Archives for May 2013

All of us part Pharisee and part sinful woman, 4 Pentecost, Proper 6 (C) – 2013

June 16, 2013

1 Kings 21:1-10 (11-14), 15-21a and Psalm 5:1-8 (or 2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15 and Psalm 32); Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3

Jesus had a marvelous way of confronting people who held worldly beliefs, by turning their views upside down, shaking them out, so his listeners could understand the deeper realities of God. He was a genius at bringing his message down to a common-sense level – often by telling stories, sharply driving home a point leading to the unmistakable values of God.

In today’s gospel account, we see an excellent example of this aspect of his ministry. A social event, at which Jesus was invited as the rabbi, allowed him to provide a powerful lesson. He turned around the circumstances of the moment by telling a story as an example. Then he issued a judgment that brought the meaning of the story back to present reality and further challenged conventional wisdom that flew in the face of Godly truth.

It is Luke’s unique version of a famous, popular story – the sinful woman with the alabaster jar who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears.

Perhaps a retelling of this first-century illustration in a modern setting, bringing the message a little closer to home, will make it as clear to us as it was to the original followers of Jesus.

Imagine your congregation holding a major celebration, perhaps a stewardship banquet, with Jesus as the main speaker. He sits at the center of the head table with the priest and wardens surrounding him. Into the midst of the parish hall, adorned with the best accouterments the church has, enters a scraggly looking woman. Everyone recognizes her as a notorious sinner who has made no secret of her indiscretions. She is clearly very upset, and to the horror of the church members, walks toward the head table, slowly and with her head bowed low, almost crawling, until she reaches Jesus.

Obviously, she is ruining everything – all the best-laid plans – and she destroys the joy of the moment. Crying at Jesus’ feet, she offers to minister to him in her humble way. To make matters worse, Jesus does not turn her away, but allows her to continue interrupting the proceedings.

Angry and embarrassed, the priest tries to save face by telling the congregation that they made a mistake in asking Jesus to join them, because his unwillingness to reject the woman makes it clear that he is a fraud.

Now Jesus turns the tables on the priest and wardens and all who think like them. He asks, “There were two men, financially broke. One was three months behind on his mortgage, but the other faced immediate foreclosure. When the bank forgave both debts, which one appreciated it the most?” The priest replied, “I guess the one about to be foreclosed on.”

Then Jesus turned to the woman, and looking at her lovingly, said to the priest, “I am sure you and your congregation agree. So, look again at this woman and compare her actions to yours. You have been polite to me, but you haven’t really rejoiced overwhelmingly that I have come to be with you. You seem to want only to bask in the honor of my presence. You want me to say what you expect to hear. Before dinner, you sang ‘Amazing grace,’ but none of you looked particularly amazed. You think I have threatened the security of your community by accepting someone you consider an outcast.”

In contrast, he lauded the woman. “What love she has! You have done nothing of note for me, but she came with her heart in her hand and offered me all she had. She humbled herself and wept because of her sin. That is why her sins are forgiven.” To her he said, “Your faith has saved you. Go in Peace.”

In his teaching moment, Jesus used the classic method of contrasting two behaviors in order for his audience to understand the competing value of the one against the other, and thereby helped them discover the truth of God. He compared the actions of the Pharisee with those of the sinful woman.

The woman was a known sinner, not an insider, not a member of the synagogue. She was not among those whom any generation would likely consider as doing God’s will.

The Pharisee stood among those who were traditionally good and generally kind. By reputation, they clearly committed themselves to God as they understood him. The Pharisee was a leader among his community. However, he lacked genuine humility, considering himself a superior person – a wonderful example of a God-fearing believer. He seemed unaware of his own failing, his own sin, his own need for anything beyond himself.

The woman, due to the keen awareness of her sin, felt a clear sense of her failings. She did not consider herself better than others, and could only turn to Jesus, weeping, in an act of kindness and begging for mercy.

The Pharisee expressed himself mostly in terms of judgment. He set himself apart from the woman, self-righteously considering himself better than the outcast who disturbed his great moment. He expected Jesus to express the same opinion. He also thought he had all the answers, and so had no reason to be open minded. Being part of the “in group,” who were in the right, he didn’t need to learn anything more about life, because he thought God was perfectly satisfied with who and what he was.

The woman, in contrast, came to Jesus with a deep sense of humility. She was not concerned about how others acted, only about her need to change and her need for forgiveness. She had almost no resources and knew she didn’t have all the answers – maybe no answers at all, except to rely on Jesus.

