Pentecost / Commencement / Memorial Day

by Fr. Blake

The following sermon was preached at 8am and 10am on Sunday May 24, at S. Stephen’s Church in Providence. This was my last Sunday at S. Stephen’s before leaving for a new position in St. Louis, MO, at the Church of St. Michael and St. George, due to begin June 1. It was fitting for the day to be Pentecost, as well as Commencement Sunday at Brown. This year it was also Memorial Day Weekend. Music for the Solemn Mass included Lassus’ “Missa ‘Bella amfitrit’ altera'” and Tallis’ “Loquebantur variis linguis.”

Collect: 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 Jesus Christ our Savior, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the same Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Today is commencement at Brown, and it comes in the midst of commencement season: at RISD and the other nearby colleges, with high school graduations also right around the corner. Many of our college students are graduating this year, and many of our high school students too.

One of the things that’s in the air this time of year is advice: a lot of good advice gets thrown around, and a lot of bad advice, too. One of the worst pieces of advice is also sadly one of the most common: it’s the one that goes, “Always be true to yourself.”

Why is it bad advice? To begin with, it presumes that each of us always has a complete and perfect knowledge of ourselves, but experience tells us we don’t. Self-examination only goes so far. The people in our lives, whether family, friends, or neighbors, sometimes show us revealing truths about ourselves that we had missed. The people closest to us sometimes know us better than we know ourselves. How can we be true to ourselves without the helpful clarifying presence of those we love? We are not sufficient of ourselves to be true to ourselves.

Second of all, this advice presumes that our selves are ultimately reliable. But anyone who has ever fallen in love, or suffered depression, or experienced some great grief, can tell you that our selves are not ultimately reliable. We are pushed to and fro by all kinds of emotions, all kinds of dynamics within our psyches. To which of them should we decide always to be true? They can lead us down some very dark paths, and to follow them to their various conclusions would be to live in a prison of our own imaginations, hostage to our various fears and fantasies, a danger to ourselves or others.

We cannot “always be true to ourselves,” because we do not always know what our self is, and because when we do get some idea, it can lead us into trouble in pretty short order.

Enter Pentecost, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. In addition to commencement, today we also celebrate the revelation of the Church as the mystical Body of Christ on earth, constituted by the Holy Spirit and living in the fire of His love. When we are baptized, we are made a member of this Body, and find ourselves taken up by this Spirit, who now hides our lives with Christ in God. Any Christian therefore who would be “true to himself or herself” must consider the self as first and foremost the object of the love of God. As the objects of his love, God has given us some reliable means to grow into his purposes for us, and into our truest selves.

First, he has given us his own Spirit, who moves within us to pray; who, even when we do not know what to say, speaks through us to lift us and all our lives into the life of God. Second, He has given us his word, the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to shape our hearts and give us a language in which to recognize the presence of God in the world, and to know his Son as our Savior and brother. Third, He has given us the Sacraments as direct occasions of grace, divine interventions in our lives, revelations of who God is and who we are in him, means by which we participate all the more fully in the real truth of the world.

There is a lot of darkness out there, and there is a lot of darkness in each of our hearts. This last year or two, none of us has been able to escape the headlines of violence all over the world. None of us has remained untouched by some personal pain or grief of one sort or another. And yet: every time we come to the altar, every time we open our Bibles, God asserts afresh that he has overcome it all; and furthermore, that he overcame it all in order to restore the world to its true self: a creation of goodness and joy, of wonder and thanksgiving, God’s own revelation of himself in form and matter, made for his own delight.

Everywhere grace is found, there darkness is kept at bay, and we see the Holy Spirit of God holding everything together in Jesus’ own offering of himself on the cross for us and all creation. This same Spirit is the one to whom we must always be true: He grants us God’s own victory over all the powers of darkness, and redeems us as the objects of his love.

By first being true to the Holy Spirit, we far surpass anything we might have accomplished by being true to ourselves alone. We are more truly ourselves than we ever could have been on our own. All our various emotions and conflicting commitments, all our talents and gifts and desires are put into proper perspective, within the long arc of God’s redemptive purposes. As we live and work in the Holy Spirit, we are put in touch with that divine life in whose Image we were created, and by whose grace we become who we were meant to be all along. To be true to the Holy Spirit is to align our own wills with the will of God, and to participate in his work in the world: as the ordination collect puts it, “Raising up things which were cast down, making new those things which had grown old, and bringing all things to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, His Son our Savior Jesus Christ.”

In our world today we don’t often think of Pentecost as one of the “catholic” holidays: instead it’s much easier to think of it as belonging to the Pentecostals, the mega-churches, and to those whose tradition focuses more explicitly on the continual outpouring of the Holy Spirit. But I think, more than any other feast of the Church, Pentecost is the catholic feast par excellence. Today the Disciples become the Apostles, and the Hoy Spirit descends with power on the Church, binding people of all nations in one by the preaching of the Gospel. What could be more catholic than people of every language, tribe, and nation hearing the Gospel together and receiving together the Sacrament of new birth? Today we see that our own Anglo-Catholic tradition, at least as much as the Charismatics, is at its heart a revival movement. We exist to transform lives by a real encounter with the living God. This is the power that is ours when we are true to the Spirit, “In whom we live and move and have our being.”

It’s fitting that this is commencement season, because Pentecost is in some ways the commencement day of the Church. Today we are commissioned not to be true to ourselves alone, but to be true to the Holy Spirit, who is our own life and the life of the world. Let us always be true to that Spirit, and be ourselves occasions for the world to be transformed by the knowledge of the love of Christ.

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.