Yesterday morning my family woke up early— not by alarm, but early enough. We came upstairs, I made coffee and scones, and we sat down to watch the royal wedding, which we had recorded. Admittedly, we are not particularly royal family watchers. We didn't watch William and Kate’s wedding a few years ago. I can remember the childhood summer when Princess Diana and Prince Charles married, but my family didn’t watch. There was no way we were going to miss this one, though, because Presiding Bishop Michael Curry was the preacher. Bishop Curry was elected by the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops at the General Convention three years ago, and I will never forget the ecstatic exuberance with which the House of Deputies voted to affirm this choice. The Presiding Bishop was in our diocese last year, so many of us have been inspired to hear him preach in person. Yesterday he preached with fervent joy and passion about love, how it comes from God and fills us with the power to love one another and in so doing change the world. Love has the power to sustain, inspire, and heal people in the most intractably difficult, oppressive situations, he said. The power of love sustained those who were enslaved in the United States over a century ago, he said, citing the spiritual “Balm in Gilead.” The love of God in and for which we were made, brings people together across all manner of divides, heals us, makes us a new creation and sends us out into the world to manifest God’s love. Not a milquetoast love, not a sentimental love, but a love whose “flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.” Together with eighteen million viewers in Britain alone, perhaps including many of you, we went to church yesterday in our living room as surely as we are this morning.
Now, that reference to fire in the Presiding Bishop’s sermon was a gift from the Song of Songs (8:6-7), the biblical reading chosen for yesterday’s wedding, but it also perfectly links us to today, the Feast of Pentecost. Today is the day we celebrate the completion of the Easter good news – the fiftieth of the Great Fifty Days we began celebrating on Easter Sunday. It is the day when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples in the form of flaming tongues, filling them with power and launching the movement of Jesus’ followers of which we ourselves are a part. That is the story we heard in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. I will return to it in a moment. But first, our gospel passage can help set the stage for that story. Once again this week we heard from the Gospel of John which has been our companion through much of this season. In earlier weeks we have heard Jesus’ discourses from John’s gospel, explaining how he and the Father are one, and how when we abide or remain with him, we too share in that connection both with God and with one another. In and through that abiding, that seeking and sustaining of divine connection, we will bear much fruit, Jesus has said in passages near ours. Today he explains that this oneness, this connection that we share, continues even after his death, resurrection, and ascension. He remains with us, we hear today, through what he calls the Advocate, the “Spirit of truth.” This “Spirit of truth” is the powerful presence of God who testifies, who shares the truth with us and asks us to share it in the world (Jn 15:26-27). In the timeline of John’s Gospel the discourse we heard is actually prior to Jesus' death—this explains the sorrow filling the hearts of the disciples as they hear him reference “going to the one who sent me” (Jn 16:6). But only by his leaving, only after his dying and rising, could the Spirit of truth come (Jn 16:7). “I still have many things to say to you,” he said, still on our side of grave, “but you cannot bear them now” (Jn 12-13). The Spirit of truth, however, invites us to hear those things.
This is the Spirit whose descent and inspiration we celebrate today. The Acts of the Apostles describes the moment vividly. The disciples are sitting together in a house. Out of nowhere, there comes a sound. They don’t know how to describe it except that it was like a “violent wind” blowing through the house (Acts 2:1-2). I imagine them sitting there, perfectly still, when it began. And then, as the noise continued, we hear that they saw “divided tongues, as of fire” (διαμεριζόμεναι γλῶσσαι ὡσεὶ πυρός) among them, with a single tongue alighting on each of them (Acts 2:3). Suddenly the disciples gain the ability to share about “God’s deeds of power” in languages beyond their own (Acts 2:5). The crowd that gathers around the house, drawn by the strange wind-rushing noise, is astonished to realize this as they listen more closely. Galilean disciples suddenly can be understood by “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene,” by visitors from Rome” by “Cretans and Arabs” (Acts 2:9-12). A mystery takes place this day, a miracle of translation that becomes a bond of union—people are brought together across barriers of language and location. And they are not simply brought together, they are set alight. They are filled with the power of Spirit to go out and spread the good news of Jesus Christ, about the divine power of love to heal all brokenness, to create the world afresh.
As I was sitting with this Acts passage this week, I found myself noticing the description of the tongues. “Divided tongues as of fire,” they are called. The word “divided” reminded me of the state of division so rampant in our world right now and made me curious about its usage, or at least its translation, in our story. The Greek for this word is διαμερίζω. It is related to the noun μέρος which can mean a portion or share, a part as opposed to a whole, or a turn or assigned role.The verb can indeed be translated simply “divide” but it can also mean "distribute" or "share" portions of something larger.The verb shows up in the eleventh chapter of Luke where Jesus speaks about how a kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert.It shows up in all four versions of the passion narrative where the soldiers divide Jesus’ clothing among themselves.It also occurs in Luke’s version of the Last Supper when he takes the cup of wine and tells the disciples, “take this and distribute it among yourselves.”The verb only shows up twice in Acts, once in our passage and again shortly after our reading. In the second instance the disciples, newly inspired by the Spirit, take the radical step of selling their possessions and “distribut[ing] (διαμέριζον) the proceeds to all, as any had need.”With these nuances in mind, the Spirit’s descent at Pentecost takes on a strongly distributive, communal dimension.
