Access: The Feast of Pentecost
A few weeks ago when we were getting ready for the 1662 Evensong, I was on the phone with a photographer from the News-Gazette trying to tell her how to get access to our building on a Wednesday evening. She knew the red doors, but that didn’t do her any good. She knew our address was University Avenue, but that didn’t do her any good either. She’d been told to come to Park St, but even that wasn’t enough information, because only 1/5 of the doors facing Park St were open. We got her in, but it was just a textbook Episcopal Church moment. One thing Episcopalians are known for is how hard it is to find the entrance to our buildings.
You know, access to the church is important any day, but perhaps especially on Pentecost, which in a way is a great celebration of open access. With the coming of the Holy Spirit God offers us a kind of access to the Divine that we never had before. In fact, we can tend to miss just what that access is, because when we think on our own about it, most of us default to a different mindset than what we see in Scripture. Let me say what I mean.
Painting with a very broad brush here, if you were to ask a Western person, someone from one of the great monotheistic cultures, how people get access to the divine, I think you’d hear answers like: Well, they have to study the sacred writings, go regularly to the church or the mosque or the temple and spend time in prayer; they probably need to behave well morally, and perhaps volunteer to help out in their house of worship. If they do things like that, they can get closer to the divine. That, very oversimplified, is the Western cultural assumption.
On the other hand, if you were to ask an Eastern person, someone with a more pantheistic worldview, how people get access to the divine, I think you’d get a different kind of answer, more like: they need to purify themselves of illusion, so that they can realize their oneness with all life. They should devote time to meditative practices, perhaps work with a teacher who has already attained enlightenment. If they do things like that, they can get closer to the divine. That, again very oversimplified, is the Eastern cultural assumption.
So in the default assumptions of Westerners about religion we tend to picture climbing the mountain of understanding or of moral progress, or in the default assumptions of the East we tend to picture climbing the mountain of enlightenment or of mystical progress. But the interesting thing is that as different as those two cultural sets of assumptions are, when we look at them in light of what happened on Pentecost, they are both based on the same premise. They both assume that getting access to the divine is something we do. If we do a lot, we get more access and can feel proud of what we’ve done; if we do a little, we get less access and can feel ashamed that we haven’t done enough. In each case, though, responsibility for access to the divine rests with us.
This day, this feast of Pentecost, the culmination of the Easter Season, turns all that on its head. Pentecost isn’t about you getting access to the divine, it’s about the divine getting access to you. In the Christian way of thinking, as I’ve commented before, we don’t make our own way up the mountain towards God. God comes down to us. It’s all about God’s initiative, his gift, not our initiative and our effort. And as I said, this just turns the whole way the human mind tends to think on its head. Because of Jesus, and more specifically today because of Pentecost, we don’t say work harder, and we don’t say "OK God, I’ve done my share, now give me my due." We just say yes. Come, Holy Spirit.
The disciples said yes to the gift of the Spirit on Pentecost, but I expect the whole thing struck them as rather odd. Jesus had told them that he was going to send them the Spirit, but they must have wondered what on earth he could possibly mean. The Spirit was around already, wasn’t he? The Spirit was in the first verse of the Torah, the opening of Genesis. They knew that. Throughout the OT, we hear over and over about times when the Spirit came upon someone to give them power for a task, or when the Spirit was with someone as they took leadership. So it’s not as if there were no Holy Spirit before the Day of Pentecost. The Spirit and the Father and the Son were in the beginning, are now and ever shall be, world without end, Amen. So what’s the big difference?
Well, we start to glimpse that difference in verse 17 of today’s Gospel reading. It’s the last one before the bracket marking the last few verses as optional,, and it’s deceptively simple. Jesus is telling his disciples two things about the coming of the Spirit – he (1) abides with you and (2) will be in you – and frankly, they have no idea what he’s talking about. We can see it, though, because we live after Easter. He’s describing something that will only happen, and can only happen, after his death and resurrection.
That moment really is the turning point. You know, many of the Jews of that era believed that there was going to be some kind of resurrection, that God was eventually going to raise people up into a new kind of existence, but they believed that this would only happen at the very end of time. That would be the sign of a whole new era of human history beginning. Way, way in the future, yes, there would be some kind of new life given by God, but it was so far out it was like a utopian hope.
What happens in Jesus, however, is that God essentially says: Well, you’re right about that. There is going to be an entirely new kind of life unleashed in creation. There is going to be a new era in human history. But it’s going to start a little sooner than you expected. It’s going to happen in Jesus on Easter, not in some misty utopia at the end of time. Jesus is going to open this risen life thing up now, as the first example, the prototype. And then, via sending the Spirit on Pentecost, he’s going to give people open access to what he has.
And that’s what Jesus is getting at when he slips in those two little phrases about the Spirit at the end of today’s Gospel. “He abides with you,” is the first phrase. So far so good. That’s just like in the OT, where the Spirit came on leaders to help them with particular jobs. Sure. He’s with us. Even if you don’t believe the OT, I think many people would say, sure there’s some kind of Spirit in creation, some kind of sacred force. No surprises there. But then comes the bombshell. He abides with you, says Jesus, but he will be in you. At Pentecost the Spirit will actually become available to be not on you, not near you, not with you, not beside you, but in you. You’ve got to think that was just absolute cognitive overload for the disciples at the time: IN us? Divine life IN US? Without our even working for it? Sorry, but that’s way too good to be true.
But then it happened, and today is the day it happened. Throughout this Easter season, we’ve been celebrating the reality that Jesus has risen into a new kind of life, and today on Pentecost we get the capper to that celebration, that he now offers absolutely everybody access to the risen life he has, via the Spirit. The Spirit comes and starts to pour the new resurrected life that Jesus inaugurated into Jesus’ followers. Not into the important ones, not into the adepts, not into the good people, not into the professionally religious, not into the ones who have achieved 3000 hours of meditation practice or 51 Sundays a year of church attendance. Just the ones who say yes.
It’s not about getting access to God. It’s about God getting access to you. As with so many other things in Christianity, the story of Pentecost turns on its head the old baseline human assumption that what God or the gods want us to do is strive for betterment and become more religious. The Spirit doesn’t come to make us more religious, but to give us abundant life. To give us from within the intimacy with God and empowerment by God and anchoring in God that Jesus already won for us when he rose from the dead.
And then if we say yes (and as we say yes), all that new life starts working its way through us, from the inside out, and we find ourselves being made more whole and more free and more genuine and less afraid and less controlling and less angry and all kinds of other mores and lesses we never even expected because it’s no longer all up to us; the Spirit is at work. From the inside out. It’s not about you getting access to God. It’s about God getting access to you.
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