The Pharisee expressed only insensitivity and lack of awareness about the least of society and his excluding approach to woman contrasts with the inclusive, loving, accepting actions of Jesus.

Obviously the Pharisee’s lack of awareness, exclusivity, self-righteousness and judgment do not measure up against the simple actions of the humble woman who was aware of her sin, knew her need for God, and was ready to serve others. The characters are there for us to choose from, and the choice is easy.

But perhaps it isn’t that simple.

Maybe the more important takeaway from this teaching comes from realizing that we human beings tend to share the characteristics of both the Pharisee and the woman. Most of us find ourselves able to identify with both characters, and we can learn from both ends of Jesus’ story and his assertion.

So, imagine the story further. Imagine seeing the woman and the Pharisee (or the priest in the modern version) meeting on the street the day after the big event. Imagine her, filled with a refreshing awareness of God’s forgiving love, now able to look at herself with confidence. She knows that she has power to change her way of living, put her sin behind her, and stand with the Pharisee as an equal in God’s view.

Imagine further, the Pharisee after a hard night of soul-searching, having seen the light Jesus cast over the shadowy nature of his beliefs. Imagine him now able to see his own sin and greet the woman no longer as an outcast but as a sister in Christ.

Wherever we find ourselves today, Jesus’ teaching through this gospel story helps us along the journey of faith – helps us know that God loves us as we are, with freely offered grace, and  enables us to renew ourselves and better take part in today’s version of the Good News of God in Christ.

 

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of “John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

A people without boundaries, 3 Pentecost, Proper 5 (C) – 2013

June 9, 2013

1 Kings 17:8-16 (17-24); Psalm 146; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17

A widow is walking a dusty road. The sun is in the sky, making shadows on the mud-brick walls and simple dusty streets of Nain. The town sits on the edge of a wide and beautiful valley, but the widow doesn’t notice, because today her life has ended. She has lost her last connection to society, she is about to become a non-person.

She walks behind her dead son. He is wrapped in cloth bands and carried on a simple litter. He died that very day and had to be buried before sundown. The shock is almost too much to bear. She remembers walking this path before, following another man wrapped in cloth bands and on a litter. She remembers following her dead husband to his burial. The pain was great then, but then she could lean on her son, then she only grieved the loss of her husband. Now she can reasonably fear losing her very self as well.

The crowd who follows her knows her well; Nain is not a large town. No doubt they are compassionate. No doubt they are sad. Perhaps some were friends with her son. Perhaps some are other widows or friends. They may be very concerned for her, but a large part of the concern is for her loss of social identity, her loss of connection and power in her small part of the world.

To be a widow at the time of Christ was to have no power, no social standing. It was a world of, and for, and run by men. Women could only be represented legally by men. Women could only be defended socially by men. If her property were attacked – by thieves or greedy landowners – a woman would have little defense on her own, only her male kin could help her. The law did give her some protections. The scriptures they read were clear that widows were to receive special care and attention and were not to be exploited. But religious laws were no guarantee of a woman’s safety in a man’s world. The widow at Nain is in real social danger – she no longer has a husband, she no longer has a son. If she had moved from her kin, she is now socially alone. Each step she takes is heavy – heavy with grief, heavy with fear; each is a step into an unknown future.

Our gospel passage today can seem like a passage about a dead man coming to life. That is certainly the most dramatic part of the story. In the middle of a funeral procession a dead man sits up – no doubt shocking the dickens out of the entire procession – and begins to speak. The crowd is filled with fear, which seems pretty reasonable, anyone would experience more than a small amount of shock and awe at the sight of a dead man sitting up on his funeral bier and talking. It is hard to ignore the resurrection at the center of this tale. It is a vision of the glory of God. It is a vision of God’s triumph over death.

But the glory of God is bigger than just this resurrection. As hard as it might seem to imagine, the glory of God that was revealed that day at Nain was more than bringing a dead man to life. The widow is also brought back from death to life. The story begins with the widow. Jesus has compassion on the widow, tells her not to weep. After the man comes back to life, he gives him back to his mother. By doing so, he brings her back to life. Jesus heals more than a dead man, he heals a woman broken by a society that could not see her as fully human without a man.

The crowd may have been more afraid of this than anything else. The social order had been altered. A woman who didn’t count suddenly counted again. This may have been as awesome, as fearsome, as the resurrection itself.

