By Fr. Michael Cover
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit
gave them ability. ~Acts 2:4
Greetings in power of the Holy Spirit!
Last week, we celebrated the feast of the Ascension and discovered there a word of comfort: that Jesus, as king and priest, is bringing our chaotic world into order; and that our work, our liturgy, in this temple here at St. Paul’s, is a part of that coming kingdom. Today, as we celebrate a second principal feast of the Church—the feast of Pentecost—we remember that it is not enough just to stay within the temple; but, like the first disciples, we too are being sent out into the world, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Some of us, who feel most at home out of the pew, rolling up our sleeves and working on the front lines, will welcome this sending. Others, however, may have some misgivings: what does it mean to be sent in the name of Jesus? Are we really equipped to tell others about our faith, in words as well as deeds? Can we recount, even to ourselves, what signs and wonders we have seen; what God has done for us? Like Moses at the burning bush, we may feel ourselves a little bit tongue-tied, and unsure (again) whether God, in choosing us, hasn’t made some kind of mistake.
If you feel this way, you are not alone. The first disciples, as Acts tells us, were also more than a little concerned about their ability to carry out the world-wide mission that Jesus apparently had in mind for them. Worried at the prospect of this calling, they tried to convince Jesus to establish his kingdom there and then, and bring an end to the whole course of history. But Jesus does not let them off the hook so easily. It would have been too small a thing simply to establish his kingdom in Israel. And, for some reason, hidden in the mystery of his love, Jesus wanted to involve them—and us—in the healing of the world.
And so, Jesus sends us. And thanks be to God, He does not send us alone. For on this day, we commemorate God’s sending upon his Church power from on high, a Spirit of holiness, the Advocate and Comforter. And “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”
Who is this Holy Spirit, and how does he empower us today? Catholics, Episcopalians, and other mainline Protestant Christians are often most comfortable answering this question sacramentally: the Holy Spirit is the one Who descends upon the waters of baptism and marks us as Christ’s own forever. The Holy Spirit is the one who is called down upon the bread and wine in the Eucharist, and transforms them into Christ’s sacramental body and blood. The Holy Spirit is the one who descends upon the deacon or priest at their ordinations, empowering them for the work of ministry. For this reason, Pentecost is traditionally called Whitsunday, after the white garments worn by those who will be baptized.
All this is true, and suffices as a respectable answer to give to friends and families. But there is more to say, and some of it we might not wish to say in polite company. For if we scratch even the smallest bit beyond the surface of scripture and tradition, we see that the Holy Spirit is simply not someone or something confined to sacramental actions. No, there is something wild and unruly about the Holy Spirit. The more one hears and learns about Him, the more one begins to feel a little bit uneasy, as though he were just the kind of Person whom we might like to avoid meeting. The kind of person who might ask us to do or say just about anything—or, who, like the Gandalf the Grey, might show up on our doorsteps one day while we are working in our safe and tidy and very nicely delineated gardens (thank you very much!) and bid us leave the comforts of home and shire to go on a dangerous adventure in the company of complete strangers. That, incidentally, isn’t a bad way to think about what it means to be a Christian. But we’ll get back to that in a minute.
Another way of saying it is that the Holy Spirit doesn’t stay put, and doesn’t like us to stay put either. She is less like the leader of a bridge club and more like a general of the advance troops storming the beach at Normandy. As a result of this wildness, many of us in the more respectable denominations occasionally suffer from what might be called “Pentecost embarrassment.” Pentecostals, holy rollers, and the fire and brimstone enthusiasm that characterizes Southern American preaching, make us squirm in our pews. It’s a tension that has been felt in the church since the earliest days, when the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians of the dangers of excessive speaking in tongues, which could not be understood, in place of intelligible, inspired prophetic words, which would upbuild the Body.
I cannot hope—nor would I wish—to unravel all these knots today. Neither am I suggesting that there are any safe denominational lines behind which we can hide from these questions. Friends, the Church is stranger than we think. I have personally known Episcopal bishops to pray privately in tongues, and non-denominational pastors to deny that Holy Spirit acts at all in the post-apostolic era. In theologies of the Spirit, anything goes. Rather, this morning, I want to give you two principles, which may guide you in recognizing the Holy Spirit. The first, is that the Spirit leads us toward authentic diversity. And the second, is that the Spirit leads us toward authentic unity. Both of these “movements,” toward true diversity and true unity, are present in a single verse in Acts 2:4: “they began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”
The first point is this: the Spirit’s work is to lead us toward diversity—and not the diversity that we would choose, but the diversity that God has chosen. God’s love, commandments, and redemption are for everyone, “unto the ends of the earth.” It is easy for us, however, to make this “everyone” a little smaller than “everyone.” There is an episode of NBC’s Parks and Recreation which nicely illustrates our tendency to limit God’s everyone. In the episode, Ron Swanson—a Hoosier anti- government government worker—walks into a diner and says to the waiter, “give me all the eggs and bacon that you have.” The waiter nods and begins to leave, but Swanson calls him back. He says, “you probably heard me say, ‘bring me lots of eggs and bacon’; but I want you to listen to what I said: ‘bring me all the eggs and bacon that you have.’” So also with the Spirit’s work in empowering us to preach the Gospel to everyone.
Acts makes clear the full extent of God’s intended diversity with the words: “they began to speak in other languages.” Languages are the borders that no political solution can help us cross. Anyone who has tried to speak or communicate in a language other than their mother tongue will know that this is true. And yet this is precisely the kind of border-crossing that Acts says characterizes the Church of the renewed Covenant. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, in what clearly purports to be a miraculous event, these first disciples found themselves capable of transcending linguistic barriers that had previously seemed unimaginable. The whole scene reminds one of the story of the Tower of Babel, but in reverse. In Genesis 11, when the sinful collaboration of human beings had grown out of control, God divided their languages and thus created the problem of “international relations,” which is with us to this day. In Acts 2, we see that such a division was meant only for a time—not to be settled, however, by political negotiations alone, but by the miraculous and reconciling work of the Holy Spirit to form new forms of cooperation between those who had previously not been able to understand one another. This suggests that if our vision of Christianity is not world-wide—if it is not “catholic” in this small-c, multi-lingual sense—it is too small.
The second point—that the Holy Spirit’s work is a movement toward unity—is depicted in the same story: not only did the disciples find themselves empowered to speak in other languages. But miraculously, the people who spoke those languages as their mother tongue were able to understand them. What the Spirit establishes is not the infinite proliferation of private spiritual ecstasy—a speaking in the tongues of angels, which can be understood only by the few. Neither does the Spirit lead toward ecclesial chaos and an endless diversity of possible Christianities—diversity celebrated for diversity’s sake. Rather, the authentic diversity of the Spirit is one which leads toward mutual comprehension, undoing the curse of Babel and helping nations which had been so long divided come to recognize Christ in one another through the power of the Holy Spirit.
In sum, the work of the Holy Spirit is to re-humanize us, restoring the marred image of God within us, and leading us to further vistas and horizons that had previously been unimaginable. But perhaps the most important thing to remember is that the Spirit is not a force, but a Person. We do not have to “tap into” His power with divining rods; He has a will of his own. This active, restorative mission of the Spirit is captured nowhere more eloquently than in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “God’s Grandeur,” which itself forged a new kind of poetic language in the early 20th century, and it is with his words and vision that I leave you:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod? Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.