The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
May 6, 2018
Romans 8:22-27, Acts 2:1-21
Here ends the reading! Amen, and thank you to the many members of our community––our transnational and scholarly community––who helped us experience the xenolalia of the first apostles, the ability to speak and to understand in an actual language not one’s own. Please join me in a spirit of prayer: “Our gracious God, on this Pentecost morning, we ask you to help us feel the power of the Holy Spirit’s presence among even us, that your Spirit may endow all of our words and thoughts with holy wisdom and truth. Amen.”
Happy Pentecost, indeed! This is the day on which we celebrate the birthday of the church––the global church, to be sure––sisters and brothers around the globe are meeting together today just as we are rejoicing in our oneness of belief and mission––in every place where the languages we’ve just heard are spoken––in Denmark and Japan, Serbia and Korea, in all the parts of the world where people speak Arabic and Spanish and French, Dutch and Portuguese. This is the birthday of the church universal––of friends on earth and also friends above, all who have gone before and all who are yet to be, and of God and Christ and the Holy Spirit whose reign and presence are universal indeed.
Happy Pentecost! For this is the day of great unification for the whole human family. In the Tower of Babel, we were scattered and our languages confused to stop our hubris of trying to storm the gates of heaven. Today, we are reunited as a human family to work together for Christ’s purposes. As Peter quotes from the prophet Joel, today is the fulfillment of God’s prophecy to pour out the divine Spirit on “all flesh”––all of humanity receives the gift of the Spirit. Henri Nouwen has written, “Living the spiritual life means living life as one unified reality. The forces of darkness are the forces that split, divide, and set in opposition. The forces of light unite. Literally, the word “diabolic” means dividing. The demon divides; the Spirit unites.”
Yes, a very happy Pentecost, on this day when the Holy Spirit is poured out upon you and me, equipping us every moment of every day for the life of faith, for perseverance when times are challenging, with courage when times are frightening, with an understandable word when we need to speak up and help others grasp and discern the meaning of an action or time.
In our passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans, we have such warm, caring encouragement from the Apostle to remember that we have been equipped to be faithful to Christ in every circumstance. To believers in Rome enduring persecution (not boredom or fatigue or doubt but danger), he reminds them that they have everything they need––within them is power and faith, outside them is the Holy Spirit and her work in the world. He reminds Romans and Princetonians that a new age has begun––God has begun it in the world and God has begun it inside them and us. All is not complete, the labor continues, our work continues. We are blessed and we are redeemed and yes, we are still groaning as we evolve. But still we live in hope; it is our hope that has saved us. We don’t hope in what we can see before our eyes, we hope in what we have been told and then believed. Today, God is not all in all, but that day will come, that time is our inheritance, and the work to build that world lies before us. The Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness––when we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit fills in the gaps, the silences, with sighs too deep for words. God knows each of us intimately, and God is one with the Spirit, and so the Spirit intercedes for us just as we need and just as God endorses. Sometimes each of us feels like we struggle alone, or that our thin necks are stretched out in a vulnerable situation that isolates us from all else, but no––we endure every kind of trial with the constant accompaniment of the Spirit.
Many people I know, and maybe you are like them, would say, “I don’t go about my days certain that the Holy Spirit is working in and through me––that the Spirit supports my daily tasks. They are pretty mundane.” But yes, friends––whatever good we need to do, the Spirit is always empowering us. And we do do good––we work hard to learn, to expand the boundaries of our own knowledge and hopefully to create, now or later, new knowledge to edify and lift up the human community. We are doing good all the time––we are being the friends that those around us badly need. We are parenting; we are being the loving children of our parents and other relatives, no matter how far away they may be. We make them so happy just because we are in the world. Whatever work we do, we are doing good. Teachers do good, real estate agents help people to find blessed places in which to do their work or make a home. Chemists work to improve the human condition, social workers help people out, lawyers pursue justice, medical personnel bring health and wellness. Practitioners of every art bring us beauty, activists protect or promote everything from woodlands to the disabled. The people who labor daily to care for kids, homes, parents, anyone, do good upon good. In all the good that we do, the Spirit is always empowering us, and so when the good that we do becomes challenging, we are never in it alone.
And yet! On this Pentecost morning, it behooves us to reflect on just how transformative was that descent of God through the Holy Spirit upon those first Jews from around the Mediterranean gathered in Jerusalem for the Festival of Weeks. The scene was both glorious and chaotic. Some of the words in our text are: violent, fire, bewildered, amazed, astonished, perplexed. It was an experience that really shook up those who experienced it personally and also those who witnessed it. All that these witnesses could say was that the speakers were terribly drunk––it was the only thing their imaginations could conjure to explain the craziness in front of them. These blabbering faithful ones were written off as drunk. Dismissed. Belittled. Onlookers couldn’t make sense of the craziness, and so they put it down.
On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit pushes everyone out of their comfort zone and into the unknown. Our biblical images of God’s Spirit––ruach in Hebrew––are not mild. The Spirit is the mighty wind that blows over the waters in creation; the Spirit is the tongues of flame that descend on Pentecost. There’s nothing gentle about either. If we were to let the tongues of flame set us on fire for discipleship, what would we find ourselves doing? I hope that, on this Pentecost morning, we can let the Spirit do what she did to those first believers and shake us up, knock us out. I’ve mentioned so many of the categories of the good we do, all of it lovely, but the Spirit didn’t ask the founders of the church to be lovely, but rather to risk the respectability they enjoyed to join God and Christ in doing something new. Respectability––they lost that when the xenolalia hit them and the folks walking by announced to the world that they were drunk before lunch. Let us, too, think about all the ways that respectability hinders our participation in God’s evolving, groaning project of redeeming the world. Let’s surrender human ideas of respectability, and all the contingent respect it earns us, to live with a fiery amazement before the pillar of fire that leads the way forward. As children and teachers continue to be killed at school, shall we be respectable or prophetic? What if we let the Spirit give us new powers of speech?
And similarly, let us get over any desire we have to domesticate the Holy Spirit, to domesticate God. That wind, that fire––they are the very forces of creation and redemption. Let us not cleave to a domesticated Jesus who tells us to be nice but to the revolutionary Christ who sets us free. It is only his revolution that has ever been able to save the world. When the Holy Spirit came upon those first Jewish pilgrims in Jerusalem, they began to live both humbly and prophetically. They knew that the in-breaking Reign of God would not be aided by respectability or complacency but by truth-telling, radical love, limitless compassion, and hard-won courage. This has been true in every age. Let us live lives of Spirit––while children die in school, while bombs rain down on the innocent, while greed rules, while people are violated simply for being themselves in public, while prejudices rage, let us be the groaning prophets of God’s new age, inhabited by the Spirit that intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.
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