Pentecost Sunday

May 11, 2008
See Also: 
Reading 2: 
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Reading 3: 
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 or Acts 2:1-21
Reading 4: 
John 20:19-23 or John 7:37-39
By Bruce G. Epperly

The Center for Progressive Christianity and a number of affiliated organizations have designated this year’s Pentecost Sunday as “Pluralism Sunday,” in which participating congregations are invited to “celebrate the many paths to God at Pentecost.” While this is a laudable effort, and I support it fully, today’s passages celebrate much more than religious pluralism. They proclaim a spirit-centered faith, grounded in the personal and global inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit. They celebrate pluralism as the gift of God’s creativity and care for creation in all its wonder and variety. They invite us to a deeper and more nuanced pluralism which arises from the dynamic and interdependent contrast of unity and diversity, self-affirmation and the affirmation of otherness, and mysticism and justice-seeking.

At most congregations this Sunday, the scriptural centerpiece will be Acts 2, and for good reason. Acts 2 describes the life-transforming experience of God’s Holy Spirit among Jesus’ first followers. The passage is breathtaking in its communal mysticism. God’s universal and ever-present Spirit is experienced as palpably present in the lives of the emerging Christian community. Experienced through the media of a mighty wind and tongues of fire, the Holy Spirit plunges the first followers of Jesus into an unexpected theophany, or encounter, with the One God of Israel and the Parent of Jesus. Although they had prayed for spiritual transformation, no doubt Jesus’ first followers were as surprised as those who heard their message by the dramatic movements of God in their lives and in their community. Acts 2 begs the questions for today’s followers of Jesus: “Do we expect divine inspiration in our community’s worship? Are we open to unexpected and trans-rational experiences of God’s Holy Spirit? Can we integrate inclusive theology with lively experiences of God?”

Acts 2 offers us a pluralistic vision of the universe in which humanity, in all its diversity, is joined in God’s lively “call and response.” But, if we simply celebrate diversity or pluralism without affirming revelation and mysticism, we will miss the heart of Pentecost. The pluralism of Pentecost is grounded in a new way of experiencing reality and a transformed consciousness, which enables persons to speak and hear in ways that bring unity rather than division. The deeper pluralism of Pentecost is found in God’s revealing presence in each and every life and nation. In light of Pentecost, when we see otherness, we are called to experience God’s ever-creative presence as its ultimate source.

Divine revelation and inspiration, whether gentle or dramatic, touches everyone. Dreams, visions, and prophesies, call us to see God’s lively presence in all things and be willing to venture into new levels of spiritual experience. Apart from the spirit-centered vision of Acts 2, pluralism often degenerates into divisiveness or relativism. God’s Pentecost revelations join persons in a common spiritual experience in which difference is both beautiful and unifying. Although no one is called to renounce their ethnicity, each person is called to proclaim a deeper interdependence that affirms, yet relativizes, her or his particular ethnic and theological context. Pentecost calls us to go beyond “adjectives” to “mutual affirmation and awe” in the presence of otherness. In the spirit of process theologian Bernard Loomer, Pentecost calls us to spiritual stature, the ability to embrace diverse experiences and viewpoints around a common life-giving center of experience.

I Corinthians 12 also celebrates the promise of pluralism. But, once again, pluralism is joined with the well-being of the faithful community and the world, the body of Christ as church and cosmos. To paraphrase Al Carmines’ hymn to divine diversity, “many gifts, one Spirit; one God known in many ways.” God is working within our lives to call forth our unique gifts and talents for our own personal transformation and the health and vitality of the church and the world.

In light of Acts 2 and I Corinthians 12, we must remember that our gifts and our personal and cultural diversity are for “the common good,” just as cells and organs, by their health, contribute to physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being in each individual’s experience. This is a holistic spirit-faith which affirms diversity and celebrates pluralism in light of something even more significant, God’s vision of reconciliation, unity, and healing of persons and the planet. Religious, cultural, ethnic, and gender identity affirmation finds its true meaning in the affirmation of God’s presence in all its variety.

Revelation is universal in Acts 2 and I Corinthians 12; but revelation is also described as intimate and personal. This is the creative contrast born of spirit-centered pluralism. At the micro level, both passages call persons to celebrate their gifts and to see God working within their lives. Often, sadly, persons affirm divine omnipresence, except for one God-forsaken sector in the universe—their own lives! These passages proclaim, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Address at the Harvard Divinity School, that each person is a “bard of the Holy Ghost.” We are called, in the words of Frederick Buechner, to “listen to our lives,” and, in response, we are challenged, in the words of Parker Palmer, to “let our lives speak.” We can each affirm that “God is inspiring me and I am gifted,” and then say the same thing to everyone we meet, “God is inspiring you and you are gifted.”

