Day of Pentecost 2011
NO OTHER PLAN
We celebrate two things today. The first is the seniors’ graduation from the Iona School for Ministry. It is no mean feat. It has demanded astute time management, a devoted determination to persevere, and an eagerness to learn which entails a willingness to be taught – not a quality universal among adults. These adults have been faithful to their vocation and to their assignments.
Each year at this time someone says to me, “You must feel very proud”. Actually I don’t and I have asked myself why. The main reason is that we are celebrating something you have accomplished, not something I have. I am not sure I could have done what you have done with all the other demands upon you. Another reason I am not puffed with pride is the poignancy of your departure. I have become accustomed to your faces. Every other Iona Sunday when you have flown off to your various homes and missions, I have known you would come flying back next month. But now you will not. And I will miss you.
A third consideration which constrains pride on my part is my acute awareness that all we have done, all you have done, is but preparation for the great task that awaits you. Today the preparation ends; the mission remains. Two years down the road if the kingdom of God is being revitalized and strengthened in your locale under your leadership and by your servanthood I shall take tremendous pride in having helped equip you for your ministry.
The other thing we celebrate today is Pentecost which was itself a graduation. Sometimes called the birthday of the Church, it is actually the baptism of the Church. The same Holy Spirit who anointed Jesus at his baptism now anoints the twelve disciples who are, collectively, Christ’s successor on earth. On this day the disciples become empowered apostles, those sent. Our word “disciples” comes from the Latin “discipuli” meaning students. Today the students become teachers and preachers.
St. Luke tells us they began preaching immediately in the native tongues of those present: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Egyptians, Libyans, Romans, Cretans, Arabs. What an incredible spectacle! Did that actually happen? I often wished I could have been there to see and hear for myself until I realized that I don’t know any of those languages; so I still would not have known what was happening. I might have just thought them drunk (v. Acts 2:13-15). What is indisputable is that the Gospel was in fact preached to Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Egyptians, Indians, Greeks, Romans, Gauls, Germans, Slavs, Celts. The gospel was eventually preached throughout South America and North America, in sub-Saharan Africa, in Australia and New Zealand. It is being preached today to great effect in China where the Christian faith may be spreading faster than any other place on earth and producing martyrs as well (v. The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity p. 653).
The apostolic mission is on-going because the entire world must be reconverted in every generation. Each day hundreds of children are born into this world knowing nothing of Christ. “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach except they be sent? As it is written, how beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things “(Rom. 10:14f KJV). The life of the world is still at risk, millions of human souls still spiritually malnourished. The need is the same, the mission is the same, the stakes are the same. Today our graduates receive a certificate of completion. Saturday, God willing, they will receive the Holy Spirit for the office and work of a deacon to be proclaimers, bearers and icons of the glorious gospel.
What is that gospel? We often say with St. Paul that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (II Cor. 5:19). Actually it goes beyond that. For, what is wrought in Christ and by Christ is not merely the reconciliation of a lost love, the restoration of a previous relationship, but the creation of something unprecedented: the union of divinity and humanity. In the 4th century, Gregory of Naziansus said of Christ, “He shares in the poverty of my flesh that I may share in the riches of his Godhead” (Theological Orations 38). In the same century Athanasius put it more baldly: “God became man in order that man might become God” (Of the Incarnation 54). These two statements are so bold, so mind-boggling, so apparently arrogant that we might dismiss them as crazy new age heresy did they not come from the two saints who more than any other were responsible for the Nicene Creed, the very definition of orthodoxy. Actually, St. Peter had anticipated them. Listen to his epistle: “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness,… that through these you may …become partakers of the divine nature” (I Pet. 1:3f RSV).
Today, Pentecost, marks the completion of a circle of grace begun with the Incarnation which we celebrate at Christmas when “the Babe …first revealed his sacred face” (Hymn 82:2) but which actually began some months previously with our Lady’s insemination. Of these two bookends, Lancelot Andrewes wrote, “It would not be easier to determine whether is the greater of these two: the mystery of [God’s] incarnation or the mystery of our inspiration. For mysteries they are both. And in both of them God is manifested in the flesh. … Whereby, as before he of ours, so now we of his [nature] are made partakers. He clothed with our flesh, and we invested with his Spirit” (Works Vol. III, pp. 108f).
The Annunciation and Pentecost, the two bookends of our celebration of the Incarnation, have heavenly spectators. Some paintings of the Annunciation show the host of heaven peering down as Gabriel accosts Mary and, as Scripture puts it, “she was troubled at his saying and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be”(Luke 1:29 KJV). The heavenly spectators wait with bated breath to see what answer she will make God. Her response was, in John Donne’s phrase, to become her Maker’s maker (“Annunciation”, Holy Sonnet 2).
Today also, legend has it that the hosts of heaven are again peering down, watching as Pentecost unfolds, the archangel Gabriel now standing next to the ascended Christ. As the events end Christ says, “Now it begins”. Gabriel says, “There are not very many of them, Lord”. “They will bring others”, Christ replies. “They have not received a whole lot of training, Lord”. “I did the best I could in the time I had” Christ says; “now they will have the Holy Spirit to guide them”. “What if they fail?” Gabriel asks. “I trust they will not fail”, Christ answers. Gabriel persists, “But what if they do fail, Lord? What is your back-up plan?” Christ says, “I have no other plan”.
Iona School for Ministry graduation, Camp Allen
June 12, 2011 The Day of Pentecost Acts 2:1-21 Psalm 104:25-35 I Corinthians 12:3b-13 John 20:19-23
Hymns:225, S280, 516, 525, S129, Veni Sancte Spiritus, 555
- "Christianity is not a theory or speculation, but a life; not a philosophy of life, but a life and a living process." Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- "Most people are willing to take the Sermon on the Mount as a flag to sail under, but few will use it as a rudder by which to steer." Oliver Wendell Holmes
- "Perfection, in a Christian sense, means becoming mature enough to give ourselves to others." Kathleen Norris
- "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can." John Wesley
- "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried." G. K. Chesterton
- "One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans." C. S. Lewis
- "When we say, 'I love Jesus, but I hate the Church,' we end up losing not only the Church but Jesus too. The challenge is to forgive the Church. This challenge is especially great because the church seldom asks us for forgiveness." Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey
- "Christians are hard to tolerate; I don't know how Jesus does it." Bono
- "It's too easy to get caught in our little church subcultures, and the result is that the only younger people we might know are Christians who are already inside the church." Dan Kimball