Preparing Soil for a New Pentecost
Scarcely two weeks ago we were in the middle of Memorial Day weekend, reflecting then and in the two weeks since on stories and memories of our past. Today we find ourselves at Pentecost, wondering about what the Spirit is doing now in our midst, where the Spirit will lead us next. Last Sunday Tom and Carolyn Hubers shared with us reflections and stories of early days at the Church of the Saviour and of Dayspring. This past week I re-read a reflection that Gordon gave to us here in 1993 at the 40th anniversary of Dayspring about (and I quote him) -- “the amazing power of the Holy Spirit working through a tiny group of people [the founders of the Church of the Saviour] who gave their all to Christ to form a community truly faithful to Him.” Isn't it wonderful to realize what a deeply inspired history we have!
But as Tom said last Sunday, “Gordon was always challenging us to look at the future.” And back in 1993 Gordon said just that. He said, “...it is questionable whether an impressive history is helpful,” and he directed our attention to another topic, “What is our future? What are we to be? Where are we to go?” These sound remarkably like our questions today. We live in this time when precious things are coming apart – our Earth home, our democracy, and many expressions of our Christian Church. What is our future? Could our time be, not just a time of things unraveling, but a time of a new Pentecost?
At our congregational meeting following this service this morning, we are going to be asking about what the Spirit is doing in our midst these days. To help us prepare for that time, I want to briefly look at our past experience of Pentecost, and suggest three ways to get ready for it's coming now, how to prepare soil for a new Pentecost – opening to a mysterious oneness, belonging in community, and recovering our inter-relatedness with all life.
Opening to a Mysterious Oneness: Soil for a New Pentecost
We are probably most familiar with the reading from Acts – the followers of Jesus all together in one place, the sudden sound from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, the tongues of fire resting on each one of them. And the words of prophecy for all to hear in their own languages. For ALL to hear, even slaves, men and women, filling old and young with dreams and visions. The Spirit was present all over the place; everyone was on fire.
In our other reading that comes a few pages earlier in the gospel of John, Jesus came and stood among these early disciples who had locked themselves behind closed doors out of fear, and just gave them the Holy Spirit by breathing on them. And in so doing, he gave them the power to forgive the sins of any. Understand that in the religious system of that day, the only way to obtain forgiveness and get right with God was to buy a sacrifice at the Temple. If you had the money, you could get forgiveness, but if you were poor, tough luck! So what Jesus did, and gave his followers the power to do, was radically subversive to that system. Forgiveness was for everyone, for ALL Rich and poor; no payment required. Spirit comes, and we are all on a level playing field.
But we are also all different. The Epistle reading from Corinthians is the longest list of the variety of the gifts of the same Spirit. You may know the list – wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracle working, prophecy, discernment, tongues, interpretation. But all those differences are held in unity as members of one body. Paul would go on in Ephesians to speak of our being “members of one another (Eph 4:25)” and of the “unity of the Spirit,” having, “one hope… one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God of all who is above all and through all and in all.”
Out of these scriptures, then, I lift up the understanding that everything and everybody belongs, and everything and everybody is permeated by God's Spirit. That we are all part of one another, and in a way, part of God. That we are all forgiven, and that we all have been given unique gifts for the building up of our common life. That there is a deep oneness among us, and older unity, underlying our differences.
What is the nature of that oneness, that unity, that the Spirit brings? Who is that “God of all who is above, all, through all, and in all,” that Paul writes about in Ephesians? Who is that God who is in all of us, without exception? In a mystical way of seeing things, even Paul with his logical Greek mind, knew that we are all members of one another, all part of one another (recall from a sermon earlier this year the Mayan greeting - “I am part of you” and the response, “you also are a part of me”), and God is part of everything and everyone.
There's not enough time this morning to try to trace this mystical oneness through all of our Christian tradition now, but I want to follow the thread of the early followers of Jesus who left Israel and went east to a city called Edessa, sometimes known as the Athens of the East, near the source of the Euphrates River in present day Iraq. These early Jesus followers were often called Thomasine Christians, after the disciple Thomas, and the Gospel attributed to him. Do you know about the Gospel of Thomas? It one of those early mystical writings that the later Imperial Roman Church under Constantine burned – burned every book they could find, but they missed one cache of books in a cave in Egypt that was discovered less than a century ago. In that manuscript of the Gospel of Thomas we read this saying by Jesus -
“When you are able to make two become one, the inside like the outside, and the outside like the inside, the higher like the lower, so that a man is no longer male, and a woman, female, but male and female have become a single whole… then you will enter in [to the realm of God].”
