One of the great things about seminary was that I learned all types of minutiae concerning the Church. Many of these so-called facts were far-fetched and make wonderful stories but, in all honesty, had to be taken with a more than a few grains of salt. One such piece of information concerns the very feast we celebrate today: The Feast of Pentecost.
It seems that a peculiar component of some medieval church buildings was a chute that led from the roof inside to the sanctuary. This chute was to be used to commemorate the Feast of Pentecost. The liturgy sought to mark the descent the Holy Spirit. This was done in a variety of ways.
Doves were, at first, a logical choice, as they are traditional symbols of the Holy Spirit. But doves, being rather unruly, were not the best birds to release into a closed area and so chickens were substituted. But somehow a humble, clumsy chicken did not have the same symbolic beauty as a graceful, demure dove. And so flaming straw was used as an option, a symbol of the tongues of flame lighting on the apostles. Then, in a triumph of liturgical silliness the two were combined when a flaming chicken was dropped into the sanctuary. Apparently the whole enterprise was abandoned after a number of churches had caught fire and burned to the ground.
Now, as I said, this makes a humorous story but, I suspect it is not entirely historically accurate. But it points out that sometimes, in our desire to mark special occasions, we go to great and profoundly confusing lengths. We even, at times, lose sight of the original purpose of a celebration. Today I would like to call to our minds the reason we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost and why it is one of the cardinal feasts of the church.
Pentecost was originally, and still is, a Jewish feast. It is the celebration of fifty days after Passover; pente means fifty. It was one of the great pilgrimage feasts of Judaism and so people from all over would trek to Jerusalem for the holiday. It was on the feast of Pentecost that the Holy Spirit descended onto the first apostles. This, as we are told in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, enabled them to preach to a varied crowd. The people heard the message of the Gospel in their own language.
We rightly celebrate Pentecost as the birthday of the Church. It was the beginning of a movement that would change the world. From this moment God and His people are partners in an effort to share and make known the message of salvation. The Holy Spirit’s descent empowered the apostles to do what Jesus had commanded them: Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.
And so today we celebrate the birth of the Church. But we celebrate much more than that; we also celebrate our own partnership in God’s endeavors into his creation. Paul tells us that each of us has been gifted by the Spirit for the common good. Each of us, not just the clergy, not just the prominent leaders of the church, not just the charismatic, self-assured, but each of us. This is both a joy to be celebrated and a responsibility to be honored.
In Jesus we have not just been offered salvation we have been given a vocation as God’s own workers.
St Teresa of Avila has told us that Christ has no body now but yours. You are his hands and feet. You are his presence in the world today. You are his presence in your home, in your work place, in your community, in this very church.
We are the body of Christ.
It was not enough for God simply to redeem us, to call us back to himself, to restore us to a loving and secure relationship; God has also gifted us to share in the joy of knowing a life of purpose. We are not just children of God, we are also partners with God. The kingdom of God is not only at hand it is in your hands. And so we celebrate the joy of such a life and are called to realize anew the gravity of our mission: Christ has no body now but yours.
Several years ago I remember someone asking me if I was a charismatic. I was caught short by the question. I do not fit the general description of the term charismatic. Usually when we hear such a term we think of people being slain in the Spirit, speaking in tongues, prophesying or delivering words of knowledge; things that generally make Episcopalians nervous. After all, it is a challenge to be tastefully slain in the Spirit.
So I thought about the question. Am I a charismatic? I replied that it depended on how you defined the term. If you meant someone who was rather emotive in worship styles, given to affective expressions of the presence of God, one who speaks in tongues, or feels compelled to lift his hands when singing—then, no, I wasn’t a charismatic.
But I went on to say that I did consider myself a charismatic because I believe in the immanence of God. I believe, as Luther said, that God is closer to us than our own breath. I believe that through the Holy Spirit we are sealed as Christ’s own, that we are led and gifted by God and that we are called into ministry. I believe that God speaks to us. I believe that God is involved in our lives. I believe this dearly and if I didn’t I could not preach with any type of integrity.
And so I confess: I am a charismatic. And, call me subversive, but I see it as a part of my ministry as a preacher, teacher and pastor in this community that each of you will be a charismatic as well because in Christ we are not just redeemed but we are made partners in God’s kingdom.
The Feast of Pentecost is not a commemoration of an historical event that occurred once upon a time. The Spirit of God is too active to be limited to history. Paul tells us that each of has been gifted; what joy, what responsibility.
You are the body of Christ. You are the hands, feet, heart, and soul of Christ in the world today. You have been gifted mightily for such a presence. You have been blessed with memory, reason and skill. You have been given gifts for ministry and God himself is with us to lead and strengthen us.
©2019, Tom Thoeni