Today is a day of creation.
In our readings we just heard, we were taken from the very first beginnings of this precious Earth upon which we all depend, filled with marvels great and small; to Peter’s recounting of God’s love for God’s people throughout history to Easter Sunday to fifty days later, to the Day of Pentecost—and imaginatively, to today. It’s the birthday of the Church—and we are the ones who have been given the presents. Yet this may be a present that at first glance we are not sure we really like. In the film, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ferris complains that his parents, rather than giving him a car, gave him a computer. Never mind that that gift of a computer allows him to take his “day off” from school—and even erase the evidence from the records at school. Like teenagers everywhere, he equates what he doesn’t have with freedom. Perhaps that is how many of us feel about our relationship with the Holy Spirit. It’s the part of the Trinity that lots of us most want to hold at arms’-length. Flames of fire popping out over our heads like we’re Bunsen burners? The way she seizes control of people by the hairs of their head and drives them out into the wilderness or into the streets speaking a whole new language? We are post-modern people, and if there is one thing that is true about most of us, it’s that we want to be in charge of our own lives. Mmmm, not sure about all this. But today is the day we remember that without the Holy Spirit, there would be no Church. There would be no fellowship. There would be no communion. Without the Holy Spirit, all we would know of the life of faith would be in the words in a dusty library of books written by people who thought the world was flat, claimed that there was really only one gender that mattered and that women were at best defective males, and would have reacted to the fact that we can carry access to libraries greater than the library at Alexandria around in our pockets and to our loved ones voices even when they’re thousands of miles away probably with an accusation that we were practicing witchcraft, which never ends well for those accused, my friends. You can look it up. The Holy Spirit has been there all along, as our psalm today reminds us. And without spoiling next week’s Trinity Sunday sermon too much, our psalm portion today reminds us that the Holy Spirit contains the playful creativity and imagination of God, even if it’s the part that is the hardest to depict without resorting to drawing floating, curly red flames over noggins or pretty white doves, which seems altogether too meek and mild to describe something that also creates mountains just so they can smoke when touched by God’s hand. Maybe the Scots have it right when they at least depict the Holy Spirit as a wild goose, because if you have ever encountered one of those defending its nest while out on a walk, you know what it’s like to meet something that hisses like a viper and charges with the ferocity of Godzilla or Gamera or some other Japanese monster movie character. So what exactly does the Holy Spirit do within God that helps us? First, she gives us the courage and the inspiration to put to embody the very best of our natures—the things Jesus came to teach us, the Holy Spirit takes and sets on fire within our souls. All the best of humanity as implanted into us at our creation: our courage to selflessly lay down our lives for others like that our Memorial Day holiday tomorrow also enshrines. And we need that courage and sense of community. With Jesus’s rising and then ascension we are assured we will never be alone. And with the gift of the Holy Spirit, that promise is brought to fulfilment—even when things seem the bleakest. And so as we meditate upon what it means to welcome the Holy Spirit into our lives, I ask that you take a look at the beautiful icon on the cover of our bulletin. It is by a Ukrainian iconographer named Ivanka Demchuk. Ms. Demchuk was born in 1990 in Lviv, Ukraine, which is a city on the far western border of Ukraine-- a city that has been batted back and forth between countries since its founding in the 13th century. It has at various times been claimed by Poland, Lithuania, Austria, the Soviet Union, and then, right as Ms. Demchuk was born, the restored nation of Ukraine. Although technically Russia and Ukraine have been at war since 2014, the invasion of eastern Ukraine by Russia in February, 2022 was a cataclysmic intensification of Russian aggression, resulting in the internal displacement of 8 million Ukrainians within the country, as well as over 8 million more fleeing as refugees into Europe as of May 2023, creating the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. Many of those internal refugees are sheltering in Lviv—or pass through it on their way out of the country. It is no exaggeration to wonder how much this long threat has influenced Ms. Demchuk’s icons. Of this particular piece, Ms. Demchuk explained to me that she had a commission for an icon on the descent of the Holy Spirit right before the Russian invasion. This invasion then led her to consider the similarities between the situation of the disciples in that upper room and the Ukrainian people as their country was being invaded. She writes,
I was thinking all the time how relevant in some meaning the situation is, especially for Ukrainian people who are under occupation of the invaders. Same as the apostles, they were hiding and in anxiety, and hoping- so I was praying for the Holy Spirit to help them to find a peace for their souls and help to endure these difficult times.(1)
And if we are paying attention, we have seen the people of Ukraine respond with courage, with faith, with determination to resist the evil that seeks to tear them apart. And in our two depictions from John and the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit descends upon the gathered disciples the same way it descended upon Jesus at his baptism, and for the same reason: to empower us for them, and therefore us, for our mission into the world for the sake of the world. Nothing less. To realize our true ministry is not behind locked doors of buildings or hearts but out into the streets of the world. At Pentecost, through the power of the Spirit, we are reminded that language is power, empowering us to carry the gospel of Christ throughout the farthest reaches of the world as disciples, evangelists, and teachers—as Christians who are the Church. But the disciples’ first new language came as a challenge even earlier, for them as well as us. As soon as those early disciples answered Jesus’s call to follow him, they had to learn the language of Jesus—a strange language, then and now, awash in a grammar of grace rather than a grammar of vengeance.
