Pentecost Sunday has finally arrived and some of us are wearing red or something that suggests the color of fire. We’ve come to celebrate the arrival of the Spirit of God, whom Jesus promised would come and empower the people of God. It’s also Memorial Day, so we stop to remember those who have died, whether they are family, friends, or those who have died in service to country. Perhaps the text for today offers us a sense of connection between the two. Jesus is about to leave his disciples behind, but he doesn’t leave them alone. If he goes away, the Spirit will come and be present with them, wherever they go in the world.
The ways in which we celebrate Pentecost varies from tradition to tradition and from region to region. I recently learned that in Germany, for instance, Pentecost is a two-day holiday. It begins with worship on Sunday, but continues on into Monday, when Germans, and many other Europeans, get the day off from work so they can participate in parades and fairs and other kinds of events – sort of like Memorial Day!
Although Pentecost isn’t a national holiday in the United States, it is a day of celebration. The wait is over. The Spirit has come. We are now empowered to fulfill our calling to be God’s missional people, declaring in word and deed the mighty works of God.
The story of Pentecost is told in great detail in Acts 2, where we find Jesus’ followers waiting patiently in the upper room for the coming of the Spirit. And the Spirit falls on them at a most serendipitous moment. The streets of Jerusalem are filled with pilgrims who have come to participate in an ancient Jewish festival that celebrated the giving of the Law to Moses and the people of Israel. As they mill around the streets, they hear the sounds of people speaking about the things of God in their own languages. They’re amazed and they want to know what all the fuss is about. That leads to a sermon – on the part of Peter – that connects Pentecost with the coming of the Spirit on all people at the end of the age. Since we’re still here, we might want to see Pentecost as the end of one age and the beginning of another. But as Joel makes clear, when the Spirit falls everyone will be empowered to dream dreams and speak with wisdom and insight about the things of God. That promise continues to this day, as we open ourselves to empowering presence of the Spirit revealed in such a powerful way on that Day of Pentecost.
John’s version of the Pentecost story is some different. As we listened to the reading of the Gospel this morning, we found Jesus sitting with the disciples. The Supper is ended, and they’re talking about the future. He tells them that his time of departure has come, but he isn’t abandoning them. He will send to them the Paraclete from the Father. Depending on your translation, the Greek parakaletos appears as Comforter, Advocate, Helper, or maybe Companion. Each translation picks up a different nuance of a word that literally means – “to come along side of.” The Spirit of God, whom Jesus promises to send, will offer them comfort, wisdom, and companionship, even as the Spirit serves as our advocate with God and the world.
Since I’ve been reading the Common English Bible of late, I was again struck by its rendering of the text and find the use of “Companion” to be most helpful. John writes that God will send them a Companion, who is the Spirit of Truth. This companion will reveal to them where the world has gone wrong, and help them see their role in changing this world for the better. Jesus tells them that there are many things still to be revealed, which suggests that, as the UCC slogan declares, “God is still Speaking,” and the Spirit of Truth, our Companion sent from God, will reveal this truth to us, if we’re open to listening.
I think we can resonate with this image of a companion. Even the most introverted among us, feels the need for companionship of some type. It is as God discovered with the creation of humanity – it’s not good for humans to be alone.
In the course of my life, there have been a number of people who have been my companions in life, people who have walked with me as comforter, helper, and advocate. And for me there has been no more important companion along this way than Cheryl, my companion in life for nearly thirty years. To me that sounds like a long time, but I know that some of you have been walking together for a lot longer than that!
When we first started dating, I was a little concerned that Cheryl didn’t share my love of theology. Talking theology into the wee hours of the night wasn’t her definition of fun. For a budding theologian, this was puzzling, and so I had a conversation with a co-worker at the bookstore. Patty was a wise and discerning person, and she spoke words of great wisdom to me: Cheryl, she said, would help balance out my life. She would help keep me grounded. And she was correct – Cheryl has kept me grounded, though sometimes that means kicking me under the table! She has also been my encourager, which was noticed early on by one of my closest friends. On the night before our wedding Mark and I went for a walk, and he told me how much I had changed – for the better – since I’d met Cheryl. He noticed a lot more confidence and sense of purpose in me. Cheryl has been my encourager, my advocate, and my companion, for these many years.
If we hear in this translation of the word parakaletos the idea of the Spirit being our constant Companion, always being there to speak truth to us and through us, then we’ll realize that no matter what happens in life – we’re not alone. The Spirit is present always. But as the Pentecost story reminds us, the Spirit doesn’t come upon us simply as individuals. It is as a community that the people of God receive the Spirit and are empowered to declare the mighty works of God. Simply because we have received the Spirit as our Companion, doesn’t mean that we don’t need each other. It is in community that the Spirit speaks to us this word of truth.
I understand why so many people are abandoning the institutional church and pursuing their own spirituality without benefit of institution. The institutional church can be a stumbling block to the spiritual well-being of people, especially when it gets caught up in church politics, but we still need each other. In fact, I believe that most people who seek to experience a relationship with God, also seek to be in relationship with others who share this desire. They are seeking community.
As a Spirit-filled and Spirit-empowered community we have the opportunity to support one another’s hopes and dreams, and to bear witness to the love and grace of God. Listening for the Spirit to speak truth in our midst, we are empowered to speak this same truth to our communities. John McClure writes this about our witness:
Witnessing means standing firm for one’s convictions in situations fraught with fear, ambiguity, and instability. Like the disciples we follow the leadership of the Spirit through the world, plowing our own way through uncharted territory where truth is contested (Preaching God's Transforming Justice, p. 258).
We don’t know where the future will take us, but we go forward, knowing that the Spirit is with us. That should give us a sense of confidence – not in our own devices, but in the faithfulness of God.
One way we will be doing this listening for the voice of God in community is through our participation in a Listening Campaign sponsored by the Metropolitan Coalition of Congregations. A Listening Team, which will be commissioned next Sunday, will be contacting everyone in the church to make an appointment to do what is called a “one-on-one,” which is a 30-minute intentional conversation that is intended to do two things. First, these conversations are designed to build community within the congregation. Although we’re a small congregation, that doesn’t mean we know each other well. We hope these conversations will help create new relationships within the congregation. There is a second purpose for this effort, and that is to discern the community issues that you are concerned about, whether it’s jobs, education, transportation, home values. After we’re finished with this six-week campaign the members of the team will get back together and share their findings, which we’ll then take to a gathering of participating congregations on August 5th. On that day we’ll all share our findings with each other and with invited political and community leaders.
It’s difficult to stand firm in our faith when we feel like we’re all alone, but when we live in a community that is empowered and sustained by the Spirit of God, who is our Companion we can, as that old civil rights anthem puts it – overcome some day the forces that resist the justice and love of God. Indeed, empowered by the Spirit, who is our Companion, on this Pentecost Sunday, we can say:We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome some day!
Oh, deep in my heart I do believe
We shall overcome some day.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
May 27, 2012