Today we celebrate Pentecost, one of the seven principal feast days of the entire Christian year. (Next week is another of the big seven, Trinity Sunday.)
We get the story of the first Pentecost in our reading from Acts.
The Holy Spirit descended on the disciples with a sound like the rush of a violent wind and the appearance of tongues of fire. The inspired disciples began to speak in different languages and caused such an uproar that a confused crowd gathered. Peter preached, and, as we learn just a few verses after our reading, his sermon so moved the crowd that three thousand people were baptized that day.
All that happened just fifty days after Christ’s resurrection, so probably in the year 33CE. That day, the first Christian Pentecost, was the birth of the Church, making us 1,990 years old today. Happy birthday to us! If I were Scott Seabury instead of Harvey Hill, I would now lead us in singing Happy Birthday! But I will spare you that.
In my house, we used to celebrate our children’s birthdays by telling them yet again the story of their births, and then looking at baby pictures. What we did NOT normally tell them was how much our lives changed when they were born, particularly for our first. But as we think this morning about the meaning of Pentecost and the birth of the Church, thinking about how new births change our lives can help.
Carrie’s and my experience of new parenthood was pretty typical as best I can tell. Like a lot of new parents, we thought we were ready. Like virtually all of them, we were wrong. We had no idea what was coming our way.
I don’t mean the surge of love we felt for our new baby, although that was great. And I don’t mean sleepless nights and bodily fluids, although both were new to my adult self and required some getting used to. I mean changes to how we lived our lives, changes in how we spent our time, who we spent our time with, and most fundamentally who we were.
Before Benjamin was born, I did more or less what I wanted most of the time. Carrie and I had been married a few years, and I had put behind me my more decadent ways. But we liked getting together with friends in the evenings. That was over.
Here’s a story on point from my own infancy. Not long after I was born and busily, if unknowingly, changing the lives of my parents, my mother and father decided to go out to a movie. Apparently they got to the door before remembering me, sleeping in a crib in another room. No movie for them that night!
That was true for me, too, when my turn as parent came. No more spontaneous outings or casual get-togethers with friends. Instead, Carrie and I found ourselves doing a LOT of baby things.
And while we did those baby things, we met other new parents who were also doing baby things and who became our new social group.
And along the way, I lived into a new identity, although that took a little time. I was already a son, a brother, a friend, and so on. I had even learned to be a husband. But after Benjamin was born, I became something new for me: a father. And in some ways, my new identity as father became the most important of all, since baby Benjamin relied on me in a way that no one else did.
Here’s the point. Benjamin’s birth meant for me new habits, new relationships, and even new identity.
The birth of the Church meant something analogous for all those people who experienced the new birth of baptism on that first Pentecost.
Old behaviors had to drop away. Paul calls those old behaviors “the works of the flesh,” things like “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” Sadly, the works of the flesh haven’t dropped away for most of us quite as much as they should!
In place of the works of the flesh, the new Christians hoped to experience the “fruit of the Spirit”: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:19-23).Those fruits of the Spirit became for them a new way of living.
Along with their new habits, the new Christians developed new relationships. They continued to be sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends, and so on, to the people they had always known. But now the new Christians found themselves part of the household of God, with new loyalties, a new family, new brothers and sisters in Christ.
Most importantly of all, on that day of new birth, they themselves were changed. They may have been Jews or Greeks, slaves or free. Those are the categories Paul mentions in our reading. But going forward, they who had been baptized into the one body, they who had drunk of one Spirit, they had a new identity, their most important identity. They were Christians, beloved children of God.
That change—in habits, relationships, and identity—began on the first Pentecost. That change is what we celebrate this morning.
I am not a new Christian at this point. But nearly two thousand years later, I continue to experience the same change those new Christians did on that first Pentecost. We all do. We experience that same change, except that we experience it as a lifelong process of growth.
Over time, hopefully our habits change, as we let go of the works of the flesh and experience the fruit of the Spirit.
Every time we renew our baptismal covenant, we commit to that change when we promise to persevere in resisting evil and, whenever we fall into sin, repenting and returning to the Lord.
And we commit to that change every year when we consider again the stewardship of our time and talents, when we reflect on the spiritual gifts we have received, on services to which we are called, on the ways we can contribute to the common good of our Church and our communities and our world.
Over time, we develop new relationships, too.
First with our brothers and sisters in Christ here at Saint David’s.
But the new relationships ripple outwards. Last Monday, Mary Moore and I led the prison Bible study at the Women’s Correctional Center in Chicopee. We are coming to know some of the women there, especially one particularly faithful participant. Several of us have come to know the people we meet at Church without Walls, or at events that bring together people from different Churches.
And over time, we continue to live into our new identity as Christians. We learn to know ourselves as God’s beloved children, called to share God’s love with each other and with the world around us.
The birth of the Church, which we celebrate this morning, was an event in world history. It was a day that changed everything for those who were there, and for everyone touched by the Spirit from then until now, right up to today and us.
And so, on this 1990th Pentecost, I thank God for the gift of the Spirit who brings about new birth. I thank God for changing our lives and reshaping our identities. And I pray that the Spirit will continue to work on us, shaping us as the people God created us to be. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan