“Pentecost continues! Pentecost is most fundamentally a continuing gift of the Spirit;”
So begins “A Pastoral letter to the Episcopal Church” (2 June 2010) [http://www.episcopalchurch.org/79425_122615_ENG_HTM.htm], issued this past week by Presiding Bishop and Primate Katharine Jefferts Schori.
“Pentecost is most fundamentally a continuing gift of the Spirit, rather than a limitation or quenching of that Spirit,” writes the Primate. Her letter comes in response to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Pentecost letter to the Anglican Communion (28 May 2010) [http://www.episcopalchurch.org/79425_122553_ENG_HTM.htm] concerning current struggles within the Communion. Bishop Katharine expresses concern that the text of that letter “seems to equate its understanding of the Spirit’s outpouring,” as she puts it, “with a single understanding of gospel realities. Those who received the gift of the Spirit on that day all heard good news,” Jefferts Schori continues. “The crowd reported, ‘in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power’ [Acts 2:11].”
In the Gospel reading from Luke, which Br Geoffrey has just proclaimed, we hear the reaction of another crowd, one gathered for the funeral of a widowed mother’s only son. At Jesus’ bidding, the dead man has sat up and begun to speak; and the Lord has given him to his mother. The crowd, in fear and awe, glorifies God, saying, ‘A great prophet has arisen among us! God has looked favourably on his people!’ [Luke 7:17] Not only has one man been restored to life, but a woman also, who in her loss and grief was considered as good as dead, has been reborn. But the lives of the onlookers have been transformed as well. Through Jesus’ action, they have themselves witnessed a deed of the Spirit’s power similar to that of the prophet Elijah for a foreign widow, a story known to them from the ancient scriptures.
Luke also pairs the miracle in today’s reading with the story of a foreigner, a Roman centurion whose ‘highly valued’ slave is ‘ill and close to death.’ [Luke 7:2] Feeling himself unworthy to meet with Jesus, the centurion sends friends to plead that if Jesus ‘only speak[s] the word…’ he knows that his slave will be healed. [Luke 7:7] Here it is Jesus who expresses amazement to the crowd: ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ [Luke 7:9] Luke proclaims the Spirit’s power to shatter prejudices and narrow categories of exclusion when those returning to the centurion’s home find the slave ‘in good health’. [Luke 7:10]
The Lucan gospel portrays Jesus as one filled with, anointed, and empowered by the Spirit. In his teaching and healing encounters with others, that power is continuously at work, limbering-up ossified traditions and inviting all to see and rejoice in the ‘new thing’ that God is doing—in Jesus and his disciples, and in the other men and women drawn to join them. Luke also shows, however, much opposition from ‘insiders’ to the Spirit’s challenges: Jesus is cast out and nearly assaulted when preaching at the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. And we hear of the religious authorities’ constant criticism of what they perceive as Jesus’ improprieties and blasphemies: his ‘failure’ as an ascetic and at keeping the Sabbath; his ‘usurping’ of God’s authority as he heals through proclaiming forgiveness of sins; his up-ending of standards and categories of ‘sanctity and holiness’ though the inclusion of ‘sinful’ ‘outsiders’ in his table fellowship.
It is evident that much similar opposition, to the Spirit’s promptings and confrontations of individuals and communities, continued in the early Church as we hear of Paul’s struggles in his letter to the Galatians. Through the disarming action of the Spirit, Paul had been shaken and transformed by a personal encounter with the risen, glorified Jesus. Paul experienced death to an old self-perception and was raised to a new life of unparalleled freedom in God. He was transformed from a persecutor and punisher of deviant ‘insiders’ and unclean ‘outsiders’ to be a champion for the inclusion of gentiles in covenant relationship with God. Paul claims to know that the Spirit has chosen, confronted, and sent him as a human being fully alive in Christ, both to reflect the full glory of God in himself, and to bring others to share that glory and become fully alive in the Spirit.
In her pastoral letter, Bishop Katharine speaks of the Anglican tradition’s long history of holding in tension the varied cultures and views which have been brought together in communion by the Spirit’s wind and fire. Our tradition, she writes, “recognizes that the Spirit may be speaking to all of us, in ways that do not at present seem to cohere or agree.” She reminds of “what Jesus says about the Spirit to his followers, ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.’” [John 16:12-13]
It is this same Spirit who has drawn us together in celebration of the Holy Eucharist at this very hour. Our presence here and now represents our humble renewal of the baptismal covenant into which Christ’s Spirit has incorporated us as individuals and partners in the community of God. Pray that today the Spirit may once again choose, confront, and send us as ambassadors of Christ’s ministry of reconciliation. Let us pray, all of us, to seek the Spirit’s grace, to fearlessly die to all within us which is not of God, both in our words and in our actions. May the Spirit of God, manifested in Christ’s eternal self-offering, forgiving, healing, and transforming love, fill us and bring us to share a vocation which humbly affirms the image of God in ourselves and every living person.
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