In our gospel from John today, we see a scene from Easter night, after Mary Magdalene has been spreading crazy stories all day, as we talked about the last time I preached. And the disciples, men and women, are afraid, locked into a room to keep the world out. Suddenly, locked doors or no, Jesus appears to the disciples in his resurrection body, complete with marks in his hands, feet, and sides. Jesus continues to be the good shepherd, taking care of his sheep, for he knows that they are afraid. Twice Jesus bids them peace. And then, he breathes the Holy Spirit upon them, thereby making clear to them that their work is only just beginning, and he commissions them to send them into the world to continue Jesus’s work of reconciliation and forgiveness. Notice that—they are empowered to forgive. Not judge. Forgiveness, based on mercy and grace that they themselves have received in just the events of the last few days. And then, just like that, our gospel reading ends, right before the story of Thomas and his doubts are told.
Once again, in the quirks of the lectionary, our first reading actually takes place several weeks after our gospel. In our reading from Acts, the disciples—the men and women who have been hanging on in faith in the month and a half since Easter– remain locked away. They are bewildered, they are afraid, and yet they are still clinging to each other as a community even though it’s been nearly fifty days since Jesus’s crucifixion. And then, even behind locked doors, a great wind moves through the room, and the power of the Holy Spirit comes over them, giving them the gift of language. In a blink they are outside, in the streets, doing exactly what the disciples were told to do in our gospel reading—they are out in the world, testifying to the power of God as revealed in Christ to the people they encounter there. It’s probably the most excitement you and I have ever heard coming out of a church meeting.
In a kind of reverse of the curse of the Tower of Babel, now these disciples, many of them simple country folk, have just learned to speak other people’s language. I think that’s an important point for us too in the Church today: we are called to speak to people in their own languages first, rather than expect them to immediately understand the language of Christianity.
At Pentecost, through the power of the Spirit, we are reminded that language is power, empowering us to carry the gospel of Christ throughout the farthest reaches of the world as disciples, evangelists, and teachers—as Christians who are the Church.
But the disciples’ first new language came as a challenge even earlier, for them as well as us. As soon as those early disciples answered Jesus’s call to follow him, they had to learn the language of Jesus—a strange language, then and now, awash in a grammar of grace rather than a grammar of vengeance. We are still learning Jesus’s language of reconciliation today. It is the language of salvation, but not salvation for selfish ends. Rather, this language calls all disciples, them as well as us, to find the vocabulary for helping to repair the world and our relationships within it, with each other and ultimately, with God. This idea of responsibility of faithful people to repair the world is what our Jewish brothers and sisters call tikkun olam.
This language was filled with strange ideas, in which the greatest is the least, the least is the greatest, in which forgiveness and grace are more important than being right or self-righteous. Even after Jesus’s life on Earth was done, we can see that the disciples were still trying to make sense of that language. And we are too. We ourselves as Christians 2000 years later also continually work at acquiring that same language and it’s still just as alien and difficult for us as it was for them. The power of the Holy Spirit is here to help us continue learning Jesus’s counter-cultural grammar of grace and reconciliation.
Actually, in considering our readings today, vocabulary is important as well. The texts we draw from are translations of Biblical Hebrew and Greek. The important words we hear this morning are translated to us as
Now, in Hebrew, these are often the very same word: ruach. In Greek, the language in which the New Testament is written, the word for breath and wind is pneuma. Now, the former English teacher in me, still on a high from the National Spelling Bee, reminds you that words that sound like what they are are called “onomotopoeias,”—a really hard word to spell for words that usually themselves easy to spell. But listen: Pnuema. Ruach. They actually sound like a breath. And the Spirit is the breath of the Church, and the breath of God. It gives us life to live in Christ, and to use that breath to testify to God’s saving work in the world.
Together these words are meant to call to mind something else—the Spirit or wind or breath of God that moved over the waters of chaos at the creation in Genesis. Three of our readings today—from Acts 2, Psalm 104, and John 20– hearken back to creation, and remind us that creation is not a one-time event. God did not make heaven and earth so much as God IS MAKING heaven and Earth. With the same breath or Spirit or wind that hovered over creation at the dawn of time, Jesus breathes that same life-giving, empowering, creative Spirit over and into the disciples and sends them en masse out into the streets, where they are then empowered to go and make more disciples of all nations and all peoples. Rather than the end, they begin anew. Our celebration of Pentecost today reminds us to begin anew, too, and draw closer to God so that we may serve God in all our lives.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry makes this connection between Pentecost and creation clear in his book Crazy Christians: A Call to Follow Jesus. He says, “When we draw closer to God, we draw closer to each other, for we are all children of the one God who created us all. And when God draws us closer, the Spirit moves, and we experience the power of Pentecost, that day many Christians over the centuries have regarded as the day when the Church was born. Paul said, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” That doesn’t mean we have to be perfect. Seriously. Remember those same apostles. They took being NOT perfect to an art form. And thank God for that. That allows us to have hope for ourselves.
