgiveness. It’s the only way to deal with evil. The only way to conquer it is forgiveness. It doesn’t make any sense to our logical minds. No, the way to deal with evil is to destroy it, to attack it.
So with that transformation in mind, we see this experience that the disciples and the church was having. Let’s say on Pentecost Sunday, it was all the church together coming into this place where there was this strong, overpowering sound of a Spirit that rushed into people, and it took the form of tongues of fire over each individual. That’s all very mysterious and miraculous, and I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have been there to see something like that. And yet the real mystery, the real miracle was not that but that something happened between human beings. People from everywhere, who spoke different languages, were all present, and somehow, even though they did not speak the same language, even though they weren’t on the same page, even though they perhaps didn’t have the same culture and therefore did not approach the world in the same way, one thing they could all agree on and feel and communicate between each other is this awesome thing that God has done, the awesome act of a God who redeemed us by not converting us from evil to good, because you can still work against evil with the same energy that you work against good. You can be totally separated from everyone and be the great warrior and decide that you’re going to go out there and conquer all the evil around you and in you, and you’re doing it on your own. That seems like a conversion from going around and trying to use people. You went from evil to good, but doing good in the same way that we achieve evil is not a real transformation. It may be a conversion but not a transformation, and what God’s gift through Christ is is a transformation called redemption. It’s effect is transcendence, and we become someone else, not someone foreign to our nature but someone because divinity dwells in us we have the capacity to go beyond our human limitation. That means we go beyond logic and beyond our way of thinking, beyond the way our culture has trained us. We don’t follow the temptation that was presented to Jesus when the devil took him to a high mountain and placed him before the world and said, “Look at this, how it all works. People have power over people, and they have authority, and people look up to them, and they’re frightened of them, and they can make people do anything. Why don’t you change the world by using the tactics of the world.” Jesus’ response was, “I’m not going to worship your way. I’m not going to surrender to your way of the world, but I’m going to use something radically different. I’m not going to save the world by forcing people to do things, by frightening them into doing things, by using my power over them. I’m going to enter into them, forgive them, dwell with them, and in partnership with them, we’re going to be a force, an awesome force in the world that is not a violent force but is a powerful force for transformation.” That’s what we want. That’s the goal.
We call that the gift of the Spirit, people being filled with this unique Spirit that filled Jesus, that transformed the world, and as the second reading makes clear, there are different forms of it. So there again you’re seeing that there’s a way in which the world, I think, when it uses its own worldly power, is almost always going to work for some kind of uniformity, everybody marching to the same beat, everybody doing the same thing, all the moral laws being followed exactly the same by everyone. That’s a great shadow of religion, laying the same moral responsibilities on everyone, no matter who they are, what their situation is, sort of bypassing their own story but just wanting everything to be the same. When we see religion doing that, we know that it’s trapped in the ways of the world. So when we look at the Spirit’s manifestation in people, what is clear that Paul is saying to Corinthians is that we have to look very carefully into the way the Spirit works so that we don’t fall into the trap of trying to evaluation everyone as if they have to have the same gift, the same spirit, the same qualities of life. Some people, maybe their destiny is to be weak throughout their life, to even maybe be a burden to people. Maybe that’s their role. It makes sense to me. Why doesn’t everybody just shape up, and why hasn’t religion worked over 2,000 years where we all just start doing the right thing? If that were the call, if that were the reason that Jesus came to the world, to make everybody doing the right thing while they lived here, then he’s a miserable failure, but if it were something more hidden, more mysterious, more subtle, if it’s all about us living in relationships that are both positive and negative and learning how to deal with the positive and negative, how to support and enhance and encourage the positive and to meet the negative, not with force or demands but with this mysterious thing called forgiveness — and that’s what we see in the gospel, this awesome story of that moment between Easter and Pentecost, the moment that I think clarifies for us in ways that we couldn’t imagine. It clarifies for us what Jesus was really about when he suffered and died and rose. He comes back, an awesome thing. He comes back and speaks to his disciples. Wouldn’t you have loved to have been living at that time and seen that experience. The way it’s described in scripture, in one of the writings of Paul, when Jesus came back, he first appeared to the 12. Incidentally, Paul doesn’t mention the women, but that’s more of a cultural problem. But he appeared to Mary Magdalene, to the women, to his disciples, and then he appeared to 500. Imagine that, being in a room with 500 people or in a field with 500 people, and there’s Jesus resurrected, and he looked different. People never recognized him at first, but there he was, radiating this amazing wisdom and radiating this presence that was transforming by its very nature, the presence that he longs for you and me to have in this world. It must have been an awesome experience, and then he appeared to all of his apostles.
