The Gift of Communion (May 20, 2018)
Today is Pentecost. On this day, we celebrate the gift of Spirit and life and communication.
The first reading from Ezekiel is a wonderful parable about the gift of God who breathes life into a people who had lost hope. In both Hebrew and Greek, the languages of the Bible, the word for “breath” and “wind” is the same word as “Spirit”. Whenever you read wind or breath, think spirit. “Breathe on me, breath of God,” we sang a moment ago. Fill us with your Spirit, fill us with your power, fill us with your love and grace is what we were singing.
Today, however, I want to focus on the gift of communication, which leads to the gift and miracle of communion. Let me start with a story I learned a while ago.
In 1492, in Salamanca, Spain, Bishop Antonio de Nebrija wrote a textbook on Spanish grammar. It was the very first grammar book about a language other than Latin. No other European country had a book like this about their common language. Who needed it? Everyone who counted spoke the language of the country in which they lived.
When Bishop Nebrija presented his book to Queen Isabella, she was confused. “Why would I want a book like this? I already know the language!”
The bishop explained why he had written it. “Language is the instrument, the tool, of empire,” he said. “After your Highness has conquered barbarous peoples and nations of varied tongues, they will need to accept the laws that we impose on them as their conquerors. They must speak our language, so that your victory will be complete.”
The bishop’s explanation made sense to the queen. She had her mind set on conquest. The New World was just waiting for Spain and other nations to conquer it. Of course, the Spaniards would need to impose their language on the barbarians they would conquer.
Language and empire. Colonialism involved imperial control through a common vocabulary, a single tongue. And, as anyone who speaks more than one language knows, language isn’t just a matter of words and vocabulary. A language contains a culture.
Today, the story in Acts 2 shows us that holy Spirit works in exactly the opposite way. There is no single way to tell the story of God’s dream. There is no single right way to tell our story. There is no single language to tell the story of God’s dream. There is no single way to experience the power of God’s love.
In this story, we see that holy Spirit honours our differences. Holy Spirit works in and through our differences. God affirms our differences. God delights in all the different ways we experience God’s love and tell the story of God’s dream.
Jerusalem was filled with people from all around the Mediterranean world. It was the Jewish festival of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks. It’s a springtime festival for the blessing of the harvest. All these people have gathered for the festival in Jerusalem … and something astonishing happens.
The early church is gathered together in an upper room—the 11 original disciples, Matthias who had been selected to replace Judas, and other followers of Jesus, gathered in an upper room. They hear the sound of a wind. Whooooshhhhh. Think Spirit. They see tongues of fire dancing above the heads of each of them. Thing Spirit.
Wind and fire are strong Biblical symbols of God’s presence. God’s holy Spirit invades the room and they have a sense of God’s power flooding their lives. Holy Spirit fills them with courage and hope. They lose their fear, and they rush out into the streets, pushed out by that wind, to tell the story of God’s dream in all the different languages of those who had gathered in Jerusalem for the festival. Holy Spirit doesn’t speak in one language and then wait for it to be translated into many languages. Holy Spirit speaks in many languages. There is no single right way to tell of God’s love. There are many languages; there are many ways.
Unlike Nebrija’s grammar book, God’s holy Spirit affirms the native languages of all the peoples. Here is part of what the gift of God’s holy Spirit does. God invites us to honour the differences among us.
God honours our differences. In God’s economy, there is a profound richness in our variety. We are different people, created so by God, and we enrich our common life with that wondrous variety.
Too often, we let our differences separate us. But in God’s economy, that doesn’t happen. We come together in the midst of our differences. The very end of the story in Acts 2 is that those whose hearts were touched by the story of God’s dream came together around a common table to eat a common meal.
This is what holy Spirit does. She comes among us in our differences and creates community.
The sad history of the church is that too often, we have demanded uniformity. Everyone do things the same way, we have demanded! Believe the same way! Worship the same way!
But that’s not what this story says. This story says, “Revel in your differences. Enjoy the variety of what God has made. Delight in what you can learn from different ways of being.
Bishop Nebrija’s grammar book is one 500–year–old example.
Senator Murray Sinclair told us about a more recent example last Monday. He rehearsed the terrible story of residential schools. He spoke personally of the damage and pain that Canada caused when we thought that native peoples were savages and barbarians, and when we tried to recreate them in our image.
If you weren’t white, you didn’t count. If you didn’t come from an English ancestry, you didn’t count. If you didn’t look like us and talk like us, you were a savage. So we created residential schools to “beat the Indian out of them”, in the words of John A MacDonald.
The church was complicit in that brutal tale.
“We have to learn a new way,” Sinclair said. “We have to teach ourselves and we have to teach our children and we have to teach our grandchildren that all people are precious. We have to learn to get along with each other, to respect each other.”
When someone asked him at the end about what reconciliation looks like, he said, “I can’t say. It’s like a marriage. When two people marry each other, they don’t have a clue what their marriage will look like in 25 years. All they can do is promise each other that no matter what happens, they will stick with each other.
“Reconciliation is like that. You say to each other, ‘I want to be your friend. I want you to be my friend. I promise to work it out with you.’” And then you do the hard work and see where you end up.
That’s the gift of holy Spirit. Holy Spirit joins us together in that kind of friendship. Holy Spirit binds us together in that kind of community.
Today, holy Spirit gathers us together around this table. Holy Spirit draws us to share a common feast where we taste the story of God’s dream. Holy Spirit forms us into a common people. We who eat one bread are made one people who are deeply loved by God. We come with all our differences. We come with all the different ways in which we tell and hear the story of God’s love. Around this table, those differences don’t mean a thing. We are equal here.
At that first Pentecost, Holy Spirit gave the miracle of communication. That miracle birthed another miracle … a miracle of communion. As we commune, we open ourselves to Holy Spirit. As we commune, we open ourselves to God. As we commune together, we open ourselves to each other.
We need another Pentecost. In a world divided by hatred, prejudice, and oppression, we need another Pentecost. In a world where we have forgotten how to listen to each other, we need another Pentecost. In a world where our wealth can insulate us from poor people, we need another Pentecost. In a world where we have forgotten that we are one in our joys and one in our sorrows, we need another Pentecost. In a world where political discourse has become nasty, and where facebook and twitter have made our social media dysfunctional, we need another Pentecost. In a world where black and white are divided, we need another Pentecost. In a world where we can quite easily ignore those who are different from us, we need another Pentecost.
For the sake of the world, we need another Pentecost.
Make no mistake. We are here today as God’s people. We have opened ourselves to God’s holy Spirit. We gather as God’s people around God’s table. We celebrate our differences. More importantly, we celebrate the love of God which makes us one. We come as a community, bound together, struggling together to understand God, struggling together to understand each other. We gather around this table, committed to God and committed to one another.
And here, around this table, we understand again that our work is the ministry reconciliation, peace, compassion and love.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt
May 20, 2018 (Pentecost Sunday)
Acts 2: 1–21
Ezekiel 37: 1–14
John 15: 26–27; 16: 4b–15