Presence in the Midst: John Doyle Penrose
Sermon for Irvington Friends Meeting, May 24, 2015
Reading: Romans 8:22-27
For the past several weeks, Rex has given some rather excellent messages. We don’t often think about it, more liturgical churches have a whole Easter Season where they focus on the reality of Christ’s presence. Rex has honored this season by sharing what we believe and experience about the risen and present Christ. From Easter to Pentecost is 7 weeks. About 6 of these weeks have Christ so present that the disciples sat and ate with him, could touch him, and listen to him continue to teach. We should be grateful to Rex for continuing to remind us of this very real presence.
One thing that I’ve noticed is that sometimes stories really grab onto us. We feel like we are characters in the story. The stories convey some truth that we experience in our lives. I’ve said that Friends are an Easter community before, and Rex has connected us with Jesus’ promises to be present, in a very real way. Last week Rex connected us with Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit and this week churches all over the world will be reading Acts 2, and talking about the powerful way the spirit connected with the Church.
Instead of reading Acts 2, I want to point out that Pentecost is just the end of a crazy, exhausting 2 months. Easter, Ascension day and Pentecost are not so much individual events as different points in the same story. I would like to give a summary of the story, and some thoughts about how Friends have seen themselves as part of this story.
When Jesus was crucified and buried, the disciples were scattered. A few women, mostly named Mary remained. There was also the disciple Jesus loved, Joseph of Arimathea who gave Jesus a burial place, and of course Peter who had to watch, but tried to hide any connection with Jesus. Even though Thomas said “lets go die with Jesus”, when it came time, nobody seemed willing. On the day before the Resurrection, there was no community, just isolated people who were without hope.
When Jesus rose from the dead, he met with individuals, he ate with them, he showed them that he was actually with them, for real. He managed, in less than a month to rebuild the community — Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians that Jesus got together a group of over 500 disciples after he died. These 500 were all together with him. At the end of his ministry on earth, (as Paula reminded us last week,) the disciples were saying: “Is it time to overthrow the Romans?” Jesus ascended into heaven, and told this group of over 500 to wait for the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem.
The group had a business meeting where they elected an officer to replace a vacancy, then they waited. Ascension day was the Thursday before last: This means that the group waited for for the Holy Spirit for 10 long days. By the time the waiting was over, the group of 500 that Jesus gathered after he resurrected was reduced to 120. “When the day of Pentecost was fully come, the Holy Spirit descended upon them like fire”. Pentecost is exciting, powerful, and explosive. Pentecost is the day when the 120 suddenly become three thousand.
Right now, I want to ask, where do we connect with the greater story of Easter and Pentecost? Rex kept reminding us that we identify with the real presence of the risen Christ — and, we do. Many of you have seen the painting by John Doyle Penrose: “The presence in the midst“, where Jesus is standing in a Quaker meeting. This painting is a powerful visualization of what George Fox said so many times, that “Christ has come to teach the people himself.” Quakers have always identified with the resurrection community where Christ is present in a tangible way.
As Rex reminded us, we also sometimes exist in the time between the Ascension and Pentecost. Sometimes we are waiting, and it feels like we are waiting forever. Sometimes we even go about our daily business, knowing that we have to do something, but we have no idea what to do. We wait, and it seems like we are alone and God has abandoned us. We have a promise, but sometimes that promise feels empty. When people cynically describe Quakers, our story is the story of last week. Sometimes, we wait for the Spirit to come, and it seems that the silence is never broken. Sometimes it feels like we live in the empty time between Jesus being taken up to heaven and of Pentecost.
One thing that we rarely do is think of Friends as living in the spirit of Pentecost. When we read scripture, Pentecost was almost unique. The spirit descended this way once in Jerusalem, then again (to prove that God’s spirit was for gentiles too) onto Antioch. The biggest reason that few us us identify with Pentecost is that it is not at all respectable — so much so that people were speculating that the people were all drunk. The funny thing is that in 1658, at least one Friend: Edward Burrough did associate the Friends movement with Pentecost, writing:
After waiting upon the Lord in silence… we received the gift of God’s eternal spirit as in the days of old, our hearts were made glad, our tongues were loosed, and our mouths were opened, and we spoke with new tongues”
And, like the early apostles, the first generation of the Friends movement both grew rapidly, and its leaders (including Edward Burrough) spend much of their time in prisons. Edward Burrough was an important Friends minister for a very brief time, as he died while imprisoned in Newgate Prison in 1663.
I identify with these stories. My faith is affirmed by the present Christ — but, when I think more about this I have to admit that these are not exactly my stories. Unlike the early Christians, and the early Quakers, I don’t expect to be imprisoned nor die because of my faith. If I feel that Jesus is absent, nobody says: “Touch my wounds.” While I believe I’ve seen the Holy Spirit active in people’s lives, I have never experienced anything like Pentecost. These stories demonstrate the reality of my belief, but they are greater than my experience.
Even though I look to these stories at my best and my worst moments, and I see them as true to my own experience, my story is somewhat more mundane. When I am most deeply discouraged, I still know about Easter and Pentecost. I do not feel abandoned in the way the disciples must have. The greatest thing is that when I hear these stories, I laugh at Peter and Thomas, and the others. I love how close God is to them, and they still don’t get it. No matter how close these stories are to my heart, and how true they ring — I am far enough away to know what is next, and much of what the disciples were supposed to learn. Today we remember Pentecost — but, if today were Pentecost, there would be quite a bit of confusion.
I chose the Romans reading, because Paul was speaking to people who lived after Pentecost, yet this description of the Christian life is true both to those who had these sudden world changing experiences, and those who have lived with a quieter faith with a much more subtle realization of God’s presence. Paul spoke of living in a world where Pentecost was a reality, where Christ’s teachings are known, and when we have the experience of seasoned Christians, yet times come when we groan and don’t even know how to pray.
I love how this passage shows that God is generous and graceful. God gives us what we need. Christ promised, as we heard, an advocate — and Paul describes an advocate perfectly. When we don’t even know how to represent ourselves, when we don’t know how or what to pray, we have an Advocate that will pray for us. I thank God that even in the worst of times, I have an Advocate. I have never experienced the devastating absence that the disciples endured on Holy Saturday, and between the Ascension and Pentecost.
Also, it remains easy to identify with the Disciples who wait, because both life and faith are about waiting. As Paul writes, we hope for what we do not see, and wait for it in patience. We might laugh at the disciples who Paula quoted when she pointed out the disciples wanted the Risen Christ to conquer Rome, but do we not ask the same question? Those who pray the Lord’s prayer pray for God’s Kingdom to come. I know many who pray that it may come quickly, and speculate on the nature of it’s coming. Like the disciples before Pentecost, we wait for a new miracle — and if Pentecost teaches us anything, when new miracles come, they are entirely different than expected.