Whitsunday: The Day of Pentecost
4 June 2017
O God, who on this day didst teach the hearts of thy faithful people by sending to them the light of thy Holy Spirit: Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through the merits of Christ Jesus our Saviour, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the same Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.
1 Corinthians 12:4-13
Liminality is a term I throw around a fair bit. For someone who doesn’t really like jargon, I talk about it an awful lot. Although the word comes from the Latin for “threshold,” it is nevertheless a neologism coined by the early twentieth-century folklore scholar Arnold van Gennep to describe ritual practices, especially rites of passage. It signifies the time between two fixed stages when transformation can take place. You stand on the threshold between what you were and what you are becoming. You are no longer what you were and yet to transform something new. You are both, and yet neither. It is a moment or a space of uncertainty and instability, of metamorphosis.
The concept can be applied to both groups and individuals, to describe communities and relationships, and even places. I have talked about this church building as being a liminal space, one that literally stands on the threshold between the world of our daily lives, the world that stands in chronological time, and the eternal world, the world of God, of the company of heaven, that goes on out of and beyond time. I have likened it to the image from Genesis and the vision of Jacob:
And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! .... Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
Today we sit in this liminal place, the place we liken to the “gate of heaven,” sitting on the threshold between two realities and know that as God pierces and enters into our world, we have been given the gift to pierce that other reality and have a glimpse of the eternal.
In this way the Kingdom of God, unfolding around us, work begun and not finished, is perhaps the liminal reality that sits at the core of our belief. The Kingdom, ruled by that monarch who is unlike any earthly ruler, is an event we experience as transforming us into something new, something we do not yet fully apprehend. Indeed since the Incarnation itself we have been on an intentional journey through liminal spaces. From the moment Jesus entered into our flesh and initiated the Kingdom, we began a process of transformation into something new. We have been through several stages, but all are characterised by change, growth, and uncertainty. Jesus’ ministry unfolded into the events of his Passion. As soon as the disciples thought they understood what was happening, they were confronted with a new reality. Even the death on the cross, the moment when they believed it was all over, they discovered that it marked yet another moment of transformation. Jesus returned and appeared before his friends, transformed—transfigured as Peter and James and John had first glimpsed on the mountain. Yet even in this triumph, Jesus was clear that this moment was, like the others, transitional, that it too would pass and change into something else, that he would only be with them in this way for a little while. So when Jesus left them again on that first Ascension Day, his followers entered yet another period of uncertainty. They did not know what was next.
They had lived with Jesus. They had seen him die and come back. They had witnessed his departure. They had experienced his absence and his presence. What were they to do now? Well, what they did, was what they always did: they stayed together, in this space of uncertainty and waited. They knew well enough to stick together, not to abandon their community and their work.
And so it was that the disciples were gathered together to celebrate the Day of Pentecost, as the Feast of Shavuot was called in Greek, and something happened. The waiting and the watching and uncertainty gave way to an experience of divine presence unlike anything they had known before:
And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
In that moment they were filled with a sense of divine presence, divine energy, life force, a sense of the power that brings matter to life. They likened it to wind and fire, natural forces of movement and transformation. They felt that they were turned from a group who followed Jesus into leaders of a movement out from that place, out from that locked room into the world beyond, to expand the reach of this divine force to all who had not yet know the God of Israel, who would now know God in the person of Jesus Christ.
On that day of Pentecost they were sitting on another threshold and they began yet another process of transformation, one we still live in the Church that this moment brought to birth. In that moment ther were not given an answer. They were given, as we all are, a diversity of gifts suited to each. They were given gifts to explore and use, to experience and feel out, and to pass along to others. In this way, one liminal moment gives way to another. This is the reality at the heart of the Christian life.
As Christians living in the age of the Kingdom inaugurated but not completed, we move from threshold to threshold and nothing remains fixed. We live in a time in which the Holy Spirit, the divine power that enlivens all things, is at work in and through us and everything we do, breathing into us, burning inside of us. It moves us and we do not remained fixed as we cooperate with the Spirit to which we have been given access. When we allow ourselves to live into this reality, we are always on the threshold of growth and change. This reality is exciting, true, but it is also challenging.
Liminal times, like uncertainity, make us uncomfortable. We crave certainty and look for it from religious leaders. People want to hear answers, yes or no, that we have arrived on firm ground and know the answers. The problem is of course that the reality of the Christian life rests so much on the shifting and sandy bottom of liminal times and places. So what we do? The hard answer is that we are called to learn to sit with this discomfort, to work with it, to trust in the gift of the Holy Spirit, that gift which is different for each of us, and to train ourselves to recognise its presence, for it is always all around us.
And perhaps this is what faith is about, this is what faith allows us to do. I have said over and over again that faith is not believing in the unbelievable. It is not blind or irrational. It isn’t something we possess as if it were a thing we can lose. Rather, it is trust in God, trust born of experience. It is trust based on relationship, covenant, promised made and fulfilled, gifts given and received. It is trust experienced by our practice of life in community and it is something we do together.
Faith is how Jesus lived, how he ministered and taught, how he died, and it was faith—his relationship with God—that defeated death in the Resurrection. This is the faith of Christ. This is the faith of the disciples as they travelled through those liminal times and spaces that brought them to the Pentecost in which they were again transformed and reborn into a new movement.
Our ability to live into this uncertain, post-Pentecost life, the life in which we can be transformed more and more into the image of Christ, the image of the one most receptive to divine love and the one most able to give it back to the world, is made possible by our faith. It is made possible because of our relationship with God, forged first in creation and then in our baptism, sustained by our participation in the life of this Eucharistic community that welcomes the risen Christ back into our midst whenever we are gathered, welcomes the risen Christ into our very selves. The faith that gives us the strength to sit with the discomfort of these days in which we live, days filled with fire and wind, filled with Holy Spirit, is close, it is something we already have, something into which we can tap rather than seek to gain from the outside. On this day of Pentecost, let us feel together in this place, in the faith we share, the power and energy, the fire and wind of the Holy Spirit that gives us the strength together to face and travel the liminal spaces of the Christian life.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
The Martyrs of Uganda, 3 June 2017
© 2017 Andrew Charles Blume