Pentecost Sunday Sermon – Bishop Hays Rockwell

Pentecost Sunday The Chapel of St. John the Divine Saunderstown, Rhode Island

by the Rt. Rev. Hays Rockwell

June 9, 2019
Scripture text: Acts of the Apostles 2:1-11; John 20:19-23.

I’m trembling a little, standing up here, getting ready to try to make sense of the great mystery of holy writ. It’s a daunting task. Preaching requires deep study and true piety and nerve enough to presume to proclaim the meaning of the divine purposes. Given all of that, I guess it’s all right to be trembling. Moreover, I haven’t done this in a long time. Fr.Rob kindly said to me some time ago that I was welcome to preach (and preside) any time I chose. I put it off. Then, fearing that I might rust such that I couldn’t do it any more, I accepted his invitation for this Sunday, thanking Noel on a Sunday that
was supposed to be hers and feeling grateful for her presence up here with me and for her ministry among us. I should say that I’ve preached here on Pentecost Sunday before, ten years ago. I’m likely to say at least some of the same things this morning, so those of you who remember that distant sermon are hereby invited to take a nap.

The story before us on this day of Pentecost is the story of how we got started. The church I mean, how the church came into being. We have it in two versions. The first version of the story is from the book of the Acts of the Apostles. It is high drama. It describes the little band of the close followers of Jesus, bewildered and frightened in a world where they can no longer see or hear him. Hiding out in a closed room they are suddenly, alarmingly, touched by the Spirit, the Holy Spirit of Jesus. They experience a storm of wind and fire, a flame pausing on each of their heads. When it was over, they were sent into the world around them to proclaim what they knew from being with Jesus, that he is the healing, merciful Lord of heaven earth and that his Spirit lives on, inhabiting the world. More. The Spirit who touched them equipped them to do that, giving them courage and languages so that they could be understood by everyone in that multilingual holiday crowd into which they plunged from their closed room. That cowering little company of fisherfolk was transformed by the Spirit of Jesus. It is that Spirit who gave them brave new hearts and the ability to become the first people to go into the rough-and-tumble world and proclaim that Jesus is Lord, that the Jesus way is what God intends for us. Does something like that really happen? Can weak and dispirited people be transformed into proclaimers of the deep truth at the heart of the Universe? Consider Saul of Tarsus. A man steeped in the orthodoxy of Judaism. When Saul saw people like these new Christians who he thought were disrespecting that ancient faith, he went around killing them.

Not criticizing them, not mocking them, killing them. He was what one of our grandsons calls a “bad dude”. And then, he was confronted by the holy spirit of Jesus, knocked down and blinded by it. He was transformed. He became the Apostle Paul. God equipped him with the courage to go out into the ancient world and spread the word about the Jesus life, the life of caring and mercy, the life informed by love. Or, think of one Francis Bernadone, 13 centuries after Paul. Francis was a rich Italian soldier, living a muddled, inconclusive life. God somehow touched Francis on a summer afternoon and he became the Saint of Assisi, living a life of praise of the creation and its creatures, touching and mending the lives of the poor. If you think long enough, you might recall someone who was transformed in that dramatic way, someone who gave up a life self-indulgence and even cruelty and, in a stroke, gave himself or herself up to a life of selfless caring, the Jesus life.

That great church-without-walls which is Alcoholics Anonymous, and its siblings like our own Narcotics Anonymous, can tell tales of such dramatic change. We do well to listen to them. God’s Spirit sometimes comes in that dramatic way, like wind, like fire, changing everything and forever and in a trice. But the Spirit of Jesus who created the church, the Spirit that sustains it, and upholds each of us, that Spirit mostly comes quietly, gently. The other description in the story of the creation of the church comes from the Gospel of John. The risen Jesus appears to his friends, who are fearfully hiding. He says “Peace be with you.” And then, John reports, Jesus says “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” Then “he breathed upon them, saying, ‘receive the Holy Spirit’.” It’s a quite different version from the wind and fire story. But I rejoice that both survived. God comes into our lives in a
rich variety of ways. Most of us are not called in a dramatic event which suddenly makes it possible for us to “proclaim the mighty works of God.” For most of us, the slow penetration of the Spirit of Jesus comes into our lives because of a loving family, a caring community of faith, a deep friendship, an encouraging teacher’s kindness, a loving companionship. Out of those relationships we learn about the priority of kindness. Because of those human bonds we develop a willingness to forgive, to reach out to heal, to seek after justice in the world around us, which can be cruel. For most of us the Holy Spirit is less like wind and fire than it is like the breath of a friend who stands by us in a time of weariness and distress. Consider a very young pastor of a church in Montgomery, Alabama more than sixty years ago. He was the son of a Baptist minister and a loving, faithful family. The young man organized a movement against the racist establishment in his city. He began with an effort to open buses so that black people could ride them in any seat, not only in those in the back. He was reviled and abused by the upholders of the racist culture, threatened by a stream of hate calls. It began to get to him. His resolve to keep on struggling for a just society began to weaken. Late one night, sitting his kitchen, his wife and small children in bed upstairs, he got another hate call. ‘N-’ said an anonymous voice, ‘N-, if you aren’t out of town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out, and blow up your house.’ And then he heard an inner voice. It said, ‘Martin (Luther), stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’” (David Garrow, Bearing the Cross) So it was that Martin Luther King, Jr., the son of a pastor and a household of faith, was inspired to begin to lead a movement toward the transformation of our society. God is waiting for us, yearning for u to open our spirits to his Spirit so that we are given the power to become the ones God makes and means for us to be, living lives of caring and kindness. A wise old Christian (F. von Hugel) who lived a hundred years ago was deeply learned in the faith. He wrote sophisticated theological treatises for a circle of sophisticated believers like himself. He was once asked by his young niece to summarize the Christian religion so that she could understand it. What he wrote to her was this: “Caring matters most.” Caring and kindness are the fruits of our encounter with the God who comes to us. So is a passion for justice. So are the instincts to forgive and console. All these are ours when we yield our spirits to the Holy Spirit of Jesus When that happens the result for us is not mere happiness. The result is joy. And joy, as a Scottish poet once put it, “Joy is the flag/that flies from/the citadel of the heart/when the king is in residence.”