A Spirit of surprise

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Pentecost leads us to discover what it means to be Body of Christ
May 1, 2005

One of the great beauties of the Christian year is that every 12 months (give or take a bit for the moveable feasts) it brings us, with whatever joy or sorrow we may be carrying, to a place that is known to us with great familiarity and is also completely strange. The world has changed, and we have changed with it. We look out on a new landscape and find it is the homeland we have always known.

It is good, I think, to consider such things as we approach Pentecost, for Pentecost is a demarcation point in the Christian year. We have begun by awaiting the coming of Christ in Advent, we have celebrated the birth and the visit of the wise men. We have trudged through Lent and Passiontide to the betrayal, the trial, the death and the tomb. We have seen resurrection. We have walked the road to Emmaus. We have gathered with the apostles as they wondered what might come next.

Pentecost is what comes next. The fire in the mind. The wind of God blowing where it will. The wild, free Spirit coming upon us, handing us joy and glory we never could have imagined for ourselves.

In the first half of this yearly cycle, we learn -- from the greatest role model imaginable -- what it means to be human. In the second half, we discover -- carried, guided but never forced by the Spirit -- what it means to be the Body of Christ.

The incarnation began in human time and human flesh; it will continue in the same way. “Christ now has no hands but yours,” wrote St. Teresa of Avila, “no feet but yours, no voice but yours.”

And so it has been down 20 incredible centuries.

Today the leaders of the Anglican Communion are seeking to avoid a schism that nobody wants. I pray they will succeed, and I am encouraged by the grace and respect that seem to be current in the gatherings of our primates and bishops. But there remain pitfalls. There is still our very human anger and frustration, and the danger that these might all too easily blind us to the movement of the Spirit.

There is still the temptation to opt for simplistic answers in a situation that is dense, complex and many-faceted. There are convoluted issues to be dealt with, issues of authority and power and human dignity and conscience and – yes -- issues of cultural and secular pressures that in some parts of the world are darker and more dangerous than most of us can imagine.

There is still fear. On the surface, there is the simple fear of schism and loss of unity, which may of itself keep us huddled miserably together for some time to come. The problem is more profound than that, however, and affects us all, liberal and conservative alike. After the death of Pope John Paul II, Sr. Joan Chittester, a Roman Catholic nun, wrote: “... the times are changing faster and more globally and more dramatically than at any other time in history. We are on the cusp not only of a new era, we are on the edge of a whole new way of being human ... it may be the moment for the church itself to contemplate a different way of being alive in the world.”

For us as Anglicans the issues are immediate and drastic; we are going to continue to cling to our carefully honed arguments, our lovingly nurtured ways of experiencing the world and all the other components of identity we cherish because we have come to believe they are essential to our being. Or we are going to welcome the rushing wind of God that blew through the church on that first Pentecost.

If we can manage to open ourselves to that wind, then we will find that the entire concept of problem and solution has blown away. The way forward will be clear, it will be an empowering vision, and it will be surprising.

The Holy Spirit is extremely good at surprises.