With You Always

Day of Pentecost

Russian Orthodox Icon
Russian Orthodox Icon

Ezekiel 37:1-11

Psalm 47

Acts 2:1-21

John 15:26-27a; 16:4b-15

Larry Van Pelt woke up one night to find himself inspired to undertake an art project that he believed God was calling him to do. He was inspired to draw pictures of people doing everyday tasks, but with the addition of Jesus in the frame. His idea came from the very end of Matthew’s Gospel when a post-resurrection Jesus promises the disciples that, “I am with you always to the end of the age.”

The resulting artwork is very sincere, but if I am being honest, I find it a little odd. Jesus is shown clapping for a juggler, guiding the hands of a barber, and giving directions to a biker. The artwork is OK I guess, but it seems a little bit creepy imagining Jesus standing right behind you no matter what you are doing. He just stands there and stares at you as you are laying down carpet, chopping down a tree, or playing the french horn.

Creepiness aside, in some ways I kind of like the idea that Van Pelt explores: Jesus is with us in the mundane and everyday type of things we do. He is cheering with us and for us in our joys, he is weeping with us in our sorrows.

That, however, is just one aspect of who God is and how God accompanies us. Jesus wept with those who were weeping at the death of Lazarus, he ate with those who were lonely and outcast, and he prayed with his friends. Jesus also shook things up quite a bit. He challenged religious leaders, he flipped over tables in the Temple, and no one gets crucified for being a nice wallflower.

We probably see the transforming, turn-the-world-upside-down kind of accompaniment most clearly in the person of the Holy Spirit. Between Jesus’ death and the day of Pentecost fifty days later, the disciples are a quiet, private bunch. They are constantly hiding behind closed and locked doors for fear of receiving the same fate as their crucified friend and rabbi. The appearance of the resurrected Christ inspires the disciples to share the good news with each other, but even then they aren’t exactly shouting it from the rooftops for all to hear. They are speaking, “Alleluia, Christ is risen,” in hushed whispers. It makes sense though. Jesus was killed under the accusation that he sought to establish a new kingdom of God that would topple the Roman empire. He was crucified as an insurrectionist. If his followers go around shouting that Rome failed to kill him and Jesus was still alive, Roman officials would probably want to have a not-so-friendly chat with them about these anti-patriotic claims.

It isn’t until the Holy Spirit blows through their quiet and closed hiding place that the disciples get real bold, real fast. When God’s Holy Spirit falls on them with wind and fire, the disciples begin telling everyone about the things they have kept among themselves for fifty days. Then, they shout “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” from the rooftops and more than that, they say it in all languages so everyone can hear. When the Holy Spirit got involved, the Good News of life defeating death could not be contained any longer.

The Holy Spirit is still at large and that means it is still blowing open doors and transforming us and the world to new ways of experiencing and sharing the love of God.

The Holy Spirit descended on Sara Miles in San Francisco less than 20 years ago. Sara Miles joined the church through an invitation to Holy Communion and after eating this meal, she was inspired by the Holy Spirit to live this meal. She was swept up with a desire to share Holy Communion with others and other meals for those who were hungry for it. Miles ended up starting a simple food pantry at St. Gregory of Nyssa’s church in San Francisco which grew into a network of about a dozen food pantries in the poorest parts of the city that regularly feed hundreds of people. The Holy Spirit made the following story possible:

One evening in St. Gregory’s kitchen, after everyone else had left, I heard a confession from a pantry volunteer, who’d brought me what she said was a ‘secret’ in a shopping bag. She had a cast on her leg, and kept looking over her shoulder anxiously, and she made me close the kitchen door. Her boyfriend, who beat her up regularly, had been threatening to kill her, she said, swallowing hard.

“I thought, this is a church, it’ll be safe here,” she said, unwrapping a dirty dishtowel from around a huge .357 Magnum revolver. “I took out the firing pin.”

That’s what church was for, I realized: a place to bring the ugly, frightening secret you couldn’t tell anyone else about. I checked that the gun was disarmed, and stuck it in a cookie tin in a locked closet beneath the pantry shelves. I didn’t mention it to anyone from the Sunday congregation. The woman moved away, to stay with a sister in Sacramento. A month later I did tell Steve.

“You must be kidding,” he said.

“Isn’t this what church is for?” I said.

“Uh, yeah,” said Steve. He looked scared, and like he wanted to laugh at the same time. “Whoa, that’s a really big gun.” We drove down to the local police station, and I walked up to the officer on duty. I was wearing a crucifix and a fairly respectable sweater. “Excuse me, I found this in our churchyard,” I lied. “Can you please take it?”

There’s nothing like being a middle-aged white lady, I told Steve as we drove back. The cops had gathered around the officer who unwrapped the package. “Holy sh–,” said one of them. “Excuse me, ma’am.” They passed it around, gingerly, and let me leave after I insisted I didn’t want to make a report or get a receipt.

-Sara Miles, Take This Bread,

The Holy Spirit creates the church through this life-giving word about a Son who died with us and makes it possible to rise again with him- the one who defeated death. This church that the Holy Spirit makes is the kind of place where you can bring everything that is big, frightening, ugly, or a secret.

God turned the world upside down and carried Sara Miles along with its transforming tumult. Where could God be calling you? Where is the Holy Spirit blowing us? What loving change is at work in our churches? Our cities? Our lives?

If we are among the pessimistic types we might feel a lot like Ezekiel standing in a valley of dry bones. Ezekiel is standing in middle of death and hopelessness itself. God asks him if those dry bones can live. Ezekiel answers, “O Lord, you know.” One way of reading his response could be that he is making a very deferential, pious statement of faith. “God, you know whether these bones can live or not because you control all life and death.” But another way to read it, and the one that sounds more realistic to me, is that Ezekiel honestly cannot answer the question and deflects it back to God. “I can’t say that the bones can live. They are long dead and long without hope. You know the answer better than me, God.”

The bones do live though. God’s Spirit blows into the bones and gives them new life and God’s Spirit continues to blow into our bones. We too may be standing in a valley of dry bones- the dry bones of our city, of our homes, of our lives. God is with us in those places of dry bones weeping with us and standing with us. But in addition to that, God is with us breathing new life into us and turning our world’s upside down when they are wrong-side up.

The Day of Pentecost is not just the “birthday of the church,” as if it were something that we commemorate as a gone and done event. Today is the Day of Pentecost too. The Holy Spirit is still with us- always. It is blowing open our closed and locked doors, it is carrying us off to proclaim the Good News of God’s love for people of all languages to hear, it is bringing life to the dry bones.


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