A sermon preached at OSA Bethany Convent, Arlington Hts, MA
Acts 2:1-21 / Rom. 8:14-17, 22-27 / Jn 14:8-17, 25-27
Last May, on the Sunday afternoon before the end of the Course at which Br. Timothy and I were chaplains at St. George’s College, Jerusalem, we were taken to see the place commemorating the Ascension of Jesus on the Mount of Olives. Then we went over to Mount Zion, beyond the Kidron Valley, on the other side of the Old City of Jerusalem. There we saw the Benedictine Church and Monastery of the Dormition. That church is identified as being on the place where Mary, the mother of Jesus “entered eternal rest”. Located nearby are several sites connected with the events we celebrate this time of year, including the Upper Room used for the Last Supper.
Seemingly not related to those events the “Tomb of David” is located on the first floor of the building in which the Cenacle, or Upper Room, is on the second floor. But if we read on ahead in the Book of Acts going beyond that portion of Peter’s address to the crowd which is assigned as a reading in today’s Lectionary we find Peter making references to prophetic statements attributed to David in the Psalms, and saying, “I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.” (Acts 2:29) The tomb of David is just below the room identified to us as the Upper Room where Jesus presided at the Last Supper with his disciples. So there is meaning in that tomb being in the house used by Jesus, Son of David, for his ministry to his disciples.
Tradition and Holy Scripture tell us that this same Upper Room was also the place where the Apostles, and those gathered with them experienced the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
One of the things that we learned in the Holy Land is that there was a strong possibility that the places that we were taken to see would not look as we had always imagined them to look and might not even be in the same place we had thought they would be. Part of this can be attributed to the roughly 2100 years that have elapsed since the days of Jesus, and the changes in the city and the landscape in those years. The rest of it is the way in which imagination working on what we read is based on our prior experience, and can play tricks on us.
That Upper Room has been modified in size and shape several times over the centuries. Gothic arches and vaulting have been put in to support the ceiling and roof. What we saw was just a large, bare room. Our group of 30 pilgrims entered the room while another group of about the same size was still there. We were able to have only the briefest of commentary before we went out and up to the roof above for a talk about the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It was difficult to imagine that room as it might have looked at the Last Supper, or at those times Jesus appeared to his disciples after the Resurrection. To me it looked too large and too bare to be the place of the Last Supper. But when I read the descriptions of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in books bought in Jerusalem and Galilee, and again read the description of the Pentecost event in the Book of Acts, it is difficult to imagine so large a crowd of people being in that same upper room witnessing that event as recorded in the Book of Acts, or even on that rooftop. In fact, prior to my time in Jerusalem I had always imagined the descent of the Holy Spirit as being in some sort of public square out of doors. Yet, in the present configuration of Mount Zion I cannot remember seeing such a space anywhere near the building in which the upper room is located or near the Church of the Dormition. It could be that parts of the description of this event in the Book of Acts may be mistakes in the imagination of Luke, writing about what he had been told, not what he had witnessed. Or it may be changes in that part of Jerusalem. Therefore, I think that some free use of our own imaginations is justified, as we pray for clarity and for guidance from the Holy Spirit.
It seems very likely that once the sound like the rush of a violent wind had filled the entire house where they were sitting, and divided tongues as of fire had appeared among the Apostles, and rested on each as they were filled with the Holy Spirit and they began to speak in other languages, they may have come out of the house and into a large open space which could have been near that house. Built up as it is now, we cannot know what was there at that time. We do know that a crowd of devout Jews from many nations, living at Jerusalem just then, began to gather, attracted by the sound coming from that house. Filled with the Holy Spirit, and seeing that crowd, the Apostles and others who had gathered in that upper room could well have been moved to go out and give testimony concerning Jesus, as our reading from Acts tells us Peter began to do.
As we heard in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus alluded to and foretold both the gift of the Holy Spirit and the work of the Spirit. But he did not describe just how or when it would be. “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.” (Jn 14:16-17) Again Jesus told his Disciples, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (v. 26) Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Rom. 8:26)
The Holy Spirit was sent to the Apostles to teach them everything they needed to know for the spreading of the Gospel to all nations. The same Spirit comes to each of us as we open our hearts in prayer and meditation. The Spirit gives us love by which we can love in return. It is by the guiding of the Spirit that we can receive clarity and can know in our hearts the things that the Father gives us through the Holy Spirit.
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