He’s appearing to them, and what is he saying? If you look at the heart of this message that is in the gospel, it is a simple message. “I’ve come into the world to save it, and the way I’m saving it is to go through an experience that unites humanity and divinity, and that is to be able to live in this world in a way that goes way beyond human nature — way beyond human nature.” Jesus was truly transformed from his simple human nature to divine nature to be connected so deeply to divine nature in that baptism where he was filled with the Spirit, the Anointed One, the Empowered One. He said, “What a power looks like in the kingdom is nothing like power looks like in the world. I’ve not come to wield a sword to kill and destroy that which is evil, to condemn and to scream at people. I’ve come to be in them, with them, support them, love them, forgive them, and that’s what I’m asking you to do.” Jesus is saying, in the gospel passage, when he says to his disciples, “What I want you to do is realize something. My Spirit in you, my gift of redeeming you, my invitation for you to live not just with humanity but to be connected naturally and comfortably with divinity, to be comfortable with God in you,” and then to do exactly what Christ did, to fight evil with the most amazing, surprising ammunition, and that is to forgive it. He makes a simple statement. He doesn’t say, “Go and forgive everybody, or I’m going to be really upset, and I’ll condemn you if you don’t.” He said, “No, just realize, recognize, be aware that, when you forgive another person, when you forgive them, you release them from their sins. And when you don’t do that, somehow their sins are retained.” What does that mean? Does it mean that, if we try to remove someone’s sin by hating them, wanting them to be destroyed, yelling at them, condemning them, we’re doing nothing but allowing their sin to be there, but if we do forgive them, somehow they are freer to be freed from it? It’s a great, great mystery, but I think everyone knows the difference between being loved into wholeness or being judged and condemned into wholeness. Why is it that we think so quickly, or why is it so easy for us to imagine that, if I just tell everybody where they’re messed up and tell them how messed up they are and how screwed up they are, that they’ll turn around and say, “Oh, wow. I didn’t realize I was that bad. Of course I don’t want to be bad. I want to be good.” There’s so much guilt and shame in people who are not doing well. There’s a burden. There’s a wound. There’s a heaviness, and then you come on them and tell them that they’re — affirm all their negative feelings about who they are. Where are they going to have the stuff to pull themselves up and say, “I want a greater power than myself to transform me, because I’m worth it”? They’ve got to be loved. They’ve got to be supported, and the way you do that is understanding and compassion and empathy. Those are things that are so underestimated in their power to transform so we can transcend that kind of wound inside of us that keeps us in places of darkness and imprisons us in places where we don’t feel that it’s worth — that we’re worth even working on.
Most people don’t go around and say, “I’m not worth it. I’m not going to change. I’m not going to develop. I don’t want to.” No, they just go into a state of kind of unconsciousness and get distracted with a whole bunch of other stuff. So it’s easy — it’s easy for people, I think, so somehow miss the most amazing gift that God has prepared for us and the greatest gift he’s empowered us with, and that’s the gift of forgiveness and the gift of being able to be a source of awesome, awesome power to the heart and to the soul of someone struggling. Medicine is a good model, I think, for the way God’s forgiveness works, and when somebody’s weak and there’s something broken, we don’t put stress on it. We rather take it, clean it, open it, bandage it, support it, try to leave the pain of it and wait for something not coming from us but something coming from deep inside of every human being, this gift of God that will always, always achieve the healing we allow it to do.
Father, on this day that we consider the birthday of the church, the Christian church that you founded, bless us. Bless us with an awareness of the gifts that have been given, with a keen sense that, as we surrender to your way, to the way of the Spirit, we will find the goal that this great faith has always promised us, and that’s the goal of wholeness and the goal of peace and the goal of entering fully into your kingdom. And we ask this Christ, our Lord, amen.