The tongues of the Spirit’s flame not only bridge the divides of language and nation but also inspire a communitarian ethic of sharing. The Spirit is a gift given to all, shared freely with no regard for status or location. The story of Pentecost is one of radical opening and sharing, an ethic that is itself part of the good news we are called to proclaim. It is what Presiding Bishop Curry described yesterday: a “movement grounded in the unconditional love of God for the world… a movement mandating people to live that love,” a movement that can change “not only [our] lives, but the very life of the world itself.”This distributive Spirit is divine love with the power to—as the Presiding Bishop listed— make poverty history, prevent children from going to bed hungry, make us to lay down our swords and shields by the riverside and study war no more, make the earth a sanctuary. This is the power of the Spirit, the Spirit of truth, the Spirit of love, the Spirit who infuses us with the power to join God in transforming the world. In a week when ten students and teachers have died in yet another school shooting—this time in Santa Fe, Texas—a week when sixty Palestinian protesters were killed at the Gaza border by a disproportionately armed Israeli army,a week when the stability in Korea is vacillating wildly,a week when California’s sanctuary state law and our immigrant communities are under increasingly vitriolic attack from the Trump administration,we need to be reminded of this divine power, this love, this hope.
This Spirit descended upon the disciples over two thousand years ago, and it descends as well upon us. We do well to remember that we too are gifted by this Spirit in ways we can identify and in ways we can barely begin to understand. The power of this story is, in part, to remind us of God’s powerful, loving presence with us, urging us on, sending us out to share our gifts, to distribute them radically to help transform our world. There are many ways in which we are doing this and can yet do this, multiple gifts we have been given to share. You will notice in your booklet this morning a little red card labeled with a word. This word is a specific “gift of the Spirit.” There is a tradition, originally from the writings of Paul as Patricia Busk shared with our worship committee recently, of naming particular gifts of the Spirit. I invite you to look at your particular card and consider how this gift may be operating in you. I also invite you call to mind people in the wider St. Aidan’s community, or indeed in other parts of your life, who may embody this gift. On the welcome table you will find a list of other gifts of the Spirit, prepared for us along with the individual cards by Patricia. May we give thanks for all of the Spirit's gifts today. May we share them with one another freely, distributing them broadly in this congregation and way beyond.
In closing I would like to share a story of a Spirit-infused gift I recently received in the St. Aidan’s community. As you know, I recently experienced a Cursillo weekend with many thanks for all the ways you supported me through it. Last week I visited Harlean Donaldson who had particularly encouraged me to experience Cursillo. In the course of our visit I told her about my weekend before we shared Communion. Before I left, she asked me to wait while she and her health aid went to retrieve something. It was the cross Harlean received at the conclusion of her first Cursillo weekend in 1980. She wanted me to have it. I wear it today with profound gratitude. There are so many ways that we uphold one another here, so many gifts of the Spirit, so much love that we share so freely. Today on this Feast of Pentecost, may we truly take to heart, celebrate, and carry out into the world the Presiding Bishop’s message: “When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all, and we are all… children of God.”
The Presiding Bishop’s sermon can be found online in both text and video formats here: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/posts/publicaffairs/presiding-bishop-currys-sermon-royal-wedding
The Guardian reported the 18 million figure and guessed that “the global audience, while difficult to estimate, is likely to be in the hundreds of millions.” They also reported, “Social media interest in the event peaked during the passionate sermon delivered by US bishop Michael Curry, at which point people following the ceremony sent 40,000 tweets a minute.” Jim Waterson, Royal wedding confirmed as year’s biggest UK TV event. May 20, 2018:https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/may/20/royal-wedding-confirmed-as-years-biggest-uk-tv-event
Liddell and Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford Clarendon, 1889, 1991), 499.
Liddell and Scott, 191.
Lk 11:17 & also 18. A similar usage except with regard to families can be found at Lk 12:52 Entry for διαμερίζω in ed. I Howard Marshall, Moulton and GedenConcordance to the Greek New Testament (London and New York: T & T Clark, 2002), 208.
Mt 27:35; Mk 15:24; Lk 23:34; Jn 19:24. Moulton and GedenConcordance to the Greek New Testament, 208.
Lk 22:17. Moulton and GedenConcordance to the Greek New Testament, 208.
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/14/world/middleeast/gaza-protests-palestinians-us-embassy.htmland also https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/15/podcasts/the-daily/israel-gaza-jerusalem-embassy.html
See especially 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, and chapter 12 more broadly; Romans 12:6-8, and chapter 12 more broadly; Ephesians 4:11-12, and chapter 4 more broadly. For more on the Gifts of the Spirit from an Episcopal Church perspective (with further scriptural citations), see https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/glossary/gifts-spirit.