Most of us know what Pentecost is meant to mean, or what we were taught it originally meant. (RCL Acts 2:1-21) But what does Pentecost mean to us in a church divided into separate camps of competing orthodoxy, shards of broken communities, and chapters of irrelevance to much of the world? This year the world is broken and we the church seems to be missing in action or so inwardly focused that we have little to offer.
For a considered and "orthodox" progressive understanding please follow the link to last years blog on Pentecost. But this year I need to ask myself and ourselves more questions than exegesis.
Most of us know that Pentecost simply means fifty! Fifty days after the Passover. And so, Pentecost pre-existed the Christian church. But we count that first Pentecost after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus as our birth-day as a community of believers. And it is as good a day as any to celebrate and commit, or at least to review.
Many of us will have attended, and some of us will have done the planning and orchestrating, of colourful church services in which we have used red, orange and yellow balloons or streamers to reference the tongues of fire hovering over those first followers’ heads. I’ve been in churches with yards or metres of coloured fabric have been draped from high point to high point to create a sense of overwhelming excitement and co-joined optimism. Priests in red vestments and altar frontals in red silk and brocade, flower arrangements with the most vivid flamboyant flowers available reminding the senses of the changing of the seasons of the spirit. Music with trumpets and cymbals, and more sharps than flats filling our ears with major chords of confidence and enthusiasm. I have attended Pentecost services so wonderful and invigorating that I couldn’t wait to get home or to Monday and to ‘do something new and powerful’ in the world. I’ve certainly been to lots of services that caused me to want to linger longer with my companions after the service and enjoy our shared commitment to our particular church community. But I have also known times (not only at Pentecost) when I have found that what we say binds us together and informs our commitment to share in the world has left me at best luke warm and sometimes hot with shame or rage. And there have been times I have wept or raged all the way home and wondered what I was doing and how was it possible that people who had heard the gospel preached for five, six or more decades could not be excited by what God had done, was doing, and desperately wanted to do in their lives and their neighbours’ lives! And this year I feel exhaustion and mild despair.
And yet as I am challenged to reflect on that first Pentecost after the resurrection, the day we think of as the birth of the church, I cannot stop the flutter of hope, the stirring of yearning, and the quickening of the pulse. I think there are at least three reasons to celebrate. Firstly, the Holy Spirit given to the followers at that first big gathering, is still the same today. God wants as much as ever and always to inhabit the hearts and minds of the beloved ones – us. Our weariness and wariness does not dampen the ardour of God. Our cultural limits and reasonable reservations does not contain the heat or lightening strike of the Spirit that blows where it will. Our tiredness and distraction does not confound the Holy One.
Secondly, the community in which the church was born, was also divided and under great duress; it also was filled with people who could not speak the same language except for that exciting moment; and it also quickly broke into local groups that shared some understandings and yet developed unique traditions – so much so that the church has forever suspected each other of being heretical or at least misguided. Pentecost is at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles and from then on it is the story of small pockets of the church universal being established in very particular communities with very particular people. “Think global. Act local.” would have been a good slogan for the church. I wish we wouldn’t be so surprised and affronted when other Christians see things quite differently to us. I would be fairly open to a range of views if only some of those did not judge me as unworthy of membership or leadership (usually based on gender but sometimes on theology). But whether or not the church always wants me and my opinion (and others have a much harder time than I do!) the world needs the church and needs me to be the church. The world at this moment, and almost certainly every moment, needs a church that will proclaim the love of God in word and action for the least and the lost rather than courting the favour of the powerful and important (if they want to join in that is truly wonderful but Jesus came for those in need of a physician).
And thirdly we who are called to be the church at this time have a wonderful tradition to be enveloped by and to build upon. While there is much about the church, and the corner of the tradition that I know best (the Anglican or Episcopalian) that drives me to despair and can feel like a family history of trauma to be worked through, the reality is also that the church has at its kernel the living seed of the Living God. Among the dusty relics and discriminatory rubrics of the church are the words and insights, the intentions and visions, the humble and grand testimonies of those who have already received, been faithful to and been consumed by the divine spark of the Holy Spirit. While, like each person at that first wild gathering, we must each have our own experience and make our own commitment we do not start in the wilderness. We begin because we have been invited, gathered, instructed, challenged, mentored and provoked. We belong because it is God’s banquet and the guest list just keeps growing. Many of us who belong to the church – in whatever capacity – do so in part because we love aspects of the tradition: the words that await us when our own words fail, the music which gathers us up into a hymn of praise and lamentation that has outlasted the generations, the cycle of colour and smells and flowers and bells and stained-glass iconography that points us to the seventh heaven and beyond. And if and when the words of the Sunday liturgy rub like ill fitting clothes we turn to the lives of the saints and meditating on their mystical insights we find that we can always go deeper into the tradition rather than away from.
So, this Pentecost, even while a part of me wants to spit frustrated rebukes of leaders who still deny my priesthood because of my gender, or someone else’s humanity because of their sexual identity or ethnicity, or because of the personal name or pronoun used for our God, I cannot help but weep with gratitude that the Spirit spoke long ago and calls us by name and need even now. This Pentecost I commit anew to belong to even those who find me inconvenient and unrecognisable. Because the world needs the church. And because I need the church. And maybe the church needs me and all of us who do not fit quite so comfortable or quietly.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come gather me up with all your others.