There is something quite comforting about coming into the doors of a church. There is a peace that comes over us when we enter the doors. Despite the fact that a wooden bench would not be all that comfortable any other time, the sleek, hard pews give us a sense of stability and security. The familiar motions of the liturgy give us just enough variety to keep us engaged, but enough similarity to give us a sense of comfort. The distinct texture and taste of the bread and wine in our mouths somehow fill our entire bodies with tranquility. When those doors close behind us, we feel protected from the outside world – a world that is noisy, harsh, and sometimes cruel. Inside the doors we find warmth, calm, and serenity. Slipping into the church is like slipping under a soft blanket that envelops us in security.
We are not unlike those disciples on Pentecost day. The disciples had made a habit of retreating indoors ever since Jesus died. Even though the miracle of Easter had happened, almost every time Jesus makes a resurrection appearance, the disciples are behind closed doors. In fact, on the feast of Pentecost, the disciples were supposed be having a party with the rest of the community to celebrate the giving of God’s law. But instead, we find them cowering once again in one room behind a bolted door.[i] I suppose we cannot be too judgmental. They saw firsthand what happened to Jesus. Though his ministry had been revolutionary, he was tortured and killed like a common criminal. Surely anyone associated with him or promoting his ministry and witness would receive similar treatment. And we cannot forget their shame. Though they had vied to be at his right and left hand during his ministry, and though they fawned over him when he was making an impact, when push came to shove, they all abandoned him. And Peter was the worst. Though he did not betray Jesus like Judas, he basically did the same thing. In fact, his betrayal may have been worse because he vowed – swore to Jesus and everyone – that he would never, ever betray Jesus. But he did betray him. Over and over he denied he even knew the man who was an intimate friend and mentor. We would probably be hiding behind closed doors too, trying to cover our shame. Even with all the promises Jesus makes, and the ways he keeps appearing to the disciples, they just cannot seem to get over that hurdle of their shame and fear to step out into the light.
Maybe that is what the community of Christ would have been – a community that gathers in the shadows – had Pentecost not happened. In the comfort of closed rooms that envelop like a warm blanket, they would whisper stories from the good ol’ days. They could even develop some rituals just for their members – Jesus had taught them about washing feet and eating the Eucharistic meal. In fact, maybe they could use that as a recruiting technique. If word gets whispered around that they are gathering in the quiet, then maybe others will seek them out and ask to join them. Maybe they do not need to go out like Jesus said and share the good news. Maybe people will come to them. They could even figure out a symbol – like a red door – to let everyone know how to find them.
Ah, but you see, God had other things in mind for those disciples. I wonder sometimes how God ever puts up with us. God tried for the longest to be in covenant with God’s people. Over and over again God delivered them from peril. Over and over again, God renewed God’s covenant with the people, even though they kept breaking that covenant. Over and over again God chased after the people, longing to gather them like a mother hen. God even went so far as to send Jesus, to be present among the people in flesh form, and died on a cross to redeem God’s people. Even after the miracle of the resurrection, after destroying death forever, God’s people still sit hovered in fear, having forgotten all the ways that Jesus wanted them to live boldly.[ii]
And so, on this day, because they clearly could not muster that boldness themselves, something – or someone – breaks down the door – breaks down the walls – and explodes inside the disciples. A violent, rushing wind fills the room and bursts the doors open. Different languages – languages they had never spoken before – erupt out of their mouths. The text says that the people are bewildered, amazed, astonished, and perplexed. But the Greek text is much more vivid. The original text says they are “confused, in an uproar, beside themselves, undone, blown away, thoroughly disoriented, completely uncomprehending.” [You can imagine the chaos from just hearing the chaos of our reading today.] No longer do the disciples hover in a darkened room. They are loudly, boldly in the public square talking nonsense – and yet sounding perfectly clear to those gathered. Even Peter, the one with the most to be ashamed of, the one who probably feels like the deepest failure, on this day manages to become all that Jesus intended for him to be. When the disciples meet resistance and sneering, Peter stands up and does what he was meant to do all along. He testifies. He testifies in public, in the midst of scary chaos, and says the words that have been on his heart since Jesus died. He proclaims hope, and promise, and fulfillment. He steps out of the shadows and steps into the light.
How do they do it? How do the disciples manage to get over their fear and shame and go out into the public square? Well, they certainly do not do it alone. The only way they are able to conquer their fear and shame and step boldly into the public square with their testimony is through the Holy Spirit. Most of us do not really feel comfortable with the Holy Spirit. We use words like the “Advocate” or the “Comforter” to describe the Holy Spirit. We think of the Holy Spirit as the one who remains with us after Jesus is gone. But in our text today, the Holy Spirit is not comforting. In fact, the Holy Spirit is disturbing, disruptive, and life-changing. As one scholar says, “The Holy Spirit is as much agitator as advocate, as much provocateur as comforter.”[iii] In fact, the word in Greek for the Holy Spirit is Paraclete. That word may be our best way to understand how this all words. Paraclete is a compound Greek word that literally means, “to come alongside another.” “In this sense, the Paraclete can be an advocate – to come along side to defend and counsel – or comforter – to come along side to provide comfort and encouragement. But the one who comes along side might also do so to strengthen you for work, or to muster your courage, or to prompt or even provoke you to action.”[iv]
Last weekend at the Vestry Retreat, our facilitator gave us a challenge at lunch. She gave us all an assignment. We had to go up to a stranger in Panera and ask them whether they knew of an Episcopal Church in Plainview. You should have seen the furrowed brows and the shifting in our chairs most of us did. You should have heard the bargaining many of us did, promising to do it another day. We’re not alone in our discomfort. Tomorrow, you all have been invited to walk with us in the POB Memorial Day Parade to promote St. Margaret’s in the community. Many of us have valid excuses for not going – the walk is rather long and some of us are out of town for the holiday. But many of us just do not feel comfortable being the face of the church – giving witness to total strangers. And that is not the only challenge before us. Just this week, we posted the baseball schedule for the Little League team we are sponsoring. The idea is for us not just to have our name in print on a big sign in the outfield. The idea is also that we meet people where they are – at a baseball field at the POB Community Park on a Saturday afternoon – and just say hi. We listen to their stories and we share ours. I know that most of us will not get up the nerve to go sit with a bunch of strangers. In fact, when we decided to sponsor the team and invite parishioners to go to games, one parishioner told me explicitly, “Oh, St. Margaret’s parishioners won’t go to a game. They just won’t.”
Today we sit inside, huddled together in a place of comfort and familiarity. We even painted our doors red and we hope people will find their way to us so that they might enjoy the beauty of St. Margaret’s as we do. But our church is inviting us again and again to get out of that nostalgic pew, to go out in public, and proclaim the good news. How in the world will we do it? Amen.
[i] William H. Willimon, “Taking It to the Streets,” Christian Century, vol. 108, no. 15, May 1, 1991, 483.
[ii] Rob Merola, “Radical Reliance,” Christian Century, vol. 123, no. 11, May 30, 2006, 22.
[iii] David Lose, “Pentecost B: Come Alongside, Holy Spirit!” May 18, 2015, as found on May 20, 2015 at http://www.davidlose.net/2015/05/pentecost-b-come-alongside-holy-spirit/.