Birthdays are usually fun remembrances with balloons and hats, cakes and candles. They are a days in our lives that are usually fondly remembered. But let me tell you about one birthday that turned the whole world on end.
Tell of how the ascended Jesus armed a people for his own; how a hundred men and women turned the known world upside down. . . #507 Hymnal 1982 – 4th verse.
This verse from a hymn often chosen on the Holy Day of Pentecost, the birthday of the church, dares to make an astounding and historically accurate claim. We are asked to tell how a hundred men and women turned the known world upside down.
So, I would ask my reader, how did a hundred men and women, mostly peasants in the remotest part of the world, with a negative social status, no political standing and no outside funding accomplish such a seemingly insurmountable task? Do you suppose that they did all that by being rigid and judgmental? Do you suppose they impressed the masses by holding fast to their traditions while condemning anyone who didn’t believe and practice as they did? Maybe they were just incredibly effective preachers, even without television or the Internet. Did those very first Christians hold tent meetings in the Roman amphitheaters and ask people to come forward and say just the right words that would make them right with God for eternity while “Just as I am” was played on the harp and the lyre? I suspect not.
Now please don’t get me wrong here. When asked about their faith they had no problem telling people of the important place Jesus Christ had in their lives, but mostly they were too busy being COMPASSIONATE COMFORTERS.
What marked them as peculiar in the eyes of their enemies, and what caught the eye of historians like Josephus was how they loved the world.
The historians of the earliest years of Christianity tell us that those first Christians contributed from the paltry amount of money they had to support orphans abandoned in the streets and on the garbage dumps. They brought food and medicines and companionship to prisoners. They built coffins and dug graves to bury the deceased members of poor families and even criminals whose corpses otherwise would lie unburied beyond the city limits, and they did so by putting themselves at enmity with the Roman authorities. They worshiped God in Holy Communion every chance they got, usually in someone’s home. An offering of food was brought forward to the altar and those who were fed by Holy Communion, then took those baskets of food out to those even less fortunate and fed them with the most important Communion of all.
The Holy Spirit is often called the “Comforter” in Scripture, and that’s how the ascended Jesus armed a people for his own. That’s how a hundred men and women turned the known world upside down! They accepted the Holy Comforter into their hearts, and they did exactly what Jesus did. . . they became Compassionate Comforters, so much so that they amazed the world. “See how they love one another” the historians proclaimed about the very early church.
If you remember your New Testament Scripture, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit of God, came to Jesus at his baptism, and as the story moves forward, we find that the Holy Spirit remained with him throughout his entire ministry. All his actions from the inauguration of his ministry until he commended his human spirit into the hands of God were performed together with the Holy Spirit, and every one of Jesus’ actions were actions of compassionate comforting, not judgement, not political rallying; there was no litmus test for right belief, no words you could say that would get you in or get you ousted. There were no people more worthy or less worthy. Jesus, full of God’s Holy Spirit, gave compassionate comfort to every person he met, no matter what part of the known world from which they came. The only time Jesus ever seems to get angry in the Gospel accounts is when that ministry of compassionate comfort is blocked by the selfishness of another!
One of my favorite Gospel passages is the one where Jesus breathes on some of those early disciples and says, “receive the Holy Spirit.” When I was a child, I had chronic ear infections of the worst kind. These infections went well beyond the normal. We had doctors telling us that I would probably become deaf within a matter of a few years. My stomach still twists in knots when I remember those years because I remember the excruciating pain.
One of my earliest memories is of my waking up in the middle of the night crying out in pain, and my mother would sit by me, and she would breathe her warm breath into my aching ear for hours to give me the only comfort possible. When I tell people that I have no trouble with a feminine image of God, they usually think it’s because I’m some flaming feminist left-winged Episcopal Priest. Well, for the most part, they would be right, but the real reason is that I had a mother who imaged God for me. That warm breath in my aching ear has become a symbol of what the Holy Spirit does among us and calls us forth to do.
The infusion of the Holy Spirit which we celebrate on this Day of Pentecost, wants to fill us and be with us from our birth until we commend our human spirit into the hands of God, and every day in between can be a happy birthday! If we allow the Holy Spirit to infect us, then we will become compassionate comforters, not just when we sign up for volunteer work, but in our everyday dealings with everyday people. Hearts will soften and cynicism will be minimized, because “comfort” will be word of the day!
A famous Christian leader was once asked to name the greatest need that the church has today. He answered, “Another Pentecost!” When asked to name the SECOND greatest need of today’s church, he answered, “Another Pentecost!” In the not-too-distant past we would look around the church and see all kinds of internal wars taking place, with petty bickering over things like women’s ordination, ordination of Gays, New Prayerbook vs Old Prayerbook. They were all minutia in the scheme of things. This was taking place while people were without healthcare, without shelter, without food and even without love. Much of that “in-house” fighting has subsided, thank God! But it has left many churches smaller, needing to worry more about maintenance and finances. It’s always something, isn’t it? But through it all, nothing has really changed “out there,” has it? There are still people without healthcare, without shelter, without food and yes, without love. It seems that we can always use another infusion of Pentecost! We continually need to be so filled with the Comforter that we become comforters in our world.
I hear people say to me all the time, “but I can’t make a difference in my overly busy and uninteresting life.” My initial guess is that those people are probably passing up about a hundred opportunities a day to be compassionate comforters, to breathe the warm breath of the Spirit into somebody’s pain, even if in ways that seem so small at the time. Let this be a real birthday bash today! Let’s pray for another Pentecost in the life of our churches but let us also be careful. The Holy Spirit seems to be obsessed with freedom. The Holy Spirit we are told in the Gospel of John is like the wind that blows wherever it pleases and does not like to be told what to do. When we pray for the Spirit to fill us, we must be prepared for the unexpected. We may be called to comfort in ways that are very uncomfortable to us! We may be called to comfort even those people we think deserve to suffer! That is what it means to be Christ-like; that is the meaning of “Agape.”
And I’m afraid that is the only way that a hundred men and women can turn the known world upside down!
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