The Answer Is: Community
New Testament: Acts 2:1-21
Pentecost Sunday has always been one of my favorite church holidays. It is regarded as the Birthday of the Church. Before the events in the Upper Room, the followers of Christ were only held together by their relationship to the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
Let’s pause here for just a moment and consider the personal presence of Jesus in the flesh. He must have been a powerful and persuasive presence, drawing this initial diverse group together. I imagine that the person of Jesus would be such a compelling force, that the message of Jesus might be hard to hear as a separate a distinct event. The personal contact, would overwhelm the theological dimension.
But the disciples of Jesus have now experienced the ministry of Jesus, the resurrected Christ, and witnessed the Ascension into heaven. And still, here they are together, what do they do now?
Into this situation comes the Holy Spirit. The Greek word for Spirit can also mean wind, or breath. The event uses the senses of the collected people; the sound of the wind, the sight of flames, and the powerful force of sharing this unique experience together. They were able to see every person in the room was sharing this life changing encounter with the divine, and the emotion in the gathered community rose up together.
At the risk of being predictable I want to highlight several things. When Solomon dedicated the original Temple in Jerusalem, the place was filled with smoke, and flashing lights, the sound of wind, and the unmistakable presence of the divine. When the Temple was rebuilt after the Exile to Babylon, there is no similar sense of the presence -returning to the place. In the scriptures, the next powerful appearance of the presence occurs here, in the midst of the community, resting on these people of faith. (Observation courtesy of N.T. Wright.)
The presence of God is not a function of the temporary building. The presence of God is not a gift to an individual. One cannot own the Spirit, and use the power for personal gain, and party tricks. This Spirit is a gift of the community, within the community, for what God intends. Can you hear me? The gift of the Spirit is among the members of the community.
If the presence of God would have an impact in the world, we would seek the presence of the Spirit, the presence of the Spirit of the Christ, when we are together. We should look for the light and the fire of the Spirit resting on each other, as others may see it resting on you. You can only feel the fire, when you are in a shared experience. Can you hear me? The presence of the Spirit is a gift within the community.
For us to become closer to God, we must gather as a community, and then call upon the Spirit. I would love to tell you that each Sunday at 10:00 you can feel the presence of God, if you are here. But the experience of the presence of God requires dedication and a certain maturity in the faith.
We laugh when we consider maturity in the context of early teen-agers. Certainly there are teens who are mature for their age. But as a rule, teens evidence little appreciation for the impact of their words and behaviors on others.
Much of what has passed as Christian faith is immature, it has been limited to teaching morality, following rules, being good. I have grown up in that mindset, and I can tell you it does not lead to an ecstatic experience of the presence of God. The apostle Paul tells us that he was the master of following the rules, and it made him a mean and treacherous presence among the faithful.
Today I invite you to lift your sights a little higher. You are only limited by the love you have for your neighbor. The Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, would tell you that when we keep our focus on our own ego needs, we limit the ability of the Spirit to work in and through us. It is only when we are willing and able to see the light of God in each other, and respect that presence as a gift of God for the community, only then can we experience the presence of the Spirit.
As a young man, I attended a minor seminary, expecting that I would in time become a Catholic priest. I struggled with the way the Catholic church insisted on mediating the relationship between the people of God and God. I recoiled against the hierarchy and against the treatment of women.
My French teacher was Father Michael Van der Peet, SCJ. He was born and raised in Holland, and came to the US to teach in the schools and seminaries of the order. He tried to teach me French - with a Dutch accent. Undeterred by his failure to make me a priest or even good at French, he went on to perform useful ministry.
When visiting Rome he recognized Mother Theresa of Calcutta at a bus stop in 1975. He said, “I did not want to disturb her privacy, but I thought ‘Here is a saint, and I am a sinner, I should at least ask her to pray for me.’”
Out of that chance encounter a friendship developed. Fr. Van der Peet gave several retreats for Mother Theresa and members of her community. In personal letters she confided to him - that she had experienced a crisis in faith, felt rejected by God, and was tempted to abandon her work.
Father Van der Peet advised her that the Holy Spirit is an independent actor, going wherever it wants. The presence of the Spirit is a gift, never earned, not even for the most honored and faithful. The Spirit enters the community, and rests lightly for a time on whoever is chosen. In Mother Theresa’s house, the Spirit would often rest on the youngest and least sophisticated of the women novices.
We know that the Spirit is most vitally present when people of faith gather together. At any one time the Spirit may be more evident in one person than another. Since the presence of the Spirit is a gift of God, it can feel unfair. “Why should “she” be blessed with the Spirit, when all of my sacrifices and hard work do not enjoy the same reward?” The psalmist says, “How long - do I have to wait for my turn?” The presence of the Spirit is best sensed in a community where there is no pretense of personal property.
We are not waiting for a turn, the Spirit is present. When we see the Spirit alive and active in our neighbor, we ask the neighbor for a prayer, for a word from God. When you become a part of the community, you put yourself in a position to be used by God for God’s purposes. When someone asks you for a prayer, God may speak through you in a way that will address a deep need in them. You do not need to know what it is all about. You are simply sharing God’s love, sometimes not even in an intentional way.
What is the answer to the feeling of dry spells in the life of faith? Community. The great spiritual leaders through the years have known dry spells. In those moments, they look around, and find the soul who is filled with the spirit. They ask for prayers and assurances from that person, and the Spirit that is dwelling within them. This follows the model of Fr. Van der Peet. The presence of that Spirit is a gift to the whole community.
As a mature person, you all know the many easy ways there are to disturb and break the power of community. We can insist on hierarchy. We can make rules of conduct and evaluate others based on legality. We can fill the house of God with politics and power plays. And I can assure you, that will effectively limit sightings of the Holy Spirit, because the power of community has been stolen for lowly ego needs.
The Holy Spirit will rest on whichever soul it chooses, or may inflame and inspire the whole room. You and I, we cannot control or conjure up the Spirit. While we most certainly can design and maintain a culture that can prevent a recurring presence of the Spirit. We are no better, and no less, a welcoming place for the presence of God than Mother Theresa of Calcutta. You know, she was never happy with Father Van der Peet’s advice to seek the presence of God within the community. And still, she persisted in her work, and many thousands of people experienced the presence of God through her.
The greatest hope of the church is to lead those who would be faithful to experience the presence of God, and then carry that blessing into the world. You have the power to create a culture in this time and place, where the Spirit is honored and welcomed. It is nurtured when you give sincere compliments to the faithful work of your partners in faith. It is nurtured when you recognize the Spirit present in your neighbor, and ask for their prayers and blessing. The power of the presence grows when you intentionally bless those around you, even if you never before considered yourself a source of blessing.
So that is the one point I want to make today, plainly and clearly. The presence of God is all around you each and every day. It is not dependent on you to be good, or worthy, or become a world recognized saint. The Spirit wants to be with you everyday.
In every moment that you reduce your focus on the needs of your ego, and let your center be in the heart of the community, the Spirit’s presence grows. When you act to bless your neighbors, and call them into community, the voice of God is heard coming right out of your mouth. Learn to think about seeing the presence of the Spirit, in every person and every place that you go. You will be surprised by the many places the Spirit appears, and how many times others see that Spirit in you. Amen.