5/28/23, Pentecost, Acts 2:1-21 & John 20:19-23 The Rev. Katie Holicky, Assistant Rector
Every year on the morning of Phil’s birthday, I quietly slip out of bed and decorate. I hang a “happy birthday” banner over our fireplace and hang rainbow streamers around our living room. As he comes out and wipes the sleep from his birthday eyes he always expresses excitement and joy that he has been decorated for. As he opens presents I take every card he gets and place it on the mantle for us to gaze upon for the week to come. A reminder that he is loved and cherished. I love birthdays. I especially love the birthdays of those whom I love. Because they were born in the time and place they were born and so was I… I get to love them! I GET to be in relationship with them and so their birth is worth celebrating. It’s worth taking a pause and letting a loved one know just how meaningful they are in my life. And so, HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CHURCH!
As a Jesus of justice super fan, I love this day. With the gust of wind and the dance of fire the world was changed by the presence of the Holy Spirit that resides with us. The “paraclete” as Carolyn reminded us of last week, the one who walks alongside. Carolyn, thanks a million for that image of Jesus ascending with that word written on his feet… so good! This day is the birthday of the church that we come from. It is the genesis of our ancestral community and it is delicious to celebrate that in our church today as we carry on in that same mutual, invitational, loving, courageous, justice filled way of being that is for everybody.
And after spending a week with the new commentaires you all gifted me last week at my commissioning (Queer Bible Commentary, True to our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary) my heart and mind are blown wide open, perhaps with that same gust of the Holy Spirit, at some new ways to think about just how spectacular Pentecost is. It’s not just a birthday, which actually may be a bit of an oversimplification.
So, let’s think about that day thousands of years ago. First, I want to say that I am often still struck by the plain presence of our triune God. Throughout New Testament scripture God is not dressed up in worldly shiny things the way we sometimes dress God up now. God becomes incarnate in a dirty manger and appears first to the lowest of society, the shepherds. Jesus lives very humbly and travels around teaching care of the vulnerable and opposition to the empire. But he never picks up a sword as many had suspected the real Messiah would. Jesus is killed as a criminal who pushed the empire too far, and is raised again quietly and with little pomp and circumstance.
The Holy Spirit comes into a stale locked up room of broken hearted and confused followers waiting for some sort of sign as to know what to do next. The Holy Spirit comes into a vacuum of hunger. People hungry for direction and a clear way forward, people hungry to heal and grow, people hungry for the passion of Jesus that they are missing, and they hunger for their own safety. Out of this closed up, stale, hungry room the church bursts forth into the world.
So, here’s a bit of historical context for us to better understand the people we see in the Acts story. Originally this celebration was the, “Agricultural ‘festival of weeks’, celebrated fifty days after Passover, at the completion of which a symbolic sacrifice was presented to God consisting of two loaves of bread made with the recently harvested grain, as well as certain animals prescribed by law (in Lev.)… Jewish tradition also held that the law had been given on this day” (TTONL, 217). This festival is in part why so many diverse folks are gathered to bear witness to the Holy Spirit breaking forth in the world.
And we immediately see the promise fulfilled that the followers of Jesus will do greater things together in his name. Jesus was teaching the people of Israel, when the Holy Spirit comes down the disciples are teaching the people of nations (TTONL, 218). The Holy Spirit shows us from the jump that She is for everyone. She reaches across things that divide us in our humanity, like language, and helps us to reach one another so that we might do those greater things than Jesus.
This inclusive story has helped many faith communities not just live into this vision of community for everyone, literally everyone there receives the goodness of God exactly where and how they are, but it has also helped marginalized folks step into leadership. Jarena Lee was a black female minister in the AME church who worked with Richard Allen. Yes, the Richard Allen that helped start the church with the first black Episcopal priest Absalom Jones. Jarena Lee was the first woman preacher in her tradition and used Acts 2, specially the section of Peter’s that references the prophecy of Joel, in the opening of her spiritual autobiography as a way to speak the truth of her power as a female leader in a time where women were kept from leadership (TTONL, 220). Joel’s prophecy includes the radical vision that ALL FLESH receive God’s Spirit. Not certain flesh, not white or of color, straight or queer, male or female or non binary, not young or old. All people receive the Spirit.
Afterall, “Peter explains the outpouring of the Spirit as a gift of God regardless of gender, class, or age. Women are enlisted, from the start, into this inbreaking…” (WBC, 539). And she is not alone! Many marginalized folks and communities have found more shore footing in the faith by claiming the inclusive mantle of the Pentecost story because Acts 2 is, “a demonstration of divine hospitality and inclusivity in earliest Christianity” (QBC, 567) and that is in direct opposition to empire.
A writer in one of my new commentaries notes: “The book of Acts… is a book of action, missionary activity, and above all, community… (the) overarching message in Acts is that Christians can only be Christians in community, that we will only make a difference in the world by sharing our goods in common and in a spirit of unity” (QBC, 567). In the Gospel of John the disciples are able to keep the Spirit to themselves in that upper room. Whereas in Acts, the Spirit drives them out into the streets to proclaim and act and allow the diverse people gathered to hear the message as they needed it (QBC, 568). We are given this sacred moment where folks are together in one place, receive the Holy Spirit together, “… and yet (are) manifesting that same Spirit in different and diverse ways in order to advance God’s one, unified Reign of inclusion and unconditional love.” (QBC, 568).
Pentecost is about shared, mutual spiritual authority and the power of what can happen when we allow the Spirit to draw us together in that particular way. In the spirit of Pentecost, the birth of the church, of our community, is one of radical hospitality. One of diverse welcome that is for every single person. This is something we know at our core and still God is always inviting us to be more deeply into relationship.
So, How do you need to be welcomed more deeply? Is there part of yourself that needs to be shared, seen, or affirmed here? How do we deepen our practice of welcome? Is there something we might learn about those who are different from us that might help us to welcome “the other” even more Spirit filled than we already do? Perhaps we need to learn more about inclusive/ opening and affirming language (if you don’t know what I mean by that you should ask me!) ? Or maybe more about how we put our faith into action by way of public policy or participating in justice work beyond our doors? The Spirit is always moving in our midst, may we incline our hearts and ears to Her so that we might become even more of who God made us to be… a radically welcoming place that is for everybody. May it be so.
Resources: Queer Bible Commentary, True to our Native Land, Women’s Bible Commentary