The Day of Pentecost, rcl yr a, 2020
St. John’s in Pandemic
ACTS 2:1-21; PSALM 104:25-35, 37; 1 COR. 12:3B-13; JOHN 20:19-23
The collect for Pentecost Sunday—the collect for today—speaks of a God “who fulfilled the promises of Easter by sending us [the] Holy Spirit.”
It seems a bold assertion. The Holy Spirit, according to this prayer, isn’t fulfilling the promises of Easter; we don’t look forward, here, to a future completion of the promises of Easter. Instead, in the sending of the Holy Spirit, the promises of Easter are fulfilled.
Now it could be that the collect simply has things wrong. And in a way, it must be wrong—among the promises of Easter is the resurrection of us all, and a resulting life of beatitude, peace, and justice. And yet we so, so evidently lack those things in these days of sadness and loss, anxiety, and injustice.
Before we start a revision of the BAS collects, though, let’s take a look at the readings for the day, and see what they say, and where they might lead us—can we indeed say that the promises of Easter have indeed been fulfilled? And if so, what that might mean for us?
Paul, in his first letter to the church in Corinth, writes of the Holy Spirit’s
relationship to the church. “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same
Spirit,” writes Paul; “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the
common good.” Paul then makes a list of these gifts, and the way the Spirit
is being made manifest in the members of the church now in the present:
“the utterance of wisdom,” for example, and “the utterance of knowledge.”
“Faith” is given “by the same Spirit” to others, and there’s “gifts of healing,”
“the working of miracles,” “prophecy,” “the discernment of spirits,” and also
“tongues [and] the interpretation of tongues.”
Now many of these probably sound a bit obscure—I’m not going to try explain exactly what all of these gifts are, or what they mean today. What I’d like to draw out, rather than enumerating and explaining those gifts, has more to do with what Paul says next. And what Paul says next is that we were all baptized in this Spirit; and in this baptism we are one body, though
many members, just as there is one Spirit that gave each of us a different gift. Many members, and as many gifts as there are members; but one Spirit, and so one body; one church.
And what Paul is clear about—even if the nature of the gifts could use a bit more exploration—is that those gifts are present in the church at Corinth.
This connection between the one Spirit that gifts each one of us, and the church—the body of Christ into which each of us are baptized—can help us understand other places where Paul similarly speaks of the relationship between the gifts of the Spirit and the body of Christ, the church.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, for example, speaks of other gifts: “some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”
Again, without going into too much detail about the nature of these gifts today—it’s a different list than what we read in the first letter to the Corinthians— these too, like the gifts given to the Corinthians in their baptism, are “gifts [Christ] gave.” Not gifts that are being given, or gifts that will be given. They are the “gifts he gave.” (If you like grammar: it’s in the aorist tense.)
So the gifts needed for us to be the church are given by the one spirit in the one baptism we have received. Those gifts, given to the members of the body of Christ were present not only in Corinth, or in Ephesus, but to the whole body of Christ—and so, to the church here where we are and in our time—no matter what the time is like, whether it be a time of mourning, a time of joy, a time of lament, or a time of solace.
It seems then that the promises of Easter that are fulfilled by the Spirit are given to us in baptism—and so the promises of Easter, fulfilled by the Spirit, continue to be given in baptism, and are already given to those who are baptized. The gifts of the Spirit are already present in the church.
Even, then, present and given to the church of St. John the Evangelist, and even in a time of lockdown and pandemic. And what this means—to say that the promises of Easter are fulfilled in our presence, in this time, in this place, is that we already have all we need for this place, and in this time.
Our list of gifts may be different than the lists we read in first Corinthians, or the list we read in Ephesians. But they won’t be that different either; there will be a family resemblance, and our list will already include things like wisdom, knowledge, and the ability to teach; there is already faith, and healing ways to care; there is already an ability to read the signs of the times. And even now, (in lockdown!) we are sent, in peace. As we read in John’s Gospel: as the Father sent Jesus, so are we sent to share the peace and good news of God in Christ, in the plenitude of the Spirit breathed upon us, and into us.
(And there are even more gifts yet than these, gifts already given, gifts we have yet to discover in one another.)
Be confident: this is good news. There is no more we need to be the church of God in Christ, united in the one Spirit, than what we’ve already been given. Be fully confident, in this way, that God has indeed “fulfilled the promises of Easter by sending us [the] Holy Spirit.” May we ever grow in this sort of spiritual confidence.
The Revd Dr Preston DS Parsons
Rector, St John the Evangelist, Kitchener