A reflection on the readings for Pentecost Year B
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
By: Janine Goodwin, M.S. Ed., M.A.
Pentecost is often called “the birthday of the church.” The meaning of birthdays has changed for me since the giddy early days when a birthday meant the presence of loved ones, cake, brightly wrapped gifts, and an increase in my allowance and responsibilities. As my fifth decade draws to a close, the love, cake, and gifts are still a delight, but along with them comes a sense of time passing and some disquieting questions: How am I growing toward spiritual maturity? How will I afford to retire? Am I using my gifts in God’s service? Will I still have a job on my next birthday? Am I ever going to get started on that novel?
My response to the birthday of the church has changed, too. As a child and a teenager, I listened to the story of Pentecost with awe and wonder, and believed firmly that the Spirit would indeed lead us into all truth, which meant that the problems of the church and the world would be solved within my lifetime. I was a child of the 1960s, when even adults said such things, and it seemed reasonable to me to expect that with God’s help we could eliminate such problems as war, hunger, pollution and prejudice in a matter of a few years. Why, I could see some of the solutions as a bright child! Never mind that the nations were busy waging conventional war and preparing for nuclear war, that quite a large portion of humanity didn’t see their prejudices as anything they needed to change, and that many people could only see accepting more pollution as the necessary tradeoff for survival. In the church, I saw signs of unity and hope everywhere. All kinds of Christians were in closer communication than ever before, Vatican II had opened new dialogues between Catholics and Protestants, dialogue between religions was opening up as well—I couldn’t understand why the wary, cynical adults around me didn’t respond to my bright predictions with immediate enthusiasm.
Now I do. A few decades later, with war, prejudice, hunger, and pollution still noticeably present in the world, I look at the Christian churches and see that they are having increasing trouble communicating with each other, and that old conflicts between religions are being expressed in familiar, ugly ways. I see churches plagued by conflict, schism and scandal—indeed, I can’t think of any that aren’t. People aren’t going to churches as much as they used to, and the churches I’ve loved and been a part of are shrinking even as the population increases. There are dioceses stuck in interminable arguments between factions, parishes caught in dysfunctional patterns they don’t want to examine. I’ve spent time away from churches at some points in my life, looking for the healing that will allow me to function as a healthy member and neither add to the church’s problems nor be hurt beyond endurance by difficulties within the church.
Trying to ignore doubts and disappointments doesn’t work. Experience has taught me that the attempt to be positive without facing the negative leads straight into denial, which leads me away from God. Shall I dismiss my early hopes, as I felt dismissed by the adults around me, or examine my assumptions to see what errors I may have made and what change I may make in my responses? Dismissing my hopes would allow me to be cynical, to avoid further risk, to quit trying, but it would also make the future a dead end. Examining my assumptions can be disorienting, scary, and sometimes painful, but it leaves room for hope—and, come to think of it, for a certain wise wariness.
My early hopes were based on my limited experience of time. I had, then, no sense of how long it can take to work out one’s own problems, let alone work with others to make changes in institutions that are many centuries old. As an adolescent influenced by those who that predicted the end of the world in our time, I lacked not just a sense of the past, but a sense of the future as well. I could not see how brief my own life was in the scale of history. Now, I can look at the tragedies and the achievements of salvation history, and face the fact that both are partial; growth has come out of the tragedies, and the achievements are still unfinished.
I also lacked humility and discernment, and worked from an unexamined perfectionism. Because I saw possible solutions, I failed to see the efforts others had made and the difficulties they had faced. I did not always respect the people to whom I was speaking, nor consider what their experience taught them or what ideas their temperament might favor. I was long on ideas, short on empathy; ready to explain, but not to listen. Time alone does not change such shortcomings: they must be realized before we can change them, and change takes work. Perfectionism must give way to the desire to do as well as we can and the knowledge that the best we can do may, and probably will, fall short of perfection.
