As a kid in high school, I often attended church with my best friend, Dena. Dena and I had been friends since middle school and we were inseparable. I had grown up in the Baptist church, but when we moved to Virginia, we’d had a hard time finding a church home. So I went with Dena to her church—a Pentecostal church. Now, I’ll admit that I don’t know all the church history and theology that supports the Pentecostal church in America, but what I do know is based simply on observation and experience. In the time that I was attending the church, I would say the Holy Spirit was alive and on fire there. On more than one occasion, people spoke in tongues, danced in the aisles, and waved their arms to praise music. I have participated in altar calls and watched as pastors performed healings. While all of this was exciting, for me personally, it didn’t meet me on my journey with God. And so I look back fondly on that experience, and it has given me a love for the season of Pentecost, which I would say is the foundation for how this particular denomination understands Christian living.
Now having said all that, I don’t expect to experience the same things in an Episcopal church that I did on those Sundays in the Pentecostal church. And I think it would be inauthentic to who we are as a church to replicate those experiences for the sake of celebrating Pentecost.
So what do we make of this great celebration of the church? Well, as good Episcopalians, we use our three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition and Reason to guide us in our understanding. Scripture tells us that in the experience of Pentecost the church’s eyes are opened to the fact that God is working in new ways; that the Spirit is in the world and has always worked to bring about the Kingdom of God. For early Jewish-Christians, the Spirit invited the Gentiles and others into the Body of Christ. For us, the Spirit is still calling us to be inclusive and welcoming to all.
Tradition says that we celebrate Pentecost to remember that the gospel is intended for everyone, and that forgiveness is offered to all.
Reason highlights for us that when we see the works of love, peace and justice, we know that the Spirit is at work. Historically speaking, the work of the Spirit can be seen in great movements—the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the end to slavery and apartheid. And now, I would say that the Spirit is at work in the Human Rights movement and the equality of LGBT peoples.
The Spirit is dangerous, playful, and daring. What I mean by that is that it calls us to be truth-tellers and witnesses to the gospel. It calls us to a place that says “All are welcome” and no one is denied access. It calls us to a place that doesn’t allow discrimination for any reason. It calls us to a place to be prophetic in the proclamation of the gospel that gives us the courage to confront the injustices in our world.
This week a woman came to the church office looking for assistance. After talking with her and listening to her story, we went up to the hospital together to get her a hotel voucher so she wouldn’t have to sleep out in the rain. I made arrangements for her to get some clean clothes for free at another church’s thrift store, and then they were going to help her connect with the Lion’s Club to get some glasses. In talking with her about her experience out on the road, I was sad, but not surprised to hear about the challenges she had faced…being turned away because she didn’t “belong”, sometimes fearing for her safety as a woman alone on the road, not knowing if she’d have at least one meal each day. But the Spirit was present in that moment…both in her truth telling and courage, and in the variety of places we were able to find help for her; places that acted out of love, peace and justice.
The Spirit is also our teacher. With each generation, we gather new learnings and insights into the meaning of Scripture and how we can be participants in the Kingdom of God. While the Bible may be a “fixed” text, it is organic and alive through inspiration and revelation about its meaning. How we understand the Bible is part of the work of the Spirit. While at one time we understood the text to say women could not serve at the altar, now we understand it to say that the full body of Christ should be represented at the altar…both men and women.
So we need the experience of Pentecost. Not just one day of the year, but every day in our Christian lives. It may or may not include dancing, waving of arms, or speaking in tongues. It may or may not include the laying on of hands and altar calls. But when we are open to the Spirit of Pentecost, we are given the strength, courage, and encouragement to proclaim the Gospel in our daily life, to be truth tellers, prophets and teachers acting in ways of love, peace and justice.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.