At the macro level, God is the ultimate source of religious, theological, cultural, and ethnic diversity. While receivers of divine inspiration and revelation always experience God in terms of the gifts and limitations—and the unique insights—of their social, religious, gender, and ethnic locations, still God is breathing through each life, inspiring, challenging, and guiding in ways that go beyond class, culture, and religion. Pluralism is not a fall from grace, but a reflection of an infinitely creative and imaginative personal God. The reality of other religions is testimony to the many and diverse ways God calls persons toward wholeness in every time and place.

Both lectionary passages from John’s Gospel could—and, perhaps, should—be read on Pentecost insofar as they connect us with God’s abundant revelation and power in the world and in our lives. Brief though they are, their message is stunning in its transformative power. “Jesus breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (John 20:22)  John’s Pentecostal vision is both literally and figuratively inspiring! Jesus is breathing in you; the Spirit animates every breath; God’s inspiration is as near as the next breath and as sustaining as the previous breath. John 20 speaks of God’s inspiring Spirit as our deepest reality. All the energy of God, all the vitality of the “big birth” of the universe, all the inspiration of the Spirit, that we need right now to face the challenges of personal and congregational life are with us, and in us, in every moment. The witness of the Spirit is everywhere, but it is also right here in our moment by moment experience.

John 7 describes the abundance of God’s Spirit as a “river of living waters,” flowing out of the believer’s heart. Emotional burn out and brown out are always around the corner in professional life. Sometimes, the world is too much with us and the demands of ministry, professional life, parenting, citizenship, and intimate relationships are simply too great. Indeed, they are always too great for the “individual” – the one who thinks he or she can make it entirely on their own energy. John 7 and 20 describe an abundant Spirit moving in all things, inspiring all things, and energizing all things. You have everything you need as a person and as members of a congregation to flourish spiritually and in the quest for justice and wholeness. We flourish when we affirm and develop our gifts in the context of a supportive community of faith that nurtures, challenges, and inspires us. “Practicing Pentecost” involves breathing with Spirit and allowing divine insight to well up amid our day to day experiences.

Psalm 104 presents a breathtaking vision of our planet. God’s praise sings forth in all of God’s “manifold works.” Divine wisdom (Sophia) gives life and guidance to human and non-human creatures. All things are centers of spiritual vitality, dependent for their lives on God’s inspiring presence. God breathes and we come alive! God breathes and we venture into unknown places! God breathes and the incredible diversity of life emerges!

At our congregation, Disciples United Community Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, we conclude each petition and intercession in the prayers of the people with the words, “God in all things” to which the congregation responds “all things in God.” On Pentecost, we awaken to a God-breathed world and a God-transformed life. Like Jesus’ first followers, we are propelled forward, at times, to unexpected places. But, like those first followers, we can embrace disorientation, because God’s “moving center” is everywhere and God’s breath of life sustains and guides us.

Yes, on Pentecost, we can celebrate the promise of pluralism. We are called to affirm the many colors of the earth and the varied voices of humanity. We called to attend to our own spiritual gifts and support the gifts of others, because the infinite, intimate, inspiring, and enlivening Spirit of God gives life to each moment and all creation. We can “Practice Pentecost” by breathing deeply divine revelation and training our senses to experience God in all things and all things in God.

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Pentecost is a day of celebration. It is a day for dancing and singing and openness to a truly global, yet profoundly local, Christian experience. Pentecost is a day to expect the unexpected and to give thanks for God’s inspiration in our lives. In some congregations, we are called to Pentecostal boldness, even if we do not expect mighty winds, tongues of fire, or glossalalia. We can wear bright colors, not just red! We can bring drums and wind chimes, and install for the day fans in the sanctuary. We can breathe deeply in moments of silence and celebrate God’s Spirit breathing in and through us. We can testify to God’s work in our lives and to our own gifts, the gifts of persons of all ages in our congregation, and the various cultural gifts spread forth by God’s abundant imagination.

This is a day for singing with joy and gusto. This is a day for praise and clapping and deep breathing. Some possible hymns and praises that speak of a lively, diverse, and yet unified Spirit are:

“De Colores”(Mexican Folk Song)
“Every Time I Feel the Spirit” (African American Spiritual)
“God of the Sparrow, God of the Whale” (Jaroslav Vadja, USA)
“In the Midst of New Dimensions” (Julian Rush, USA)
“Like the Murmur of the Dove’s Song” (Carl Daw, USA)
“Many Gifts, One Spirit” (Al Carmines, USA)
“Praise with Joy the World’s Creator” (Iona Community, Scotland)
“Spirit Song/Spirit of Gentleness” (Jim Manley, USA)
“This is the Day (When the Spirit Came” (Leslie Garrett, New Zealand)
“Wind that Makes All Winds that Blow” (Thomas Troeger)

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.