The Spirit moves over the world at creation, and the Spirit moves over us seeking to restore and renew creation within us. I want you to listen in a few minutes during the Eucharistic prayer we are going to pray together as Christ’s Church for the world. This is a Eucharistic prayer that hasn’t been used very much before here at Good Shepherd, but it is one of my favorites, and will actually be prayed at my ordination at the end of this month, which I hope you will all attend if you are able. Listen as we recall again the Spirit moving over creation, and moving over Mary’s womb. Listen as we call down the Spirit to move over the bread and wine, and therefore over US, so that WE can be made a new creation before God as we lift our hearts in thanks. Listen as we ask that same Spirit to transform us as God’s children and heirs, to be sent out into the world to continue Christ’s mission to all the world as his Holy Church.
Just as creation is ongoing, the Church is not something tied to a specific time or place or event in history. The Church is not a building. The Church is not a hierarchy. The Church is not a denomination. The Church is not a social club. The Church is the Body of Christ, bound together in bonds tighter than the closest family bonds we may have known. The Church does not exist for its own sake, and that’s a crucial point to make, I think, in this day and age, when institutions can run roughshod over people, and when it seems we are more divided by ever.
As members of the Church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, called to live out the gospel of Christ, we too do not exist for our own sake, or for our own salvation. Instead, we are called into discipleship for the life of the world, to go out into the places that most need the light of Christ, starting with the corners of our own hearts– and then spreading outward into the entire world.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, the Church is part of the mystical Body of Christ and as such, is given FOR the world as an offering. As each of us remember this day that we are the Church we are called to offer ourselves for the good of others. We are called to build bridges between people who are all so different, and yet united by bearing the image of God that was planted in all of us at creation, no matter what our race, background, social class, or perceived “goodness” or “sinfulness.” Bishop Curry notes elsewhere in the same book, “On the day of Pentecost, the Spirit of Jesus made it possible for all people to hear the message of the gospel…. That same story of what some call the birth of the Church, the day of Pentecost, speaks of the barriers being bridged and divisions being overcome. On Pentecost, people heard the gospel of Jesus. And as they heard the gospel, barriers came tumbling down, bridges of rose, and the new humanity in Christ began to emerge.”
The Church is lost if we forget that, as the Church, we are called and empowered by the Holy Spirit to minister to and IN the world—all of us, and to and in ALL the world. We are not called to stay in our comfort zones and only hang out with “good” people, but to emulate Christ, who definitely moved in mixed social circles, to say the least. We are called to be Christ’s hands, feet, and heart in the world, empowered by the Spirit of Hope, Love, and Truth that makes us the Church.
When I was little someone taught me a little rhyme, which had an accompanying hand game. It went like this:
Here’s the church;
Here’s the steeple;
Open the doors
And see all the people.
How many of us remember that little game from our childhoods? If you’re under the age of forty, I imagine that’s the first you’ve ever heard of that little rhyme or the hand game that accompanies it. I remember teaching this one, though, to little kids when I would help staff the nursery at the latest church my mother had taken us to when I was a young teen.
But I now realize that game might lead us to exactly the wrong idea. Maybe we should remember it this way, instead:
The People are Church;
Christ’s body for the world
Called by the Spirit
That on Pentecost swirled.
Pentecost reminds us to open ourselves to the power of God in the world right now. Jesus is still creating a new Spirit within us, calling the Church out into the streets to testify to this ongoing creation in the world—and that is you and me, not an institution or a building or just the clergy, but all of us who are baptized by water and the Spirit, as our Baptismal liturgy reminds us. Each and every baptized Christian, whether lay or ordained, is a minister of the gospel of Jesus. Each and every one of us, as Christians, is called to testify to the power of the love of God as revealed in Christ Jesus in the world, by living lives of joy, compassion, wisdom, faith, hope, and healing—all of which qualify as grade-A, bona fide miracles in this day and age of cynicism and greed.
We can be the miracle. Let us go forth by the power of the Spirit. Let us be the Church in and for the world.
“Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”
Philip makes this bold request during a long conversation Jesus is having with his friends near the end of his ministry and his life. Scholars call this his Farewell Discourse, because Jesus was trying to prepare his followers for the events of his Passion, trying to help them get ready to say goodbye and to move into a new phase in their life together. The disciples, as usual, were having a hard time understanding what he was talking about, which led to more than one rather interesting exchange.
To be honest, many people today have a hard time with this discourse too, and especially with much of what we hear in today’s Gospel. It feels exclusive, with its heavily gendered language for God. And it also feels hurtful, because of a long history of it being used as a weapon against people of other faiths. So let’s be clear—this passage is not about who gets into heaven. As I’ve said before, that was simply not the primary concern of Jesus or his followers. To insist on reading the text that way is to do violence to it and to our own faith.