We are still learning Jesus’s language of reconciliation today. It is the language of salvation, but not salvation for selfish ends. Rather, this language calls all disciples, them as well as us, to find the vocabulary for helping to repair the world and our relationships within it, with each other and ultimately, with God. This idea of responsibility of faithful people to repair the world is what our Jewish brothers and sisters call tikkun olam.
This language was filled with strange ideas, in which the greatest is the least, the least is the greatest, in which forgiveness and grace are more important than being right or self-righteous. Even after Jesus’s life on Earth was done, we can see that the disciples were still trying to make sense of that language. And we are too. We ourselves as Christians 2000 years later also continually work at acquiring that same language and it’s still just as alien and difficult for us as it was for them. The power of the Holy Spirit is here to help us continue learning Jesus’s counter-cultural grammar of grace and reconciliation.
Three of our readings today—from Acts 2, Psalm 104, and John 20-- hearken back to creation, and remind us that creation is not a one-time event. God did not make heaven and earth so much as God IS MAKING heaven and Earth. With the same breath or Spirit or wind that hovered over creation at the dawn of time, Jesus breathes that same life-giving, empowering, creative Spirit over and into the disciples and sends them en masse out into the streets, where they are then empowered to go and make more disciples of all nations and all peoples. Rather than the end, they begin anew. Our celebration of Pentecost today reminds us to begin anew, too, and draw closer to God so that we may serve God in all our lives.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry makes this connection between Pentecost and creation clear in his book Crazy Christians: A Call to Follow Jesus. He says,
“When we draw closer to God, we draw closer to each other, for we are all children of the one God who created us all. And when God draws us closer, the Spirit moves, and we experience the power of Pentecost, that day many Christians over the centuries have regarded as the day when the Church was born. Paul said, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”(2)
That doesn’t mean we have to be perfect. Seriously. Remember those same apostles. They took being NOT perfect to an art form. And thank God for that. That allows us to have hope for ourselves.
The Spirit moves over the world at creation, and the Spirit moves over us seeking to restore and renew creation within us. I want you to listen in a few minutes during the Eucharistic prayer we are going to pray together as Christ’s Church for the world. Listen as we call down the Spirit to move over the bread and wine, and therefore over US, so that WE can be made a new creation before God as we lift our hearts in thanks. Listen as we ask that same Spirit to transform us as God’s children and heirs, to be sent out into the world to continue Christ’s mission to all the world as his Holy Church.
Just as creation is ongoing, the Church is not something tied to a specific time or place or event in history. The Church is not a building. The Church is not a hierarchy. The Church is not a denomination. The Church is not a social club. The Church is the Body of Christ, bound together in bonds tighter than the closest family bonds we may have known. The Church does not exist for its own sake, and that’s a crucial point to make, I think, in this day and age, when institutions can run roughshod over people, and when it seems we are more divided by ever.
As members of the Church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, called to live out the gospel of Christ, we too do not exist for our own sake, or for our own salvation. Instead, we are called into discipleship for the life of the world, to go out into the places that most need the light of Christ, starting with the corners of our own hearts-- and then spreading outward into the entire world.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, the Church is part of the mystical Body of Christ and as such, is given FOR the world as an offering. As each of us remember this day that we are the Church we are called to offer ourselves for the good of others. We are called to build bridges between people who are all so different, and yet united by bearing the image of God that was planted in all of us at creation, no matter what our race, background, social class, or perceived “goodness” or “sinfulness.”
Pentecost reminds us to open ourselves to the power of God in the world right now. Jesus is still creating a new Spirit within us, calling the Church out into the streets to testify to this ongoing creation in the world—and that is you and me, not an institution or a building or just the clergy, but all of us who are baptized by water and the Spirit, as our Baptismal liturgy reminds us. Each and every baptized Christian, whether lay or ordained, is a minister of the gospel of Jesus. Each and every one of us, as Christians, is called to testify to the power of the love of God as revealed in Christ Jesus in the world, by living lives of joy, compassion, wisdom, faith, hope, and healing—all of which qualify as grade-A, bona fide miracles in this day and age of cynicism and greed.
In a few moments, we are going to be called to say together the words of the Nicene Creed, which is the description of how the Trinity works and moves within our lives. We haven’t said those words since Easter Day—something that three of you all have asked me about, which earns you a gold star.
I hope you hear those words anew on this Pentecost Day. I hope, no matter how much certain parts of it make you want to cross your fingers behind your backs, you listen especially to the escription of what the Holy Spirit does in our lives there in that last paragraph where she is the star of the show. And then I hope you listen for what the Spirit does as we pray together the Eucharistic prayer—especially as we all collectively call her down into our midst to change ordinary stuff of creation and human hands into the very Body of Christ into our midst, so that we can be formed and sent out, strengthened and encouraged, just like those apostles on that Pentecost Day two millennia ago.
We can be the miracle. Let us go forth by the power of the Spirit. Let us be the Church in and for the world.
1) Descent of the Spirit, by Ivanka Demchuk (Ukrainian), 2022. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2) Email exchange with Ivanka Demchuk, May 24, 2023, on Etsy. Copies of Ms Demchuk's art can be purchased at Modern Icon Art.
3) Michael B. Curry, Crazy Christians: A Call to Follow Jesus, Kindle edition, kindle locations 1347-1350.