Grace Presbyterian Church
May 23, 2021, Pentecost B (in-person)
Waiting With Endurance
Well, here we are.
After a year, two months, and two weeks, approximately, we are in our sanctuary, gathered together in person for worship. We are also (hopefully!) streaming this service via Facebook in order that those who have joined with us during the time when all services were only online are able to continue joining with us.
By no means are things “back to normal” now. I think I’ve preached enough sermons on that subject to make it clear that “back to normal” is a phrase that neither this church nor any other should ever use again. There is this list of health and safety protocols you hopefully found in your bulletin describing procedures and requirements that will be in place for the time being to try to prevent any of the kind of outbreaks and setbacks that have throttled many a church reopening over the past year. Yes, most of this congregation has been vaccinated, but there is such a thing as a “breakthough” coronavirus illness that can happen despite vaccination, and we’d prefer that none of our number become a statistic of that kind. So some pews are taped off, hymnals and Bibles are not in your pew racks (that one hurts me most, believe me), and you’ll drop off your offering, if you have it with you, in the narthex as you leave rather than in an offering plate passing down the pew. Another such protocol will show up in two weeks when we are next scheduled to observe communion – those little wafer-and-cup handouts aren’t done yet. Things don’t look the same, and things won’t look the same for a while.
Yet we are here, and after a year-plus, that’s something. And dare I say it’s something to celebrate.
There’s something to be said for this re-starting happening on this particular day of the church year, the occasion of Pentecost. I think it’s particularly appropriate for it to happen on the festival day sometimes known as the “birthday of the church.” This was the day when, as is recorded in our reading from the book of Acts, the followers of Jesus (who had been waiting since Jesus’s Ascension for exactly this) were visited by a particular and highly visual act of the Holy Spirit. We see the highly dramatic description in scripture – a rushing, violent wind; divided tongues, as of fire, resting upon them, the tumult of multiple languages being spoken all at once – and we recognize the scene immediately. Even for the Bible this is a unique occasion.
From this dramatic moment comes the scene that earns Pentecost that “birthday of the church” nickname. There were crowds gathered in Jerusalem, of the size that would require masks and social distancing today, for the Jewish festival known as Pentecost, or Shauvot, that marked both the wheat harvest and the giving of the Law to the children of Israel at Mt. Sinai. Those crowds were not accustomed to hearing their own languages being exclaimed from the windows of upper rooms of otherwise unremarkable buildings, and when that did happen it got their attention. Peter capitalized with what might be considered the first decidedly “Christian” sermon, and according to the scripture, three thousand souls were added to the fellowship that day.
This is the occasion that the Christian church marks on Pentecost Sunday, and it’s a good time for this re-initiation of in-person worship. It might just be, though, that’s there’s a problem with this account, or at least with the way we tend to read and receive it, that might actually hinder the church as much as help it, and that might actually cause us to take the wrong lesson from an occasion such as this one. We might be prone to thinking that this is the way – the only way – the Holy Spirit works.
If we slip into that mindset, good ol’ Paul is around to disabuse us of that trap.
It’s worth remembering that Paul is writing this letter to the church at Rome somewhere between twenty and thirty years after this Pentecost event has taken place. If nothing else, he has by this time plenty of opportunity to see different ways of understanding how the Holy Spirit worked among the followers of Jesus. He had seen the manifestations of tongues-speaking, and he had come to understand that they really needed interpretation, unlike that Pentecost event when everybody understood what was being said in their own language. He had experienced being busted out of jail by an earthquake and had felt the Spirit working in that event. He had seen spectacular manifestations of the Holy Spirit, to be sure.
But Paul had also seen the Spirit at work in ways that didn’t necessarily set off fireworks. He had been in jail enough times with no spectacularly-timed earthquake to set him loose to know that that wasn’t the only way the Spirit saw him through. He had seen churches – not the mega-sized bodies and corporations that suck in all the attention in our modern world, but small gatherings regularly buffeted by unwanted attention from the authorities or conflicts with other local religious groups, and yet enduring and remaining ever faithful. He had seen the witness of Christ borne in inhospitable places and unlikely venues and had seen folks hear it and believe and become those who bore witness.
By the time he wrote this epistle to the Roman church, he knew that the working of the Holy Spirit couldn’t be limited to dramatic or spectacular events like the Pentecost event. He had seen and experienced enough to know that the really big deal about the Spirit was the everyday, down-and-dirty business of enduring and waiting, knowing that there was more to come.
The account he gives here reminds us that it is indeed the Holy Spirit that helps us wait. The waiting isn’t easy – the comparison to labor pains should make that clear – but the waiting is necessary because of what is to come, the very redemption of our very selves that is done but not finished, the redemption for which all creation groans, the redemption which we do not see but for which we hope and wait with patience – a word whose Greek source could also be translated ‘endurance’. And it is the Spirit that makes this waiting possible.
And it’s also that Spirit that makes even our prayers possible, we so often being confused or confounded about what we need to pray for or even what we need, period. And it’s that same Spirit that groans with us in our groaning, sighs with us in our sighing, interceding for us in ways that transcend words.
The ability to wait, even to wait with the presence of the Spirit, is something that has been severely lacking during this pandemic time. I am reminded of one of those message signs outside of a business on Main Street here in Gainesville, which has since the pandemic started borne the message “WE WILL CONQUER THIS TOGETHER.” The trouble is that not all things can be “conquered.” Pandemics don’t submit well to “conquering.” They don’t care about the courage or the fortitude or even the faith of the potential target. The only way to “conquer” such a virus is to get isolated and “wait it out,” to deprive it of targets. And the world, frankly, has been spectacularly bad at that in this time, no good at waiting at all. In this I must commend this church and its session for doing what so many others have been unable or unwilling to do.
Sometimes waiting, just the simple fact of enduring and bearing the burden of all that surrounds us, is the work of the Spirit. You won’t convince me that the waiting and enduring of the last year-plus in the life of this church hasn’t been the work of the Spirit. Because that – not just the big spectacular stuff, but the hard everyday work of enduring – is what the Spirit does with us and in us and for us, on God’s behalf. This is every bit as much worth celebrating on this Pentecost day as the fireworks.
It is the Holy Spirit that is the reason we can say we are not left on our own to live this life of discipleship. Let us give thanks and rejoice in the enduring power, the ceaseless presence of God the Holy Spirit, now and forever.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #292, As the Wind Song; #285, Like the Murmur of the Dove’s Song