Still, even if it did come from a place of confusion and limited understanding, there is something very profound about Philip’s request: “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” It will remind some of us of Thomas saying that he wanted to see and touch the wounds in Jesus’s body in order to believe. It might also remind us of an earlier episode in the Gospel of John, when some Greeks approach Philip and ask a similar question, “Sir,” they say, “we want to see Jesus.” It is interesting that earlier on Philip was the one being asked, and now he is the one doing the asking. Maybe that suggests that discipleship is not a linear process; we don’t ever really become an expert in this following Jesus stuff. It is not a sign of weakness that we ask questions, or ask for help, or that we want to see evidence that our faith really means something. It is a sign of our faithfulness, and of the stubbornness of our hope. It is a sign that we care. The God we meet in Scripture is a God who sees and is satisfied with his Creation; our desire to see and our desire to be satisfied are therefore holy desires, desires that can and should bring us closer to God and one another.
So where do we see God in our own lives today? Primarily, we are designed to see God in community and in one another. Remember that in our Baptismal Covenant we promise to seek Christ in all persons, and to serve the Christ in them. Taken literally, it’s an odd idea, but taken seriously, it can be life-changing. It’s true that I don’t know many people who are able to calm a storm at sea with a word, or feed thousands of hungry people with five loaves and two fish. But I do know a lot of people who live lives of love and openness, whose very beings are marked by gratitude and grace. I bet you know a lot of people like that, too. These people are living like Jesus, whether or not they ever accomplish something spectacular in the eyes of the world. As the writer Annie Dillard has said, “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” In other words, most often it is not the big, theatrical acts of heroism that make the most difference in the world but an accumulation of the small, quotidian acts of compassion and courage and mercy that over time do in fact move mountains, feed the hungry, and calm raging storms.
It is also true that the Bible and our tradition offer us many stories of people whose lives were so filled with God’s spirit that they were able to accomplish seemingly impossible things. Today’s reading from the Book of Acts, showing us how Stephen is able to forgive his killers even as they are ending his life is one such story. I’d like to tell you another story, one I read about in the New York Times that took place just a few years ago in Florida. It’s a hard story, one that begins in tragedy but that is also grounded in hope.
Andy and Kate Grosmaire received the most horrific news that any parent could hear: their daughter Ann had been shot by her boyfriend and was not expected to live. The boyfriend, Conor McBride, had turned himself in. There was no doubt that he did it, and that it was not an accident, but an awful, rash, irreversible decision on his part. Sadly, such devastating tragedies happen far too often in our country, so much so that they almost feel commonplace. But what Andy and Kate did after the shooting is not commonplace at all: they forgave their daughter’s killer.
The story of their journey to forgiveness and healing is too long and complex to relate in detail here, but even just a brief sketch of it can show us how perfectly ordinary people can in fact be Christ in the world. Andy, the anguished father, first experienced a turn toward forgiveness at his daughter’s deathbed. Ann had wounds on her head and hands that reminded him of Christ, and he felt sure that she was asking him to forgive Conor for what he had done. When Kate and Andy decided it was time to take their daughter off life support, Ann did something first: she went to the jail where her daughter’s murderer was being held, met with him, and told him that they both loved him and they forgave him. They have maintained a relationship with him during his time in prison and are also close to his parents. Andy describes that moment when he decided to forgive Conor as an experience of incredible closeness to his daughter and to Christ, and he says that it was, to use his exact words, “just a wave of joy.”
The power of forgiveness is one of the greatest and most remarkable gifts that we can receive from God—it changes those who receive it, and it changes everyone who witnesses it in action. Most of us, God willing, will never have to face a situation as extreme as that faced by Andy and Kate Grosmaire when they lost their child. But we all live in a world that needs healing and grace. We all live among people who desperately want to see Jesus, to see the Father, to see the divine presence that abides at the heart of all creation.
Sometimes it is hard to believe it, and it can be even harder to say it, but we are fully equipped, every single one of us, to be that presence in the world. In fact, as followers of Jesus we have no greater call or vocation than to show the face of Christ to all we meet.
Philip told Jesus that if only he saw God he would be satisfied. I wonder—what do we need to be satisfied? Because it is possible to see God, every day, if that is what we really desire. To be able to see Jesus, to be able to see the Father, to be able to see the divine life that is all around us and within us, we must be willing to look in new ways, to see with the eyes of our hearts, with eyes washed clean with tears and with hearts that yearn for reconciliation. The Franciscan brother Richard Rohr has said, “If your only goal is to love, then failure is impossible.” If our goal is to love, through works of justice and acts of mercy, to love through word of kindness and by gathering everyone together at the table, then indeed, we will see and be satisfied.