Pentecost: The Holy Spirit, and the Path Forward

Because it’s Pentecost, there’s a great temptation to preach about the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. That’s how we know the Spirit is present, isn’t it? Because those gifts are manifested? If I asked you to list the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, could you do it? If you’re part of the Church’s more theological tradition, you’d probably list those gifts: Wisdom, Fortitude, Piety, Fear of the Lord, Courage, etc. If you’re more in tune with the Charismatic Renewal movement, you’d probably list some of those Gifts: Speaking in Tongues, Prophesy, Healing, Interpretation, etc.

The secondary temptation on Pentecost is to preach about the Church, since traditionally, today is considered the Church’s founding feast day. Before the coming of the Spirit on the disciples of Jesus, they were a frightened, disillusioned, disorganized band of fishermen, tax collectors and other sinners. After the coming of the Spirit, they were people with a mission, and the gifts they needed to accomplish that mission in the face of overwhelming odds. Thus the church was established, and we believe that because the Spirit is still with us, the Church still endures.

Today, this weekend, we need the gifts of the Holy Spirit more than maybe any time in our lifetime. The weekend we’ve seen protests, demonstrations, and even riots in many places. We’ve seen systemic racism and personal racism taking lives on our streets, and provoking understandable anger. We’re exhausted by this pandemic and it’s restrictions. And 40 Million of us are out of work and facing economic ruin. We’re isolated, and exhausted, and we’re afraid of each other, unable to speak or listen across our ideological divisions. Any sense of a common good has been replaced by competition and power. Our diabolical thirst for power doesn’t just demonize the “other,” it makes demons of us. Somehow in this social, political, economic and medical crisis, none of the systems and structures that are supposed to help in a crisis are doing much of anything. We’re terrified, and we’ve lost the ability to engage in constructive dialogue, and we no longer have a grasp of the common good.

The story of Pentecost is this: in the midst of their isolation and fear, the disciples of Jesus were visited by the Holy Spirit. That Spirit drove them out into the streets, and empowered them to speak, and to listen, and to understand each other. Suddenly, briefly, the chaos that had prevailed since the Tower of Babel subsided, and the Holy Spirit gave those disciples the gift of speaking every language, and gave the crowds the gift of listening and understanding. As miraculous as this sudden communication was, don’t miss the content of the disciples’ preaching: they were communicating about the mighty acts of God.

Today, more than any other era of our lifetimes, we need every one of the Spirit’s gifts. We need the talents, the abilities, the imaginations, the strong arms and the strong wills of every person. To get through this chaotic and dark time, we need the gifts that the Holy Spirit bestows on every person, every kind of person, every nation. We will need the genius of our daughters and sons. The courage and determination of our immigrants. The faith of our neighbors of all faiths. We need people of color, and LGBT people, and all the people on society’s margins. To get through this time we need everyone, and we can’t leave anyone behind— not any more. To get through this time there can be no more us and them. Just us. Justice.

How do I know this? Because I know there are different gifts but the same Spirit. There are different forms of service, but the same Lord. Different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. Did you hear that? All of them. In everyone. We are all of the same Body, given to drink of one Spirit.

The hard truth is that we’re not going back to they way our lives were before. Time moves in only one direction. And the way life was before wasn’t good or just or equitable, or accessible for too many people. If you’re thinking you want life in June to be just like life was last January, it’s time to check your privilege. We all have things we miss, and things we want to get back to, and people we are desperate to see and embrace. But we can’t be satisfied with a society in which our political system is broken, our educational system is broken, our healthcare system is broken, our justice system is broken, our environment is broken. These things didn’t just break in March, but the extent of their dysfunction has be horrifyingly revealed to us. And we need every one of the Spirit’s gifts, given to each for the sake of all, to bring us to something better.

I’m not a utopian. But my faith tells me that there is a golden age for us, it’s just not in the past. It’s in the Kingdom of God, which is always ahead of us; never fully in the present, and never in the past.

How do we begin? I think we begin like the apostles, speaking and listening to each other with vulnerability, honesty, and charity. That can help us rediscover the mighty deeds God is still doing through the work of the Holy Spirit among us. I think we also have to begin as the disciples did in John’s gospel, receiving the peace that is Jesus’ gift to us, and sharing that gift through the enormous power of forgiveness. We are given the power to forgive sin. Have you ever considered the awesome power that entails? You have the power to forgive. When you’re in conflict, when you’ve been injured or insulted, when you’re angry or when you’ve been treated unjustly, you have the power to change it. It’s not easy. It takes a serious act of will. Some times it takes a long time to accomplish. But by your ability to forgive someone else, you have the power to free yourself, and them. Our own sinfulness sometimes makes us want to hold on to someone else’s sin, and maintain our own victimization. But God has given us the power to dissolve conflict, to heal each other’s anger, and to move forward by making a choice to forgive.

Today, this Pentecost, let’s pray that the gifts of the Holy Spirit, poured out on all God’s people, will lead us toward peace, charity and justice. May we rediscover the gifts in each person that come to us not despite our differences, but through our diversity. And may we pass through these dark and chaotic times trusting that the Holy Spirit continues to bless, empower, and guide us.