Sermon: Day of Pentecost
Acts 2.1-11; Ps 104.24-34; I Cor 12.4-13; Jn 20.19-23
27 May 2012
Fr. Patrick Allen
The other night in themidst of our bedtime routine of stories, songs, and prayers, our three-year-old, Lucy, surprised me by quoting "Humpty Dumpty," which I didn't know she had learned –
sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
And all the King's horses, and all the King's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again.
She asked me if I knew that one, and I said I did and recited it for her. And then we said it again together, and then we said it again, and then we said it, oh, ten or twelve more times, and then came the question – and with Lucy it's always the question – "Dada, why... why couldn't they put Humpty together again?" She really was concerned, bless her heart; for her it's a real question, and maybe, at least as metaphor, one for us to be concerned about as well. The world is fragile; things, people, break, and for all our engineering and all our technology and all our harnessing of nature's powers, we can't finally put them back together again.
I know it's hard for us grown-ups to get very worked up about Humpty-Dumpty's plight, except that, if you'll indulge me for over-reading a silly nursery rhyme – Humpty-Dumpty's plight is our plight, isn't it?
But if "Humpty-Dumpty" is too juvenile a literary reference for you, there is always William Butler Yeats' plaintive, dispirited evaluation of modernity after the unspeakable carnage of the First World War in his poem "The Second Coming":
fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...
Brokenness and fragmentation, things and people, ever and always, falling apart. We see it all around us, don't we? In our polarized politics, in the persistence of our racial divides, and boy, isn't that European Union working out great? But we see it more closely and personally as well: marriages, families, friendships; even parishes and denominations.
Doesn't it seem that our neighborhoods are so often less communities of concern and care than coordinated zones of privacy, where folks of not necessarily common interest happen to live in close proximity, and whose détente is maintained by – if we can have a little more poetry – Robert Frost's dictum in his poem "Mending Fences" that "Good fences make good neighbors." That's kind of sad, isn't it? Haven't we anything better for our neighbors, for our communities, than that?
There must be. Frost himself has the intuition that there is, though he has name for it. That poem begins, something there is that doesn't love a wall.
(By the way – you know the classic old-school sermon format is "three points and poem," but I just realized that this sermon is actually "three poems and a point", which I shall belabor at length!)
Well, Something there is that doesn't love a wall. On this great feast of Pentecost, the Church names, celebrates, and invokes to come again and afresh that wall-obliterating Something, that uniting Something, which turns out to be a Someone: the Holy Spirit, promised and prayed for the Son, sent from the Father – who together are that one God who is, in himself, in his essence, a Unity-in-Diversity, a Trinity.
This uniting quality within the Trinity, St. Augustine observed, is the special property of the Holy Spirit. What Augustine noted was that the bare words "Holy" and "Spirit" denote God's divine attributes – they are those qualities shared, held in common by, the Father and the Son; they are their communion.
And so, Augustine reckoned – and I think we can reckon along with him – that if the Holy Spirit's particular characteristic is to be what is shared by the Father and the Son, then Spirit's particular quality is unity. And not just the ersatz unity of two who agree to get along by limiting contact – a "good fences make good neighbors" kind of unity – but the real thing: the unity, as a contemporary theologian has observed, of "a lived communion – a unity of persons in a relationship of constant giving, the Father and the Son giving themselves to each other."[i]
Unity: that is the quality, the character, and indeed the work of the Holy Spirit – to draw us together into a lived communion of love, of mutual self-giving, after the pattern of the Most Blessed Trinity. The Spirit does what "all the king's horses and all the king's men" could never do, and puts the broken pieces back together again. The entropic and seemingly inevitable process of "things fall apart" is reversed by the power of the Spirit's presence, so that what is old is made new, what is cast down is raised up, and what is broken is made whole. The walls we build to divide ourselves from one another – even if only so a ceasefire can be more easily maintained – are destroyed by the Spirit as he leads us into a true sharing, a giving of ourselves to one another in the Church, for the sake of the world.
On the Day of Pentecost itself, the barriers of language and culture are overcome as the disciples are empowered to tell the mighty works of God – and here that means the good news of Jesus' resurrection – and they do so miraculously speaking, we read, in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And what is the result? Gathered for the feast in Jerusalem are devout men from every nation under heaven, men with their own languages and cultures and ways of looking at the world, but At this sound, St. Luke tells us, the multitude came together. Unity is established in the midst of diversity.
And with the Psalmist we have sung of the natural process of decline, death, and decay in this fallen world in which, absent the Lord's intervention, the second law of thermodynamics holds sway, so that the energy of systems ineluctably depletes, and ordered life descends to disordered death –
thou hidest thy face they are troubled *
when thou takest away their breath they die, and are turned again to their dust.
But when God's breath, his ruach, his Spirit, comes,[ii] order and life and unity are created:
thou lettest thy breath
– thy Spirit – go forth they shall be
and thou shalt renew the face of the earth.
And in our epistle lesson, St. Paul speaks to us of the charisms, the gifts for ministry with which the Spirit equips all believers. To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit, Paul writes. And why, to what end? To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit, for the common good. The common good, for mutual help and service; the gifts the Spirit gives are for sharing in the lived communion of love which is the Church, the Body of Christ. For just as the body is one and has many members, the Apostle continues, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. Again, we see the Holy Spirit as the principle of Unity-in-Diversity.
And finally in our Gospel lesson, Jesus commissions the Apostles as the foundation of his body the Church, and sends them out – not as agents of strife and division, but as agents of the Lord's own eternal, Triune peace: Peace be with you; as the Father sent me, even so I send you. And then the Lord breathes upon his Apostles, his sent ones, and settles upon them the Spirit's abiding presence: Receive the Holy Spirit. But, again, to what end? So that they and their successors after them, who share in their ministry, may have the authority to perform an act, to use a tool – the tool that makes possible unity among divided people: Receive the Holy Spirit – if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.
This unity we've been speaking of, the unity that the Holy Spirit brings, does not – poof! – arrive like magic and out of nowhere. It is not as if somehow we undergo a kind of spiritual lobotomy so that all of a sudden we can't remember or no longer care about the reasons for our divisions. Nor is it simply that by the power of own wills we will decide to pretend we don't care.
The Spirit is not about erasing or pretending, not about papering over or evasion; the Holy Spirit is, our Lord has already told us in St. John's Gospel, the Spirit of Truth,[iii] and demands truth, so that we may have the real thing, a unity, a lived communion of love, a relationship of constant giving, that is open and honest all the way down. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven.
This unity that the Spirit brings is realized when, seeking the Sprit's grace, we are honest, and confess, and seek forgiveness through the Church whose ministers, sharing in the ministry of those breathed-upon Apostles, have been given power and commandment to forgive sins in God's Name. And having been forgiven by God – who is always more ready to forgive than we to confess – having experienced that grace, we, who have trespassed and been trespassed against, may then extend that same grace to one another, forgive one another, and begin to see our divisions healed and learn to love one another again.[iv]
And if we want the Spirit's power and consolations and reconciliation in our lives, and especially in our life together, if we want to see what is broken put back together, if we want to see the walls that divide come down, then to forgive and to seek forgiveness – that is the work, the hard work, we must give ourselves to.
It's not easy. It's not natural. And left to ourselves, it is, we are, hopeless. Indeed, "with men it is impossible, but with God all things are possible."[v] And so God the Son has promised and prayed, and God the Father has sent, and now God the Holy Spirit has come, and indwells the Church, this new and living communion of love.
We are not left comfortless, not left hopeless: by the power of the Spirit, the multitude is coming together, we are being made new, and you and I and all of us from every nation under heaven, though many, are one body in the Church, even as the Father and the Son are one, in the Unity of the Holy Spirit.
Let us pray:
O GOD of unchangeable power and eternal might: Look favorably upon thy whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of thy providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
[i] Benedict XVI, at World Youth Day, 19 July 2008, quoted in Magnificat, May 2012
[ii] "Breath" and "Spirit" are the same word in Hebrew (Greek and Latin, too).
[iii] Jn 14.16,17
[iv] Cf Mt 18.21-35
[v] Cf. Mt 19.26; Mk 9.23