Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Pentecost

May 20, 2018

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2.1-21

+ My guess is you you’re probably sick of me mentioning my small amount of Jewish Ancestry. As some of you know, I took my DNA test last November and found out that I am partly Jewish. Which, for me, was incredible and wonderful!  And made so much sense to who I am.

But since then, I’ve really run with it.  And I’ve really embraced it.  And I have to say that my own faith, my own perception of Christianity has changed a bit as a result of this discovery. Seeing scripture, theology,  even these feasts of the Church through a Jewish lens is actually amazing! And I have been enjoying it greatly. It’s sort of like it’s all brand new to me!

Let’s take today, for example.  Yes, we are of course celebrating Pentecost today.  It’s a very important day in the life of the Church. Today is essentially the “birthday” of the Church.

But, in Judaism, the feast of Shavuot is being celebrated this weekend.  Shavuot is a wonderful and important Jewish feast. It is now 50 days since Passover.

The word Shavuot is Hebrew for “weeks.” The belief is that, after fifty days of traveling after leaving Egypt, the nation of Israel now has finally arrived at Mount Sinai. And on Shavuot, the Torah, the “Law,” the 10 Commandments were delivered to them by Moses.

So, in a very real sense, this is an important day not just for Judaism, but for us as well.  The Torah, the 10 Commandments, are important to us too.  

Our feast of Pentecost is very similar in many ways.   It now 50 days after Easter.  The word “Pentecost” refers to the Greek word for 50.  And it’s connection with Shavuot is pretty clear.

Shavuot is this  feast on which the early Jews offered to God the first fruits of their harvests. Now that is particularly meaningful to us Christians and what we celebrate on this day of Pentecost.  It is meaningful that the Holy Spirit came among us on this feast in which the first fruits were offered to God.  After all, those first Christiana who gathered in that upper room in our reading this morning from Acts, were truly the first fruits of the Church.  And let’s not forget that those first Christians were also Jews, gathering to celebrate the festival of Shavuot.  God chose to send the Spirit on those first followers of Jesus on just the right day!

Still, like nuclear power or electricity, God’s Spirit is sometimes a hard thing for us to grasp and understand.   The Spirit can be elusive and strange and sometimes we might have a hard time wrapping our minds around the Spirit.

But it is clear from the words of Jesus before he ascends back into heaven what the role of the Spirit is for us:

 "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But 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."

Although Jesus’s prophecy from God might no longer be among  as it was when Jesus himself was with us physically, the prophecy does remains with us in the sending of God’s spirit.  Jesus will leave—we will not be able to touch him and feel him and listen to his human voice again, on this side of the veil.  But God is leaving something amazing in Jesus’ place. Jesus is gone from us physically, but in the Spirit Jesus is still with us.

In a sense what happens with the Descent of God’s Spirit upon us is the fact that we now have the potential to be prophets ourselves.  The same Spirit which spoke to Ezekiel in our reading this morning, which spoke to Isaiah, which spoke to Jeremiah, which spoke to Moses, which spoke through Jesus, also can now speak to us and be revealed to us just as it spoke and was revealed to those prophets from the Hebrew Bible and through Jesus.  That is who the Spirit is in our midst.

The Spirit we celebrate today—and hopefully every day—and in our lives is truly the spirit of the God that came to us and continues to be with us.  It is through this Spirit that we come to know God in ways we might never have before.  

God’s Spirit comes to us wherever we may be in our lives—in any situation or frustration.  God’s Spirit is with us, as Jesus promised, always.

Always.

For those of us who want to grasp these experiences—who want to have proof of them—the Spirit doesn’t fit well into the plan.

We can’t grasp the Spirit.

We can’t make the Spirit do what we want it to do.

In that way, the Spirit truly is like the Wind that came rushing upon those first disciples.

So, how do we know how the Spirit is working in our lives?  Well, as Jesus said, we know the tree by its fruit.  In our case, we know the Spirit best through the fruits God’s Spirit gives us.

Remember what the feast of Pentecost originally was? It was the Jewish feast on which the first fruits were offered to God.

In a sense, what happens on our Pentecost, is God returning those fruits back to us.  On the feast of Pentecost, we celebrate the fruits the Spirit of God gives to us and we can be thankful for them, and, most importantly, share them in turn with those around us.  The Spirit comes to us and manifests itself to us in the fruits given to us by the Spirit.

