This past Monday, my identity was challenged. I moved through the Atlanta airport, repeatedly presenting passport and boarding pass through several checkpoints, and going through security screenings to prove I was who I said I was and that I was no threat. I boarded a plane, after again presenting identity credentials, and landed in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Before entering a city filled with people that do not look like me, I had to again present my identity and convince security agents that my business in this place was unthreatening. After clearing customs and claiming our bags, once again proving who we were and that our luggage was in fact ours, we were set loose in the city. Upon exiting the terminal, my traveling companions and I were met with smiling, familiar faces, loving embraces, and were reunited with friends. They did not need to check our passports. They did not question who we were or the purpose of our visit.
I rode with Pere Goursse+, the priest at St. Marc’s, Trouin, on the perilous journey from the bustling city out into the mountainous countryside. Pere Goursse+ and I are very different. We do not look the same, live the same lifestyle, or travel in the same social circles. By most accounts, our identities and experiences are as different as they can be. Even language poses a challenge. Goursse’s English is good, much better than my almost non-existent kreyol, but we patiently work at conversation. Despite our differences in identity, we find common ground. We discussed our hopes and dreams and love for the people of Haiti. We compared notes on the joys and challenges of being priest to our respective congregations. We discussed the human problems of politics in our respective churches, and rejoiced in the promises of scripture. As we slowly edged down the narrow, uneven, curvy mountain road that overlooked the village of Trouin, Goursse gave me a long glance, a deep smile, and said, “Welcome home.”
Identity crisis averted. No passports or credentials were required as the community offered us gospel hospitality. Despite being the only other white faces in the village, the people shared their warmth and welcome. Our communication was awkward, but smiles and hand holding and hugs transcend language. Only a few knew who we were or why we were there, but all welcomed us anyway. Divisions dissolved, community commenced, and we identified each other as brother and sister in Christ.
This is gift of the Spirit we celebrate at Pentecost. The book of Acts states that “all were together in one place”, stressing the importance and unity of community. With a great rush of wind the Spirit rested on each of them as a tongue of fire. Perhaps if each of us were set on fire in this way we might be more urgently motivated to the work of the Spirit. Then each of them began praising God and speaking of God’s great deeds of power, each in a different language. The text refers to speaking in languages other than one’s own; not the ecstatic speech mentioned by Paul in First Corinthians.
The new languages and scattering of humanity at the Tower of Babel was the result of human arrogance, and resulted in confusion and the separation of people into many nations. Because of that scattering, God selected one man, Abraham, from whom he would make a people for God’s self. Now, in the gift of the Holy Spirit, the promise to Abraham is finally fulfilled, and a means for humanity to be brought together is accomplished. Despite speaking in many tongues, people are brought together in the praise of the One, true God. Despite representing many nations, the global mission of the Church is revealed.
And though the means of reconciling the world to God and each other through the Spirit is presented, the work of the Church continues. While some marvel at the divine presence at the first Pentecost, others mock. Some sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” Peter counters, “it’s only nine o’clock in the morning”. I’m not sure this is a convincing argument. Peter apparently never enjoyed morning mimosas at a parish brunch. But Peter continues, interprets, and quotes the prophet Joel, emphasizing the role of the newly born Church in God’s saving action.
As Christians, we still live in an “in between” time, but the gift of the Spirit is our pledge of future redemption. Paul describes the Church as going through the “labor pains” of birth. Paul is referring to the transition from the old age to the new. The “first fruits” of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension represent the completeness of the harvest. Thus the present experience of the Spirit is the pledge of its continued, future work in the world. In the labor pains of this new birth, Christians groan because human suffering is not eliminated by the resurrection life. Yet our suffering is transformed because we are sustained by the Spirit. Since the Spirit is at work in the world to bring about a radical renewal of all creation, there is a genuine hope for the future. All of Creation, including humanity, will be redeemed and released from the inevitability of death. We are transitioning from the old age to the new. The Spirit not only speaks to us, but also claims us and intercedes with God for us. This is the identity offered to us, and we are constantly challenged ... will we accept the gift?
The gift of the Holy Spirit gives us an opportunity to claim our identity in the life of Christ. Jesus recognized the sorrow the disciples experienced when they realized he was leaving them. Jesus explained this was necessary for the transition, the new birth of the Church, and the gift of the Spirit. The gift of the Spirit signifies that nothing has gone wrong, but all has gone according to God’s plan. Jesus was not leaving them, but offering a transformed connection to the divine in a new and powerful and eternal way. The Spirit will testify on behalf of Jesus. We are to continue that work inspired by the Spirit, growing in the knowledge and love of God and each other. This is our identity as the people of God.
General William Westmoreland was once reviewing a platoon of paratroopers in Vietnam, those trained to jump out of a perfectly good airplane to drop into a particular area and perform a particular task. As he went down the line, he asked each of them a question: “How do you like jumping, son?” The first answered, “Love it, sir!” He asked the next, “How do you like jumping?” The answer, “Greatest experience of my life, sir!” He asked the third in line, “How do you like jumping?” He replied, “I hate it, sir.” Westmoreland questioned, “Then why do you do it?” The man stated simply, “I want to be around guys who love to jump.”
We are called to be in community with one another no matter our differences. We are called to celebrate our differences as we rejoice in our common praise of God, in both words and actions. We are called to abide with each other in love, to follow wherever the Spirit leads. We have been given a new peace over and against the suffering and oppression and division of the world. The Spirit will continue to work through us as we are directed, reminded, and strengthened, and our identity defined as followers of Christ. Jesus’ words and works will not disappear in the world. We are called to be the bearers of the challenging presence of Jesus’ revelation of God. Pentecost sums up the gospel with simplicity and audacity ... Jesus Christ offers salvation to all, and the Church exists to proclaim it. We are uniquely qualified, baptized in water AND the Spirit. We are anointed with oil and marked as Christ’s own forever. This is our identity. We claim and live into new life, reborn in Christ, with God’s help.
After warm and loving Haitian goodbyes, I returned to Atlanta Thursday night. My identity was checked and challenged along the way. I finally arrived back in Macon, to family, friends, and St. Paul’s, with a warm and loving, “Welcome home.” Such is the gift of the Spirit. The love of God is with us always, everywhere, even to the end of the age. Thanks be to God for the gift of the Spirit and the birthday of the Church. Let us accept the gift of the Spirit, claim our identity, and get to work being God’s Church. Amen.