Delivered by the Rev. Tina Rathbone
John 14:8-17 Philip said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”
God In Us
Pentecost is the birthday of the Church – that’s what we are told — and it is true! Pentecost marks the Church’s beginning; the day that began that which we are right now inhabiting and incarnating; the day that started it all. But what really does this mean? That’s really what I want to talk about for just a few moments today. What really are we celebrating? And why – in the end – should we care? And just as importantly, why should our broken and suffering world care? Why should it matter that today we celebrate the Church’s birth?
Most everyone knows that Christmas celebrates Jesus’ birth, and many know that Easter is the day we celebrate His resurrection. But most often, Pentecost remains a kind of vague after-thought. Outside of the church it is never talked about at all. And even inside the church it is celebrated mostly as some kind of mysterious and lesser holiday, having something to do with … Well, the color red, and people speaking in other languages, and us all being one… Something, somehow, about the Holy Spirit…
If we are to take seriously even the small portion of scripture we are allotted for today, however – it seems as if the Pentecost event is infact the culminating act in the three step process set in motion by God through the birth, death and resurrection of Christ. In other words, it’s a big deal.
First: God chose to forsake God’s distance and eternal perfection and take on the finitude and frailty of becoming one human, in one place, at one time, through the birth of his son, Jesus. Second: For 33 short years, God revealed God’s own nature through Jesus by loving and healing and welcoming and forgiving and embracing and transforming all that was broken and given up for lost in the world – including, ultimately, death itself. And then Third: On the day of Pentecost, fifty days after Jesus’ own resurrection, God implanted God’s own very spirit – the Spirit of Love who was and is and ever will be – IN each one of us so that we may…how does Jesus put it? So that we may also do the works that Jesus does and, in fact, do greater works than those…
It’s really pretty astonishing. Entirely astonishing if you think about it. And hard to believe too, I know, if only because of the magnitude of the event, right?, the mind-boggling generosity and the breathtaking freedom of it…
Pentecost really is the birthday of the Church, then. But not because of the way the little flames many images depict dancing above the heads of the disciples remind us of birthday candles, and certainly not because the Church is some kind of fixed entity that was born whole and entire on that long ago day in Jerusalem. No. Pentecost is the Church’s birthday because it was the first time the earliest Christians actually experienced the truth of what their Lord and teacher Jesus had been trying to teach them for years: that the Spirit of God – which is to say the very essence of God Godself – was to be released from the singular incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth and poured directly into each one of their hearts.
Pentecost is the birthday of the Church, finally then, because these men and women experienced, on that day, the truth that they were, each one of them, vessels for God; that they were, each one of them, carriers of God; that they were, each one of them, engaged not with a finite story about God now gone, but with a living story that was only just beginning; a story of their own, ongoing relationship and discipleship and actually partnership with God. Pentecost is the birthday of the church, in other words, because from that moment on, God took up God’s home in them – and in us.
This message is so central to Christianity, so often repeated in liturgies and readings and words we listen to over and over again, that it’s hard for many of us to actually hear them anymore, so I’m going to say it again:
God – the creator of the universe, the one who was and is and always will be — God, lives in you. Right now.
The story isn’t finished yet, that’s the thing. Perhaps the story will never be finished, I don’t know. But it is certainly still unfolding among us and between us and beyond us here and now — and everwhere.
It’s an awesome responsibility if you think about it – knowing that the power and love of God-Godself resides in every single one of us. It’s one reason why we come together each week, don’t you think? -because none of us can handle the responsibility of being God carriers, God sharers, on our own. We need to listen to Holy Scripture, and to pray with others, and to bless and break and share God made manifest physically through the Eucharist. And we also need to share news about God from our own lives too right? To teach one another in our own language, the way Gino did so powerfully last week, and to learn from one another and support one another in the same way too, with and in the communally recognized reality of God’s living love. How else can we guide and sustain and support one another in this extraordinary challenge of living life as we have been empowered by Jesus to do? How else will we ever dare muster the freedom to say, with Mary, “Yes, Lord, ok, yes — be it unto me according to your will?”
But there’s a danger here, of course – a very real danger – and it is this: that more than 2000 years after these things first happened, the death shattering truth that divine love lives now among us gets forgotten about, or smothered, or at least seriously muted by rote, and repetition, and ceremony, and habit. That instead of being a robust community of challenge and love and active support, the Church becomes a predictable place of certainty and security, a place where we gather to talk about a God over there some place; a historical God, a God who was beautiful for sure but who is also somehow reassuringly fixed in the past.
It happens a lot, I think. And it’s mostly been the fault of people like me – leaders in the community who too often forget that the birth of the Church was not an act of trapping and containing the Spirit within one particular structure, but of release and expansion; a liberation of the Spirit, a wild pouring out of God into the deepest and innermost recesses of the entire world and all that is in it …
Think of a river – its flow, its energy, its beauty and life-giving power. Think of the movement of it, its restlessness, and at the same time its stable and soothing sameness. This is an image of the living God that both the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus himself use frequently… Think of a river tumbling, a river flowing freely, sparkling as it goes… Think of a river.
And now think of a pot that has been dipped into that river and filled to the brim with its water. It is still, and bound, and there is very little life within it. It is birthed by the river, but lacks most of what the river is, because now it is stopped and fixed and so, in time, entirely knowable. It is safe in a way that the river is not. It is of the river, but it is not the river. This is an image, I think, of what the Church can become if we are not very careful. Through repetition and habit, we can so easily reduce the reality of the living river to the thin and dreary reality of the water in a pot — thereby allowing direct contact with that living water to be forgotten about, and sometimes even lost.
Do you remember the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman? She was drawing water from the well of Jacob – an important historical figure from her own religious tradition — and Jesus told her: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again. But those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water, gushing up into eternal life.”
A spring of water! That’s what Pentecost represents!
However we may hedge and fudge and try to wriggle round it sometimes, the simple and transfiguring fact is that the Spirit given to us is not an echo, not a photograph, not even a 3D print out of the God who is Jesus. The Spirit given to us, if we are to believe what we are taught, is the same actual essence that created Jesus himself, which is to say the actual essence of God the Father – right? – rendered active and alive through the third person of the Trinity – the Spirit — given to us first on Pentecost, and every moment of every day since.
But we need to believe it, it seems. And then we need to act as if it were actually true. Moment by moment, in ways mostly minute and ordinary, because our lives are mostly minute and ordinary, we need to recognize, in ourselves, and in each other, the profound worth, the eternal power, the living spring of God in every single person in the world – every one.
…And we’ll never be able to do that, of course! At least not on our own, which is to say, not without gathering regularly with others in prayer and song and work and worship, both supporting and being supported by each other to remember who and what and whose we all are – and, most of all, what power of love and life and hope and healing and justice and courage and sheer untapped potential we each one of us have available to us if we dare first desire, and then accept it.
“Sir, give me this water” the women at the well tells Jesus in response to his talking about the Spirit and it seems to me to be a very good prayer for us all – especially today, on this Pentecost day; especially today when so many tens and hundreds of thousands are struggling and grieving and falling apart in explosions of violence and rage.
“Sir, please today, right now, give me this water…that I may also do the works that Jesus did – and in fact do greater works than those….”