Dr. Fredrica Harris Thompsett
Professor Emerita of Historical Theology
Episcopal Divinity School
St. John the Evangelist, St. Paul, Minnesota
The Day of Pentecost, 4 June 2017

In the name of the One God Who Chooses, Renews, and Pursues Us. Amen

Good morning! This is a good morning, a spiritual Trifecta of a morning in which we are nourished by two sacraments: Baptism and Eucharist.  What’s more, on this celebration of Pentecost Sunday we are dramatically reminded of powerful and provocative gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Lavish gifts!  Gifts like the red balloons in the sanctuary! On this morning you have also extended to me the gift of pulpit proclamation.  This ole’ teaching-preacher-Lady from Massachusetts is a very happy-camper.  In gratitude, I will follow that ancient advice for visiting preachers, advice brought to you by the letter “B”:   Be Brief, Be Biblical, Bless the Baptized, and . . . Be Gone!

Be Biblical! That’s easy because this morning’s dramatic lessons vividly remind me that in baptism we are both born of water AND born of the Spirit. Here I am not imagining to a ghostly, misty spirit that whisks quickly by us.  Instead, like my biblical ancestors, I am picturing a feisty, wind-driven, flame-producing dramatic Spirit that shakes us up and down to our heartfelt core both as individuals and as a community. Pentecost provides a multi-media theologically provocative moment!

In his last days Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the revered German pastor imprisoned and killed in 1945 for resisting Hitler’s Third Reich, described a meaning of today’s lessons as “Christ taking form in a body of believers.” Listen again to the central point our biblical ancestors are making:  Christ is taking form in a body of believers.”

My friends, make no mistake about it, especially today.  Those in this biblical “body of believers” were not all from one expression of faith. Christians.  As we learn earlier in Acts there were at least 120 persons – men, women and, I believe, children – representing the extraordinarily diverse religious life of the 1st century. Perhaps, just perhaps in the Act passage Luke’s intention in naming all those nations is to challenge any “theology that is wrapped up in a single ethnic identity.” One clear promise of Pentecost is that one people no longer has to be the only tribe to understand and claim that they are the key interpreters of Jesus.  So much for American “exceptionalism.” Now, more and more, a gift of Pentecost is that we are enabled to hear and appreciate one another even with all of our differences.

The Spirit is not for the chosen few. Indeed, this Spirit is from the get-go an equal-opportunity employer.  The Apostle Paul makes it perfectly clear in both Galatians[1] and in Corinthians, that at Pentecost the Spirit breaths a new creation into life. This new creation will express a new way of being human, a way in which barriers are being removed, male and female, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, young and old.

This active blustery Spirit, as I said at the start, pursues us. Listen to the late Verna Dozier, prophetic biblical teacher and mentor for the whole people of God, “the Holy Spirit is always seeking to help us understand what God is like.  It calls us, it instructs us, it names us.”

One note of semi-historical caution: Episcopalians have not been known for paying any attention to the Spirit’s power, except perhaps just a wee bit on a Pentecost Sunday. This is far too stingy.  Surely it is not accidental that Pentecost is the longest season in this church’s life.  Do you realize that we have 25 weeks, right up until Advent, to specifically attend to the Spirit’s unrelenting and persistent advocacy.

Here’s a true story.  Long, long ago, as a very young theological student I was initially taught by a well-know systematic theologian named Paul Tillich.  He advised me that most Episcopalians were hesitant to embrace the Spirit’s power.  I think he actually suggested that Episcopalians were “afraid” to enter into “unseemly” and uncontrolled situations. Not in my family. I was bold from an early age and, so with my trusty 1928 Book of Common Prayer in hand, I attempted then to argue with Tillich. It was not a pretty sight.

Today with the 1979 Prayer Book in hand, I’d still challenge Tillich’s stereotypes.  I find that many of today’s Episcopalians are much bolder than Tillich ever thought. Our responsibilities as baptized believers are clarified anew in the Book of Common Prayer. Our covenants, our promises, are made “with God’s help.” They are clearly spelled out as we respond to specific questions in the Baptismal Covenant. What’s more, today most services of Holy Baptism are publicly celebrated, embraced by the people gathered “all together in one place.”

Today I know that my baptism is not past history, a mere memory that becomes feebler and feebler in its power, like a faded family picture.

Instead I find the biblical story of Jesus’ Spirit-blessed baptism in the River Jordan is foundational for Christian living.   His rising up from living waters to commence his ministry in solidarity with those he came to save, his persistent advocacy for the least, the lost and the left out, his courageous incarnation in our midst, all of this and so much more sharpen and deepen my picture of God’s baptismal generosity.  As I age, this picture grows closer in clarity and depth every time I remember my baptism. We are all “baptized into one body,” lavishly blessed by water and the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is a persistent advocate, an enervating pursuer, an “equal access” companion, yes, even for Episcopalians!  Without exception, each and every one of us receives the Spirit’s comforting, animating, and pursuing power. Each one of us is welcomed and provoked to get on with the loving and laborious, the complicated and communal responsibility to live Christianly.

In closing let me add to Paul’s variety of gifts list. Here are some theological gifts that for me are clarified anew by the Spirit’s swift descent at Pentecost:

We are blessed without asking.

We are loved without condition.

We are included without having the “right” kind of papers.

We are understood even when we are not making sense.

We are even given patience to hear and listen closely to others who speak different languages.

What’s more, we are trusted with important work to do. Particularly in these days when the waters of our society are severely and multiply troubled.  Clearly there is work to do, promises for each one of us to keep, and blessings to share as we travel on our kingdom way.  Come on in, you people of God, the water’s fine, that boisterous Pentecost Spirit dwells within us still.  We are truly Born of Water, Born of Spirit.  Amen

[1] Galatians 3:25 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

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