St Thomas’, Salem
This is the Day of Pentecost. Pentecost is one of the “Big Seven” in our liturgical calendar—those special occasions that are styled “Principal Feasts.” But even within that elite group of seven, there’s a sort of unofficial hierarchy, in which Pentecost would occupy the top tier, along with Christmas and Easter. Historically, in the Church of England, you were considered in good standing if you received Holy Communion on at least those three occasions. But let’s be real: in terms of popular imagination, Pentecost is a shrinking violet in comparison with Christmas and Easter. It has nowhere near the emotional appeal, nowhere near the sentimental associations that those holidays have. Nobody tells stories about their memories of family gatherings on Pentecost. It’s not a time for exchanging gifts—alothough it logically could be … you know, in honor of the “gifts of the Holy Spirit?” There’s nothing in the popular imagination that corresponds with Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny—Caspar the Friendly Ghost, perhaps? I’d bet most of us here would be hard pressed to name our favorite Pentecost hymn, and, this year so far, I have yet to receive even one Pentecost card!
No doubt, the main reason why Pentecost, as a feast day, has failed to occupy a very large place in our hearts is that the Holy Spirit, the One whom Pentecost celebrates, is one of the least understood aspects of our Christian belief system. Yahweh, the Lord, the God of the Old Testament, is at least somebody we’re familiar with. He’s a “character,” with a lot of outrageously memorable words and deeds to His credit. And in the New Testament, Jesus, of course, is human, so we can identify with him. He eats and sleeps and walks and talks just like we do. But the Holy Spirit is slippery, difficult to pin down. The Spirit therefore remains, for many, an abstraction, a concept . . . unless, that is, you are one of those who believe they have experienced the Holy Spirit in a dramatic and personal way.
Most of the time, such a powerful experience of the Holy Spirit comes by means of witnessing a healing miracle, or, better yet, being the subject of a healing miracle. When broken bones and damaged spinal cords heal in ways they’re not supposed to, when cancer cells inexplicably disappear, when nearsightedness corrects itself to 20/20 overnight, it’s suddenly a lot easier to talk about the Holy Spirit.
Or, much of the time, when someone testifies to a close encounter with the Holy Spirit, it’s after receiving the gift of tongues—the ability to pray aloud in speech patterns that one has not learned and does not recognize, but which flood the soul with warmth and a conviction that one is in the very presence of God.
People who have had these sorts of experiences sometimes—and I do stress sometimes, because it isn’t always the case—such people sometimes “major” in the Holy Spirit at the expense of a fully balanced Christian walk. Just as it’s a mistake to overlook the Holy Spirit, it’s equally wrong to dwell on the Holy Spirit, to the exclusion of the Father and the Son—or, for that matter, the church, the sacraments, the scriptures, or a disciplined life of prayer. But the more dangerous temptation that beckons those who have experienced the Holy Spirit in a powerful way is to become smug and superior, to scorn, belittle, intimidate, and become generally obnoxious toward those Christians who have not had such an experience. Surely you have known an unbearable happy-clappy charismatic or two, right? This can be as overt as a finger-pointing lecture, or as subtle as a condescending smile. Either way, the implication is that Christians who have not had some obvious powerful experience of the Holy Spirit are somehow inferior, second-class, or maybe not even authentically Christian.
So let’s get back to basics, and see if we can’t begin, at least, to clear up some misunderstandings. We’re going renew our baptismal vows today; that’s one of things it’s particularly appropriate to do on Pentecost. I suspect it’s been a while since there was a baptism at St Thomas’, but you remember how it goes: After we take the the candidate into the water—or, in the case of a baby, take the water to the candidate — “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” —we anoint them with oil and sign them with the cross and say to them, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Then we say a prayer over them, and in this prayer we thank God our Father that He has bestowed on this newly-minted Christian the forgiveness of sins and the life of Christ’s resurrection by means of “water and the Holy Spirit.” We then go on to ask God to “sustain them in [His] Holy Spirit.”
If we indeed believe as we pray, what this means is that the newly-baptized Christian is being given, in that moment, the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of the Living God, who has already been working on that person’s heart in preparation for this day, will take up full-time permanent residence, and become a personal resource more valuable than any mentor or teacher they will ever have. But what’s even more remarkable is that, along with this gift of the Holy Spirit, they will also receive, through the sacrament of baptism, gifts from the Holy Spirit. Some of these gifts may include items from the various list of spiritual gifts that we find enumerated in various passages of scripture. At the time of baptism, we don’t know who’s going to be getting what gifts. Nor are these exhaustive lists—the Holy Spirit is an abundant giver.
Moreover, the Holy Spirit is not for an elite minority within the church who have had some kind of dramatic experience. The Holy Spirit is for the whole church, and for all her members. If you are baptized, you have received the gift of the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t matter whether you feel it or not, you have it! The Holy Spirit dwells within your soul, ready to fill you with the life of God, ready to unleash His power within you as soon as you give the green light. Indeed, St Paul, when he writes to the Corinthians, says, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit…”. However, he doesn’t stop there. He qualifies his statement. The gift of the Holy Spirit is universal to all Christians, but there are strings attached. Along with this essential birthright comes an equally essential responsibility. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” The gift of the Holy Spirit, and the gifts we receive from the Holy Spirit, are not personal playthings. They are to be employed to the glory of God and the building up of His church.
In the book of Acts we read of a fellow named Simon Magus. He was impressed with the power of the Holy Spirit, particularly as it operated in the gift of healing in the ministry of St Peter and other early apostles. Simon was a man of some means, and he offered Peter cold hard cash in exchange for the spiritual gift of healing. As we might say today, he was “clueless.” The Holy Spirit is not for sale to the highest bidder. No gift from the Holy Spirit is for our own selfish use. Rather, they are all for the building up of the whole people of God, for the strengthening of the church in her mission and ministry.
Now, it must not be left unsaid, many gifts of the Spirit are woefully and tragically underutilized. If all Christians became aware of their gifts and began to exercise those gifts in a faithful manner, the impact on the church—and the church’s impact on the world—could scarcely be imagined. The situation as it actually exists in many Christian communities can be likened to that of a professional soccer match in Europe or South America, where 60,000 fans desperately in need of exercise are watching 22 athletes desperately in need of a rest!
The Holy Spirit is the birthright of all Christians; it is not just for a few, but for all. And exercising the gifts of the Holy Spirit is the responsibility of all Christians; again, not just the few, but all. Come, Holy Spirit, come. Fill the hearts of your faithful people and kindle in us the fire of your love. Alleluia and Amen.