We are one in the Spirit: The Challenge of Pentecost

May 22, 2003

We are now in the season of Pentecost, having moved through the Great Fifty Days of Easter which culminated on May 20 with the celebration of the day of Pentecost.

Well I remember from my own experiences as a parish priest, and then a bishop making visitations, the energy that went into celebrating Pentecost. Children wearing crowns of paper flames, or carrying swooping paper doves mounted on long sticks processed down the aisle through a sea of red dresses and neckties. Often the scripture was proclaimed in several languages. And, of course – there was the great sheet cake with swirls of scarlet frosting: a cake for the church’s birthday. Liturgical purists would argue that Pentecost is not the birthday of the church, but parish traditions, particularly when they involve eating cake, can be difficult to adjust.

The joy and exuberance in observing Pentecost, it seems to me, springs from a desire to celebrate the activity of the Holy Spirit which, as Jesus tells us in the Gospel of John, is like the wind blowing where it wills. Pentecost is the celebration of God’s fullness, imagination, and love.

And, what strikes me particularly is the incredible delicacy and discretion of that love. The Holy Spirit did not speak in some sort of ecclesiastical esperanto or homogenized language that could have overcome all the differences that existed among those who had gathered to keep the feast, as described at the beginning of the Book of Acts. Instead, the Holy Spirit spoke to “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia…” and each heard the Divine address in their own language.

This says to me that God profoundly respects and honors difference and the experience of “otherness” is part of the mystery of creation. While those who were gathered with the apostolic community were drawn together in a common experience of God’s affirming and honoring presence, their own particular historical and cultural realities, represented by language, were also affirmed and declared good. Though Medes and Parthians might not be able to understand one another’s language, or appreciate one another’s cultural and historical context, by virtue of receiving the same Holy Spirit they were made one.

This deep sense of being one in spite of difference was made profoundly real for me at the recent meeting of the primates of the Anglican Communion in Canterbury, England. The awareness of God’s presence clothed in otherness was writ large. As the primates shared their struggles and their joys it was so very clear that we live in vastly different contexts. Our social and political realities are enormously varied. And yet, each of us, in our own place, seeks to proclaim the good news of God in Christ.

I listened to the primates describe civil unrest and violence, staggering poverty, HIV/AIDS, and religious persecution. Seeing the gospel through the eyes of my brother bishops, as they arise each day and deal with these overwhelming situations, put our own immediate struggles in a larger frame. I could also see how the ways of the Spirit are finely tuned to the particular complexities of each of our lives, and to the burdens we bear, such that each one of us has been given particular grace to live in their own circumstances. This for me is a message of Pentecost. By entering into one another’s realities and trying to see from the perspective of the other, our encounter with Christ is vastly enlarged and our sense of God’s all embracing presence is confirmed. As Phoebe and I returned to the United States from Canterbury I found myself wondering what more subtle encounters with otherness I am being asked to entertain here at home.

The Jewish celebration of Pentecost commemorates the giving of the law on Mount Sinai, and Rabbinic tradition has it that when the Torah – the law – was entrusted to Moses it shattered and broke into seventy pieces, with seventy to be understood as representing all the nations of the world. Thus each nation was able to receive the Word of God in ways that were particularly suited to their hearing. It seems to me that this tradition of unity mediated through multiplicity prepared the way for bestowal of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost.

As we make our way through the season of Pentecost it may be well for us to consider what of the feast itself we take with us. For me it is a deeper awareness of otherness and difference, not as threat but as potential revelation – revelation of the ever-expansive mystery of the divine imagination, in which the Risen Christ continually confronts me and calls me forth into new spaces of discovery and being. I will be asking myself who are the Cappadocians and Elamites I am being called to embrace, knowing that they too have been addressed in their own language. I will be reminding myself that these others too possess one of the seventy fragments of the Torah.

The Most Reverend Frank T. Griswold
XXV Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA