On the Sunday of Pentecost
by Maria Gwyn McDowell
Sermon Preached by Maria McDowell on Sunday, May 30, 2004
Today, we celebrate the fulfillment of the promises of God. Today, we celebrate the revelation of the Trinity, the coming of the Holy Spirit, the day tradition views as the beginning of the Church. Today is Pentecost, a day when the promise of the book of Joel is fulfilled:
I will pour out my spirit in all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
In those days, I will poor out my spirit.
(Joel 2. 28-32)
Today is a day of salvation. For those listening to the preaching of the followers of Jesus, preaching heard in the language of every nation present, it was a day of salvation. According to Acts, 3000 people were baptized on that day. 3000 Jews who had come in pilgrimage to Jerusalem were baptized into Christ; 3000 people put on Christ.
This day of salvation is today. Today we celebrate, today the promise of God is fulfilled. In our liturgy, we do not reenact the stories we hear. On Palm Sunday, we do not remember that Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem on a donkey; we are the people of Jerusalem cheering the long-awaited Messiah. On Holy Thursday, we sit with Jesus as he breaks bread and washes all of our feet. We pray with Jesus in the garden, we fall asleep with the disciples. We flee in fear at arrest and trial. We weep at the crucifixion, we fearfully go with the women to the tomb of Jesus expecting death, and finding life. And today, we receive the Holy Spirit.
We have already heard the choir sing a verse from Galatians, last heard at Pascha: “As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3.27). Putting on Christ is not like getting up in the morning and slipping into a comfortable pair of jeans, which we can later remove. When we put on Christ, every part of us is permeated with Christ, becoming like Christ. Symeon the New Theologian goes so far as to say that each and every one of us who have been baptized into Christ become little christs. Symeon, like Paul, talks about every part of our body being filled with the Spirit, our fingers, our feet, our thighs, our head, our heart, all serving a necessary purpose. We are on the road to becoming people of compassion, mercy, forgiveness and love. People who, like Jesus, feed the hungry, heal the sick, comfort those who grieve, make, and presumably drink, wine with those who celebrate.
And, just like those first followers of Christ who were able to preach the good news in every language necessary, we too preach, teach, minister, and love. Every part of us is filled with the Spirit, every part of us is able to participate in preaching the good news, in acting on the gifts we have. The gift of the Spirit is not only for our own transformation, but, as Alexander Schmemann points out, ‘for the life of the world.’ Jesus declares that anyone who is thirsty, not anyone who is righteous or perfect or someone who has it all together, but anyone who is thirsty should come to Jesus, and out of his or her heart will come rivers of living water (John 7.37-38). We all have gifts from the Holy Spirit, living water which quenches not only our thirst, but the thirst of those around us. The Holy Spirit is working in every person in this room, and each and every one of us has gifts which bring life to all.
The trick of course, is figuring out what those gifts are. I meet very few people who can come up to me with a list of what the Holy Spirit has given them. God doesn’t fill out a chart at our birth which says, baby born, 6 pds 3 oz, brown hair, green eyes, teacher. If that were the case, we would know what to study, what to practice, where to spend our time. None of this wondering what we want to be when we grow up, which of the six things that excites us we should pursue, or perhaps struggling with the fact that nothing interests us. In reality, we grow and we change. Much of our life is spent figuring out what we want to do and just getting by.
Fortunately, our constantly changing life is being shared by the Holy Spirit, the comforter, the spirit of truth, treasury of blessings and giver of life, who comes and lives in us. The Holy Spirit does not force us into the mold of the ‘perfect Christian.’ Rather, as we grow and mature, the Spirit works with who we are, and who we are becoming. The fruit of the spirit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5.22). Any way we are able to give people the living water of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness… is an exercise of the gift of the Spirit.
For some of us, there are particular things we are good at. Some of us are gifted with patience and gentleness towards young children. Some of us love being generous with what we have. Some of us are calm in crisis situations. And there are particular places we can serve as a result: teaching young children, providing for the needs of others, or being the person first called when there is a crisis. Often, our gifts are those things we love. The same word which is translated as “spirit” is also ‘breath,’ sometimes it means that ‘catching of breath’ which happens when you are excited. What are those things which excite you, which you love, which catch your breath? How can the things you love to do be used in a way which gives life and joy and peace to others, whether it is family, friends at school, the homeless person on the street or the drug addict in the shelter?
Asking these questions is our responsibility as individuals who are active participants in becoming like Christ. Yet we don’t do this alone. We don’t just think quietly to ourselves, “what do I like, what can I do, what am I good at?” We do this together, as a community. Sometimes, we have no idea what we are good until someone else says, “wow, you really do that well.” At other times, we think we are good at something, and our friends, hopefully gently, point out to us that we really aren’t that good at it, and maybe we need to stop. As a community, part of why we gather together is to encourage one another towards Christ, to help one another put on Christ. As a community we recognize the Spirit in one another, recognize the gifts and inclinations God has given to our children, to our friends and loved ones, and find ways to encourage our ability to be kind, generous, patient and loving.
And a part of what we do as a community is we repent. This feature of Pentecost seems a bit odd at first. The birthday of the Church, the full revelation of the Trinity, the gifting of the followers of Christ with the long-promised Holy Spirit, all celebrated today. And at the close of this service, we will kneel in repentance for the first time since Pascha. The good news preached by Peter is followed by the command, “repent and be baptized…so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2.38). God pours out the Holy Spirit on us, at baptism we begin to put on Christ, to grow into Christ, something we will continue to do for the rest our lives.
But the reality is this: we are often afraid of the Holy Spirit. It is not easy to be patient or generous, and forgiveness and love are often difficult and painful. We are disappointed, broken-hearted, confused, angry, sad…and all of these things cause us to refuse the invitation offered by God. The gift of the Holy Spirit is in part an invitation to a new life, a life free from sin, free from the fear and anxiety which make us do silly, and sometimes very stupid or mean things. We can refuse this invitation. Or, together we can repent, we can turn around, turning towards the living water we have been offered, turning towards God. Our baptism is a gift and an invitation, to which we must respond over and over again.
So, inasmuch as we are able, in every way we know how, with every gift we have, turning away from sin and fear, let us respond to that invitation and put on Christ.