Today is the Day of Pentecost, the day we celebrate the giving of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ followers, the birth of the Church, the empowerment of the disciples to carry out and carry on God’s mission in and for, and to the world God has made. We may puzzle over Jesus’ words to his inner circle about the Spirit, which we heard in the Gospel. We may be astonished at the description of the descent of the Spirit in the Book of Acts. But it is in St. Paul’s greatest letter – his Letter to the Romans – that we ground ourselves here and now in our own experience of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate and Guide, the One who intercedes for us and through us without end.
What is Paul telling us in this passage? He’s telling us that the whole creation, all humanity, and all who follow Jesus, are in the process of being born into God’s New Heaven and New Earth. One of my current favorite television series on PBS is “Call the Midwife”, about an order of Anglican nuns and nurses in the East End of London in the several years on either side of 1960. The Sisters and nurses care for expectant mothers, run maternity clinics, deliver babies at home and in birthing centers, and act as social workers and nurse-practitioners for the medical, social, and spiritual needs of their neighborhood. The series does not shy away from showing the hard work of labor and delivery, and the noisiness of birth, when every fiber in a woman’s body and voice comes together to push a child out into the world.
It is that image of all creation groaning in labor pains for the birth of God’s kingdom on earth, and for our own redemption – for us to be born anew into God’s best purposes and intentions for us, that Paul is painting. And that work of new birth is the work of the Holy Spirit. And it is work, it is labor, as well as gift. We were saved in hope, Paul says, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, but that is only the first part of the story, God’s story of our redemption. The second part of the story began at Pentecost with the outpouring of the Spirit to guide and strengthen and shape us into the Body of Christ; and for us to grow into the full stature of Christ. As St. Athanasius put it in the fourth century, “God became man so that men (and women) might become gods.”
The 20th century writer C.S. Lewis said: “[The Lord] said (in the Bible) that we were “gods” and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him—for we can prevent Him, if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, dazzling, radiant, immortal creatures, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to Him perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what he said.” (Mere Christianity)
This is the work of the Spirit – making us radiant with God’s life, and energy, and joy, but sometimes it s a very hard road, as I think we all know. How often have you struggled to make sense of bad news, a disappointment, or grief? How often have you resolved to speak and act like Jesus, only to find yourself far from that standard? How many times have you begun a daily program of prayer or Bible reading, only to abandon it in a fairly short period of time? How have you wrestled to hang on to the promise of God’s love for you, not sure whether or not you can trust that to be true? And yet, always we begin again, in hope, with the Holy Spirit himself interceding for us, with groans too deep for words.
This is the life that begins for us in baptism, this being joined to Christ in a way that is beyond our understanding, and yet our ultimate reality. This is the life that Brooks is beginning this morning, when his parents and godparents make renunciations and promises on his behalf, and he is washed with the water of baptism and signed with the sign of the Cross and the oil of chrism – a symbol of the healing, gladdening presence of the Spirit.
But the work of the Holy Spirit is not ended on the day of our baptism. It is a daily project as we grow and mature, as we go through life’s challenges and joys and difficulties, as we come face-to-face with the sin and brokenness in our world. The Spirit is always at work – poking us, prodding us, whispering in our ear, giving us a shove, blocking our path and sending us in another direction, inspiring and enlivening us. Sometimes it’s easy to see the Spirit at work, and other times it is much harder to recognize how and when the Spirit is acting.
I have always thought that the Holy Spirit window here to the left of our altar is a wonderful metaphor for the Spirit’s work in our life of faith. When you sit in the center section of the church, you cannot see the window. If you move over to the side, you can get a glimpse of the window, but people, or the lectern, or the paschal candle might block your view. It is only when you approach the altar, when you come forward for Communion – union with Christ and all who love and follow him – that you can see the Holy Spirit window in full. And then there are a few weeks in the year, when the rising sun comes through the window at just the right angle, that you can see the image of the Spirit projected on the wall behind the altar – a fleeting and surprising glimpse. But the window is always there, and the Holy Spirit is always present and active, whether we see him or not.
So on this Day of Pentecost – in the midst of so much change in our lives, in our diocese, in our world – let the Holy Spirit pray in you and through you. Let the Holy Spirit enliven you and direct your steps. Listen to the Holy Spirit whispering in your heart and mind so that you may grow more deeply into the reality of Christ; so that we may all work together under the guidance of the Spirit to build and bring to birth the better world that is God’s dream, as our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry so often says – the world for which God’s love was poured out so abundantly in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus.
Thanks be to God; Amen. Alleluia!
Victoria Geer McGrath
Al Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
The Day of Pentecost
May 20, 2018