Pentecost is sometimes referred to as the birthday of the church. Around here, I like to encourage such silliness. After the 10:30 service, we’ll have a parade outside, and a birthday cake. It’s even a red velvet cake, red being the color of Pentecost. Susan Norris gets bonus points for organizing such an appropriate cake.
We’ll celebrate with cake, and special prayers, and parades, because it is important to mark such a moment. And, I believe it is appropriate to call Pentecost a birthday, because we celebrate a moment nearly 2000 years ago when something new burst forth in the life of the world. A gathering of believers were empowered to continue the work of Jesus, the work of God in the world.
I was recently in the Cathedral Basilica down in the Central West End for a concert. The weight of that building is impressive. The neo-Byzantine architecture makes a heavy impression. I had quite a bit of time to admire because I was there for a choral concert. The group performed Tomas Luis de Victoria’s entire 16th century setting of the Requiem mass. It was exquisite, but it also gave me a lot of time to look at the room. The mosaics at the Basilica are striking both for their vast size and the amazing diversity. Some of them appear to be copies of fourth or fifth century art. The seraphim flying by the central dome could have come off a wall in Turkey or Greece.
But in the West transept, the arm of the cathedral to your left as you face the high altar, the ceiling art looks like it came out of a 1960s or 70s Children’s Bible. The faces are round and pleasant. I bring it up because the image depicted in that west transept is the day of Pentecost. Mary and the disciples are seated around, and tongues of flame float over their heads. The tongues are tiny in the mosaic. The tongues above their heads are about the size of the tongues you could imagine in their mouths. It looks like the disciples were sitting down for a picnic when funny little flickers of light appeared above them. I take some issue with that depiction, I’m not sure it captures the drama that we hear in our first reading. For me, with those tiny tongues, the stakes are too low.
My favorite depiction of the story from our reading in Acts is found in a stained glass window in the Washington National Cathedral. I’ve got to come clean, the window was not originally meant to represent the coming of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire. The window centers on an abstract flowering tree, surrounded by flames. At the very top of the window you can see an image from my home state of Colorado, a triangular chapel, a representation of the Chapel at the Air Force Academy.
The window was commissioned to honor the Air Force. The story it depicts comes from the life of a young man who came to be known as “Brother Lawrence.” In the midst of the heat of battle, it is said, Lawrence saw a barren tree, and there on the battlefield he realized that within a few months the empty branches would be bursting with flowers. Lawrence saw the vision as a sign of God’s ability to transform the human heart. He would go on to write the seventeenth century classic: “The Practice of the Presence of God.”
When I first saw the window, I was sure the dramatic tongues of flame represented Pentecost. Now that I know the window expresses a prayer for peace in honor of our servicemen and women, I acknowledge my original interpretation was a little off, but I still see Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is all about God’s continuing work in our world, to bring justice, to bring freedom, to bring love.
The tongues of flame in this window are not dainty little flickers. They lap down the glass. On a sunny day, the red light is cast all over the inside of the nave. If you hold your gaze, it seems like the whole church might catch fire. That, to me, is how I imagine Pentecost day, not with little flashlights, but with pillars of flame. The Holy Spirit is less like a candle, and more like a bonfire.
The Spirit is the most neglected person of the Trinity. We Episcopalians may be especially circumspect. We wouldn’t want to appear like those Pentecostals, who speak in tongues, and roll around on the floor. We’re too refined for that sort of pageantry. Am I wrong?
Now don’t get nervous. I’ll restrict our Spiritual celebrations to parades and birthday cakes, but I think we would do ourselves some good to spend some time with that person we used to call the “Holy Ghost.” Maybe we can render Her a little less spooky. Jesus, in the Gospel of John, promises Phillip that the “Advocate” will be with them. In fact he says, this Spirit lives in you, abides with you.
That word “Abide,” it’s one of the most important in all of Scripture. We’ve actually had that word in the last several weeks’ Gospels. It’s funny. I’d challenge you to think of a time outside of church, outside of the Bible or the hymnal, when you use the word “abide.” People used to say, “I can’t abide that,” but they don’t much anymore. We tend only to use “abide” in scripture and church.
Which is a shame, because abide is a great word. In Greek the word is “meinein.” If we’re looking for a way to explain “abide” today, you could say, “hang in there.” If we translated that way, our Gospel would read “The Spirit hangs in there with you.” My former rector, Luis Leon, used to point out that “there’s a big difference between hanging in there, and hanging on.” You hang on with your fingernails. Hanging on is something desperate. Hanging in there, is something else. Abiding is something else. Jesus tells us the Spirit is with us, helping us to hang in there.
The Spirit continues to hang in there, with the church, with us, even today. There’s a lot at stake on Pentecost, with how we interpret the story. If we see this as something that happened a long time ago in a galaxy far far away, we may be tempted to dismiss the little tongues of flame as a story for children. We might render it as a storybook picture like that in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. Is there a danger with this kind of interpretation? Can such a reading lead to thinking of the Bible as a document frozen in time? Can it make us believe that God’s revelation is over?
Many people of faith treat their Scripture like it is a final rulebook from God. I’ve heard the Bible called “the Manual for life.” I’ve even seen a copy of the Scriptures with the title the “MANual” where the first three letters are capitalized M-A-N, as if the Bible was written by dudes for dudes. Okay, that part might not be entirely off base. We all know we need some more feminist interpretation of Scripture. Reading the Bible as a manual makes it seem like the Bible has the final word for God.
Pentecost invites us to ask whether this is true. Is the Bible a book of directions (plural), or a book of direction (singular)? Do we have the guts, as people of faith, to look for God living and active among us? Belief in the Holy Spirit is a belief that God is not done with us, not done with creation. Revelation is ongoing. To believe in the Holy Spirit is to ask whether God can indeed do something new.
Within the lifetimes of members this congregation, we have seen some incredible changes in our world. We’ve gone from Jim Crow to president Obama. In the Episcopal Church we’ve seen the ordination of women (and Pope Francis may be indicating that the door is about to crack open in the Roman church as well). Last year, on Pentecost, very few people worshipped here at Holy Communion. The bulk of the congregation was wearing red downtown at Christ Church Cathedral, to help marry off your rector. Just a year ago, the State of Missouri didn’t recognize Ellis and my marriage. We’ve seen a lot of change.
Just as I saw Pentecost in that stained glass window in the National Cathedral, I see it in all of these changes, the evolutions in our world. I think The Episcopal Church is an exciting corner of God’s church to hang out in. While we’re not prone to roll in the aisles, or speak in tongues, perhaps we are deep believers in the Holy Spirit. We’re ready to let the Spirit set us on fire. We’re ready to be led into what God is doing next in our world.
As a congregation, we’re leaning into that work. Over the last year we’ve discerned a set of values: Welcome, Diversity, and Community. We’ve set bold goals to increase our footprint in the neighborhood, the city, and the world. We’re hiring new staff members. We’re building up leadership teams. There’s a lot of faith in this church, faith that God is not done with us.
Pentecost is a day of celebration. Today we give thanks that Jesus’ movement didn’t end when he ascended into heaven. God continues to walk with us. The Spirit abides with us. And those tongues of flame continue to inspire us, and to lead us into what God is doing next.