Sermon for Whitsunday 2019

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I saw a meme online earlier this week that often gets shared around this time of year with a toddler in a tuxedo looking very insistent, and saying “if Pentecost is the birthday of the church, there better be some cake at coffee hour.”

We often refer to Pentecost “the birthday of the Church”, but why? There seem other likely candidates. Take Christmas. The Son of God is born in a manger in Bethlehem. He’s surrounded by his Blessed Mother and her spouse, by shepherds and angels, and all are engaged in reverent worship. That sounds like it might have been the first Christian worship service, the beginning of the church as we know it. The church’s birth.

Or, for that matter, what about Easter. Christ is risen from the dead and it is by his resurrection that the community of the disciples and all Christians who follow are given new life. What’s more, it’s not only the faithful, but all of creation that is profoundly changed, is radically re-created, by Christ’s conquest of death and his victory over the grave. It seems like the church is born, at least in a sense, fifty days prior to Pentecost, if not thirty-three years.

Perhaps something different from the “birthday metaphor” might capture the essence of Pentecost more fully, or at least in a new and interesting way. Maybe it’s just because it’s that time of year, but I wonder if Pentecost might be more like the “graduation day of the church.”

Graduations have been on many of our minds of late. Several of our own have received degrees and diplomas in the last few weeks. Graduations tend to effect the relationships between parent and child. Often it’s the immediate precursor to moving out, that bittersweet moment in which a child goes off to college or moves into a new apartment and gets a job or gets shipped off with the service or whatever.

The relationship between parent and child is changed. Hopefully it remains a supportive relationship for the child, but it’s a very different kind of support. Hopefully direction is still provided, but it’s likely to be to a different degree. A little more (or a lot more) independence is expected of the child and a little more (or a lot more) trust is required of the parent.

Christ is ascended into heaven. God is no longer experienced in quite the same way as when a man named Jesus, who is God, was walking around in ancient Palestine and you could touch him. The initial, natural response to such a reality is the response of the disciples- feel abandoned, get frightened, lock yourselves up in a room in Jerusalem just like when you thought Jesus was dead forever. The good news of Pentecost is that God has not abandoned us at all. He is still present and active in our lives and in the life of the Church, albeit in a new and different way. He still supports us, the support is just a little different. Direction is still provided, it’s just in a different way. A lot more independence is expected, and a lot more trust is required. You see, it’s a little like growing up- graduating and moving out and the rest. God’s still here, it’s just different, because we’ve grown up a little.

We miss this if we take a purely functional view of the Holy Spiri. We’ll explore this a little more next week, on Trinity Sunday, when we confront the truth that the Trinity is not about division of labor but, rather, the nature of relationship. For now, let’s just take the Holy Spirit as an example. We miss the point of Pentecost and the Church’s life after it, if we think about the Holy Spirit entirely in terms of what He does. We can start to think about the Holy Spirit as some obscure agent who accomplishes tasks. He’s kind of like the universal translator in Star Trek (you know, the device that let the crew of the Enterprise talk to Vulcans and Klingons and the like in more-or-less proper English). That’s kind of what he does on the first Pentecost. He’s also kind of like a prayer partner. Paul says he cries “Abba, Father” within us to bear witness that we are children of God. He’s also kind of like a counselor. That’s what the word Advocate (or Paraclete) from this morning’s Gospel means. He comforts us when we’re in pain (like a therapeutic counselor) and he intercedes for us in the court of heaven (like legal cousel).

But, like I said, if we get bogged down in tasks which we tend to attribute to the Holy Spirit, we miss the larger point. The important truth about Pentecost is that God is still with us, but not in the same way he used to be. The Father has given us a little more line. God, the Holy Spirit, still directs us, but we’ve grown up and we’ve got to get on with the Christian life as adults. We can come back home from college for Christmas and sit at the dinner table for a while, but we can’t linger forever anymore. We can, and must, come back to church week-by-week and feed on the goodness of God in the sacrament, but we don’t have the luxury of staying put anymore. We don’t have the luxury of hanging out in Galillee with Jesus all the time. We’ve got to get back into the mission field, beyond these walls, to get on with the work God has given us to do.

The blessed assurance of God’s continued presence, which is the Holy Spirit, rousted the apostles out of their fear and their complacency. It got them to grow up, to go out, and to spread the Gospel. That is the promise and the challenge of Pentecost for each of us and for the Church as a whole. We’ve got the freedom to do God’s work and the promise of his presence. When we’re dismissed from Church we’re dismissed with marching orders (pay attention at the end of the service). Let’s actually make a point of “going in peace to love and serve the Lord”, of “going forth in the name of Christ” to do his will, of “going out into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.” We may be assured that when we do, God will not abandon us, but he will give us the room to do his work ourselves, if we have the courage and conviction to try.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.