The crowd would immediately have known what happened. They knew they were in the presence of a prophet because they had read their scripture. They knew God cared for widows, God insisted on the care of widows. They knew that God sent prophets like Elijah to heal widows, they remembered the widow at Zarepath who was near death and who was brought back to life by God’s gift of a jar of meal and a jug of oil that never ran out. Caring for the ones that society wants to leave behind is what God does. Having no edges, no boundaries to the scope of care, is God. God’s very being has no limits to love.

We still live in a world of social divisions. Our society, our now-global society, is full of divisions. Indeed, it feels like we have found many more ways to divide ourselves than could have been imagined by the people of Nain. We can be divided by religion, by ethnicity, by nation, by age, by the kind of music we like, by wealth and poverty. Sadly, we can still be divided by gender.

But amid all this division, God gives us life. God is the source of all being. And God doesn’t just give us biological life, God gives us a full life, a life where our divisions are healed. That is the action that Jesus undertook at Nain – he restored biological life so that a full life could be had by all. That is what Jesus showed the people of Nain, that life means more than simply existing, it means living fully within the web of life. It means being loved by all and loving all.

This is the reign of God. It is a reign of well being, a reign of justice, a reign of abundance, a reign of joyous harmony. It is a reign we recognize when we are fully in God’s presence, and when God’s presence encompasses all of creation. God’s presence has no social boundaries. The crowd at Nain rejoiced because God had looked favorably upon them with a sign of God’s reign.

This is the action of our God. Restoring to the social community, bringing people we push out of society back into love because we need each other.

This is also our action. We too are called to be healers. The mission of the church, our Book of Common Prayer says, “ is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”

We do this by refusing to draw boundaries, by refusing to exclude people from the fullness of life that God promises. We do it when we welcome all people into our churches. We do it when we work to ensure that all are fed, and clothed, and housed, and cared for when sick. We do it when we work to transform unjust social structures. We do it when we fix any system or practice that treats anyone as undeserving of a full life.

We still make people of all races and genders powerless. We still try to make human souls into non-people. Our mission is to be people who draw no distinctions. Our mission is to be a people who recognize the dignity of every human being.

After Jesus left Nain, the people went back to their homes and chores, but things didn’t go back to normal. And thanks be to God for that! Normal doesn’t always mean right. Normal can be unjust. The people of Nain weren’t normal anymore. The people were transformed. They had moved beyond what they thought were limitations. They had seen a new world.

Let us open our eyes to this new world and glorify God. Let us be a people without boundaries.

 

— The Rev. Matt Seddon is vicar of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in West Valley City, Utah – the most diverse city in Utah. He has a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Chicago, and a M.Div. from Church Divinity School of the Pacific, with special training and experience in multicultural ministry, particularly Latino Ministry. He is married with one teenaged daughter, reads too much, and is fond of punk rock from the 1980s.

False gods or the One True God?, 2 Pentecost, Proper 4 (C) – 2013

June 2, 2013

1 Kings 18:20-21,30-39; Psalm 96; Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10

The Bible stories appointed for today have a considerable resonance. That is actually something quite unusual in these days of the Revised Common Lectionary, as the lessons are no longer chosen to relate to each other. The resonance, therefore, is more coincidence than a result of any intentionality.

First, we have the prophet Elijah speaking to the Israelites, a story told to us in the First Book of Kings. There is a kind of contest between Gods at work here, between the one true Lord God and Ba’al. “If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”

Among the ancient Israelites, the cult of Ba’al was the greatest and most enduring threat to the worship of Yahweh alone. And Ba’al was not so much one competing god; it’s a term that can refer to a number of gods, and even to human officials: gods who were patrons of cities, a god of the rain, and even Ba’al Zebub, the “lord of the flies” who will be identified as the “prince of demons” in the New Testament.

Elijah is calling the people back to the worship of the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And it is not a popular move. The people seem to like worshiping both Yahweh and Ba’al; you might call it covering all bets, or playing it safe, or anticipating any contingency.

And Elijah calls on God, who sends down a lightening bolt to consume an offering presented. The Israelites see this and they are converted, falling on their faces and proclaiming, “The LORD indeed is God; the LORD indeed is God.”

Then, in his letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul is astonished that the people are so quickly deserting the true gospel for a different one.

And he writes that if he were trying to please people, he would not be a servant of Christ.

Again, there is some kind of completing god here. Scholars are not quite sure what that other gospel was exactly, but we surmise that it was different enough to cause the apostle alarm. “If anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed,” Paul says. Not ignored, not forgotten, not even left behind – but accursed.

Like the prophet Elijah, Paul is calling the people back to the one true God.

And in the story of the centurion and his slave from the Gospel of Luke, we have another set of gods at play. As a member of the Roman army, the centurion would have worshiped Jupiter, Apollo and Diana – among many others.

Now the centurion was well liked among the people in Capernaum. “He loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us,” they tell Jesus.

The gospel writer tells us next to nothing about the centurion, not even his name. We do not hear that he converted to Judaism, or afterward followed Jesus. We are told simply that he loves God’s people. And notice carefully: Jesus and the centurion never encounter one another face-to-face. First, some elders come to Jesus, and later the centurion sends some friends to carry his message.

The message the centurion sends is a familiar one: Tell Jesus, “I am not worthy to have you come under my room; but only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.”

For Jesus, this is enough to grant his request. The servant is healed.

The reason Jesus grants the request is clear: The centurion has described himself as “a man set under authority.” And the authority under which he sets himself in that of Jesus, not one of his own pagan gods.

So we have three very different contexts, three different writers, three different sets of characters – and one common theme: God who is true versus gods that are not.

Now, people’s involvement with and worship of false gods is as old as the hills. What has changed is the false gods we worship. Nowadays, our worship is not so much of the idols of Ba’al or the many gods of ancient Rome.  But make no mistake: There is more than one contrary gospel out there.

The false gospel of prosperity, for instance. This is very common in today’s world. It’s a belief that when we gain economic wealth, it is because God is rewarding us for our good behavior. And according to the proponents of this misguided theology, the behavior that God is most likely to reward just happens to be financial giving in support of some religious leader!

And the false gospel that the Apostle Paul was likely railing against: Gnosticism. Among the many tenets of this belief is a sense that salvation comes through our righteous works. Paul repeatedly preached against this deception, affirming that salvation is by grace, a divine gift. Our good works form a necessary part of Christian life, and they are pleasing to God – but they come as a response to the gifts of grace, not a means to earn them.

And then, for Christians, the most contrary gospel of all: the belief that the message is more about the messenger than the message. This is a tricky one, because we Christians do worship and adore Jesus Christ as an essential person of the Triune God. Yet, as our Presiding Bishop has said, Jesus asked us to follow him, not to worship him.

Now, Jesus is certainly our primary example for Christian living. But when he preached, he did not trumpet his own virtues. He never tells his disciples to “preach Jesus;” instead he instructs them to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”

What Jesus preached was that the kingdom of God has drawn very near. It is imminent.

This kingdom of God was – and is – a very important construct for Jesus, as it should be for us.

The kingdom of God: the time and place where everyone in all the world becomes willingly subject to the one true God. The time and place when we will see the consummation of God’s justice, love and mercy. The time and place in which everyone will be valued, respected and cared for adequately.

It is a vision still unfulfilled, but still intensely compelling:

A world without hunger, without oppression, without sickness, without violence.

A world of peace, liberty and, yes, prosperity.

And a world in which these are not the standards enjoyed by a few, but the ethical basis of human rights for everyone.

The god of Ba’al has proved to be false, the teaching of the Gnostics has proved to be heresy and the gospel of prosperity has proved to be contrary to the true gospel of Jesus Christ.

All these – and more – distract us from the core message of our savior Jesus: The kingdom of heaven has come very near you.

This is our hope. This is our salvation. This is our destiny.

So let us continue to bring this reality ever nearer. For the duty of all Christians is to follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom of God.

 

—The Rev. Dr. J. Barrington Bates is the author of sixteen essays published in scholarly journals, including “On the Search for the Authentic Liturgy of the Apostles: The Diversity of the Early Church as Normative for Anglicans,” in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Anglican Studies. He lives and writes in Jersey City, N.J.

The modern mantra, Trinity Sunday (C) – 2013

May 26, 2013

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8 or Canticle 2 or 13; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15

It’s the modern mantra. People chant it all the time: “I’m spiritual, but not religious. I’m spiritual, but not religious.”

“Religion” has become a dirty word. Maybe it’s the nun who rapped your knuckles with a ruler when you were 8 years old. Maybe it is arcane morality, rules that do not suit the 21st century. More likely, it is because of crusades and war and some really ugly things done in the name of religion. Religion has become its own worst enemy.

So we can understand why religion has become a dirty word. Yet the so-called “spiritual but not religious” have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

After all, it was religious people who built thousands of hospitals around this country. It’s hard to think any hospital built by the spiritual but not religious.

