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Pentecost 2020

Sunday, May 31, 2020
Acts 2:1-21; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 7:37-39

A few years ago Christopher and Carolyn Pratt gave us free tickets to a movie at the Princess Cinemas. It was this documentary called Red Army. It wasn’t a war movie, but a sports one. It was about the Soviet hockey program during the Cold War, and about how the competition and tension we saw on the ice was a reflection of much bigger, political things going on in the world. If you’re planning a staycation in place of a vacation this year, you might consider giving this a watch.

The movie starts out with the Olympics and Canada Cup, and those early clashes between the Russians and the North American hockey teams, and their very different ways of training and playing. But then it gets closer to the present day, to the days when I remember being a BIG hockey fan as a kid. What happened then was that some Soviet players started making their way to the NHL. And this leads to having these legendary, feared, ridiculously talented players popping up on American and Canadian teams… But, to everyone’s surprise, not much happened. They barely had an impact. They visibly struggled.

Some saw this as proof that the smooth and fast European style was no match for the rough and tumble North American way. Others saw it as a sign that the highly-disciplined military-type Soviet training regimen was overkill. But that wasn’t the case at all. There was one team, the Detroit Red Wings, and especially their coach for much of the ‘90s, Scotty Bowman (the winningest coach in NHL history) who saw the problem: you couldn’t stick one Russian player, playing the Russian style, on a line with a bunch of Canadians and Americans playing totally differently, because they’re going to work against each other. So what Bowman did is put together a line with five Russians. And just like *that* things clicked. The strategies that didn’t work for individuals worked as a team. And for several years the Red Wings dominated the league. Teamwork, that was the key. Individual skills were futile, if they were not working in harmony with others. When coaches and general managers thought that focussing on the individual charisma of these novel Russian players, things fell flat. But when they started to think about how a line could work as a symphony, things took off.

That’s one modern day entry point into the Feast of Pentecost. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good,” writes Paul to the Corinthians, in our second reading today. On Pentecost, which marks 50 days following the celebration of Easter, we recall the story of the early Christians gathered together and touched by the Holy Spirit so that they could do amazing things.

Yet both in the early Church, and today, there can be a tendency for this to cause division: you’ve got the real, Spirit-filled Christians, and the ‘normal people.’ As we listen in to Paul’s correspondence it seems that the charismatic gifts of some, like speaking in tongues, is getting a lot of attention. But how does Paul react? He affirms that the gift of tongues is a thing (just like the Soviet style of play is a valid part of hockey playing), but over and over he comes back to the themes of unity, of oneness. We have the same Spirit, the same Lord. The same God activates the variety of gifts. “For just as the body is ONE and has many members, and all the members of the BODY, though many, are ONE body, so it is with Christ. For in the ONE Spirit we were all baptized into ONE body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of ONE Spirit.”

And this comes to culminate in the famous hymn to love that we hear at so many weddings: “If I speak in tongues of angels, but have no love, I am a resounding gong, a clanging cymbal.” We should see the Spirit as bringing us, as ancient doctrine has articulated, into the ever-flowing river of love between the Father and the Son. The Spirit brings us into God’s love. The Spirit leads us toward the Kingdom, of which Jesus is the embodiment.

It might be a surprise to some to learn that Pentecost isn’t a creation of the Church. It’s actually a long-established Jewish festival; one of the three pilgrimage festivals of the Jewish year. The other two are Passover (which is related to our Holy Week and Easter stories), and Sukkot, or the Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles, or Huts), which is the background to today’s gospel reading from John 7. Pentecost and Sukkot are both harvest festivals, but they eventually also developed deeper theological associations with the Exodus.

Sukkot is called the Festival of Booths, because there’s a practice of erecting little huts outdoors, as the rainy season approached, representing the tents that the Hebrews stayed in while wandering for years toward the Promised Land. You might come across some huts in the present day; I remember seeing at least one as I walked, between the house where I stayed in Toronto and Trinity College, while completing my M. Div. studies. And part of Sukkot was the offering of water, the pouring of water from the Siloam spring into the ground, as well as prayers for rain to nourish the land, as well as the praying for a successful rainy season. So when Jesus says “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me,” he’s connecting the promises of God that he fulfills, with the hopes of the people observing the festival. We all, in some way, yearn for relief and refreshment, and Jesus can provide that, just as God kept the Hebrew people alive during their long journey through the desert. Our thirsting might not necessarily be a literal, physical one. But we thirst for something, nonetheless.

And then back to Pentecost. Celebrated 50 days after the Passover, it came to be connected with how the freed Hebrews left Egypt and eventually came to Mount Sinai. There, with wind, and cloud, and fire (kind of like some of the descriptions in the Acts reading), on Mount Sinai Moses meets God, and receives the Ten Commandments. Sinai, in other words, is the place where the covenant, the pact, the agreement between God and the Hebrew people, is established and affirmed. It’s where they are called to be God’s special people, living a special way, observing these laws.

Likewise, it’s on Pentecost that the early Church receives a sort of commissioning. But it’s not laws that are received, but the Spirit of God… the Spirit of God who can make soft hearts out of hard, stony ones (so that our conformity to God’s will is internal rather than external and forced).

And this is a gift that is meant to be universal. That gift of tongues that some Christian traditions fixate on so much, sometimes making it a source of division, is actually a sign of God’s desire for oneness, for unity (while honouring diversity). The people in the story don’t hear gibberish; they hear the Good News of God in their own language: “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs, in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” What on Sinai was a covenant between God and a small nation is now opened up and made possible for the whole world.

There’s one last thing I wanted to mention. It’s how the Book of Acts is actually the sequel to the Gospel of Luke. And Luke is interesting, because its nativity story features several beautiful, poetic interludes. To me, it kind of comes across like a musical, where, when something dramatic and important happens, people start singing. And I wonder if we might consider the story of the gift of tongues at Pentecost as one of those musical interludes. Music is universal, right?

As we look way back at the beginning of Luke, the first song is Mary’s, the Magnificat. She learns that she will bear the Messiah — and not just that, but she has been “overshadowed” by the Spirit, so she breaks out in song, singing about how in God’s way of doing things, the lowly will be raised up, and the weak made strong.

And then John the Baptizer is born, and his father, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” breaks into song (maybe there was dancing, too): “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Then after the birth of Jesus, John’s cousin, he is consecrated to God at the Temple. There the prophet Simeon holds him, and — this being a musical — Simeon has his solo: “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

That’s all at the beginning of Luke. And here we are today, at the beginning of Luke’s second volume, Acts, and the song of the early Church is a fulfillment of what Simeon had been singing about earlier: the revelation of God’s goodness to the gentiles — to everyone — has come.

Unlike the early Church described in Acts chapter 2, we, unfortunately, aren’t able to gather in one place. But there is still good news for us to celebrate, that in this time of societal pause, and vulnerability, and a return to basics and necessities, we can practice the ways of the Spirit, and pray for this gift. “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water,” Jesus said. In these uncertain times we can’t travel outwardly as much as we normally would, but we can travel inwardly, into our own hearts, and become people of the Spirit, and as Paul counselled, use our gifts to grow in the ways of love. Like musicians who bring a songwriter’s composition alive, we have a role to play in God’s unfolding story. We are a part of God’s song. Amen.

© 2020 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter