In Miss Manner's "Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior," much is made of thank-you notes, especially thank you notes for wedding presents. One of her sample letters reads as follows:
Dear Aunt Patience:
Rhino and I are thrilled with the magnificent silver sugar shaker you sent us. It adds not only beauty and dignity to our table, but amusement, too, as some of our friends who are both ignorant and daring have not waited for the berries to be served, but have shaken it over their meat. "This could only have come from your Aunt Patience," said one, and we were proud to say that it had.
Rhino joins me in thanking you for your kindness. We look forward to having you in our new home.
Most of just have gotten gifts that we weren't quite sure how to use. We smile politely, say, "thank you very much," but think to ourselves, "what on earth am I supposed to do with this?" With any luck, the giver will notice a look of perplexity on our faces, and give us some clue as to the intended purpose of the item. But, just as often, we are left to figure it out for ourselves. Sometimes we get it right, sometime we don't, and there are times that we just never find out how this beautiful but strange gift is supposed to be used.
I would bet that it wasn't too different for Jesus' disciples in this morning's Gospel. They receive the gift of the Holy Spirit - and the question is asked, "What on earth am I supposed to do with this?" Even if they don't say it out loud, the question is implied. Nobody had ever received that gift before; there was no helpful lady at the registry at Bloomingdale's or Nordstrom's to tell them just why they should have this particular item and how to use it. And so, when Jesus breathes on his followers and gives them this amazing and perplexing gift, he tells them right away how to use it -- to forgive sins and to be bearers of peace.
In today's lessons we hear that when we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, it is not ours to keep tucked away for our private use. The Holy Spirit is a gift that is to be shared generously and lavishly. Like the fine china and beautiful linens we give and receive as wedding presents, the Holy Spirit is given as a token of the day on which we take vows to live in unity with Christ. And, like those beautiful dishes and tablecloths, the Holy Spirit is a sign that our lives with the Lord will be lived not in isolation, but in gracious and loving service to other people.
But today begins the season of Pentecost. It is a baptismal feast, not a day we associate with witnessing marriage vows. Why are we talking about wedding presents? Think about it a moment: the heaviest wedding season of the year falls from about mid-May to late November. Wedding season matches almost exactly with the season of Pentecost. Pentecost, a day for baptism and a season for weddings, is about families - our promises to join the family of God, and our promises to be faithful in our vows to those earthly families which are signs of that larger family.
Marriage forms earthly and visible families, groups of people who promise to be together in good times and bad, to balance each other's talents and abilities, so that in sharing and giving of what they have and who they are, they will live a life that is fuller and more satisfying than any life they could possibly imagine having alone. Marriage and family are, at their best, places where people serve each other graciously with the very best of what they have, and the various talents of each person are needed to make the whole thing work. And, to show how important an occasion this is, friends and relatives give lavish and beautiful gifts that are meant to add beauty, warmth and graciousness to the life the new couple will share. Often, these are gifts for the home, but not things that are meant for private use. They are gifts that are meant to be shared with others in acts of love and hospitality, acts of gracious service to those in a wider circle than just our immediate family. When we pray for newly married couples, we don't only pray for their life together, but we pray for the ways that the life they will share enriches the whole human community. This is reflected in the marriage prayers, where we ask God to "make their life together a sign of Christ's love to this world" and to enable them to reach out to others in love and concern. This doesn't happen in isolation, but in consciously living in the wider community of God' family.
Baptism, in some ways, is no different. "We receive you into the household of God," we will say after the new Christian has had water poured and oil placed on his or her head. And on this day when those newest members of God's family - our family - pledge to live in faithfulness to Jesus Christ, they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. They receive the best that the One whom they have promised to love even to the end has to give. And like the fine china and silver of the wedding, that expensive gift of the Spirit is used in service, nourishment, and love for others. That gift of the Holy Spirit, for forgiveness and peace, is not just for us within the Christian community, but also to the wider world - to show the gracious hospitality and welcoming love of God for all humankind.
All baptized people have received this gift. It takes on as many different appearances as the china and crystal patterns in the bridal registries of our finest department stores. The difference is that it is not us, but God, who chooses our pattern for us, who gives us the gift that will best suit the table in the household of the church, which we open in loving service to others. All baptized people promise to seek and serve Christ by serving their brothers and sisters in the human family. We aren't baptized just for ourselves; we are baptized for the whole world.
We bring the beautiful and precious gifts of our baptism to the banquet table of God's family. And, it is up to us to make sure that all the place settings match. Each of us has something different and distinctive to bring to this table. At God's table, every color, shape, and texture of dinnerware - from the finest goldbanded china to handthrown pottery, even paper plates - is needed, wanted, and welcome. Until everyone has a place setting at the table, a place specially designed for that person, there is something missing from the feast.
In the church, our visible household of God on earth, we need to welcome all the ways that God has given us this wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit. And, as the disciples did in today's Gospel, we can trust that God will tell us what to do with the gifts that have been given to us. Today, as we celebrate the arrival of our newest brothers and sisters in Christ, we are reminded to wait and see what their gifts will look like, and rejoice in what they will bring to the great table. And, we are not to worry about whether or not all the pieces match. Whatever forms the gift of the Holy Spirit takes in each and every one of us, we are to offer the gift we have received in gracious and loving service to others. And, whatever form the gift of the Spirit takes in others, we are to recognize it as a welcome addition to the life of the family of God, and to rejoice that it makes our life together fuller and richer than any we could possibly imagine if it were absent.
Pentecost seems to be the season in which we celebrate families. As the season progresses, many of us will attend weddings, and we will celebrate the formation of earthly families, which are intended to be icons of the wider family of God. But here today, on this first day of the season, as we baptize new Christians and renew our own baptismal vows, we remember and give thanks for the gifts of the Holy Spirit we have been given; we renew our promises to use those gifts not only for ourselves and for those closest to us, but for all of Gods people and all of the created order. All of us, married or single, adults or children, no matter what categories we use to divide and distinguish ourselves from each other, are a part of this family.
"We receive you into the household of God." We recognize that the newly baptized have received this gift of the Holy Spirit. As their brothers and sisters in Christ, we have a responsibility to help these newest Christians use that gift well and in loving service to others. We welcome you into the family, where your life will be richer and fuller that it was before, and your presence and gifts among us also enrich us.