Christmas, Easter, Pentecost—the three most important feasts of every year for the church and, at one time, for society.
At one time, as late as the seventeenth century, Pentecost was celebrated in the church and in the world with festivities and solemnity as elaborate and joyous as Christmas and Easter. In some of the major churches in Rome assistants would be sent up the highest part of the nave and, at the crucial moment in the liturgy, throw out baskets of red rose petals. As they fluttered down and fell on people, they reminded all present of the flames of fire that came down on the apostles at Pentecost. In France, the parish or cathedral musicians would call on every trumpet player they knew within miles to provide a mighty blast of sound, signifying the rush of the wind at Pentecost. In the culture, Whitsuntide became a period of dancing and major performances of plays. In Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, Julia remembers the season this way: “in Pentecost/When all our pageants of delight were played.”
What has happened since—and more importantly why—tells us a great deal about our modern selves. Christmas is now, of course, celebrated around the world, even in countries where Christians are just a tiny minority. At Easter, the churches are still full and many schools still take a break, although it is now officially called a “spring break.”
If the church today seems somewhat ambiguous about Pentecost, then society at large is just plain oblivious.
I suspect that the church and the world are uncomfortable with this feast for pretty much the same reasons. I also suggest that if the church regained its full awareness of the claims and promises that this Feast recalls, not only would the church be very different, so would the world.
The earliest understanding of the church was that the coming of the Holy Spirit was an event as significant for every person in the world as creation itself. Indeed, the outpouring of the Spirit after Christ’s resurrection and return to heaven was a second creation. Cyril of Jerusalem, the fourth century bishop of Rome said of the gospel you heard earlier: “This marks the second time God breathed on humankind.”
The claims and promises of Pentecost were previewed by Jesus even before his death and resurrection. On the night of his final meal with those closest to him, the same night he was arrested, Jesus made these staggering claims and promises to his followers:
- through me, you and everyone can gain a full, intimate relationship with God;
- the first step by the Father for reconciliation with all people was to send me to the world, now the next step is that I send you to the world;
- over time, you will affect more people than I did my short years here;
- the Spirit—the same Spirit who was the means through which all creation came into being—will be with you after I am gone;
- the Spirit will reveal nothing that contradicts all that I have said and done among you, indeed, more will be revealed;
- in time, the Spirit will teach humankind everything, all your questions will be answered;
- and now you can act with confidence, not the confidence that comes from conventional wisdom but the confidence that comes from above.
How would the church be different if we really believed these claims and promises made to his church by our Lord; how would the world be different?
Jesus promised that we can know where God’s Spirit is at work in the world and we can become an ally of the Spirit; conversely, we can also discern what developments are not of God’s Spirit.
Jesus promised that we could confidently identify the work of the Spirit because it would have the same traits as his work when he was here in the flesh. And what are the graces of Christ? They include forgiveness and compassion, not just for those we find it easy to forgive and understand but for those we have the least sympathy; in short, radical and complete compassion for all persons. The ethics that follows is this: Jesus practiced and we can always be confident that the Holy Spirit is at work wherever barriers are being broken down, the same barriers that Jesus himself leapt over, the barriers of race, ethnicity, class, gender, age, even religious barriers. We can be an ally to that work in the world. And we can also know that wherever these barriers are being raised, that is the work of another powerful spirit, but that is not God’s Spirit.
The claims and promises of Pentecost empower the church to discern with confidence where God is at work, to identify it for all to see, to rally women and men of goodwill for that work and to move forward with confidence that we are engaged in spreading the graces of Christ here and now. G.K. Chesterton, that wry lay theologian who lived through the transition of the last century to our own, observed: “We have said we must be fond of the world, even in order to change it. We now add that we must be fond of another world…in order to have something to change it to.” Pentecost authorizes the church to change the world and gives her a vision to change it to.
Pentecost is the public event that engages the church in the world at the crossroads of all human enterprise.
In less than a minute, when you renew your baptismal vows as one of those who inherited at your baptism the claims and promise of Christ, pray that the church will recover her voice, identifying and working effectively where God’s Spirit is already at work in the world and also discerning and declaring where it is not.
May your experience—something that is read or said or sung—here today rekindle in you the expectation that God’s Spirit gives us—the church—the clarity and conviction to advance the work of Christ in our time and place.
As you stand, prepare your heart to renew your baptismal vows, recommitting yourself to the claims and promises of Christ and re-enlisting in the work of the coming Kingdom.