A Sermon Delivered by
The Reverend E. F. Michael Morgan, Ph.D.
Trinity Episcopal Church
Morgantown, West Virginia
Day of Pentecost
Today is a major feast day in our Christian calendar. It is Pentecost, a religious event in the life of our church that calls attention to the presence and vitality of the Holy Spirit as it manifests itself in the form of a dove descending from heaven. Pentecost is also, sometimes, called the birthday of the church; or if you prefer the more traditional nomenclature and like to remember the earlier liturgical lexicon, it’s known as Whitsunday – which was formerly called White Sunday (followed in turn by White or Whit Monday and then Whit Tuesday, Whit Wednesday, Thursday, Friday…and so on); for reasons, I confess, I’m not entirely sure. In fact, to this day I remain mystified by Pentecost’s linguistic derivations. Yet what it’s “called,” isn’t nearly as important as what Pentecost “is.”
So to start out on the right foot, we probably need to reference the sacred writings and holy texts we use in order to establish the roots of our theological beliefs. As good Episcopalians, it is fitting that we should look to the lectionary, and note that it stresses the overall theme of peace. The words we hear this day, as well as throughout the whole season of Pentecost, suggest that our response as believers should be that of accepting the quietness-of-silence, rather than revving-up the noise-of-babble. Pentecost is an occasion for joyful affirmation and declaration. True enough. Yet it is also a time of proclamation that alleges Jesus’ coming reign will be balanced, holy and peaceful. Pentecost can rightly be regarded as a new era; one that is more popularly known as the “kingdom of God.” Pentecost is the “where-and-when-and-why” that provides the opportunity to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit; and once we accept that gift with gratitude, we are moved to act accordingly as peacemakers in the world.
So what logically follows is a series of questions. How well are we doing as disciples and followers of the man Jesus? How clearly have we defined our understanding and interpretation of the singular human being we claim to actually be the Son of God? And what is Jesus actually asking of us? These are not intended as trick questions, calling for glib answers. They are serious inquiries; questions couched with a degree of uncertainty and even disbelief, as evidenced by skeptics like Doubting Thomas who needs to touch Jesus’ wounds, or Philip-the-Apostle who says ‘show us the Father and we will be satisfied,’ in order to believe. Yet for most early followers on that first Pentecost, as well as for believers over the centuries, virtually all of whom were filled with rapture and joy; they found a way to speak happily in tongues in order to express their enthusiasm for faith, and they did it with fervor.
But how and where did all this Holy Spirit activity actually begin? Scholars contend the original Pentecost presumably took place in ancient Jerusalem 50 days after the resurrection, and its message of the Holy Spirit descending and dwelling among us is a fundamental axiom of Christian belief. At Pentecost, the Spirit of the living-God/and the now ascended-Jesus, is made manifest. Furthermore, earlier authorized Prayerbook commentaries have reiterated the same thing; and then they’ve gone on to expand and describe the story of the Holy Spirit filling the apostles with such enthusiasm that they were compelled to share their peace-making message with people representing nations in distant and far-off lands. So, I think it’s fair to say this was, unmistakably, the most dramatic and pivotal moment in the life of the early church; an experience that could only be described in terms of rushing wind, blazing fire, and the phenomenon of speaking in tongues, linguistically called glossolalia. And on that point we might redefine ‘speaking in tongues’ as a phonetic expression found in different languages and dialects. One thing, however, is for sure. Pentecost at its core, is a multi-faceted smorgasbord of spiritual gifts; glossolalia, tongue-speaking, sign language, and yes, even social media – these are all treasured spiritual gifts of communication found around the world.
But what about Pentecost today, 2019? What’s going on right here in this historic college-town of Morgantown; a community that some refer to as ‘heartland-America?’ Living as we do in a world filled with anxieties and turmoil, we perhaps need Pentecost more than ever. In fact, I think it’s fair to say; today division and strife describe the partisan atmospherics of both our local communities as well as our national civic life. We face a generational and challenging digital divide in the days ahead. We observe that hearts and minds must be calibrated and reset, in order to attune people to the compassionate proposition of peace. Individuals require human love in its fullest dimensions, but more importantly, they need divine love as well.
And it’s not easy to bring about this change of heart because full-blown hardness-of-heart is already in evidence, and none of us are blind to what’s going on. We all see for example; the extent to which local halls-of-justice are contaminated with cronyism and misbehavior. We see Congress stymied over stalled legislation, immigration policies, and fair taxation. We are fully aware that people disagree over the presence of guns in this country as we grapple with the agonizing death of students within our schools, as well as the mindless killing of innocent public-service workers simply doing their jobs in municipal buildings. And we warily acknowledge the uncomfortable tensions that emerge because of demographic shifts taking place in our nation, making America look more and more tribal and divided.
I am not alone in thinking that our relations are frayed at the edges: colored by a loss of respect and evidenced by a lack of basic civility. Nor am I alone in saying that spiritually in the churches of America growing numbers of believers feel angry; betrayed by their clergy, and contemptuous of ecclesiastical authority – many are even prone to resist public commitment whatsoever. These are not only disenchanted pilgrims; depicted by pollsters as the confusingly-named “None’s” - as in ‘None of the Above’ – a sample that statistically had been the fastest growing religious group (or more accurately, non-religious group), in America; but also the “Done’s” – those who are now completely disgusted with organized religion, and “done” with the nonsense of participating any more.
Is it really that bad? Well, maybe yes, maybe no. You have to decide for yourself. That’s how Episcopalians think, by the way, constantly seeking the via media, the balanced middle position based on individual conscience and freedom of belief. That stance of course has its own peril, in that life can become an endless dilemma. But here’s the good news. Right now this morning, look where you are. You’re here in church. That’s probably a good start on the road to righteousness and salvation. Now look around – and see who else is here. Clearly everyone’s presence in this building is a living statement to a spirituality that transcends time and space. Christians believe that the spiritually-charged power comes alive in the presence of the living-Jesus among us, and it comes from above in the form of a dove. That’s Pentecost.
Remember in today’s Gospel Jesus says:
the Holy Spirit… will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.. therefore - Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid."
And later in the Gospel of John, we note:
Jesus came and stood among them and said, – Peace be with you…Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:19-23)
That’s the living word of God that we believe is transformed into the sacrament of Holy Communion so that we can be empowered to go into the world as ambassadors of Christ, doing deeds of kindness and love. And we attempt to do all this, as we ask-it at the same time –
in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
CREDITS, NOTES, & REFERENCES: available on request.