There is no way I can figure this saying out with my rational, logical mind. It belongs to a different place in the mind-body. I mention it in reflecting on preparing soil for a new Pentecost, because it speaks not only about becoming one, but does so in this strange way. Often, it seems to me, deep experiences of Spirit have a mysterious quality – something about the experience that we can't quite describe in words. Maybe it's one of those “best things” in our life experience that are always beyond words. And that's where the unity is, that's where the oneness is, beyond the differences that divide us, beyond any sort of superficial sense of camaraderie. If we would prepare for a new Pentecost, we might do well to cultivate this mystical way of knowing.
Community and Commitment as Soil for a New Pentecost
In that 1993 anniversary talk I referred to earlier, Gordon made a distinction between mission and essence. He told us that, “Mission is absolutely crucial.” “The church lives by mission as the fire by burning,” he said. BUT, he went on to say, that mission rests on our common life in Christ – “as we learn to break down the barriers which separate us – as we learn to love one another as Christ loved us –as we deepen our life of prayer which is what Dayspring has been about for 40 years, as we give our spiritual family an undisputed firstness, as we bring delight and sense of enthusiasm and awareness of community as gift.” “This is the essence of who we really are.”
I wonder if we might hear Gordon saying again today that our essence is about deepening our belonging in community with each other, with God, and perhaps also with the land here at Dayspring. That to become aware of what the Spirit is doing in our midst is to live more deeply into our oneness with each other, with God, and with the natural world around us.
1993 was a very pivotal year for Gordon. The way that mission was taking precedence over community, that the School of Christian Living was weakening, that attendance at worship was declining, disturbed him. He recalled Bonhoeffer writing abut the high cost of discipleship, and reminded us of Jesus' words, “Unless you leave father, mother, unless you part with all your possessions...” Gordon went on to say that “Not only are we to belong to Jesus in this radical way, but we are to belong to one another in this radical way.
Our first belonging is to this community.” The next year Gordon would call for a major restructuring of the church and, for him at least, the structure of its groups as well. At the outset, the church had begun with fellowship groups, cell groups, if you can believe naming a group that back in the McCarthy era. That had evolved to mission groups and then to a time of major missions without groups, for the most part. Now, Gordon, missing some of that essence he spoke of here in that anniversary talk, would himself begin church anew with what he called spiritual support groups. Back to the essence – belonging in community – an older unity.
Life's Inter-relatedness as Soil for a New Pentecost
John Phillip Newell, the former warden of Iona in Scotland and a minister in the Church of England speaks about a new Pentecost as we live in the midst of a new consciousness of life's interrelatedness – one that relates both to life's essential oneness and to life's shared brokenesss. He tells this story of when he was Vicar at an Anglican parish in Portsmouth in the UK, where he was moved to restore the old vicarage garden. After removing the dense overgrowth of briars, he found a natural curve to the original planting defined by some old trees, with a central open space, along with an altar garden, play area with a slide, and a vegetable patch. Some funding was forthcoming from the Diocese along with some old slabs of marble that had been salvaged from a church that had been destroyed by the bombing in the Second WorldWar. John Philip built a simple altar with those stones and they began to celebrate communion there every week in the context of creation.
John Philip writes of that experience, “As I fashioned this space with my hands I became increasingly aware that what I was doing physically was what I was also attempting to do spiritually; taking pieces of our inheritance to shape a new beginning in the context of creation.” He goes on to say, “This is what many of us are seeking today in the Christian household and in other spiritual traditions: to take precious fragments from the wreckage of what our religious traditions have often become and to create something new in the midst of humanities growing Earth awareness.” Though there were usually very few people at the weekly celebrations of communion, John Philip had the sense that they were part of, as he put it, “a broadly diverse movement of the Spirit, to reconnect the human journey to the Earth's journey.” [from Newell's book, A New Harmony: The Spirit, The Earth, and The Human Soul]
What about new Pentecost? Is it happening? Will it happen? Are we ready for it?Are we sensing a mysterious oneness in our midst and tending it? Are we ready to make that deep commitment to community that was so important to Gordon? Are we ready to reconnect with our essential relatedness to all of life, to that older unity? Are we ready?
In speaking to Nicodemus about new birth, not unlike a new Pentecost, Jesus says --
“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
So the Spirit will come, the new Pentecost will come, in ways we cannot imagine, ways ever mysterious to us. All we can do is prepare good soil. And be ready.
Jim Hall, Dayspring Church, June 8, 2014