One of my prized possessions is a cassette recording of Thomas Merton lecturing his fellow monks at their Kentucky monastery during Advent of 1964. He tells them that we must come to see that Christianity exists in history, and that we have to see Advent in terms of contemporary history. He details some then-current events: the shootings and killings in Mississippi, the war in Rhodesia. Then he says, “Pious meditations on how rough Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus had it are meaningless unless I have some response to the sufferings in the flesh today. Events are manifesting a reality which is present. We’re living in Advent. What’s happening around us is the Advent liturgy of 1964.”
Merton’s words shed light on every season of the church year. In this case, they raise the question of the difference between mere pious mediations on the early disciples gathered at the festival in Jerusalem and the events that indicate we are living in Pentecost. In seeking an answer, we do well to remember John Howard Yoder’s caution against reading “the surface of history,” that is, making simplistic connections between current news reports and the mysteries of what God is up to in the world. But with that due caution, what is the 2013 Pentecost liturgy? Each appointed Scripture text provides not only a lens through which to see the world but also a unique focus on the gift of the Spirit.
In Acts 2, the out-pouring of the Spirit is a dazzling convergence of Passover and Pentecost, signs and wonders that extend God’s message of repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations. The coming of the Spirit crosses countless barriers, and, in Augustine’s words, “gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages.” Where in the world is that happening?
Romans 5-8 has the structure and language of the Exodus. A groaning creation has fallen short of the glory of God and become subjected to futility. God’s gargantuan Gospel rescue operation through the death of Jesus and the freedom of the Spirit encompasses groaning individuals caught in the grip of slavery and fear. Justified by the death of Christ, they are brought out of bondage and now are led by the Spirit through the wilderness toward the promised land of God’s restored creation. Where in the world is that happening?
In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ announcement of the Spirit is spoken on the night he was betrayed and arrested. Primal responses pour from the disciples as he tells what was to come: Show us the Father. Where are you going? Why do you have to go? Can we go with you? Who’ll stay with us when you’re gone? To their childlike vulnerability, Jesus promises another Advocate, the Spirit of truth who will teach them what can only be revealed and will abide with them in a new way as they carry on his ministry. Where in the world is that happening?
The Psalmist refrains for 23 verses from naming God while giving an inventory of creation’s extravagance. Finally God’s name is mentioned as the giver of this glorious abundance. God gives breath/wind/spirit again and again to create and renew. Question: how many breaths have you been given thus far? Add one more, and another… Where in the world isn’t that happening? Immersed in Psalms like this one, Abraham Heschel exclaimed, “The world is always on the verge of becoming one in adoration.”
Of course, Pentecost does not preclude the Advent liturgy. There are sufferings and agonies in the flesh today. Nearly fifty years after Merton’s lecture, the shootings and killings continue, as does the war in Afghanistan, Syria, and in too many other places. There are those loved ones who were not given a next breath. Churches still sometimes so entangle the Gospel with local and national idols that they become complicit to, or even agents of, the power of sin instead of the ministry of the Spirit. Insular preachers still serve up meaningless meditations that stem more from their watching reruns of “So You Think You Can Preach” than from their wrestling with the darkness in the evening news, or in a Cormac McCarthy novel, or in their own heart.
Far from negating the gift of the Spirit, though, acknowledging the ways we refuse and resist the Spirit’s work is the way we are made all the more aware of the scope of Jesus’ self-giving death on the cross and of the power of the Spirit to make new. The ministry of the Holy Spirit can then be as tender and focused as the spiritual’s “Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work in vain, but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again,” and as explosive and far-reaching as Calvin’s “The church of Jesus Christ and its history is nothing but a chain of resurrections from the dead.”
Where in the world is Pentecost? Charles Marsh writes that Clarence Jordan liked to say “that the steeple is defined by the kingdom, that every local congregation represents a point of entry into the global fellowship of the church, despite the intentions of particular memberships to take refuge in sameness” (Wayward Christian Soldiers, 179). It’s as if the local congregation, in spite of everything, can’t escape her call to be both witness to and bearer of the Spirit. Our ministry comes in reminding ourselves and others of this theological reality.
I can think of several sources who will remind me this week. Our children’s choir, a majority of whom are Latino, is singing “Bonse Aba.” The words are in Bemba, a language spoken mainly in Zambia. Since Bemba words have multiple meanings (most appropriate for Pentecost Spirit/wind/breath!), a word-for-word English translation is difficult, but an approximate translation is “All that sing have the right to be called the children of God.”
Another reminder is the Al-Anon group that quietly comes through a side door and gathers twice a week in a downstairs classroom. Richard Rohr reminds us of their role in the Spirit’s ministry: “When the churches forget their own Gospel message, the Holy Spirit sneaks it in through the ducts and air vents. AA meetings have been very good ductwork, allowing fresh air both in and out of many musty and mildewed churches.”
Most of all, it’s the regular, ongoing worship and ministry of a church caught up God’s message of repentance and forgiveness to all nations that provides the most immediate Spirit-filled answer to the question “Where in the world is Pentecost?”