It was religious people, not the irreligious, who started the national hospice movement, and who started Habitat for Humanity, which has built hundreds of thousands of homes for the working poor.

Religion frees people from drug abuse and spousal abuse. Religion infuses meaning into the despondent and hope into the bereft.

So even though we might be able to understand why people are abandoning religion, that’s not saying abandoning religion is a good thing. And there is no need to denigrate religion, be it Christianity, Islam, Judaism or Buddhism.

Not to sound cruel, but honestly, anybody can go watch the sun set over the ocean and feel God.

So what?

The real question is, does your amorphous spirituality have legs when your husband walks out the door, or when you find out your kid has cancer?

Spirituality is important – and frankly, we should applaud anyone who finds a way to deepen her spirituality. But spirituality is only half the equation.

Religion provides spirituality definition. It gives it form, an outline, legs to walk on.

If spirituality is heaven, then religion is earth. It is where you live your spirituality. It is how you practice your spirituality, and as we tell our kids, practice makes perfect. Reading scripture, praying together, singing songs, kneeling, crossing yourself, sharing faith.

What practice is there in watching sunsets?

That is why we might consider introducing a new mantra: “I’m spiritual and religious.”

In fact, the ideal bumper sticker might say something like, “I’m spiritual and religious; follow me to church!”

The earth is full of God’s glory. Meaning, a spirituality is wrongly bifurcated when separated from the physical. You need both together.

Which is what Jesus means when he says: You must be born again, of both water and the spirit, you must be born of earth and heaven.

In many ways, this is what Jesus seems to mean by promising the Spirit, in this morning’s reading from John, the Spirit who will actually help you become more grounded on earth.

You remember the old quip “Some people are so heavenly minded they’re no earthly good”?

The reverse is also true: Some people are so earthly minded they’re no heavenly good. What good is clay and dirt without soul? What good are you if you don’t connect with something greater than yourself?

Heaven and earth; “I’m spiritual and religious.”

You must be born again, of both water and spirit. When the Spirit comes, he will guide you into all truth.

Remember the hoopla when Facebook went public and people were purchasing Facebook stock not so much as an investment, but because of hype? The stock initially sold for $40 a share, then dropped like a lead balloon to under $20 a share.

But think about these kids, Mark Zuckerburg and his cohorts: They won the lottery. Instant millionaires, billionaires. One article I read told about the fun they’re having spending their gold.

One Porsche dealer sold out, and the fine dining industry in Palo Alto was hopping. Houses at Lake Tahoe were being snapped up at 25 percent to 35 percent over the asking price.

Gold was cheap that year in Palo Alto, but as you have heard, all that glitters is not gold.

You can buy all the houses and cars and retirement you want, but to paraphrase Jesus, life is far more than houses. Life is more than nice cars and fine dining.

Possessing all of earth, when you have no spirit, is vanity.

What good are you if you are all earth and no heaven? Or all heaven and no earth?

Although the modern mantra “I’m spiritual but not religious” panders to a shallow disdain of religion, sometimes we need others to remind us that all we see is not all there is.

We need each other, in this practice of religion and in this practice of life.

This is Trinity Sunday. The Trinity is not some arcane static description of God. You can’t draw a picture of God. God is not a triangle, nor an egg, nor a three-leaf clover.

Rather, the mystery we call “trinity” is dynamic. It is an eddy, a current, swirling about your body and your soul, and then about the body and the soul of the person next to you, and then back to you.

Pure and absolute Love. The trinity is action, an action verb, and that action is love.

God says, Receive Love: Peace I give to you. Be Love: Live within that peace. Give Love: Be that peace in the world.

So you see, you are spiritual because you have encountered God, but you are also religious because you have encountered God in other people.

We are spiritual and religious when we have learned to give ourselves away.

So let our mantra be “I’m spiritual and religious. Follow me to church.”

 

— The Rev. Rob Gieselmann is the rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Belvedere, Calif. Before entering the ministry, Rob practiced law for ten years, he is the author of The Episcopal Call to Love (Apocryphile Press, 2008), and is the father of two wonderful children.

