By Fr. Travis O’Brian
St. Barnabas Church, Victoria, Rector
O God, who makest us glad with the yearly remembrance of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon thy disciples in Jerusalem: Grant that we who celebrate before thee the Feast of Pentecost may continue in thy love forever . . . Amen.
For the first three centuries after the resurrection of Jesus, the church understood the event we celebrate on this day, God’s pouring out of His Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, to be the second most important day in the Church’s year, next to Easter. The Church celebrated this feast 300 years before it began to celebrate Christmas, for example. That may surprise us. The question is why this was the case. Why is Pentecost such a profoundly important celebration? And why should we renew our efforts to celebrate it with joyful festivity?
The quick answer is because Pentecost marks the ‘birth of the church.’ So this is a kind of birthday party. But the deeper answer helps us to understand what the church is and so what her birth means. Pentecost is so profoundly important because of the intimate relationship between the events we celebrate this day and Easter – and why Pentecost marks the end of the Easter season. Remember, what Easter celebrates is not the resurrection of one person, Jesus, alone. For the Easter promise is that we shall all share in his resurrection. Easter promises not one resurrection for Jesus and another resurrection for me and another for you. The Easter promise is that there is one resurrection, of which Jesus is the ‘first fruits.’ The promise of Easter is that death does not separate us from the eternal love of God, but that all things are, as Christ, to share in the very life of God, the life of His Love, forever. This is a great and even overwhelming mystery. But it is the ground of Christian hope and Christian joy: the Easter promise that we shall live as one with God and one with one another in God’s love, just as the Father and the Son are united in and by that same Love.
Pentecost and Easter go together because on the day of Pentecost the apostles were at last given to understand this Easter promise. On the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit opened their hearts to know that the same power which raised Christ from the dead was working in them at that very moment. The Church was born, in other words, as the foretaste and a living witness of the one life of resurrection – the life of eternal love in which all are one in Christ as Christ is one in the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Church was born as God’s declaration, and the Apostle’s realization, that the promise of resurrection is not just for the other side of death. The Church was born as the embodiment and living witness of resurrection life – of the life we share with Christ Jesus – starting now, today, right here. Reborn through the waters of the Holy Spirit, the Church is the community which no longer lives ‘my life for me’ and ‘your life for you,’ but which is animated by the Spirit of resurrection, in which Christ is all in all.
Remember the story. The apostles are gathered behind locked doors. “Suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind . . . and there appeared to them tongues as of fire . . . resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues.” And then comes the most important thing of all: gathered in Jerusalem were “devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together . . . and each one heard them speaking in his own language.” In what then was the power of the Holy Spirit? Was it in the wind and fire? Was it in the ability to understand foreign speech as naturally one’s mother tongue? These things were signs that the power of God was at work in them. But that power was at work for a purpose – to unite all those disparate people, separated as they were by language, race, class, culture, sex – to unite them into the one life of Christ; that they might awaken to the power of the resurrection working in them. The Church was born as “this multitude came together,” as this once-timid and frightened and disparate group was transformed by Love to be the living witness of the resurrection of Christ in and for the world.
The Church is born wherever and whenever the power of the Holy Spirit unites the people of God, no matter what divides us, into one body, the body of Christ, and where the life of that body becomes, therefore, a living witness and a sign of Christ’s resurrection. The Church, properly speaking, is not the institution, but the living witness of the love that raised Christ from death into life. That may sound Utopian. Of course we never get it perfect. There has never been a moment, except perhaps on that day of Pentecost, where the Church embodied perfectly the love of the Holy Spirit in all its members. Many things still separate us. Different circumstances bring different sensibilities. Different perspectives bring different opinions. Different times of life bring different needs and different priorities. God leads each one by different paths and for private reasons. Yet the question the Holy Spirit challenges us with is: how do these differences contribute to the one life of the body, rather than cause division? The love that unites doesn’t always flow naturally from our hearts. Just read the book of Acts. Luke tries to smooth over some of the difficulties, but even he is clear that the Apostles needed to work hard at this business of love. To be one in Christ doesn’t always mean we need to be of one mind. But it does mean we need to be of one heart, to share the heart of Christ. Always, we need to pray for the grace of the Holy Spirit, to examine ourselves, and reach out to one another, especially those who may be divided from us by race or education or economics or age or opinion or theology. We cannot be who God intends us to be without them. We need them and they need us; for only together can we be the body of Christ; only together can we be the sign and living witness of the resurrection which is the Church.
At St Barnabas, we celebrate Pentecost with the messiness and joy and reminder of new life that children and youth always bring. For young people in the Church are a sign of hope and resurrection life. To live in that hope, to live together as the Body of that hope, is to learn to see our differences and all that separates us, as gifts of the Spirit. Let us listen to each other. If something is remiss, then let us help and encourage one another without blame. None of us is perfect; that is why the Holy Spirit has given us to one another – so that we may practise the love of Christ on one another. And the gift of that love poured out upon the Church is what we celebrate on this Holy Day of Pentecost.