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As most of you know, the church staff’s decision to observe Pentecost Sunday on this day that is really the Seventh Sunday of Easter was, originally at least, a purely practical and somewhat concern-driven decision. How could we do justice to one of the church’s most glorious festivals and, perhaps more to the point, how could we fully celebrate the birth of the church on Pentecost Sunday, June 9, when our own congregation that day will be split, despite what the great hymn says, between East and West, Cape Cod and Amherst?
It turns out the liturgical calendar is far more flexible than our annual Youth and Family Retreat reservation at Craigville Retreat Center. Come hell or high water, sunshine or tropical storm, run-of-the-mill Sunday or Holy Pentecost Sunday, we are destined to be at Craigville on the second Sunday of June. The schedule is set in stone, apparently.
So as your faithful church staff struggled to come to turns with this sad state of affairs, we happened upon a wildly creative or—depending on whether you are energized or offended by what we’re doing—crassly utilitarian approach to the problem.
We would observe Pentecost Sunday a week early! We would have our own private Pentecost! So there!
I will admit that a couple of weeks ago I began to doubt the wisdom of this plan, but as soon as I expressed my reservations Dick Matteson let me know in no uncertain terms that there was no going back: He had already scheduled the choir to sing today.
So here we are.
But here’s the thing: Once I made peace with our early-Pentecost plan, I realized that it is, in fact, a two-Pentecost plan, because we’ll all still celebrate Pentecost next Sunday, following the same theme and story in two different places. More to the point, I discovered that I love having two Sundays to reflect on, and give thanks for, the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Today, our first Pentecost, we can consider a scripture passage we almost never hear on the real Pentecost: the gospel reading. And, as it turns out, while I love to claim the powerand energy of the Holy Spirit as represented by the wind and fiery tongues of the more traditional Pentecost reading (which we’ll all hear next week), I also need the intimacy and comfort, ever-presence and solidarity of the Spirit that Jesus speaks of in the Gospel of John.
The Christian life is, at root, about relationship, and through the Spirit we are invited into an intimate relationship with God. As much as I tend to think of my Christianity as being about what I do for others with God’s redeeming and healing power, I also need the comfort and peace of knowing that God is with me and in me, and that just as the Holy is in you and me, we are in the Holy.
Spirit is not one or the other—power or presence, intimacy or energy—but all of the above, and more. Spirit is not only God in us, but also God with us and through us and among us. Spirit, it seems to me, is less a divine force that acts upon the world than a holy presence that infuses and enlivens God’s human partners in loving the world. Perhaps life with the Spirit is not so much about what we do as it is about who we are and how we more fully become the beloveds we were created to be.
Perhaps we need not just two Pentecosts, but a whole lifetime in the Spirit to begin to appreciate the holy intimacy God wants for us and with us.
Don’t get me wrong: Holy Spirit power is an awesome and amazing thing.
As seen in the Hebrew Bible, it is the power to create, the power to liberate, the power to do justice and kindness, the power to recover from our mistakes, and the power to restore hope, relationship, and home. As seen in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, Holy Spirit power is the power to heal, the power to feed, the power to redeem and restore and transform, the power to lift up the lowly and bring down the mighty, the power to bring people together, the power to inspire and empower, the power of unmerited, indiscriminate, extravagant love, the power to create community and entirely new ways of being in the world, the power of weakness, the power of life over death.
Not a day goes by that I don’t want for that kind of power. The power to guarantee Lucio and Dora legal and permanent residency in this country. The power to overturn perverse immigration laws and provide health care, housing, education, food, and employment to all. The power to effect real action on climate change. The power to address both the causes and effects of white supremacy and institutional racism. The power to devote resources to peace instead of war.
Also: The power to mend broken relationships. The power to take back that hurtful thing I said. The power to turn away from my screens and my stuff and, instead, focus on the beautiful people in my life and the wonders of this world we’ve been given. The power to deal with my own brokenness without inflicting it on other people. The power to find joy even in hard times. The power to know, in the core of my being, no matter what is going on or how I feel, that I am not alone. A gift for building community. The power to rest. The power to become whole.
And, most of all: The power to love—indiscriminately, unconditionally, extravagantly.
The power to walk on water wouldn’t be so bad, either.
But sometimes what we need most is the capacity to walk gently on this earth, the wherewithal to make it through another day, the willpower to put one foot in front of the other when all we really want to do is curl up into a little ball and wish the world and all our hurts go away. The strength to cry when we hurt. The capacity to be vulnerable. The grit to persist in the face of defeat and obstacles and ridicule. The determination to keep hoping and trusting in God’s goodness in the face of personal loss, shared despair, and real evil. The instinct to turn to God and one another.
This is the power of presence, the gift of holy intimacy.
And this is what Jesus promises his friends, what he promises us, on the night before he surrenders all his considerable power for life to the power of empire to inflict suffering and death:
That we are not alone. That even though he was soon to leave us, we would still have him with us and in us. That even though the earthly powers would consider him dead, that he would still be alive in God, and that we were about to come alive in him. That he would, that he has, given us a Holy Advocate, a Spiritual Helper, a Divine Comforter, an Ever-Present Companion, a Holy Friend Forever.
This, too, is the Holy Spirit that we celebrate on Pentecost. This is the Holy Intimacy that creates the community that becomes church. This is the Divine Partnership Dance that breaks down walls and crosses barriers that we might all be one in the Great Heart of Love. This is the Powerful Presence that sustains and enlivens and transforms.
The Spirit is not always loud and dramatic and in your face. Sometimes she moves quietly, gently, almost imperceptibly. But that does not mean she is not with us.
We celebrate Pentecost to remember that she is here and everywhere, now and always, doing greater things than we can ask or even imagine.
Thanks be to God!