Prayer: Come Holy Spirit, Come. Come as the fire and burn. Come as the wind and cleanse. Convert and consecrate our lives to our great good, and to your great glory. Amen.
[Introduction: Millennial Fears and Hopes.]
As we come to the year 2000, there seem to be many fears and hopes “abroad in the land.” I am sure other preachers in this pulpit have addressed them in past weeks, and that others will continue to do so, as we get closer to this great shift in our calendars. Hope and Fear being the “stuff” of which much in “religion” is made, some of those fears and hopes are familiar to all of us.
A. [Fears:] Some worry (as others have before them) that the whole world may come to an end, or be under some kind of siege; in Salt Lake City where I serve, the religion section of the Saturday newspapers now regularly advertises supply and storage services for food and water for such an eventuality.
Others are concerned that there will be a number of local “glitches”–occasional tragedies here and there when the new year turns. The media will, of course, feast for weeks and months on these possibilities and eventualities; and we will stay glued to our television sets to watch and hear about them in full detail, to hear foolish people interpret, and speculate about the connection between them. (I understand that TV advertising budgets are up for January, 2000, and that many so-called “gurus” are signing up right and left for various talk shows.)
B. [Hopes:] We sense similar variety in our hopes just now. Some are thinking, or hoping, that this turn of the year is precisely the right time to “leave Earth;” so who knows? We may see a number of personal or group suicides. For some, the “hope” is to “cash in” on the fears of others; again, the turn of our computerized clocks and calendars surely presents any number of “opportunities” for criminal ingenuity.
But also some Christian groups are hoping for a “second Pentecost,” a sudden and magically new era of understanding, peace and reconciliation. I hear of calls for the whole world to be in Prayer at a certain moment when the clocks and calendars shift. I read of an English company inviting Christians to come to Galilee and “walk in on water” like Jesus; they are building a special platform just under the surface to facilitate that. And in a recent television interview I was pressed very intensely about my own pastoral and evangelical preparations for the new century, as though they must somehow now change and become more securing to my “frightened” flock.
[Pentecost, Hope, and Maturing Spirituality.]
This whole “millennial context” has led me to think freshly about three, related topics: (A) First, about our present understanding of this feast of Pentecost, and our celebrations of it; (B) Second, about the nature of authentic Christian Hope; and, (C) Third, about the possibilities of the fuller and more mature Spiritual Life, for which Pentecost blesses us. These are the three subjects I want to address first today; I will then speak briefly about the matter of time, and conclude with a word of Pentecostal caution and encouragement.
First, then, Pentecost: In the congregations I have served up to now, we always celebrated this occasion by sending up red balloons; we sung all the best hymns, made birthday cakes for the church, and handed out awards to all those who had faithfully served the church in the year past.
Always, we thought that we were celebrating something altogether good–an especially powerful gathering, a larger community coming together, a fresh and common understanding, and indeed a new unity among the peoples of the world.
But is that, seriously, what we think we can celebrate today? As we continue to divide and subdivide the church along ideological lines? While the decimation of Kosovo continues? While tribal atrocities continue in Sierra Leone, Angola and the Sudan? While violence and injustice reign in Sri Lanka and Burma? And when peace cannot be reached even in Christian Ireland? And, were understanding, peace, and unity even what Pentecost was about in the first place?
Perhaps we need to listen and to look anew at Luke’s account of Pentecost in The Acts of the Apostles. As I have tried to do so, from the distance of nearly 2000 years of history, I find myself perplexed by our very focused and often forced joy about it. These first two chapters of Acts (as a whole) speaks of a violent wind, and tongues of fire. The texts speak of bewilderment, astonishment, perplexity, and confusion (“what does all this mean?”) more than they speak of love, joy and celebration.
Following the speculation of some about “new wine,” and Peter’s magnificent sermon, some, some, among those gathered for this Jewish Feast were “cut to the heart,” for he spoke to them as a “corrupt generation,” and the fact is, that the primary result of this particular Pentecost gathering, (the reason it is recorded in our scripture at all) is that there was a new division within Israel! The newly forming faith family, (much, much later called “Christian”) was on this day just a new schism, a newly birthed heretical sect within Judaism.
Division was of course not new to Israel–as it is has not been in our Christian faith family. The Hebrews had initially been a scattered and enslaved people; then a bunch of tribes; later, and only briefly a united nation. After that, they were a North/South divided Israel, who were then scattered again, abroad in exile.
Given this, why would any of us, today, hope or pray for a New Pentecost? 2000 years of our own Christian divisions, subdivisions, and sub sub sub divisions (and also further divisions in Judaism, Islam, and most other faith traditions in the world) must make us at least ask “what it is we think we are hoping for when we imagine a second Pentecost?”
In raising such questions, I feel a little like a pariah, perhaps a nay-sayer, or a bringer of bad rather than good news. I know I am not, and I hope you trust I am not; but all of us may well wonder what the first Christian Pentecost says to our faith communities now, today?
[Christian Hope:] Therefore I want to turn to some reflections about authentic Christian hope, which I think must encompass the greater meaning of Pentecost. For this Christian Pentecost, this extraordinary biblical occasion is one that we celebrate not only today but also, it is for us, a season–the longest in our church year, and indeed the season in which all of us, generations later, actually live and move and have our being. We live somewhere between the first Pentecost and the last Advent. Thus, Pentecost challenges and blesses every season of our lives, every church year, every century and millennium.
All of us know that Christian Hope is not mere optimism. Neither is it just the sum total of individual or community or national yearnings, wishes, and dreams. Our hope is grounded deeply in “the mighty acts of God, in and among God’s people.” It is born in the experience of all those before us—”in creation, in the calling of Israel to be God’s people, in God’s word, spoken through the prophets, and above all, in God’s word made flesh, Jesus, God’s son.” Christian hope is grounded, as we are, in the real world, the world of time and flesh as we experience that; it is grounded in and is not apart from “reality.”
Sometimes, we in the church (as others in academe) point “out the windows” when we speak of reality, “the real world.” But if that is the real world, then what on earth are we doing in here? If our faith is apart from, or aside from, or in other ways out of “reality” as we live it, day by day, then it cannot really be what Jesus invites us to share in his being “the way, truth and life.” Christian hope is grounded in and rises from an authentic sense of our life in Christ, in what he has done, and does, and will do for us. Hope, life faith and love, is a very practical matter.
C. [Maturing Spirituality:] This brings me to my third focus: the maturing spirituality which Pentecost and Christian hope invite. I have said that our hope is grounded in reality, in particulars and practicalities. But our spiritual life is also grounded in a mysterious sense of possibility. We know ourselves to be shapers of the Real World, as well as members of it, for as Christians we are indeed a free and liberated people. The whole point of our baptismal life in Christ, is that the past does not bind us indefinitely to fear, or sin, or death.
Jesus preached a vision of a larger and more abundant life, which he called the Kingdom of God. He called us to, and empowered us for that possibility, that is now present in each of us, and for all of us.
The maturing spiritual life–which by God’s grace, is offered to us in the Incarnation, Crucifixion Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ–is further blessed by the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost; it responds to a future, as much as to a past; it allows the future to impinge on new possibilities in our lives and decisions now, so that along with our historical past, recorded in scripture and tradition, we are actually being shaped by God’s future and fuller reign. That is what hope does, and that is what Pentecost serves.
[Time and “Our Times.”]
I began today by speaking of the year 2000, and the hopes and fears it seems to generate. In this context, I have also offered a few reflections about the occasion and season of Pentecost, about Christian Hope, and about a Maturing Spirituality, grounded in reality and possibility. But this great shift in our clocks and calendars is also about Great Time–time beyond all calendars.
Time is, for all of us, a very tender and potent subject; while none of us fully understands, the coming new century and millennium lead us, ultimately, to think about time itself. Many many people, have spoken about time–much more knowledgeably than I could ever hope to do so, or that this forum would permit. They are philosophers and poets, geologists and physicists, linguists, and prophets.
Yet time is a subject all of us know about, intimately, and in a personal way, because from whatever perspective or discipline we consider it, the fact is we are mortal; we–all of us–have just a little time to be here, in this world, and to make our offering.
And all our measurements of Time are a kind of construct anyway; they serve to orient us in the great expanse of earth’s reality, from its formation “in the beginning” to our understanding of its geological and pre-historic eras, to the times of our animal ancestry, to our ancestral, familial, and personal life histories. Our daily clocks and calendars serve to “place” us in, perhaps, infinitely larger constructs and frameworks of reality.
We, finite creatures that we are, celebrate temporal occasions–birthdays, and anniversaries, (especially when they occur in round numbers!), even though they all occur microscopically in the context of unimaginably vast eras, which precede and will follow our little histories here.
The people who spoke of and wrote down and canonized our scriptures also lived in a tiny framework of what we now call history–and of course they witnessed to what was special in their own times and places, as Luke does in these first two chapters of Acts. But our biblical ancestors also knew about the vast expanses of time before they lived; they spoke of light and darkness, of heaven and earth, of sea and land and the multiplicity of living things. They knew about time, as we do, because they knew about dawn, and evening, birth and death, youth and aging, anticipation, and memory. They knew about our dependence on the cycles of the sun and the moon; and they knew the difference between the species, and the dependence all species have on other species and on their seed for future generations. Some of them speculated about the beginning of all time, a point when Earth was born, and light was shed, and life on this planet came into being. What they said and wrote is probably as good and true and beautiful a sense of the beginnings of the real world as any of us could come up with today.
Their words have sustained generations of persons and communities all over the world, and inspire us to this day. But the biblical record itself also re-interprets the observations and reflections of generations before them–as we also do. Retrospectivity is one of our gifted capacities, one of the many ways we come to understand and interpret meaning and revelation, source and purpose in our own lives, and in the generations who lived before us.
Two thousand years ago the feast of Pentecost drew thousands of Jews from all their known nations of their world. Even so, it was a very small world, and a small gathering. Our world today is very much larger, more multi-form and more divided than what was represented there; mercifully, we have come to see that much of our diversity is a blessing; it bears witness to the incredible generosity of God. But we have also come to see that diversity which becomes division, enmity and war which is a sign our failure to receive faithfully the blessings God has poured out upon us at Pentecost.
IV. [A New Pentecost?]
So let’s be serious when we celebrate the first Christian Pentecost, or pray for another. The real question is not “What would it be like if the Spirit of God were poured out freshly on all creation?” The real question is “What would it be like if all of us saw ourselves and each other and all creation by the light of that spirit God has already poured out upon us?” Pentecost doesn’t magically just bring us together in celebration of our commonality.
It also separates those who hear and see from those who do not hear and see. It separates those who look at our world with compassion from those who look only with criticism, and it separates those who simply say they believe something from those who live their beliefs.
Further, we must acknowledge that the light of the first Pentecostal Spirit might have some results we might not particularly want or like. It might mess up our newly formed nations and denominations and our various tribes and clans within them. It might challenge our vested interests and property rights. It might mute the grandiose voices of multi-national corporations who, like absentee landlords, bear none of the effects of their control over local communities. It might even deter us from watching with voyeuristic and even prurient fascination, the unfolding of every crime and tragedy in the world, giving us time to lend a hand where help is needed. It might even challenge the stock market’s way of valuing our days by the number of points up or down in trading.
There are costs and blessings in this season of Pentecost in our hope and maturing spiritual life, for the Spirit blows where it will; our understanding is limited, and our time here is short. But there is nothing, ultimately to fear; and for everything always, give thanks. Amen.</P