Texts: Acts 2:1-11, John 20:19-23
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
May. 15, 2016
I will never forget the first time I had ever stepped inside an Episcopal Church. I had gone reluctantly. I was editor of my college newspaper. I was preparing the last edition before my graduation which was two weeks away. I discovered on the President’s calendar that the Episcopalian Bishop of the West Missouri Diocese was to speak in chapel the following Monday.
I tried to assign one of my reporters to attend the service on Sunday at a local Episcopal church where he was holding a confirmation service. I wanted the reporter to get an interview with him, to among other things, gain his reflections on preaching at Pentecostal Bible College. The reporter begged off saying he had a commitment at his own church. So somewhat reluctantly I went instead. It was my birthday. I didn’t want to go to a strange church and work on that day, especially when it was someone else’s job. (Little did I realize that this decision would change the course of my life by starting me on the Canterbury Trail.)
The service began with a Bach prelude. I watched in fascination as the Thurifer led the procession down the aisle swinging incense. He was followed by the Crucifer, two Torch Bearers, the choir robed in blue cassocks and white cottas, then the Acolytes, Eucharistic Ministers, and Clergy. (Of course I didn’t know any of their titles at the time).
But my eye was drawn to the man who brought up the rear of the procession, the one whom I had come to hear. He wore a red cope and a pointed mitre, carried a crozier in his right hand and waved to certain members in the congregation with his left. The Bishop’s presence clearly dominated the whole scene. Part of me watched in awe. Another part felt my protestant prejudice rising within. “What does this have to do with the Gospel?’ it asked. “This smacks of Roman pagan ritual.”
As the service progressed I continued to play the part of the critical reporter. I watched the congregation stand to sing, kneel to pray and sit to hear the scriptures. “Episcopalian calisthenics,” I thought, “at least these people knew how to keep in shape!”
Then the Bishop rose to speak. No longer in his cope or mitre, he stood before us in simple attire, white Alb and red stole. “This is the Day of Pentecost, the birthday of the church,” he said. He then asked two questions. “What does Pentecost mean?” More significantly he asked, “What does Pentecost mean to you?”
His answers to these questions were simple yet profound. “The first Pentecost was the day that the Holy Spirit came upon our Lord’s first disciples and made Jesus come alive for them in a new transforming way. It was his prayer, he said that as he laid his hands upon those to be confirmed, the Holy Spirit would come upon them and that Christ would come alive for them as he had for those first disciples.”
I had heard similar words expressed a thousand times before. But as he talked about our Lord, something happened to me. It was as if this Bishop was transformed before my very eyes and that it was not he, but our Lord, who spoke through him.
After a reception I got my interview and eventually published my story. But when I returned to campus, I couldn’t stop talking about him. I felt like the woman at the well. I said to everyone I met, “you will have to be in chapel tomorrow. An Episcopalian Bishop will preach. I have never before heard anyone like him.”
That day, Pentecost, 1966, my 22nd birthday, became a turning point. I had ceased to be a reporter. I had become a believer. Jesus had come alive for me. Ever since then, Pentecost, for me, has been about birthdays! My birthday, my spiritual birthday, the birthday of the church.
When I was a child I could wait until my next birthday. It was a time to party. It was a time for presents. At last I was another year older. I was never six, I was six and one half. I was never eight. I was eight going on nine. Life was always in the future. I just couldn’t seem to wait until it caught up to me. But as I have grown older, my perspective has changed. Birthdays now are time when I take stock of my life. As I look backward over the events of the past year, I remember significant moments.
From its beginning, this is what the Church has done. When the disciples were with our Lord they never fully understood what he was about, or what they were called upon to do. With the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, they gained understanding and insight. It was an understanding rooted in the past, their past, and their nation’s past.
When outsiders asked what was happening with all the celebration and commotion, Peter was able to tell them. He understood. He was able to reach back into his nation’s history and remember a prophecy that had now come to fulfillment.
He said: “this is what was foretold by our prophet Joel, that in the last days sayeth the Lord, I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh. Your sons and daughters shall prophesy. Your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams. What you now see happening is this prophecy is coming to life.
The various phenomena that happened on that day was filled with meaning for them as well. The tongues of fire reminded them of the time of Moses who saw the bush that burned but was not consumed. They remembered that Moses had come down from the fiery mountain and given them the ten commandment. Now that the Holy Spirit had come upon them, the law had been written in their hearts rather than on tablets of stone.
The unknown tongues which they found themselves speaking reminded them of a still earlier event in their history. At Babel God had confounded their forefather’s speech and brought division among nations. Now the Spirit was gathering the nations together, bringing healing, unity and understanding.
The sound of a rushing mighty wind that filled the house where they were staying reminded them of creation. God’s breath bringing to life their first parents. Only a few short days before, as we heard read in today’s Gospel, our Lord breathed on the disciples and said “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Now the Spirit had come and they understood themselves to be a new creation.
Yes, when Pentecost came, the disciples looked to their roots. As they remembered their past they were able to understand their present.
However, though when Pentecost came, the disciples remembered their history, they were not living in the past. They were very much in the present. This was not always the case. Today’s Gospel takes us back to Easter Sunday where the disciples were in the upper room hiding behind locked doors for fear of their lives. The upper room had become for them a place of withdrawal, a retreat, their prison.
But despite their doubts, in spite of the barriers of locked doors our Lord appeared in their midst. St. Luke records that He told them to remain in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came upon them. So, on the Day of Pentecost they were still in the upper room. But no longer out of fear but rather in obedience to their Lord. Their fear had been turned to faith, their doubt had been changed to confidence, their ignorance had been transformed to understanding. Pentecost found them waiting, ready, filled with expectancy. They were living in the present.
If Pentecost found the disciples living in the present and ready to interpret their present in light of their history, it also found them ready to face their future. They had been given their mission. They had been waiting for their marching orders. Now the time had come. The period of waiting was over. Out of the upper room and into the streets they went proclaiming the message of their Lord. This message has been passed on faithfully from generation to generation until it has reached us in the twenty-first century.
Today, as we celebrate Pentecost, the birthday of the church, let us remember the past with pride. Let us look to the future in confidence. Most importantly, let us live in the present. Let us resolve that what we have received, we will faithfully pass on to our generation and to the generations which follow. Amen.