Pentecost is the feast in which we celebrate “being born from above” and growing up – maturing – in our identity. It is bothcorporate and personal. It is both Divine and human.
Confusion and the division it breeds are weapons of the enemy… By means of them he attempts to thwart the purposes of God in our lives. Many famous authors have ventured depictions of the shape of the enemy’s effort:
- Nouwen – the desire for power, the spectacular, relevance.
- Rolheiser – pragmatism, loss of wonder, spirit of restlessness.
- Pennock – the passions of vainglory, pride, self-love.
- Bonhoeffer – cheap grace (Christianity without the cross or the scars that go with it).
There are, of course, the classic passages from the gospel accounts that set all of this in its proper context: the baptism and temptation of Jesus coupled with His initial calling of disciples; the exchange between Jesus and His disciples at Caesarea Philippi; Jesus’ discourse and prayer recorded in the gospel of John on the night of His betrayal.
The focus is on identity and mission. Pentecost is the feast of identity in Christ. The Holy Spirit puts forward as normative, the two universally accepted Mysteries – Baptism and Holy Eucharist – as reflections and proclamations of the meaning of and right relationship between, first, Christ and His Church and second, identity and mission.
Clarity regarding this foundational aspect of our discipleship is vitally important territory for the enemy to conquer. If he can work confusion regarding the identity of Christ Jesus as well as our personal and corporate identity in Him, he has achieved a huge victory. A great example of the specific form this debilitating confusion takes is misunderstanding of such things as:
- Humility and exaltation
- The relationship between faith and works
- The relationship between identity and mission – being and doing
- Strength and weakness
- The definitions of success and failure in parish life
- Confusion of the meaning of the terms sacred, secular, and profane
I am sure you can add to this list from your own experience…
This has lead over the centuries, and still does, to some amazing definitions and strategies on the part of many in the Body of Christ. The paths we have trodden as the Body of Christ have been and are disheartening.
Let me give you an example of a typical area of confusion – the saints. Confusion about what the lives of the great men and women in the Body of Christ were really like is dangerous. Those who read their lives without a commitment to hear voice of the Holy Spirit through them can easily go astray.
What is up with the saints?! Who were they – really?! What value do they have for us? Or, you could take the other tack. Everybody wants a saint for their very own. And, I am not talking about ancient people. To be associated with someone who is a modern day “saint” or “icon” of, let’s say, evangelicalism, like Billy Graham or of Catholicism, like John Paul II or Teresa of Calcutta will do just fine. In essence, everybody needs (wants) a saint. Having a saint of your very own is pretty cool. Of course, for those who are seeking the fulfillment of the passions listed above, it involves something else. Some want a piece of the pie of saintly association to serve their own agendas.
This last little point is very important. We can hijack saints. We can, on the one hand, romanticize and “Photoshop” their lives. Or, on the other hand, we can make the people who promote(ed) our agendas in the distant or recent past into saints to further our aims. After all, who is going to shoot down a saint?! Makes you look pretty mean-spirited if you do. The result? Our agenda takes a giant leap forward. The more saints you can enlist or create, the better.
Sound terrible? Well, maybe. But it IS true. Either way, we create or perpetuate confusion regarding their identities and ultimately our own.
Romanticization and syncretism are two of the obvious results of confusion.
Let me give you a simple example. Today, June 9th, is the feast of St. Columba. As a life-long Anglican, I can testify to the form this confusion takes regarding our Celtic heritage. At this point I refer you to an article by, The Very Rev. Lester Michael Bundy OSB(Obl), Professor Emeritus, Regis University. This article might give you folks who aren’t familiar with the whole “romanticization” and “saint ownership” syndromes, an idea of the context in which many of us in the “liturgical-historical” wing of the Body of Christ live and move. Read the article and then return to this article – look for romanticization and syncretism.
Having read that article you may now get the idea of what I mean by the terms “romanticization” and “saint ownership.” Now, don’t get me wrong. I love the saints, especially the Celtic ones! I love reading their lives.
My example about the saints is for the purpose of pointing out the inherent confusion regarding their identities. Who WAS St. Columba? Really… The revelation of identity comes via struggle of engaging in real life in relationship with the one and only identity giving person – God.
BUT… Remember, this is an article about identity. God’s identity and our identity and how these relate and through the relationship, create life. The article on St. Columba points out how easily confusion can enter into our “sacred” world. First, confusion in the form of a romanticized picture of discipleship. Second, confusion in the form of different groups hijacking the saint in one way or another to fulfill their own agendas and the syncretization of the gospel.
