We gather this day to celebrate the sending of the Holy Spirit. In so doing, we are reminded that the Church is something more than a club or a place of learning or a place to find people to care for us or a social service agency. In and through Holy Baptism, we are called to be the Body of Christ.
From time to time I am asked “why does the Church matter?” It’s a fair question to ask a priest. Why do we baptize and confirm and teach and send people out in mission?” One could argue that over the centuries, the Church has caused as much harm as good. All kinds of atrocities have been done by “Christian” people in the name of God and one doesn’t have to be a historian or social critic to know that.
Certainly God is bigger than the Church, and I think it’s good theology to admit that. The Spirit of God is like the wind, blowing where it will. Nevertheless, the Church claims that through this same Holy Spirit the baptized are called into covenant with God, to bear witness to what God has done in Jesus Christ, and to be agents of healing and reconciliation. It seems to me that when we fall short it’s because we aren’t paying attention to the Spirit. That doesn’t make the Church “null and void.” It just means we can and must be intentional about remembering who we are and continue to listen for the Spirit that leads us into all Truth. Today is an invitation to imagine what that might look like, if and when the Church is being what God intends it to be.
In the reading from the second chapter of Acts, Luke insists that we find this Spirit when we encounter “the other.” People who speak different languages are all in Jerusalem. But this story isn’t just about people who speak German or French or Russian or Armenian. People can speak the same “mother tongue” and still speak different languages. Sometimes that’s because we come from different generations. Other times it’s because we’re shaped by urban or suburban or rural values.
Communication is hard work! Most of us—even when raised in the Church—aren’t accustomed to seeing “the other” as a gift who can lead us into truth. We see them as a stumbling block and so we're tempted to build walls, not bridges. We are tempted to see them as a barrier to our getting what we want or think we need. When that happens we begin to allow fear to influence our words and our tones and our body language—and to block our willingness to listen. On both sides, conflict potentially escalates and authentic communication is hindered.
The story of that first Pentecost isn’t just about what happened one day a long time ago in Jerusalem. It’s a story about how the Spirit works: about how by the grace of God sometimes people do listen to, and even hear one another. Nelle Morton, a twentieth-century Christian educator, liked to use the phrase, “hearing one another to speech.” That is to say, when we listen for the Spirit alive in “the other," we are not being passive. Rather, we actively empower “the other” to speak their truth. Where that happens, whether in first-century Jerusalem or twenty-first century Massachusetts, the Holy Spirit is at work, and all are enriched and amazed in the process. The Church matters more than ever in a pluralistic society precisely because this story reminds us of what is possible when the Holy Spirit “shows up”—when people do “hear one another to speech” that leads to healing and to mission
Truth—the whole truth and nothing but the truth—is never something that any one of us can possess on our own. It requires community and intentionality. It requires plurality not singularity. “In Christ,” St. Paul insisted, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female.” On the great questions, one side never possesses the whole truth; and I believe it is the Spirit that pushes us into acknowledging that hard reality. Until we are able to hear, “each in his or her own native tongue.”
The Church is called to be an icon of what is possible—that is, an image of abundant life animated by God’s Holy Spirit. That is at the heart of what Pentecost is really all about: the Church as the Church, showing the world what is possible when the Spirit of God is trusted for guidance, and wisdom, and comfort.
That doesn’t mean there will be no conflict, and in fact the rest of Acts is filled with brutal honesty about just how difficult it is to be the Church. That keeps us from falling into the trap of a false kind of idealism that any of this is easy. But Pentecost insists that our agendas do not get the last word—that always the Church is meant to be a place where the simple question is asked: “what does God desire here?” Where is the Spirit blowing?
That doesn’t ensure that we will always get it right. But it does mean that we develop the practice of looking beyond ourselves for guidance. It doesn’t mean that everyone will speak the same language. But it does mean that we are intentionally becoming multilingual, that we are intentional about being a listening community, where we “hear one another to speech.”
The poets may be our best guides in this endeavor. So I close with the text of Timothy Rees’ hymn, found in the Hymnal 82 on page 511.
Holy Spirit, ever living as the Church’s very life;
Holy Spirit, ever striving through her in a ceaseless strife;
Holy Spirit, ever forming in the Church the mind of Christ:
thee we praise with endless worship for thy fruits and gifts unpriced.
Holy Spirit, ever working through the Church’s ministry;
quickening, strengthening, absolving, setting captive sinners free;
Holy Spirit, ever binding age to age, and soul to soul
in a fellowship unending: thee we worship and extol.