The promise of Pentecost

Homily 502 – Pentecost
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Ames, Iowa
June 12, 2022
Epistle: (3) Acts 2:1-11
Gospel: (27) John 7:37-52; 8:12
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, One God.

In the gospel for last Sunday, the Sunday of the Fathers of the first ecumenical council, the prayer of Christ is offered for our contemplation. Among the most powerful words of that prayer we find “so that they” – us, that is, the Church – “may be one, even as we” – that is, the Father and the Son – “are one.” Today, in the feast of the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we find that unity being made manifest.

From ancient times, as recorded in Genesis 11, the languages of the people were confused. Popular culture calls this the “tower of Babel.” The implication is that one of the hallmarks of unity is communication – the ability to understand one another.

In the book of Acts, which we heard read, we learn that after the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles, the crowd heard everyone speaking in their own native language. Unity was and is restored.

So why is it that in our day, we have by some estimates over 40,000 different groups of believers? Why is it that our so-called Christian nation is so divided when Christ prayed that we would be One, as Christ and the Father are One?

The answer is simple. Humanity is stubborn, even the ones who believe in Christ. We are stubborn in that we don’t recognize the importance of self-denial.

As Orthodox Christians, even in the midst of our ascetical practices, we forget that the practices are to help us to enable self-denial. We forget that without self-denial, we fall into pride, which is the root of all sin.

And with pride comes disunity – separation from our brothers and sisters. To the point we no longer see them as brothers and sisters. Based solely on our own judgment, and not the judgment of the whole Church, we declare them firmly to be outside the family.

We are quite happy to express our condemnation and exclusion of others – and social media has made that convenient and relatively anonymous.

The Gospel alludes to this judgment – Nicodemus, who came to Christ by night – asked publically if the law can be used without hearing from the individual. Nicodemus understood that the proclamation of judgment was not the prerogative of individuals, but was only pointing out that the law as they understood it was being transgressed.

Our Lord makes this explicit as well in Matthew 18, when he describes the process for calling out the one who has wronged you. Note here not the one who has wronged another – the one who has wronged you:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

We aren’t allowed to put judgment on another by ourselves. Full stop.

There have to be witnesses. That goes back to the Law of Moses in Deuteronomy. It is mentioned again here, and in the Gospel of St. John, and in the first letter of St. Paul to Timothy, and in the Second Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians.

The idea of having witnesses permeates the Scripture. Our pride though won’t allow for us to have witnesses – we are the sole accuser, judge, and jury. The original sin in Genesis in the garden of paradise was exactly this – humanity – us – decided to proclaim themselves God without the assistance and involvement of God.

That continues to our day. Our society allows us to live (if we can use that word) quite independently of others. This is contrary to everything that Christ desires of us. Contrary to our own humanity.

We are not one – even in the Pentecost and descent of the Holy Spirit, the great unifier. And that is more than a shame – it is a travesty.

How do we get out from under this travesty? How can we return to the unity of the faithful on that day of Pentecost in Jerusalem?

As has been said many times before – self-denial. Self-denial is the only way. As much as we’d prefer to set it aside, it simply cannot be so.

Self-denial in the world is perhaps the ultimate, unreachable goal. But we can start with self-denial in the Church. Self-denial to one another. Self-denial to our families and loved ones.

It is still hard – but less hard than self-denial toward the non-believer. So start there.

Maybe start even closer than that – practice self-denial with yourself. Practice radical truth with yourself. Don’t lie to yourself. Critically examine your beliefs and presuppositions – even if in the privacy of your own mind.

Pray and recognize that what you are being told through prayer and the scriptures and the services of the Church is the Truth. Self-denial of this type means we don’t trust our own thoughts and opinions and conclusions about anything, but rather believe that everything communicated to us is from God and for our salvation – even when we don’t like it.

Don’t struggle to dismiss it, or explain it away. Struggle rather to understand it. Struggle to do it even when we believe it to be not in our best interest.

If we can do this, it is a beginning to unity. When confronted with a difficult situation, or conflicting situation, look for the situation that unifies. Look for the situation that brings us together. That is God – and the option that divides us is, simply, not of God.

That’s not to say we proclaim judgment and announce to the world that we will not accept the options that divide us. Far from it.

Rather, in the quiet and stillness of our hearts and minds, we determine to follow ourselves that path, and let others choose as they will.

In so doing, we will be doing our part to fulfilling the promise of the Holy Spirit in our midst, and the promise of Pentecost.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, One God.