Pentecost, and the events that followed it, reveal the truth regarding Christian identity – where it comes from and how it matures. For example, it teaches us to take seriously the whole question of identity BEFORE we take seriously the whole question of missional effectiveness. Pentecost, in my opinion, can (has?) also be hijacked and turned into a feast about mission and not about identity. Lets get the horse and the cart in the right order. Identity first then mission.
The Divine Liturgy proclaims and provides grace for the living out of these themes. These truths are woven like a wonderful and mysterious tapestry by the Holy Spirit as He invites us to be attentive and responsive to the living realities of:
- Personal and corporate identity in Christ
- The grace and gift of the Holy Spirit
- The communion of the saints
- Missional living as the fruit of union with God and one another
We learn identity in the furnace of mission. I get that totally. But identity is still the first thing… Read the passages I referenced above. You will see that the “who you are” comes before the “you will do this.” in other words, what I do doesn’t make me who I am. What I do can certainly help reveal the truth, but it doesn’t create the truth of my identity. St. Columba learned his identity through a good number of struggles in the harsh world of 6th century Ireland. We are learning and living out more fully our identity in the harsh environment of a 21st century global community. One environment is not “harsher” than the other. Each generation bears its own expression of the “arena of harshness” in which all of this is worked out.
Sainthood is not romantic. It is a story of struggle. It is the story of the warfare laden journey of a disciple and his or her community of faith from confusion and disorder regarding identity and mission to clarity, order, and effectiveness. From self-serving life to self-giving life. Portraying saints as saints BECAUSE they successfully struggled is the portrayal of authentic holiness and is worthy of immolation. Just as Thomas was suspicious of a “scarless” risen Lord, I am suspicious of a scarless and struggle-free story of sainthood. What it meant to live in the furnace of God’s love. They were and are, as far as I can tell, men and women who understood the meaning of the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” as a one they could legitimately pray with their last breath. I have read enough of the autobiographical stories of men and women who were later canonized in which they spoke of struggle after struggle to know that the “homogenized and ultra-pasteurized” versions are dangerous and many times fueled by unworthy agendas.
I love this depiction of the kinds of men who attended the first Ecumenical Council of the Church:
“Constantine The Great, the first Christian King, realized that the Church of Christ was plagued with various (incorrect) dogmatic opinions of Arius, the protopresbyter of Alexandria. Constantine therefore organized in 325 AD the first Great Ecumenical Council at Nicea in Asia Minor. 318 God-bearing Fathers from all the ends of the Orthodox Christian world hurried to meet so as to deliver (protect) the Church from heresy. King Constantine was present throughout the council. Many of the Fathers that were present had suffered greatly for their confession in the name of Christ, during the reign of the previous King. Some had one eye removed, others had their noses or their ears cut off, others had their hands cut off or other injuries.”
It is THIS church that recites the creed in the spirit of Pentecost.
Pentecost is the victory of union over isolation and estrangement, understanding over confusion, and mission as the fruit of identity. Pentecost is not romantic. It is the feast of birth and growth – messy and painful as well as joyful and fruit bearing. Pentecost is the feast in which we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit and the life giving union of God and man. The union of God and man bears the fruit of human life and identity. We, saints great and ordinary, cooperate with the Holy Spirit in the arena of combat toward the knowledge of our identity in Christ and His identity in us. We labor in the “working out” of that identity in the context of ministry both within the Body of Christ and the world. Because God’s life and identity lives in us we live and have identity. Pentecost is the feast of mission. “Abide in Me and I in you … Bear fruit that lasts.” I/we do what we do because of who we are in union with Christ and one another.
We are saints – great and ordinary at the same time. We have a story; a transformative story, when honestly told, involving victories and failures. Wehave scars, limps, missing limbs to prove we participated in the great battles of the Kingdom of God against the Kingdom of this world. We need to tell these stories with vigor and listen to them with focus. We need to be attentive for these are stories of the wisdom and power of God in Christ Jesus by the working of the Holy Spirit. We need to seek to see the revelation of the love of God through the mutual indwelling of Christ’s identity in ours and ours in His; and the transformative power of the same Spirit to bring all aspects of our life personally and corporately into practical agreement with that identity.
I count it as one of the greatest honors life could offer to be numbered among saints such as these.