as the Spirit gave them ability. (Acts 2)
In the political climate in which we currently find ourselves, Pentecost comes as a welcome antithessis of the suspicion and hostility which has been cultivated toward other people.
The biblical context for Pentecost is this: the disciples are gathered together on the Feast of Pentecost, which in ancient Israel was a celebration of the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. It was, no doubt, a day of some uncertainty for them, for although Jesus had been appearing to them for the forty days after Easter, he has now bid them farewell and parted from them, leaving only a promise (as Luke’s gospel puts it) that they will be “clothed with power from on high.” They are now waiting in the city, as Jesus instructed them, without any clear idea of what comes next. The eleven remaining disciples have taken the step of replacing Judas with Matthias, by drawing lots. But now they are simply waiting—and watching.
And then it happens. On the Day of Pentecost, as they are all together, there is a mighty wind, and then tongues of fire descend upon them (which of course is why we ourselves wear red this day). But most amazingly, the tongues of fire bestow upon them a literal gift of tongues, and they begin to speak in a multitude of languages such that all those gathered in Jerusalem for the feast day from many different cultures and places are able to understand them, each in his or her own language.
So Pentecost is a day when God becomes identified in a positive way with a diversity of languages and cultures among the human family. In fact, the Old Testament lesson from Genesis that is paired today with the reading from Acts tells how God purposefully scrambled human language at the Tower of Babel, fearful that a humanity that was too homogenous would also be a humanity too powerful for its own good.
Now on Pentecost, the gift of language to the apostles seems to be understood by them as an affirmation by God (as Peter goes on to proclaim in a lengthy oration), that Jesus is both Lord and Christ for all people, but that within that human family there is a recognizable and desirable difference. Pentecost defines the human community as both one and many at the same time: as children of the one God, we have in common our underlying humanity, but that is held within the difference of language and culture.
So, back to our political situation. In a day when so much anxiety is expressed about the relationship between human communities, our Christian faith reminds us that we would do well to remember that from God’s perspective, the human family is both one (as God is one), and richly diverse. The implication is that we must be careful about drawing lines or erecting barriers between ourselves, thinking that we have just cause to be protective and defensive of our own community.
Christian faith, in other words, calls us to a concern for the common good of the whole, and not just of the partiality of our own kin and country. That is one of the implications of what we affirm in creed each Sunday, when we describe the church as catholic: our vision of humanity is not divided, but whole; it is not sectarian, but ecumenical; it is not between the haves and have-nots, but exists without borders. The church, if you will, might be the original organization to have positioned itself “sans frontières,” like the groups Doctors Beyond Borders, Teachers Beyond Borders, Engineers Borders that have sprung up in the last several decades. We are “Christians without borders,” because the catholic dimension of the church is directly related to its Pentecostal dimension.
The baptisms which we celebrate today are powerful reminders of this commonality. We baptize these individuals not as members of this congregation, nor as a members of the Episcopal Church, nor as Anglicans—we baptize them as Christians, adding them to the one fellowship of people in all times and in all places who together belong to Jesus Christ (that’s why we affirm unequivocally at the beginning of the service that there is “One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism”). Baptism is a great sign of our fundamental equality as human beings in God.
There is a famous story about Oscar Romero, who soon after he became Archbishop of San Salvador was approached by a wealthy family who wanted him to baptize their child. He said he would be delighted to do so, and invited them to join in the baptismal service that was scheduled in the Cathedral at which many children would be baptized—both rich and poor, Spanish and Indian. Horrified at the thought that their child would be baptized in the same water as the poor, the family turned away in disgust. They had missed the essential thing: in baptism, God makes no distinctions, and neither should the church.
So as God structures the world, there are no borders, no fences—no one is on the other side, for there is no “we” and “they.” The refugee from the violence in Central America, making his way to the United States in hopes of safety knowing that there is a 40% chance that he will be robbed along the way—he is a part of our community. The woman fleeing from the threat of violence, knowing that there is an 80% chance that she will be sexually assaulted en route—she is part of our community.1 For there is only the one humanity for which Jesus came, and was willing to be betrayed into the hands of sinners, and for whom he gave his life, and into whose risen life we are now called through the Spirit.
That is the answer Pentecost makes to the politics of the current day. Thanks be to God!
© Joseph Britton, 2016
1 Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Justice, Symposium on Borderland Issues, St. Mark’s Church, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 9 April 2016.