Last week, I was in Montreal at Presbyterian College to teach at the 2nd annual Encouragement Conference. The conference invited pastoral leaders to focus on encouragement and renewal through worship and reflection.
The conference was held in conjunction with graduation week. How fitting that former graduates of the College joined with new graduates and other Presbyterian ministers from across Canada for study and conversation as a powerful symbol of encouragement.
We met Sidney who knew St. Andrew’s former pastor, Ian and Cathy Victor as teenagers in Montreal. Sydney, retired from active ministry in New Brunswick, returned to be encouraged by this community that had nurtured him for over 50 years since his own graduation.
We met Wilson, a new graduate receiving his Master’s of Divinity. Wilson immigrated to Ireland from his native country of East Africa. Wilson’s wife and 5 children remained in Ireland through the course of his studies and his hope is they will finally be reunited when he receives a call either in Canada or in Ireland.
The week was designed to bring people from different backgrounds and ministry experience together to find and give encouragement to one another. We were renewed by worship each morning and found connections in conversations during our meals together.
Today is Pentecost Sunday, ten days after Jesus ascended into Heaven. His followers were still milling around Jerusalem wondering what to do next. They, too, were certainly in need of encouragement and clarity.
Until now, those gathered were only identified as God-fearing Jews. They were in town for a celebration of the Harvest and were from a myriad of places – 15 to be exact. Medes, Elamites, Parthians and others who spoke many languages had gathered when suddenly, a sound like a violent wind swept through, and all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit. All persons heard the message of Jesus in their own language.
We may believe that the Holy Spirit caused them to speak “in other languages”. But a closer reading of the historical context suggests that each person spoke in their own native language but could miraculously be understood by everyone else. Pentecost has little to do with a miracle of the tongue and everything to do with a miracle of the ear and heart.
God breathed into the people in their humanness and, in spite of their differences, they breathed together and found a common purpose. They discovered their differences weren’t quite as unique nor their distinctiveness quite as permanent as they previously believed. The impossible became reality.
When the presence of the Holy Spirit touched them, suddenly their differences melted away and the Mede could miraculously understand the Cappadocian. Before they were sitting comfortably in their own individuality never having to connect or communicate in any meaningful way with another.
When each could understand each other and see beyond their differences, suddenly the other across the room became a human. The Spirit provided them a bridge that enabled them to do what they could not have accomplished otherwise.
The Pentecost story is considered the beginning of the Christian church when followers grew from one hundred twenty to more than three thousand on that day. Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that “before the day was over, shy people had become bold, scared people had become gutsy, and lost people had found a sure sense of direction. They had sucked in God’s own breath, and they had been transformed by it.” Taylor asks whether we still believe in a God who acts like that.
Back to the Encouragement Conference session I lead, our diverse group of new, established, and retired ministers focused on strengths common to their congregations rather than the deficits we all face in current times. All of us heard encouragement in our unique situations and found connections with others with whom we previously thought we had little in common.
The John passage precedes the Acts 2 gathering at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended. In John 20, we return to the scene when the women went to the tomb and found it empty. Jesus was fresh from resurrection and the disciples had yet to be able to put their heads around this remarkable miracle.
On Easter evening, the disciples were locked away in a room because they were afraid of the Jews who crucified Jesus. Jesus appears to them with a unique greeting in their time of fear, “Peace be with you.”
Long before the Holy Spirit descended like fire in the Pentecost upper room, Jesus offered an invitation, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” And then a strange instruction, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
With the presence of the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ followers were to perform the most fundamental act of the Christian faith. Following Jesus’ betrayal, crucifixion, and resurrection, his instruction is to forgive. Receive the Holy Spirit and then move toward forgiveness. Is there any more powerful method of encouraging another than by bridging our differences through the act of forgiveness? In what ways have you encouraged someone this week?
How do we encourage one another? How do we accept people with whom we may not agree or at least we feel like we have little in common? How does the Holy Spirit allow us to listen without being defensive, without needing to tell our story, and instead to listen to understand? Once we become aware of the Spirit’s help to listen to one another with open arms and hearts, then something different has happened.
The Holy Spirit fills the gap, that space between us and God, and the space we perceive is between ourselves and others. The Spirit creates community through the work of the spirit within us. May that be our prayer this Pentecost.