June 4, 2017, Pentecost
Earlier this week, as Ken and I were taking our dog for his walk, we noticed families walking toward one of the synagogues in our neighborhood. There are two or three Orthodox Jewish temples on our usual routes. Some of the faithful honor the ancient tradition of no work on the Sabbath; they walk rather than drive to Temple. This week, however, we saw them on Tuesday and Thursday, rather than Friday and Saturday. So we started trying to figure out just what holiday they were observing.
The answer, of course, was actually right in front of me in the readings for today. Pentecost, our birthday of the church, occurred among a group of disciples who had gathered for the Jewish Festival of Weeks, known in Hebrew as Shavuot, which had originated as a harvest festival and later was designated a celebration of the giving of the Torah, the Law of Moses.
Because the Hebrew calendar is based on the lunar cycle, and ours on the solar, Passover and Easter don’t always coincide even though the scriptures tell us that Jesus was crucified during the Jewish festival. This year, 2017, it happened that they fell close together. So fifty days after the second day of Passover, devout Jewish families in my neighborhood were observing Shavuot just a few days before Christians celebrate the amazing events of a Shavuot gathering over two thousand years ago.
It has been easy to forget, over a couple of millennia, how deeply and closely related our two faiths are.
The followers of the Jesus Movement were convinced that they had witnessed the fulfillment of God’s historic promises to Judaism. They started out teaching and preaching about Jesus in the synagogues where they had learned their faith. Hostility developed between the two religions later, as both faced persecution from the pagan world around them and Jerusalem was targeted for destruction. Of the four gospels, the latest one written, John, shows most clearly the growing tension between Judaism and nascent Christianity.
Luckily for us, this hostility took a while to build, so on that important day in the life of the church, the gathering of believers included devout Jews from countries all over Europe and Asia Minor. Together, they were swept by the rush of the Holy Spirit and touched by tongues like flame from above. As the Galilean apostles spoke, everyone heard in his or her own language, no matter where they were from. The effect was such that some sneered and suggested the believers were drunk. Peter stood and explained to them what was really happening, that God was pouring out his spirit upon them.
The gifts of the Spirit, visions, dreams and prophesy, are double-edged. They can be helpful, but they can attract negative attention as well. The prophets of the Old Testament dealt with this tension on a regular basis. With their mandate from God to speak truth to power, as we would describe their mission today, they risked persecution and even death. I suspect their lives were lonely and often difficult.
When the Holy Spirit was poured out upon those early believers, it brought a mandate with it, similar to that of the prophets. So our second reading, from Paul, describes how its gifts are to be used to build up the community of the faithful that we now call the church.
Paul provides here one of the most compelling and inspiring arguments for diversity and inclusiveness that I have ever encountered. We all have different gifts, but the church can include and incorporate them all. Everyone is important, everyone has something to offer.
This is a wonderful correction to our human tendency to bond around our similarities. Whole societies and cultures have developed first from familial relationships and later from common characteristics.
I used to joke, when my children were small, that to be part of our nuclear family, it was necessary to have freckles, of all things. Ken and I were both heavily freckled children and our two boys turned out the same. Since they grew up, our family has expanded to include many people who are quite happy to be without freckles and we are very glad to count them as relations. Freckles, no freckles, who cares? We are so much more blessed by the diverse gifts and talents of our extended family. So it is with the church.
The presence of the Holy Spirit within a religious organization can be felt. It brings with it an energy and enthusiasm that is unmistakable. The problem is that it is very hard to control and our efforts to tame and regulate the Holy Spirit can effectively shut it out.
One of the hardest lessons for any of us, or any faith community, for that matter, is to give up enough control to allow the Spirit to operate freely in our spiritual lives or in our organization. It is only when we relinquish a measure of control over our surroundings that God working through the Holy Spirit can bring about the flow of circumstances that I associate with salvation.
When people sneered at the disciples speaking in many tongues, they were trying to hold onto the cultural and linguistic divisions that the Bible explains as a result of the attempt to build the Tower of Babel. But God was calling them to greater unity in spite of their differences as Peter so eloquently explained.
Successful faith communities are built on unity through diversity. The unity comes from our common purpose, building God’s kingdom here on earth. The diversity ensures that we have a wider range of gifts and talents to draw on as we do so.
Already in my lifetime I have seen immense progress on inclusivity in both our society and the church. It is interesting to see how increasing inclusiveness seems to whet the appetite for more, so that minorities exist today that I never heard of as a youngster.
It is so easy to wish to return to a time when there was less variation to be honored or accommodated. But there is no going back once change is afoot. Those of us who can no longer keep up with the pace of change have to step aside so that people who can manage it have space to operate. It is a timeless dynamic of life.
The followers of Jesus lived in a time when even small changes could take generations to evolve. That the Jesus Movement became an institution, the Christian church, in just over 300 years, was pretty quick for those days. Think about how much has changed in our world in the past 300 years. Or the last 30 years! It is either scary or exciting to contemplate, depending on your viewpoint.
God combines both change and changelessness. It is a paradox of spirituality. God is our defense in the face of great change, our motivation for dealing with it and a resource of energy and enthusiasm for moving with change. God is literally all things to all people, taking shape in more ways than we can imagine.
This church building is old, a comforting continuity, but the spirit of Trinity is young and vibrant. What a wonderful combination! We may all speak English, but the diverse gifts of the Holy Spirit continue to be poured out here just as they were on that fateful Festival of Weeks so long ago.
Come, Holy Spirit, come! Amen.