By Trevor Johnson (Philadelphia ’13-’14)
On Sunday the 8th of June I spent my morning worshipping with a few other QVS Volunteers and several other young adult Friends at the Young Adult Friends Conference (YAFCON) at Pendle Hill near Philly. For many it was a nice morning of worship that may have seemed unfamiliar due to the programmed moments of it. But, for myself, it was special because it was June 8th, 2014. Because it was Pentecost Sunday.
I came to QVS (and through QVS, further into the Religious Society of Friends) from mainline Protestant Christianity. I’ve spent the last few years exploring traditions that embrace liturgy and the liturgical calendar used by most Christians in the world. The repeated prayers bring peace and connect me to those around me. The large collection of holidays helps me focus my spiritual path in on emotions, seasons, ideas and stories.
And I came from that tradition.
And I still love that tradition.
And I came from it to Quakerism, where, I am fully aware, most Holy Days, much less the liturgical calendar, are not observed. This is part of the tradition that attempts to recognize every day as holy, and not just those few chosen by religious leadership.
And that’s why I’m writing a blog post, because there is that tension in my faith, and it was emphasized and eased on June 8th, Pentecost Sunday.
Pentecost is a day to celebrate an event, the Holy Spirit descending on the members of the early Christian church. The story can be found in the first thirteen verses of the second chapter of The Acts of the Apostles, but I’ll post it here.
To preface this story, in all of the Gospels, Judas Iscariot is identified as one of the Apostles of Jesus, who are a specially chosen twelve of his many followers. This Judas betrayed Jesus, and then died according to some of the Gospels. So, he isn’t really accepted into the fold anymore as you can imagine. Peter, one of the other Apostles, suggests to the others, after Jesus has gone, that they choose from among the hard and fast followers to replace Judas who betrayed Jesus. I’ll leave it there…
Acts of the Apostles 1:26-2:13
So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place* in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’ And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
These two stories, the choosing of the new Apostle and the in-breaking of the Holy Spirit, are told right next to each other. They are told right next to each other and that shouldn’t be ignored. In the first, the disciples actually cast lots to decide between two people, and only one gets to join up with this select group of followers.
They just decided for the first time, and certainly not the last, who was in and who was out of the church, or at least its leadership.
The second story does quite the opposite though. The Spirit inspires something else for those gathered. Instead of drawing more lines and raising more walls, the Spirit gives them the ability to speak to all those faithful Jews gathered in Jerusalem, and preach a good news to them. It tears down the dividing walls of religious conviction, and of nationality. This event, the in-breaking of the Holy Spirit, is the birthday of the church, the day the early followers of the way of Jesus began being led by another beautiful force they discovered resting on each of them. The “who’s in” and “who’s out” of this group of Jews is dismantled, if only for an instant.
Now, I won’t get too carried away with biblical commentary. I must return to the story of YAFCON. On that morning of June 8th, I was celebrating the continued and continuous movements of the Holy Spirit, the Inner Teacher, in a faithful people. And I watched as walls were torn down, the walls separating who is in and who is out of our religious society and walls that separate us into theist and nontheist, mystics and activists, young in the faith and those who are weighty Friends. We opened with the call to prayer used in the Muslim world. The rest of the service was filled with song from Friends in Kenya and Rwanda, some spoken ministry from a chosen minister, and waiting worship. Who was in and who was out was not a question that morning. And the Spirit was moving.
In some ways I’m sad that this connection between a story about the spirit moving and this day was lost on some of the Friends gathered there, but I also love the richness of our tradition. It would be richer, maybe, if we looked to Holy Days present in other traditions and listen for what they have to say to us. Maybe Quakers could explore Holy days and liturgical seasons as a way of exploring different moods and modes of worship. But, for now, I could not have asked for a better way to celebrate Pentecost. This Pentecost allowed me to look at two parts of my faith and see their difference and see their similarity, and see that it is good.
And now a few poetic queries to leave with you.
What does the Spirit mean?
Does the Spirit mean love?
Does the Spirit mean speaking?
Does the Spirit mean acting?
Does the Spirit mean revelation?
Does the Spirit mean confusion?
Does the Spirit mean the actual, “person in a bed sheet”-style, ghost of this man that we called Jesus, who now manages to move over 2 billion people every Sunday?
Or does the Spirit mean the movement inside you, when you make a decision in the direction of justice and love?
Does the Spirit clarity in the midst of confusion?
Does the Spirit mean the crazed conversations in languages unknown unless by angels, that may still bring hope that God is near?
Does the Spirit mean the frustration, the anger, the rage that will quell inside your chest and limbs and stop your jaw mawing at the horrid truth of society and this world?
What then, does the Spirit mean?
Does the Spirit mean to create peace within us?
Does the Spirit mean to create justice in this world?
To speak to us?
To connect us with others through love?
To tear down the walls of exclusion that we construct?