The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Saturday, May 31, 2008

May 11, 2008
The Day of Pentecost, A
John 20:19-23

In the name of God: in whom we live, and move, and have our being. Amen.

Did you hear that? Did you hear what the Spirit was saying to the Church?

In my preparations for preaching this week, I’ve been rereading Bishop Spong’s book The Easter Moment. Oh, I know, I know. I know we’ve been celebrating Easter since back in March. I know that today is not Easter Sunday. It’s Pentecost – the day when we celebrate the giving of the Holy Spirit to the Body of Christ. I know that today is the day where we shift ourselves, liturgically. We put away the white, and for the next several months we’ll be in the “long green season” – the Season after Pentecost. It will carry us through the rest of Spring, through the flowers and the end of school, and the Ice Cream social and the Parish Picnic. It will carry us into summer. Through vacations, and days by swimming pools and at the Shore. And even after summer begins to fade, and the leaves begin to turn, and we get the first chills of a new winter – even then, the Season after Pentecost will endure. In the church we’ll shift our focus from the big moments of Jesus’ life that have captured our attention for so long: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week and Easter – and we’ll concentrate our attentions on the less dramatic moments: we’ll be a little more intentional about reflecting on his teachings and his parables, his relationships in his community. We’ll slow down a little. We’ll see a different side of Jesus. It will be a little more “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and a little less “Jesus Christ Superstar”.

But where does that leave us now? It’s not still Easter – at least not like it was before, but we’re not yet where we will be.

To a large degree, I think that may be what Pentecost is all about: it’s a shift between two extremes. Jesus’ followers had lived with him, and prayed with him, and worked with him and learned from him. They challenged him. They disappointed him. They made him angry. They inspired his compassion and he earned their love. And now, in the despair and the anxiety of that first Easter, they had to find a way to go on – to spread the Word.

You may not have noticed it, but we read two very different stories this morning that both recounted the giving of the Holy Spirit. The first lesson was from the Book of Acts. In that lesson, we were told that the disciples were all gathered in one place – in a house. It was the Jewish festival of Pentecost – their celebration of the giving of the Torah after their deliverance from Egypt. It had been more than a month since Jesus had died, and still the disciples were together, still they were unsure of how to go on. Suddenly, their gathering was interrupted by the sound of a violent wind. It rushed in and filled the house. As it spread around each of them, it began to divide into individual flames, and each of the flames rested on each one of them. In the fullness of their experience of the Holy Spirit, they began speaking in languages that were not their own. They told the stories of Jesus. They told about the action of God in the world. Between the great noise of the Holy Spirit and then the great cacophony of voices that followed, the disciples, almost in hiding, began to draw a crowd. People from all over the world were in Jerusalem and they came to see this great thing that was happening. Many of them were amazed at what was happening and expressed wonder at this evidence of God in their midst. But others were cynical. They could not believe that these followers of Jesus could be showing signs of God’s presence in their lives. They made excuses, “Perhaps they’re drunk.”

Sometimes that’s how the Holy Spirit makes herself known – through flashy displays of surprising action. Through dramatic, “Jesus Christ Superstar” moments. I’ve seen the Holy Spirit work in that way. Oh, I’ve never seen anyone speaking in tongues. While I know such experiences of faith are an important part of the piety of many people, I have to admit, if I were to see it, I would probably be like the cynical observers in the Book of Acts – I would probably wonder if some kind of foul play were afoot, or I’d try to make excuses for it. But even so, there have been a few moments in my life when I could feel the presence of God through the Holy Spirit as surprisingly and undeniably as a violent wind.

One such moment happened for me nearly two years ago in Columbus, Ohio, of all places. I was at the General Convention of The Episcopal Church. This is the chief legislative body of our church. It’s the once-every-three-years meeting where representatives from every diocese come together to establish policies and laws for our church and to elect our leaders. This convention was a particularly tense one. Many people in the church were still feeling betrayed and angry about the actions of the Convention in 2003, which consented to the election of Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as the Bishop of New Hampshire. We were struggling to find answers to give to the worldwide Anglican Communion, much of which was also angry with us. Talk of schism in the church was literally around every corner.

In the midst of all of this anxiety and exhaustion, The Episcopal Church was in the process of electing a new Presiding Bishop. There were several highly qualified candidates, one of whom was Katharine Jefferts Schori, then the Bishop of Nevada, and the first woman ever to be nominated for the office. Some people suggested that though she was the most qualified candidate, she could never be elected because the Convention would never take such a bold step so soon after the still-fresh controversies of 2003. But on Sunday, June 18, 2006, our bishops, sequestered in Trinity Episcopal Church in Columbus, Ohio, did just that. They elected Katharine Jefferts Schori as our Presiding Bishop – not just the first woman to hold such an office in The Episcopal Church, but the first woman to hold such an office in the Anglican Communion.

But, meanwhile, back at the Convention Center, those of us who were not bishops had no idea what was happening. We were gathered together, doing our part in the work of the church, and waiting for our bishops to report their election. Rumors began to circulate that an announcement was imminent. The gallery for visitors, which, during most of the convention accommodated 20 or 30 guests, was now brimming with several hundred. When the President of the assembly interrupted the business at hand to announce the election, every voice in the room gasped – a violent rush of wind. There were a few distant yelps of surprise, out of joy or despair, I wouldn’t know. Over the next couple of hours, the House of Deputies consented to the election of the House of Bishops, the Bishops joined us, and the Presiding Bishop-elect came to address the church for the first time.

It was a spirit-filled time for me to witness the church in action. Even in the midst of our anxiety and exhaustion, the Spirit had moved in the midst of us in an entirely new way. Of course there were cynics. Some people suggested that Bishop Katharine’s election was a plot by the conservative movement in the church to further encourage schism. Many people analyzed the reports of a few bishops about the ongoing politics in the bishops’ chamber. Whatever undercurrents may have been at play, I remain convinced that they played at the whim of the Holy Spirit.

But the Holy Spirit does not always act out in the dramatic way described in the Book of Acts or with the rush of wind that I felt at General Convention. Sometimes the Holy Spirit is experienced in a gentle breeze – or a breath.

I remember a particular day when I was in High School about fourteen years ago. I don’t remember the details, but I was stressed. I was feeling the pressures of adolescence. I felt alone. I left my house and was out, driving in the rural area around the city where I lived. I was listening to Schubert’s Deutsche Messe and trying to clear my head. During the climax of the Sanctus, my favorite movement, I briefly glanced to the left. As I heard those words sung in German, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” I saw the most beautiful sunset that I had ever seen and I was filled with peace beyond my ability to describe it. I felt the Holy Spirit. Whatever had been troubling me had not been taken away, but it was put to rest. My anxiety was replaced by peace.

That’s the story of the giving of the Holy Spirit that we hear in the Gospel According to John. The disciples are afraid. Jesus, whom they had been following, had been executed only days before. They feared that a similar fate might be ahead for themselves.

There, in the locked room where they were hiding from the ones whom they feared might kill them, Jesus appeared. Not with a rush of wind or a cacophony of voices, but with the subtle declaration, “Peace be with you.” And then, with the softness of a breath, they received the Holy Spirit.

So what’s the right answer? Does the Holy Spirit come in a rush of wind and with dramatic effect like in Acts? Does she come in a gasp that breaks into history in a new way like in Columbus? Or does she come in a breath? A subtle turn of the head as music plays in the background?

Paul says yes. In his letter to the church in Corinth he says, “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.” Sometimes the Spirit blows in a violent wind and sometimes in a gentle breath. But always, and in all ways, the Spirit blows. Amen.

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