We often hear about Pentecostals—those Christians who have been born (or baptized) in the Spirit.  They are the ones who speak in tongues and prophesy and have words of knowledge or raise their hands in joyful praise—all those things we good Episcopalians find a bit disconcerting.  These Pentecostals—as strange as we might find these practices—really do have a lot to teach the rest of us Christians about the workings of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

I remember the first time I ever attended a Pentecostal church.  Rather than being attracted to that way of worship, I was actually turned off. Partly my reason for doing so, is that by that time in my life I had, in fact experienced the Spirit very profoundly in my life.  

For me, the Spirit of God came to me not in a noisy, raucous way, but rather in a quiet, though just as intense, way.  The Sprit of God as I have experienced it has never been a “raining down” so to speak, but rather a “welling up from within.”

The fruits of the Spirit for me have been things such as an overwhelming joy in my life.  I have known the Spirit to draw close when I feel a true humbleness come to me.  When the Spirit is near, I feel clear-headed and, to put it simply, happy.  Or, in the midst of what seems like an unbreakable dark grief, there is suddenly a real and potent sense of hope and light—that is the Spirit at work.

When the future seems bleak and ugly, the Spirit can come in and make everything worth living again. We experience God’s Spirit whenever we feel joy or hope.

As Jesus says in today’s Gospel, the Spirit of God is a Spirit of Truth. We experience God’s Spirit when we strive for truth in this world, when truth comes to us.

In turn, we are far from God’s Spirit when we let bitterness and anger and frustration lead the way. We frustrate God’s Spirit when we grumble and mumble about each other and hinder the ministries of others in our church, when we let our own agendas win out over those who are trying also to do something to increase God’s Kingdom in our midst.  We deny the Spirit when we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

No doubt everyone here this morning has felt God’s Spirit in some way, although we might not have readily recognized that experience as God’s Spirit.  But our job, as Christians, is to allow those fruits of the Spirit to flourish and grow. For us, we let the Spirit of God flourish when we continue to strive for truth and justice, when stand up against the dark forces of this world. The Spirit of God compels again and again to stand up and to be defiant against the dark forces of this world!

On the feast of Shavuot, the scripture we heard from Ezekiel today is read. Again, remember, those first followers of Jesus on that first day of Pentecost would have heard this scripture that same day as well.  It is an amazing scripture and an amazing vision. In it, God’s Spirit revives the bones in the valley.  What appears to be dead and lifeless is given life by God’s life-giving Spirit.   And that reading ends with these very powerful words that speak so clearly not only to the Jewish people, but to us as well. Ezekiel says,

Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.

God’s spirit is placed within us so that the graves of our lives may be opened, and we can stand in that place to which God has lead us.  That dynamic and life-giving presence of the Spirit of God speaks loudly to us.

Certainly we have seen God’s Spirit at work here in our congregation as we celebrate a bountiful harvest—the growth and vitality here. We see the Holy Spirit at work in the ministries we do, in the love we share with others, with the truth we proclaim as Christians, even in the face of opposition. We experience this Spirit of truth when we stand up against injustice, wherever it may be.

This is how God’s Spirit comes to us.  The Spirit does not always tear open the ceiling and force its way into our lives.  The Spirit rather comes to us just when we need the Spirit to come to us.  Though, often the Spirit comes to us as fire—an all-consuming fire that burns way all anger and hatred and fear and pettiness and nagging and all the other negative, dead chaff we carry within us.

So, this week, in the glow of the Pentecost light, in the Shavuot glow with the Law written deep in our hearts, let us look for the gifts of the Spirit in our lives and in those around us.  Let us open ourselves to God’s Spirit and let it flow through us like a caressing wind and burn through us like a purifying fire.  And let us remember the true message of the Spirit to all of us.

Whenever it seems like God is distant or nonexistent, that is when God might possibly be closest of all, dwelling within us, being breathed unto us as with those first disciples.  On these feasts of Shavuot and Pentecost—these feasts of the fruits of God—these feasts of the fire of God—let us give thanks for this God who never leaves us, who never stops loving us, but who comes to us again and again in mercy and in truth. Amen.




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