‘Nothing but’ misses the point, Day of Pentecost (C) – 2013

May 19, 2013

Acts 2:1-21 or Genesis 11:1-9; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; Romans 8:14-17 or Acts 2:1-21; John 14:8-17, (25-27)

The Holy Spirit came to Jesus’ first followers on Pentecost, empowering the frightened pack of disciples to become a brazen bunch of evangelists. The curse of the Tower of Babel was reversed in one amazing outburst. At Babel, people were divided. Former fishermen and other followers of Jesus became interpreters par excellence. In this Babel scene played backward, the devout Jews from Elam, Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, Pontus, Pamphylia and the like now hear the Good News of what God has done through Jesus each in their own native language.

The gospel is spoken not in confusing babble but with a crystal clarity that leaves the hearers cut to the quick. Before this amazing day is over, 3,000 devout Jews will be baptized as followers of Jesus, the Christ. The result of Pentecost was to take a diverse group of people and to bring them together into a common understanding of what God’s deeds of power meant to their lives.

Yet not everyone understood what was happening in their midst. The account of that day in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells us that some onlookers took the excitement for a drunken mob. Certainly, it feels safe to reduce the disciples’ behavior as coming from heavy drinking. It might also be comforting to relegate Pentecost to an outbreak of religious hysteria. But the Pentecost experience was not due to alcohol and is not so easily reduce to nothing more than hysteria.

This is an ongoing tendency about lots of phenomenon for which we have no ready understanding. The physicist turned Anglican priest, John Polkinghorne, said in his book “Quarks, Chaos and Christianity,” some people are “nothing butters” when it comes to the world we live in. Reductionists see a thing is “nothing but” its physical explanation. They need only look at the most elemental form of a thing to explain everything.

For someone with a “nothing butter” way of making sense of the world, the compositions of Bach and Beethoven are nothing but vibrations that interact with our eardrums to create the effect we call music. The Mona Lisa is nothing but flecks of paint that we experience as differing colors. Baptism is nothing but water poured over someone’s head as a part of a ritual observance, and the Pentecost experience was nothing but religious hysteria.

Yes, Bach and Beethoven’s greatest works do reach our ears as nothing but vibrations against our eardrums, for that is how the beauty of the composers’ work is transmitted. But you can’t reduce their music to mere vibrations hitting your eardrum.

Of course, the Mona Lisa is just flecks of matter we call “paint” put on matter we call “canvas” in ways that we experience as an interplay of colors. But her enigmatic smile cannot be reduced to the physical matter that forms the art. In these works of art, the notes of music and the paint on the canvas convey so much more, that reducing them to the essential physical phenomena misses the point.

So also, the Pentecost experience of the Holy Spirit coming to Jesus’ disciples on that fiftieth day after the Passover, would have created some emotionalism akin to religious hysteria. Yet whatever caused some in the crowd that day to wonder whether the disciples had been drinking, was not all there was to the event.

We know that there was something more because of the immediate and the lasting impact of that day. The immediate effect was to begin sharing the Good News of Jesus with those who were far off as well as with those who were near to the Jewish faith. The centuries-long change is that the way of Jesus became a light to the gentiles. It is in this change, which began in these earliest days of Christianity, and which expanded through the ministry of both Peter and Paul to invite everyone into the Reign of God, that we see something more than an emotional event is taking place.

The Pentecost event defied any “it was nothing but” explanation. We can’t reduce Pentecost to “It was nothing but emotionalism,” or “It was nothing but mass hysteria,” or even “It was nothing but a long-ago event we can no longer explain.” The closest we can get is “Pentecost was nothing less than the presence of God.”

That day, the Jesus Movement was transformed not by human will, but by an act of the Holy Spirit. The main aspect of Christianity that was transformed in that first Pentecost was that the gospel moved beyond Israel and Judaism and became a unifying event. Pentecost showed that what unites us is God’s spirit and that is more important than what divides us.

Pentecost is a time to remember that God’s spirit is still present in a mighty way. That’s why our worship can’t be reduced to “nothing but” music, readings and a sermon. The Eucharist can never be described as “nothing but” bread and wine, any more than baptism is “nothing but” water and words. That is far too limiting.

Beyond this, we know that today we cannot limit who is in and who is out of the reach of the Reign of God any more than it could be limited to Israel.

For when we encounter nothing less than the presence of God, we come to know that we cannot limit who God is and how God acts, no matter how we might try. We who follow Jesus now are called to act on our love of God as much as those first disciples were called to share God’s love. We are to share the love of God freely, without limiting who God might love.

We are to take this Good News that God loves us, and share that gospel in our deeds as well as our words with everyone we meet, as we leave worship, going in peace to love and serve the Lord. We are empowered to do this by nothing less than the power and presence of the God we experience this day in our worship.

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia.