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Pentecost: Skating to Where the Puck is Heading

Sunday, May 28, 2023:
Acts 2:1-21
1 Cor 12:3b-13
John 20:19-23

Last week Leslie and I watched that new “Air” movie about Nike. How a struggling shoe company redefined itself around the person of, at the time, newcomer Michael Jordan, and subsequently both the athlete and the shoes bearing his name went on to superstardom. Then a couple days ago I heard a preacher from the States, talking about his love of basketball. To him, the best all around player ever is LeBron James. He noted how he frequently refrains from taking shots himself, but rather knows when it is wisest to pass to his teammates, in a way that makes everyone better. And this basketball fan-preacher quoted or paraphrased what he’s heard James say several times: “I just try and play the game the right way, getting my teammates involved, so that my team can win.”*

I’m not so much into basketball, but I like hockey. And I think of something I’m pretty sure I’ve heard said about someone from our Diocese, actually: Wayne Gretzky. Part of his greatness on the ice wasn’t that he went to the puck, it’s that he went to where the puck was going. He was able to look a bit into the future.

These are a couple of everyday, worldly examples. But they show us something about giftedness and about collaboration. And that brings us into the realm of Pentecost. I heard something else recently that fits: something like “Christmas is pointless without Easter, and Easter is pointless without Pentecost.” [I think this was from a podcast called “Lit Liturgy,” or something similar; I heard it indirectly.] At Pentecost we celebrate that the life-giving Spirit that hovered over the waters at the beginning of time and breathed life into the first person, and raised Jesus from the dead in the remaking of creation that we call the Resurrection… we celebrate that that same Spirit is here. A gift to the Church, but not the possession of the Church. In the Church, but also blowing ‘this way and that way’ out in the world. Just as Jesus, ascended, mediates for us to the Father in heaven, the Spirit mediates for us here on earth: helping us to see and experience God’s presence around us. Because the Spirit is nothing less than God’s Presence.

Sometimes there are ‘Spirit-filled’ moments in our life that align with the famous story in Acts. Where there were real, floating tongues of flame. Not balloons purchased from a party store. We think of that early community of believers as a bunch of Gretzkys and LeBron Jameses… (Even though, just fifty days earlier many of them had struggled significantly.) We might even develop something of an inferiority complex for not looking — or sounding — more like that group. But the meaning and purpose of that first Christian Pentecost wasn’t that they could act and sound strange; it was that everyone could understand one another. And, like the prophet Joel proclaimed, people of all sorts would one day be able to recognize what God is up to.

Though even the great ones like LeBron James know that it’s not all about them. It’s him who talked about getting his teammates involved, so that the [whole] team can win. That comes out in St. Paul’s writing about the Spirit that we heard: there are a variety of gifts, services, and activities, “but the same Spirit… it is the same God who activates all of them… for the common good.” The Spirit unites. In the Fourth Gospel’s version or equivalent of its Pentecost story, the risen Jesus appears to the disciples in the locked room, breathes on them (“breath” meaning “spirit”), and says two things: “Peace be with you” and “if you forgive sins, they’re forgiven; if you retain them, they’re retained.” Jesus is concerned with the life of a community, not just with individuals. A community sent to model and proclaim peace. And to know how and when to rehabilitate and restore people to communities. And when people need to take more time to sit with the reality and the effects of their failings (presumably, I’d suggest, to come to a fuller repentance, leading to real restoration).

And Pentecost, we’d do well to remember, was a longstanding Jewish holiday, fifty days not after Easter, but after the Passover. And falling as it does in the spring, a celebration of the first fruits of the harvest (they’re a little ahead of our climate). And holidays and traditions tending to evolve over time, Pentecost came also to commemorate the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai — which is all about the formation and flourishing of a people, a community, meant to be different than what they’d experienced in Egypt. So we might speak of not just those charismatic moments of the Spirit, but of everyday ‘life in the Spirit.’ Where elsewhere Paul will warn against some of those extraordinary sounding things like “sorcery” or predictable sorts of things like “impurity,” but also the seemingly ordinary things we might resign ourselves to: “jealousy, anger, quarrels… factions.” And then he writes to his audience about the fruit, the harvest of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (cf. Galatians 5).

We’ve probably all been in situations of jealousy and quarrels. But hopefully, including hopefully in the Church, we’ve experienced the fruits — or we might say, the result, the effects — of the Spirit at work: the love, joy, and peace, and generosity, and so on. Even, and perhaps most importantly, in situations of difference and diversity. And difference of perspective or opinion. I think I might have shared something from Benedictine sister Joan Chittister: “Unity… is a commitment to becoming one people who speak in a thousand voices. Rather than one message repeated by a thousand voices, unity is one message shaped by a thousand minds.”** And she continues: “The kind of unity that is born out of differences and becomes the glue of a group has four characteristics: it frees, it enables, it supports, and it listens. A group that is genuinely unified is a group that has freed every member to be themselves…. To seek unity means that enabling people to speak without fear and without hesitation must become the cornerstone of discussion.”***

‘Can we be good to one another, even in our differences?’ is the question. Church history has a mixed record on that. Wider society, too. Including our present moment, where the rigidity of stone tablets tend to be preferred over the creativity and vulnerability of the fruits of the Spirit.

So celebrate and hold high those moments recounted in the Acts reading. Or certainly the resurrection we’ve been celebrating these fifty days of the Easter season. But also look for and celebrate the more subtle blowings of the Wind of the Spirit. You see it when LeBron James passes the ball, for the good of the whole team. You experience it when an idea or plan in our head is completed, in a more exciting way, when work with someone else who brings their gifts to the table. And our dryness is quenched by the Spirit when we’ve been stuck in a rut — and you know this if you’ve ever been a part of any sort of board meeting — where we go around and around in circles, but sometimes there’s someone there who says something, reframes the issue, or does whatever else is necessary to move things to a more vibrant, exciting, and creative (and loving) place. That person around the table who taps us back into that sometimes hidden ground of our being, and purpose. Which is God.

For all of these instances we recognize and give thanks when we say “Glory to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine… Amen.”

© 2023 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* From the Pulpit Fiction Podcast, Pentecost 2023 episode.
** Joan Chittister (and Rowan Williams), For All That Has Been, Thanks (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2010), 103.
*** Ibid., 105.