by Ellen Sims
Text: Acts 2:1-20
On third Sundays we offer a contemplative service of prayers experienced in several ways. Below is a description of our 4 prayers stations for this particular service and my brief commentary on Pentecost.
1. PRAYING THROUGH PROPHECY
Peter quotes the prophet Joel to mark the day of Pentecost as a fulfillment of scripture. God had promised, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.” The gifts of the Spirit are for ALL. What is your vision for yourself, for our church, for our community, for our world? Write your vision/s on a card and place in the basket provided.
2. PRAYING THROUGH ANCIENT ART
Meditate on this illustration from the late 6th century Syriac Gospel Book. “Pentecost” from the Rabbula Gospel (an illuminated manuscript) presents Jesus’ followers at Pentecost—with the gift of the Spirit, a flame, resting over each of their heads. One of the finest Byzantine works produced in Asia, it is distinguished by its bright colors, movement, drama, and expressionism. Often neglected in depictions of the Pentecost event, Mary is given prominence at the very center. It later became part of the personal library of the Medici rules of Florence, Italy (1389-1464).
The description of the Pentecost event from Acts 2 seems noisy and maybe even chaotic and confusing. What feelings does this particular illustration evoke in you? Can you imagine how you might have responded if you had been among the disciples in Jerusalem that day? Pray, as you feel led, for a prophetic Spirit that disrupts old patterns or a unifying Spirit that connects us.
3. PRAYING AT THE OPEN TABLE
The Eucharistic Prayer includes these words: “Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine.” Quietly speak these sacred words as you receive the bread and dip it into the cup and eat. In what sense is the Spirit present and active for you in this sacrament? Consider that no words are really necessary since the basic symbol system of holy communion consists of the bread and cup—and all who are gathered. Recall Jesus’s promise that the Spirit that was at work in his life is also in us. As you eat, “internalize” that promise.
4. PRAYING THROUGH OUR OFFERINGS
Recall the generous life of Jesus. If his Spirit lives on today, it lives on through us and in us. As you give generously, thank God for this privilege to participate in the life of Jesus.
COMMENTARY ON PENTECOST
The memoir of my former pastor and beloved mentor during my seminary years has just been published: Born in Sin, Upended in Grace: A Memoir. Running through George Williamson’s recollection of an audacious and irreligious life is what I remember to have been his favorite sermonic theme—that the inbreaking of the Spirit usually happens out in the world, not in the church.
This phenomenon, if I understood George correctly, happens as the Spirit dances just out ahead of the Church. He came to believe that the Spirit’s activity can be detected wherever people were being stirred up to act for justice and peace. So if you find instances of injustice, you’ll see the Spirit at work whenever a few souls are exposing that injustice. Unfortunately, the Church is often part of the system upholding inequities. So the Church as an institution tends to be several steps behind the Spirit and by the time the institutional Church catches on and catches up, the Spirit has moved ahead to stir up other actions of justice and peace.
For instance, George said that the Spirit was operating within the Civil Rights movement, which he—almost accidentally—participated in for the first time when arrested in 1960 as a “Jim Crow Baptist White Boy” and Wake Forest College student at the “white’s only” Woolworth’s lunch counter “sit in.” Unfortunately, most white churches were oblivious to the Spirit’s actions to honor the dignity and rights of all people regardless of race, and by the time many churches finally recognized God in this movement, the Spirit had moved on. George did not mean that racism had ended; simply that the most institutionalized forms of the Church often came late to a daring movement, after it was “safer,” after the risks were reduced. Ironically, people outside the church were usually the first to be used by the Spirit.
The feminist movement, which George, then chaplain of Vassar in the 70s, witnessed and was changed by, was another example of people outside the Church being the first to notice inequities that the Church, in the meantime, was still shoring up.
Likewise, he believes the Spirit prompted the gay rights movement, which George and his congregation in Ohio supported and for which they were ejected from one body of Baptists, and his activism in the peace movement. Some ministers and some churches HAVE indeed been on the leading edge of movements for social justice and peace. But not many.
George writes near the end of his book: “I know God least in church, and most in the streets when change is “blowin’ in the wind.” But I’ve known God still more with my church in the streets, and wouldn’t know God at all except for a church interpreting, saying God was in it. When the Breakthrough [of the Spirit] is upon us, embracing and interpreting it is all a church can do. . . . To prepare for the Breakthrough of [the Spirit] is to stand with the wretched of the earth, waiting for God. It’s among the wretched of the earth that God will surely come someday” (196).
Friends, we’re going to celebrate the birthday of the church with a red (red velvet) birthday cake in a minute. But I don’t want to imply that Church started on a particular day in history or that God’s spirit started with and works exclusively through the auspices of the Church, as Pentecost often gets explained. Maybe it’s truer to say that Pentecost represents the way the Spirit of God starts a current of justice that carries us forward in love and hope. Pentecost marks an energizing movement that would later get tamed into what we now call the Church. But the Spirit is still moving today.
When the Church is at her best, she startles us with acts of inclusion and justice out on the margins– inspired by the God of love. Unfortunately, the Church too often focuses on instituting institutions, preserving practices, regulating rules, and ends up coming very late to the party of justice and peace.
PRAYER: Spirit of Audacious Love, inspire us to follow you daringly out to the uncomfortable edge.
Williamson, George. Born in Sin, Upended in Grace: A Memoir. Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, 2016.