May 24, 2012

Wind, Fire, Spirit and Mission

El Greco

Acts 2: 1-11
1 Cor 12: 3b-7, 12-13
Jn 20: 19-23
The 16th Century Spanish explorer, Juan Ponce de Leon came in search of the fabled “Fountain of Youth” in what is now Florida. The legend stated that anyone who would drink of this miraculous water would find their youth again and be healed of any infirmities.  It would be a kind of second chance on life.  If there was such miraculous water anywhere there is no doubt that any one of us would be first in line. 
Today’s Feast of Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles huddled in fear and waiting in the upper room, is a reminder of a new beginning. This birth day of the Church opens a new direction and a new life. It makes all things fresh in a kind of second creation. Yet, it strikes me how different the coming of the Holy Spirit into the world was from the first coming of Jesus to this earth.
Think of the Christmas story.  The annunciation of the angel Gabriel to Mary was a very private moment that only Mary experienced. We think of a gentle mother an obedient husband of humble shepherds, singing angels, inquisitive magi. Mary and Joseph rest in a peaceful scene.  Jesus is born, he silently slips in to this world and it all seems to happen quite uneventfully as the rest of the world goes on about its business.
For the vast majority of Jesus’ life among us, he remained silent. We have no credible records of Jesus hidden life in Nazareth other than the story of his encounter with teachers in the Temple at the age of twelve. In just three short years, at the most, everything took place in his preaching and miraculous events, culminating in the cross and resurrection. But, that began what continues now to this day and beyond us.  
The coming of the Holy Spirit as we hear in today’s feast is very different. No silence and peace here!   The risen Lord ascends with a promise. Wind, fire, tongues, preaching and crowds gathered.  This divine show of force and presence - a theophany - brings not destruction and fear but peace and unity. The many languages are heard in one united message. We sing gentle carols at Christmas time.  Today we should be shooting off canons, blowing trumpets, and tolling huge bells.  In the Gospel (Jn 20: 19-23) Jesus clearly says to his disciples: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 
In the Gospel we hear of another accounting where the Spirit was given.  There is another "wind" - the breath of Jesus upon his Apostles. He returns to them after the resurrection in the midst of their fear and offers them his “Peace” his “Shalom.”  It is a sort of healing of wounds and he sends them on mission to heal the wounds caused by disorder and pride.  With the Spirit’s power, they will bring that same shalom and promise of forgiveness which is the only true path to peace within a person and in the relations between peoples. No more sitting around for now it is time to move forward and carry on what Christ began.  
What, then, is the ultimate work of the Spirit?  We like the flashy show, the loud sounds, the miracles and the speaking in tongues.  But, as dramatic as that grand entrance of the Spirit was at that first Pentecost, it lasted but a short time; a brief jump-start with power like the flash of lighting and roll of thunder we experience in a brief but powerful storm.  And that is good for could you imagine the assault on our senses.  We'd be deaf with the constant barrage of sound or exhausted through emotional overload.
Although the Spirit continued to show its presence among the early Christians that show of power was not the norm. We know that because it always seemed to surprise those who experienced it such as Peter or Paul in their preaching ministry.
Most of the time the Spirit’s presence was made known as we experience the Spirit today – in word and sacrament, in lives changed and sins forgiven, in the discernment of his will and in the struggle to sift through the many challenges the Church faced as it found itself in the midst of a culture that was often suspicious, indifferent, or outright hostile.  The many efforts to maintain the unity of believers in the midst of diversity of languages and cultures has been the lived experience of the Christian community.   
The Spirit’s mission then, and that of the Church, is to bring order out of chaos. We offer a kind of fountain of youth to all those who are willing to drink from the cleansing of baptism and to be open to the Spirit’s power to heal and unify.
Today’s challenges to unity and truth are a continuation of the story of the Church. For us who follow the Lord in his Church, we must never forget the transforming power of Jesus’ presence in our gathering of word and sacrament.  Here God comes among us not with wind and fire but in the silent yet mysterious presence hidden in bread and wine.
Yet, this food is of divine not human origin and because of that we can be sure of its transformative power as we embrace it in faith. But, the challenges remain and we continue to find ourselves pulled between the spirit of the world and that of God.
I think more and more this is truly a time to witness; a time to evangelize and stand up to be counted. The Spirit does not call us to sit silently but to pass on the Gospel message of reconciliation and peace. Be wind and fire today.
O God, who by the mystery of today’s great feast
sanctify your whole Church in every people and nation,
pour out, we pray, the gifts of the Holy Spirit
across the face of the earth
and, with divine grace that was at work
when the Gospel was first proclaimed,
fill now once more the hearts of believers.
(Collect of Pentecost)