Sunday, May 28, 2023

The Spirit comes in many ways

The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77493
Pentecost 2023

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There are times when I get to pick from a couple of readings. Pentecost in Year A is one of those days. I have a choice of two different readings from John. I chose the gospel that is a part of the reading from John that is designated for the 2nd Sunday after Easter, it is a small portion of the doubting Thomas story and one that I had read and never really clicked with until I was learning the entire resurrection story from John that begins on Easter and runs all the way through the breakfast on the beach passage.

Now the one thing that this John passage has in common with our Acts passage is the giving of the Holy Spirit. Now the Spirit arrives in entirely different ways but that is typical of the difference between our synoptic gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke, who also wrote Acts and the gospel of John.

I found an interesting visual to explain this. Look in your bulletin and you will find a picture of three raccoons and a pug looking out of a hollow tree. Keeping to my string of musical references I’ve been doing the last three weeks I hear the Sesame Street song, “One of these things is not like the other.” And yes I was watching Sesame Street with my children. Of course the three raccoons are the synoptic gospels and the pug is John.

John is a very different gospel and Jesus is portrayed in an entirely different light. The synoptics focus on the human Jesus, the man walking around with the disciples. In Luke when he appears to the disciples after the Road to Emmaus appearance he shows them his hands and his feet. He eats a piece of broiled fish to prove he isn’t a ghost.

But John’s gospel is all about Christ, not so much Jesus. The focus is on the eternal or what others call the Cosmic Christ. The one who was and is and is to come. He was in the beginning as the prologue says.

Now one of the things I’ve learned over the years is how few people realize that in John, Pentecost happens on the afternoon of Easter when Christ first appears to the disciples. Up to that point only Mary Magdalen has seen him. They are gathered in the upper room and the doors are locked. Notice there is no mention of who is there. We know that women were important to John’s community. His community was possibly led by Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus may have also been with them. John offers no list of disciples. So I imagine this was quite a mixed group of people.

It is to this group that Jesus says, “Peace be with you,” two times. The second time he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This is a gentle vision of the coming of the Spirit but the experience is no less profound for it also comes with the statement, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Christ, the resurrected Christ gives them the Spirit and then sends them out into the world. This is not the dramatic sound of a rushing wind and flames descending on the heads of the people followed by speaking in foreign languages. No this has the flavor or an almost mystical experience and that fits with the themes of John’s gospel.

For the Spirit is given directly by the Risen Christ to those gathered in the room. You see Christ in John’s gospel is a creative force in the world. This is very different than the portrayal by the author of Luke.

Now the story we all think about for Pentecost is in Acts which was written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke. Luke is the life of Jesus and the Acts of the Apostles is about what comes after. Now Pentecost for Luke is all tied into some important dates and traditions of the Jewish world. Pentecost was a Jewish festival before it was a Christian one. A harvest festival of the first fruits of the spring harvest that took place some 50 days after Passover. That would explain the large number of people from all over the world who were in Jerusalem. The Ascension is an appropriate 40 days after Easter. Whether it was actually 40 days or not is not importance, but in Luke’s telling he draws from the tradition of 40 days, 40 years etc. that is a recurring theme in Jewish history.

Now some people might ask, so which one is right, Luke or John and my answer is both! Now how do I reconcile these two accounts. The answer is that each gospel writer has a different audience at a slightly different time in different places. Each is telling the story in a way that their audience will understand and ultimately believe. Why not have the Spirit be given in different ways in different settings it that was what was needed for the young community so that they understood and believed. John is all about internal mystical experiences and Luke is about public acts, preaching, healing and manifestations. The difference is all in the audience. So if one makes more sense to you than the other, that’s great. I will tell you that I much preferred the Acts version for many years. However, the more I explore Ignatian and Franciscan theology and their mystical elements, the John story is now how I see the Spirit entering into my life at this point in my faith journey. And that is the beauty of our four gospels. None of them have the total story but by putting them altogether we do get the whole story.

The story and our understanding of the gospels changes and hopefully grows over the years. Remember Paul said there is a time we thought like a child, but also a time to put away childish things and for me a piece of this is growing in my own spiritual journey. I know that God is done with me yet and I am absolutely sure he isn’t done with any of you either. But are we ready and willing to accept new insights and understandings of God the Father, God the son and God the Holy Spirit?

I have saved in a file on my computer profound quotes from theologians and others. This statement in particular sits on a sticky note on my computer. These are the words of Evelyn Underhill:  “The coming of the Kingdom is perpetual. Again and again, freshness, novelty, power from beyond the world break in by unexpected paths bringing unexpected change. Those who cling to tradition and fear all novelty in God’s relation to the world deny the creative activity of the Holy Spirit, and forget that what is now tradition was once innovation; that the real Christian is always a revolutionary, belongs to a new race, and has been given a new name and a new song.”

We cannot take the Bible and our faith as something static and written in stone. The Spirit is not going to allow that. Christ and the Spirit are always doing something new urging us to deepen our relationship. To move past a system of rules and regulations into a world of relationships. Even for the Jewish world of Jesus time to be righteous didn’t mean to be right but to be in right relationship with God.

We are called to make room in our world for the creative power of the Spirit. That same Spirit that was breathed into or sent down upon the early church. Breath, flame, wind have all symbolized the power of the Spirit from the creation of the world. This action is both nothing new and incredibly and creatively new all at the same time.

Last week I quoted a brother at SSJE who talked about the wait for Pentecost to be God waiting for us to be ready and willing to receive the Spirit and not about our waiting for the Spirit. So please this Pentecost, don’t keep God waiting. Welcome the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and then as the Father sent Jesus, so Christ sends us out into a world that desperately needs us.