The Rev. Canon James C. Fenhagen: “The Gift Of Pentecost”
This morning, in our reading from the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, we heard the story of the birthday of the Christian church. It is a remarkable narrative that seeks to describe how the Holy Spirit entered into the lives of the disciples and transformed them into a missionary band that changed the face of the earth. In this narrative we are given not only a picture of the formation of the church, but also three pictures of the spirit at work in the world. I would like to introduce these three pictures by sharing with you a story I read this past week about the wisdom of children and their nearness to God.
My story goes like this. “There was a Sunday school teacher who instructed her class of youngsters to draw a picture of their favorite Bible character. All the heads were down and sketching and drawing, coloring and cutting…. As she walked around the classroom looking over each student’s shoulder, she came upon one very intent young girl. She was all hunched over her table and coloring like mad. “What are you drawing, Jenny?” the teacher asked. “I’m drawing a picture of God,” the little girl replied. “But Jenny, no one has ever seen the face of God; no one really knows what God looks like,” replied the teacher. Jenny answered, “They will in about ten minutes.” (The Living Church, May 12, 2002, p. 15)
With Jenny’s faith as a guide, I would like to share with you three pictures of God that are the fruit of the work of the Spirit in our world. The first picture is the most dramatic. It is about how God through the Holy Spirit acts in the world to create a community of reconciliation and trust that has the power to overcome the violence of human sin. We are given a scene that reminds us of the tower of Babel. We see only isolated people, shouting at one another in different languages, and unable to make contact. And then God acts. The disciples suddenly hear a “sound like the rush of a violent wind, filling the entire house where they were sitting,” as the Scriptures describes that God filled moment. We are told, that the separation is overcome and a new kind of community is formed, a community in which Jesus would be forever known and experienced. This is the work of the Spirit, it is the manifestation of Christ in us that draws us beyond ourselves to connect even with those we do not know or do not trust. Whenever human separation is overcome, and healing takes place, it is the work of the Spirit where we can see in our hearts, the face of God.
Several weeks ago my wife and I went to a meeting to hear a group of Israeli and Palestinian parents who had come to this country for a week to bear witness to the possibility of peace in the Holy Land as seen not by the political leaders but by a growing number of grieving parents. The first speaker was an Israeli business man from Tel-Aviv who just several weeks before had lost his son in the conflict that is tearing the holy land apart. He was followed by a Palestinian woman who told of holding her daughter in her lap as her child died of gun fire. “We are here tonight,” she said, “to tell you how we have been brought together by our grief. We have moved beyond politics. We are together because we care for all our children.” That night, as I listened, I heard the sound of the Spirit and I saw the face of God in the faces of those men and women who had come together to share their lives with us. The face of God is the face of love, you see, that through the power of the Spirit can heal all that is broken in the world around us, even in the midst of violence and hate.
This is the first picture I want to share with you. The second is quite different, and it looks something like this. On the day of Pentecost the disciples had gathered to pray. The disciples prayed for guidance in selecting Mathias to take the place of Judas. As we read in the end of the second chapter of the book of acts, “They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42)
Prayer, you see, is the work of the Spirit. Prayer is never something we do by ourselves. Prayer is our participation in the energy of God’s Spirit that connects the world. As Paul writes in the eighth chapter of the epistle to the Romans, “Likewise the spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
Like many of you who are here this morning, these words of Paul have opened my life to the Spirit time and time again: times when I was afraid or discouraged. Times when I found myself separated from those I love the most. Times when I was struggling with grief. Times when I could not pray, but somehow experienced the Spirit of God praying in me and giving me strength I never knew I had. This is the gift of Pentecost, the awareness of the Spirit praying in us when we cannot pray ourselves. Some years ago I was given a prayer that I have called on when God has seemed far away. It goes like this: Be silent, still, aware. For their in our own hearts, the Spirit is at prayer. Listen and learn. Open and find. Heart wisdom. Christ.
Pentecost is an event rooted in hope, a hope that we are invited to share. It is this hope that we see in our third picture of the face of God. Before Jesus left his disciples, he prepared them for what was to follow. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” this was Jesus call to the church. Every man, woman, and child who has been touched by the person of Jesus is his witness in the world.
Today this witness is of particular urgency as people of different faiths find themselves confronted by years of misunderstanding and mistrust. It is no longer possible to witness to the Spirit simply by claiming that we alone possess the absolute truth and all other paths to faith are of no value. Doctrine that has become rigid and without breadth, which we see so much of today, very quickly spawns isolation and hatred. We are called to bear witness to the gospel of salvation in ways that build community rather than contributing to the separations that divide the human race. The Spirit of God calls us beyond our selves to see the face of Christ in the stranger that confronts us from the perspective of a different faith story, including those in our own church. Our call is to bear witness to the Spirit that overcomes the great separations that divide the human race that hide from us the face of God. This is the work of the Spirit in us and in the world. This is the gift of Pentecost to the human race and all of God’s creation.
The late Henri Nouwen draws the picture of God’s face a bit differently. “I vividly remember the day on which a man who had been a student in one of my courses came back to the school and entered my room with the disarming remark: ‘I have no problems this time, no questions to ask you,”’ Nouwen writes. “We sat facing each other and talked about what life had been for us in the last year…. Then slowly as the minutes passed by we became silent. Not an embarrassing silence but a silence that brought us closer together…. Then he said, ‘It is good to be here,’ and I said, yes, it is good to be together again. And suddenly he said to me, ‘When I look at you it is as if I am in the presence of Christ.’ I did not feel startled, or need of protesting,” Nouwen continues. “It is the Christ in you who recognizes the Christ in me. ‘yes,’ he said, ‘he is indeed in our midst. And from now on, wherever you go, or wherever I go, all the ground between us will be holy ground.’” (Reaching Out, Doubleday. 1975, pp. 30–31)
This is the gift of Pentecost. It is the gift of the Spirit that allows us to see Christ in one another: to feel compassion for those who go to bed hungry, for the children around the world who will die before their third birthday, for those who whose lives are broken by anger and hate, or even worse, indifference. It in by our witness to the Spirit that never lets us go, that we ourselves reflect the face of God to a world separated one from another. Like the disciples, we are called to bear witness to the saving power of Jesus Christ, the best way to start is to listen to the Spirit within us, that others, whoever they may be, by the power of the Spirit, see in us the face of God.