The Day of Pentecost, Year A
“When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs– in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
`In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darknessActs 2:1-21
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ “
The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord…”, a hymn so infectious that by merely reading the first phrase, it will not leave your mind for at least the rest of the day. I’ve had a difficult relationship with this hymn over the past few years. In my last year of seminary, I heard it on no fewer than twelve occasions in church (I started counting after the 4th). Admittedly this was partially my fault, at the time I went between many different church communities who did not coordinate their service music on behalf of itinerant graduate students, and naturally, it was chosen for every ordination service that I attended (my own included). Those who have endured the suffering that is choosing and/or singing music with me know that I adore late-19th century romantic hymns; especially the many hymns that the various Wesleys had a hand in. They are predictable, repetitive, long, overplayed, outdated, and hokey to some, yet they are iconic, infectious, and inexplicably comforting. Perhaps it’s nostalgia, perhaps it’s our strange sense of tradition (how can you not have an ordination service without The Church’s One Foundation!?), or perhaps it is the fun of winking/rolling our eyes when the familiar prelude starts, pretending to know better than to love such outdated things, yet only somewhat secretly loving singing it for the 100th time as much as hearing it for the first. The Church’s One Foundation, like so many others in our hymnal, carry so much more in their music than the tune or the lyrics.
Though I thought I would never tire of it, after that last year in seminary, my love for The Church’s One Foundation began to fade. It was a slow, quiet, change. I hardly noticed at first. It became a chore. Somehow, the charm had left and it became overly-bombastic “travel music” to cover the procession. It seemed out of touch with the world, too sure of itself, too optimistic, from a time when the Church had too much confidence and not enough compassion. I had heard it so many times, without even realizing it, I had stopped listening to it.
On Pentecost we mark the beginning of the Church, the gift of the Holy Spirit coming down to all people, and the mission to spread the word of Christ’s redeeming work to all the corners of the earth. Normally the Church is awash with splendid red, signifying the fire of the Holy Spirit and the blood of the Martyrs. Sometimes there are kites, sometimes there are cakes, often there are even a few more people in the pews, and of course, the hymns are triumphant, the choir and congregation make a valiant effort to match the volume of the organ. In a world so often marred in practicality and subtlety, the birthday celebration at Pentecost is a whirlwind of startling joy; outrageous in optimism and unashamed in identity. This is the Church!
Yet on this day of Pentecost, this day of celebration, like the many other celebrations we have had since were sent into exile, is tinged with sadness. We make do, putting on our Sunday best, fiddling with cameras, speakers, and microphones so we may hear and be heard. We are even so blessed as to hear the organ and see the altar. We will survive, this too shall pass. But this day, the day we are given to celebrate the Church, that body that remains together regardless of space or time through the Spirit, today the distance hurts even more.
“…yet saints their watch are keeping,
their cry goes up, ‘How long?’
and soon the night of weeping
shall be the morn of song.”
This Pentecost, when we are flung far a-field, quietly exiled to homes, farms, cabins, apartments, how can we be the Church? How can we gather in Christ’s name and share the Gospel over all the earth while we remain trapped in exile?
This is the very question that the Apostles wrestled with as fledgling Christian communities were cast out of their synagogue communities. The Church was exiled into attics, gardens, and upper rooms behind locked doors. It was in this moment of crisis that the full meaning of Pentecost became clear.
The Spirit of God does not reside in the Temple, but the faithful. The coming of the Spirit made God a new Temple: His people. This Temple, a holy people called by the Spirit into covenant with God’s saving work, this is the Church. But the Church’s foundation is not in stone, wood, mud, or mortar, nor in far-off sacred cities, magnificent basilicas, or spires reaching for heaven. Neither is it in pew, hymnal, prayer book, candle, vestment, song, altar, nor inside a red door. The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ.
As it is founded in Christ it has been freed from the fears and limitations of this world: from distance, despair, and death. The Spirit of God cannot be contained in locked rooms or quarantined from the faithful. The Spirit calls us, the Church, to celebrate the coming of the Kingdom in all places, to pray together even while we are physically apart, to share the Gospel over all the earth by loving God and Neighbor, even if loving our neighbor comes at the cost of our own joy in being near them.
We are the Church. As we are founded in Jesus Christ, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation,” will be able to separate us from Christ and each other. On this day of Pentecost, and every day, we are the Church by embodying God’s Love. Even when we are scattered about like the sower’s seeds, we are the Church when we show God’s love in all places: caring for ourselves, families, friends, and neighbors, seeking the good in all things, striving for justice and righteousness, and even in our hardest trails and tribulations, finding the hope to sing:
1 The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord; she is his new creation by water and the word: from heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride; with his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.
2 Elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth, her charter of salvation, one Lord, one faith, one birth; one holy Name she blesses, partakes one holy food, and to one hope she presses, with every grace endued.
3 Though with a scornful wonder men see her sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed; yet saints their watch are keeping, their cry goes up, “How long?” and soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.
4 Mid toil and tribulation, and tumult of her war she waits the consummation of peace for evermore; till with the vision glorious her longing eyes are blessed, and the great Church victorious shall be the Church at rest.
5 Yet she on earth hath union with God, the Three in One, and mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won. O happy ones and holy! Lord, give us grace that we like them, the meek and lowly, on high may dwell with thee.