Acts 2: 1-21; Ps 104; Ro 8: 22-27; JN 15: 26-27, 16: 4b-15
Come Holy Spir’t, our souls inspire, and lighten with celestial fire. Thou the anointing Spir’t art, who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart. AMEN.
Spirit and fire, diving dove and drifting dove, a jumble of voices reuniting the Tower of Babel’s alienation of languages, tribes, and people, and yet “if we hope for what we do not see we wait for it with patience.” The bold and showy scale of wind and fire, the sudden ability to understand everyone, combine to be far from the finger-crossed hope Paul made to those gathered in Rome. What do we make of Pentecost?
We name it the birthday of the Church because it takes the narrative of Jesus’ birth, life, and death and flings his Spirit from God into all humanity from his time into all forever. He promises us an Advocate, one to speak for each of us. While Latin/Romance languages make a modern form of this word into their word for lawyer/attorney, an advocate vocares ad, speaks for someone. Oddly we don’t think of the beginning of Advent as the birthday of the Church, though we name it the beginning of the Church year. Oddly we don’t find Easter the birth of the church with the Savior’s Resurrection. These are clearly part of the biographical view of the Church, and are too narrow, too time specific, and too much part of a complete cycle without an obvious connecting point to the present and future. The Spirit connects with Jesus, since he predicts and promises an Advocate, Comforter, and yet it enlivens all time from the time of Jesus to all time to come.
In addition to these complexities of understanding Pentecost, it’s hard to track the work of the Spirit, to prove its presence. This Sunday presents additional complexities, somehow more present this year than in some years; it’s Memorial Day weekend. We honor those who’ve died in service in all America forces. We must honor them, because we are taught “greater love hath no one than that person would lay down life for friends.” Sometimes it seems that we don’t think that’s why they died, that we may think their deaths were wrong, stupid, ineffective, or unjust towards those they fought—that may be all true, but chances are those who died were following orders, trying to be all they could be, do their best, and were willing to die for what they cared about, were told to care for, but they died in war. Surely there’s a better way to settle differences. Surely since Jesus, with our commitment and belief that God is love and those who worship God in love must worship God in Spirit and in truth—and it says nothing about guns or weapons of might.
Have you walked across the Common? Have you seen the 33,000 American flags, which volunteers supporting the Massachusetts Military Heroes Fund, put up on the grassy hill? They represent the soldiers from Massachusetts, only Massachusetts, who’ve died in wars since the Civil War. In like fashion, 222,000 flags have been put up in Arlington National Cemetery, all to be taken down Tuesday. At Fenway Park, at every game, an active duty soldier is introduced to the crowd’s applause. These visible signs of support of the military, or at least of its soldiers, is comparatively new here. There were years from the 60’s to quite recently when such respect wouldn’t have been shown widely here, let alone felt.
It’s a similar kind of crashing signs and feelings. It’s hard to put these opposing elements together, because war is a worse thing. We know that there must be a better way to resolve disputes, to support the good, the just, and true, and yet we honor the participants and victims of war, without much nod to peace, beyond simple lip service.
When I’ve seen the field of flags, up close I’m struck with the brightness of the red, white, and blue. They wave almost gaily in a patriotic flourish. From even a slight distance, it looks like a sea of lavender, almost like an Impressionist garden of lavender flowers, a mix of irises, (remember: called “flags” in England.) They’re lovely, but sad. They have a wistful look of sadness, mourning, and grieving. A breeze or slight whiff of thought about the young men and women which the cheery flags represent, turn my response to one of sadness, of discomfort with glorifying the memory of wars, even wanting to honor the memory of those soldiers, of those people.
Dr. Paul Dudley White, well-known cardiologist, here, used to talk about this dichotomy. He recognized that in the simplest, medical way, death as a soldier was bad for a healthy heart. He observed, spoke about, and then campaigned for people to study Peace. The song of the time was “I ain’t gonna study war no more,” so he spoke repeatedly of studying peace. He observed that there were words, strategies, and departments for studying war, but not peace. He coined the word irenology for studying peace, and computers observe that it’s still not a recognized word. What set a quiet bike-riding advocate doctor to working explicitly and tirelessly not only against war, but for peace?
My guess is that in some form the Spirit set him off to calculating a new form of 1+1. As a doctor he suddenly recognized that war was bad for health and peace was good for it. Of course, that’s obvious but those are not the terms of thought for doctors. That’s considering large policy thoughts and concepts as a primary immediate influence on a personal scale, and even on patients. How does one go from taking care of sick patients to taking on government structures? He felt that advocating for peace was the best medicine for his patients; he was gonna study peace a whole lot more. What got into him? As Martin Luther King’s shift from Civil Rights to anti-war works demonstrated a similar change of heart, or possibly encounter with the Spirit, that Spirit of “hoping for what we do not see”
“When the Spirit of truth comes, it will guide you into all the truth. That Spirit will glorify Jesus, because it will take what is Jesus’ and declare it to you.” Jesus taught that God is love, and he repeated that often, but then he died and left. The disciples, the crowd, the people hearing about Jesus were discouraged. They kept telling the stories about Jesus. They kept teaching his teachings, and telling his parables; they kept repeating what they’d heard. I’d guess they knew from studying and knowing the Prophets, that there was a finite time when the reality of the person who’d told the stories would fade, and the writings and stories become history and saying, without life, without living effect. Does George Washington, or even Abraham Lincoln, or JFK, urge us into patriotic action, into civil rights action, into action at all? Do their words, examples, commitments and convictions elicit anything in most of us? Maybe we learn about them. Maybe we even read some of what they wrote. Maybe we get really interested in their life and times, but I would hazard a guess that as few of us claim to be Washingtonians or Lincolnians, as define ourselves as Isaiahans or even Paulines.
Something different happened to these disciples, something filled them with continuing energy to do more than retell what they’d heard from Jesus. Something filled them with continuing, new energy, to live the life Jesus advocated. Something still fills us with that energy and passion to do unto the least of these, Jesus’ brothers and sisters. Something fills us with the reality that Jesus lives when we eat simple biscuit bread and diluted port, that Jesus lives and lives in us.
How could what people had heard from Jesus and inspired them, then and there, transform what they were doing then into what we do in similar ways now. How do we believe in the living reality of Jesus? How could people be heartened when their core, their Lord, their Savior disappeared from them? How could they keep the thread of his life and teachings? Somehow. My guess was that it wasn’t a pigeon’s landing on anyone’s head or altar. My guess was it wasn’t because a fire burned through their camp. My guess is they stopped being discouraged or dispirited. Something, somehow transformed those people, those individuals into feeling, knowing, believing that Jesus lived in them. Jesus was alive to them and with them, and that as they experienced after the crucifixion, “in the breaking of the bread, they knew it was the Lord.” What they were doing daily, with each other, with new people, with anyone, was introducing people to someone they knew was alive in them and they in him. They tried to describe what happened to them so that they knew, they felt, they believed, they absolutely knew that there was a force which had come to them, enflamed their hearts and minds, some force, or living reality, some Spirit. They described it in picture words, a bird they knew that dropped down suddenly and on target, fire that warmed and caught all around them, and the whoosh of wind—all demonstrating inspiration and energy: a Spirit, but so conveying God’s love and Jesus’ presence, that it must have been, be a Holy Spirit. We see it still; we can describe its presence; we can only name it the enlivening reality of the Holy Spirit. Good News.
© Katharine C. Black 27 May 2012