Day of Pentecost, Year A
31 May 2020
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
While everything is slowly reopening, and I cannot tell you how happy it makes me to see stores and restaurants open again as it allows people to resume their lives, we still live in the time of Corona.
We still live in the time of Corona because there is neither vaccine nor widespread immunity. What allows for the reopening of the economy is only the low infection rate.
Churches are slow to reopen because the virus is transmitted through aerosols, fine molecules of moisture, emitted through speech and song. As a scientist wrote recently, there is little risk to shoppers but for people working in stores where shoppers come and go and aerosols accumulate during the day, the risk is higher.
Worship necessarily involves singing. Perhaps the primary way in which we praise God is through song. Songs are also a way for us to pray, borrowing the words of poets and saints who have gone before us.
And assuming we agree about the necessity of song in worship, the church’s return to normal will be delayed out of care and concern for each other.
And so, living in the time of Corona, it strikes me as strange that on Pentecost we are scattered and not physically inhabiting the same space.
Pentecost is the beginning of the church. Pentecost is the reversal of Babel (Genesis 11) when the world became divided and people scattered. As in Christ the world is reconciled, so in the Holy Spirit the world is united. What were all the strange names in our readings? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs. The listing of all these people isn’t just to make things more challenging for the reader, but it is a symbol of the unity the Holy Spirit brings.
And so not being able to gather in person in one place is not only something that makes us sad as we miss each other, but it also seems in contradiction to the unity the festival of Pentecost proclaims and the Holy Spirit makes possible.
Being scattered is not ideal, but is it a fundamental contradiction of the work of the Holy Spirit? Does our physical separation hem in the Holy Spirit?
What happens on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem is the fulfillment of God’s promises. Before his ascension Jesus had spoken to the disciples of the Father’s promise of the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel of John, Jesus speaks at length about the sending of the Holy Spirit.
And the gift of the Holy Spirit is not negated by the current crisis.
During the Reformation as well as later during the era of Pietism, there was made a distinction between a visible church and an invisible church. The visible church was the institution, often in error, the invisible church was the community of true believers only known to God.
Perhaps this was a construct that comforted a faithful minority within the church, but it was also a polemical device applied to one’s enemies.
The problem with it is that the very point of the church is that it be visible, not invisible. An invisible church does not get noticed, has no effect, does not engage in acts of charity or change.
A church that lives its faith in the way the Holy Spirit directs cannot be invisible, for who would take a light and put it under a bushel basket? (Matthew 5)
Reading about the Holy Spirit in Acts and also in the epistles, we see that receiving the Holy Spirit is about being filled with the Holy Spirit. And being filled with the Holy Spirit is opposed to being full of myself, or full of greed, or anger, or anything else.
And so in Acts 2, they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Here the promise of Psalm 16 is fulfilled that God will fill us with the joy of God’s countenance.1
When the disciples face opposition they are filled with the Holy Spirit and speak the Word with boldness to anyone.
When deacons are appointed to serve the poor, the requirement for them is that they be full of the Spirit and of wisdom. (Acts 6:3) One of them was Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit and who was full of grace and power, and who at his death, full of the Holy Spirit gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
Whatever the church does when it is a light on the hill, is in the power of the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit, the church can do nothing. What the church does in the power of the Holy Spirit gives it visibility. The church filled with the Holy Spirit is to be visible in the world.
And so not being able to gather in the way that we are used to is a handicap but it is not a contradiction of the visibility of the church. For we choose to worship from our homes out of love and respect not only for one another but also for complete strangers.
And not being able to gather in the way we are used to, does not mean that through our common worship and life, the Holy Spirit would not shape our lives in a way to opposes injustice, and that names injustice, even in ourselves. The most obvious injustice that comes to mind today is our inability to see our own privilege and how old colonial structures continue to enforce discrimination and racism. We do not have to look south of the border but sadly it was not a coincidence when a grandfather and his granddaughter were taken into custody for the crime of wanting to open a bank account for the 12 year old girl, or that many First Nations communities continue to live without drinking water. What culture is it that makes this possible?
The apostle Peter calls on his listeners to repent. Repentance, too is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, and it too is visible for it leads to change in us. And so, perhaps on this Pentecost, we repent of our ways and ask God to make us new so that the city on the hill may be more visible and the light shine more brightly.
Yes, we do live in the time of Covid. More importantly, though, we live in the time of God’s Holy Spirit.
1In the translation of the Septuagint (LXX)