Groups of people can also have difficulties with time, humility, and discernment which affect their ability to understand what God is saying and doing in their lives. In studying John’s Gospel, I become aware of characteristics within it that correspond to things I need to watch in myself: the need to be right and the related need to have others be wrong, the sense of being a resentful outsider, the idea that I have a secret intimacy with God that others do not share. John’s poetry and spiritual exaltation of this gospel come with harsh words toward a “world” that opposes Jesus and toward a people that has cast the writer’s community out—“the Jews.” Early Christians were often excluded from the communities where they were raised and sometimes persecuted by those communities. The misreading of the texts that resulted has led to centuries of anti-Semitism from Christians, an evil Jesus does not prophesy about in John’s gospel. If we feel in any way embattled, persecuted, or misunderstood—and it is always possible for us to do so, no matter how much power we actually have and use or misuse—we may fall into the tragic error of using John’s insider/outsider language not as a record of old griefs but as a shield against our own insecurities and as a weapon against those we feel have hurt us, instead of as a guide into a wider truth. John is one of four gospels included in the conversation we know as Scripture, and must be read alongside the others for the sake of balance. Its high poetry needs to be set beside the bluntness of Mark, its exclusions must be tempered by the inclusiveness of Luke/Acts.
It is far too easy to condemn “the world” and mean by it whatever we do not like in our time and place, while fostering the illusion that we do not participate in the injustices practiced by the organizations we support, the corporations to which we give our money, the nation where we vote. It can be very painful to see the ways in which we are part of a corrupt and wasteful world, the ways in which we mirror that world in our own lives. We are seldom as separate as we would like to believe from the things we dislike about our church or secular culture. Dismissing “the world” and exalting a small group which will be led into all truth can lead to smugness and insularity, the failure to recognize our own shortcomings. Rereading the gospel passage, I begin to see what Jesus does not say. He does not say, “The Spirit will lead ONLY you into all truth IMMEDIATELY and INFALLIBLY and NOT lead those other people with whom you may disagree.” This leaves me free to appreciate the ways in which we are all still working to hear the Spirit, all still failing at times to hear what the Spirit is saying.
When I read this passage alongside Paul’s words about patience and discernment, I begin to understand that my hope for specific changes in the way and time that I want them can slip easily into an attempt to control others and God. I must work for what I believe in, but understand that my hope goes beyond what I can see and understand. All of us must leave room for God to work in ways we cannot yet guess at, without invoking the Spirit as an excuse for failing to do the work we dare not face. It is a delicate balance, and one that shifts constantly. It is work whose first requirement is to practice the prayer of listening before we speak, and whose second is to speak humbly and prayerfully, even when we speak passionately.
Having acknowledged doubt and disappointment, conflict and sin, and the limits of our vision, we can still rejoice in the birthday of the Church. The Spirit falls upon the disciples, Jesus’ promise is kept, and the church is born. Peter’s preaching in Acts is clearly inspired by the Holy Spirit, even though he will later become part of a movement to try and make new Gentile Christians adopt practices appropriate only to Judaism, and will be voted down by a council whose words begin, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” In later centuries, churches will learn, slowly, to repudiate slavery, to begin the long conversation on sexism. The passage Peter quotes from Joel clearly envisions equality between men and women, yet centuries passed between the last women priests of the early church and the first ones of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; still, the leadership of many Spirit-filled women, recorded or forgotten, has made the prophecy come true in various circumstances. The Spirit does lead the church into truth. It’s not quick, easy, or certain, and it depends on our willingness to listen and to let the Spirit of God speak with in us in ways we may not yet fully understand. Paul’s “sighs too deep for words” can be very hard to breathe. God may not be on our side in every detail of every argument, yet God is working in the depths of our souls, in ways we can’t understand. Churches are inspired and fallible, broken and healing. Sometimes we are drunk on the sound of our own voices; sometimes we are speaking as the Spirit gives utterance. We are never going to be immune to error or difficulty.
In the reading from Romans, the image of creation groaning in labor mirrors a passage a few verses beyond our Gospel reading: in John 16:21-22, Jesus gives the disciples a vivid image that gives hope and meaning to the difficulties of history and of our time.
When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.
This image gives me a comfort that is entirely different than the uneasy smugness of denial. It acknowledges the pain of the past and our present griefs and losses, but assures us that our pain is indeed the necessary and fruitful pain of labor, that something good will be born of it, and that, in the end, we will rejoice. On the birthday of the church, we understand that the pain of the church will help to bring forth the wholeness and joy for which we long. Happy birthday, church: labor well.