As I began reflecting about this sermon for today and thinking about the readings and what they were saying, what came to mind, rather surprisingly, was trilogies. Yes, those wonderful three-part sagas we find in literature, and now of course in movies. Two that immediately came to mind for me were Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. Some of the elements often found in trilogies include a long passage of time from the beginning to the end of the story, sometimes with elements of prophecy or foretelling what is to come in the future. There is great adventure, often great sacrifice and heroism. Often a character or characters will be transformed or become somehow greater than they were at the beginning of the story. There is often great interweaving back and forth in these stories between early times and later times, and there is much symbolism. One must pay close attention to the language and the portents of things to come, as the past, present and future dance with each other echoing back and forth over time and space.
The Pentecost story we hear this morning is part of such a trilogy. It is connected to the Christmas story and to the Easter story as the third and final segment, though far from being the ending in a concluding sort of way. It is more like the commencement, as the events of that day birthed a new chapter in the life of the followers of Jesus, a chapter that, of course, still impacts us. It is also of course part of a much bigger story, one that began with creation and continues to this very moment.
Our three readings each give us a glimpse into a part of the story then, and, I hope, some inspiration for how we continue to be part of the story that continues. Each connects with today’s story and of course, with the larger story. Each echoes and dances with the other, as well as with the ancient texts and stories of God’s covenant of love and faith with God’s people.
From Easter to this Pentecost day is fifty days, then and now. Forty days from the day that Jesus presented himself to his followers in his risen glory, ten since he had gone from them, again, not dead this time, but “present in absence” after his ascension.
We sense that in the time between Easter and the day of Pentecost, the Jewish harvest festival, the disciples had begun to develop some sense of who and whose they were. We know that in the time Jesus had spent with them he had continued to teach them. Perhaps some developing understanding of what it meant to be "followers of the way," as they were being called, had begun to take place in them that prepared them to receive and accept what transpired on that Pentecost morning that was to change them forever.
In our Gospel this morning, we hear the story of what happened in one of the earlier encounters that may have been part of that preparation. Jesus' disciples had been startled when a "stranger" stood in their midst as they hid behind locked doors on the evening of his resurrection Fearful, we assume that the same fate that had befallen their leader might befall them too. Afraid, and perhaps confused about what might come next, what they should do next. The "stranger" had introduced himself by saying, "Peace be with you," and in that moment they knew who it was who stood among them. It’s amazing in these post-resurrection stories how when Jesus speaks, immediately he is known. The word of the incarnate Word must have held such power. John tells us they “rejoiced” to see him. We can well imagine! And he says to them a second time, “Peace be with you.” “Peace” to this anxious, worried and possibly guilty group. Remember, these were the ones who had not stayed, had not stood, had not been all they could be when Jesus was being tried and crucified. But, “Peace,” he says to them, simply, “Peace.” Then he calms them further, becoming again their beloved rabbi, recalling for them his connection to his father, the greater story, as well as calling them to the greater task that stands before them all. John says, “He breathed on them.” Jesus, so closely related to his father-God who had first breathed life into humankind, now breathed new life into these disciples among whom he had appeared. Then he said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld." The Spirit who had first filled the womb of Mary with the life of the Incarnate one, the Spirit about whom John had been told at the time of Jesus’ baptism, "He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit." The Spirit who had filled Jesus in fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah’s words, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor" (Luke 4:18). This was the Spirit that was now passed from Jesus to the disciples, who were charged to carry it to the entire world wherever they went.
This meeting, this night, was in a sense a foretaste of the Pentecost to come.
On Pentecost the disciples were again together. Gathered for a traditional time of feasting and praying, expectant perhaps that this year things might be different…it has been ten days since the Ascension. Promises have been made, and Jesus’ followers have been learning to trust that these promises will be fulfilled, even though they don’t always understand the ways and the means.
The Spirit came upon them with the sound of a "rushing wind" and with "tongues of fire" resting on each of them. This imagery of course calls us back to all those places in the Old Testament where, wind and fire are associated with the presence of God, as far back as the creation story in Genesis where the divine wind or spirit moves over the primordial waters (Genesis 1:2), or the story of Moses and the bush that burned without being consumed (Exodus 3:1-6). As it was at the beginning of creation and in the history of Israel, the Spirit of God is now present again in wind and fire creating the new community of the church, allowing them to speak a common language, to hear and understand one another in a new way, to undo some of the brokenness that has been present in the world.
The descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost was both a communal and an individual experience. The disciples, filled with the spirit, were given the ability and power to witness to God. It is a story of individuals like Peter and the other disciples, but it is also the story of the church, it is our story. Like those in the upper room, each of us has received that same indwelling Spirit of God. Each of us and all of us are part of the grand sweep of the same story. At baptism we become part of the Christian community as we are baptized with water and the Spirit. This same spirit enlightens, illumines and unites us as one body. In this body are many gifts, many expressions, but we are one, all belonging to the one God who loves us beyond imagining and set the grand story in motion.
So a trilogy…Christmas…The Incarnation, God stepping into history in a new way and changing forever the way we see God and the way we see ourselves….the great both/and…who God is and who we can be. Then Easter,…Jesus, the Incarnate One, loving us to the end, willing to die so that we might know forever and always that death is never the end of the story. But to be more yet, not only incarnate in that time and place, to be for all time, Jesus returns to the Father and the Spirit must come among us to empower us to go and do and be God’s voice and hands and reach to the farthest corners of the earth. So, we come to the third story, the one we tell today, where we remember that we too are baptized in this spirit, we too are breathed on by God, and that to each of us are given gifts for the common good to create God’s kingdom here on earth. There may be many stories, but there is one source, one body, one Spirit in Christ. Amen.