|Pictured left to right are: Fr. Ryan Cox, Annie Watson, and Fr. Daniel Kostakis at Bloomington Inclusive Mass on May 24, 2015. Annie celebrated her first liturgy as an ARCWP priest.|
Today is Pentecost Sunday. This is the day when the Spirit blew into town. The Spirit is like that . . . blustery and unpredictable. Remember how Jesus describes the Spirit in John 3? “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”
That’s what happened on the Day of Pentecost. The followers of Jesus, dozens of men and women, including the Apostles, were still hiding out in Jerusalem, fifty days after Passover and the death and resurrection of Jesus. “Pentecost,” in fact, means “fiftieth.”
This may be the most ironic day in the history of Christianity, the day we celebrate the birthday of the church. The reason why this day is so ironic is because the Spirit came to town on the day the people were celebrating the Law!
Pentecost commemorates the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai. It is the holiday that celebrates the Jewish Law. There were more than the Ten Commandments, by the way. There were 613 commandments or laws in ancient Israel, known as the Halakha.
The Halakha did not distinguish between religious and non-religious laws. Laws that pertained to religious life and laws that pertained to day-to-day living were all lumped together. Pentecost, the celebration of Jewish Law, was very important to them. It was the basis of their national unity and civilization.
What perfect timing, then, for the arrival of the cantankerous Spirit! This is like Jesse James coming to town and crashing your wedding!
Law and Spirit have always had an awkward relationship. They live in tension with one another. Whether we realize it or not, much of our lives are spent trying to discern when to act according to “the letter of the Law” and when to act according to “the spirit of the Law.”
Law is necessary, of course. We can’t have civilization without laws. Some laws are made to be broken, as people like to point out, but not all laws. Without Law we have total anarchy, and no one wants to have total anarchy.
And yet, isn’t the Spirit a higher way? When the Spirit comes to town, aren’t we elevated in some way? Without the Spirit’s input, the Law can be inflexible and oppressive. The Spirit, on the other hand, likes to shake things up a bit.
For example, the Law says, “Everyone needs to speak the same language.” The Spirit says, “Everyone can speak their own language.” Does that sound familiar?
We see this in Acts chapter 2. The Law-abiding citizens of Jerusalem and the pilgrims who were there to celebrate the Law of Moses were confounded by the fact that multiple languages were being spoken. This was so irritating to folks that they began to claim these people were drunk, even at 9 a.m.
People seem to prefer uniformity and order. In our own time and place, law-abiding citizens also scream for unity of language. “Speak English or go back home!” we say. This is the voice of Law, not Spirit.
When the Spirit is absent, people are encouraged to speak the same language and think the same way. Liberty of conscience is discouraged. Freedom of thought is frowned upon. When the Spirit comes to town, however, people become free to prophesy, see visions, and dream dreams—in their native language of course!
It’s not that the Law strictly prohibits those things. It’s just that the Law just doesn’t encourage those things. The Law has to work harder when people are prophesying, seeing visions, and dreaming dreams. Society becomes “less manageable” when the Spirit comes to town.
Again, it is ironic that the Spirit came to town on a day in which people were celebrating the giving of the Law. It’s like there was a new sheriff in town, and yet a sheriff that operates beyond the limitations and contradictions of the Law—a sheriff that operates according to the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law.
In terms of our understanding of the Bible, we can say this more playfully: the spirit of the law creates more “wiggle room.” And wiggle room makes some people uncomfortable.
I read the following on Wikipedia so it must be true: “When one obeys the letter of the law but not the spirit, one is obeying the literal interpretation of the words of the law, but not necessarily the intent of those who wrote the law. Conversely, when one obeys the spirit of the law but not the letter, one is doing what the authors of the law intended, though not necessarily adhering to the literal wording.”
The same could also be said for the rules and laws of one’s religious institution. The Catholic Church follows what we call “canon law.” There are 1,752 canons or laws that govern the Catholic Church. Among other things, canon law limits who can prophesy, see visions, and dream dreams by setting strict parameters around the definition of those who can receive Holy Orders.
When Canon Law comes to town, limitations are drawn up that favor those who are “in charge.” When Canon Law comes to town, the powerful are supported by coercive forces. When Canon Law comes to town, women, married priests, and the LGBT community are silenced.
Canon Law 1024 states that only a baptized man can receive sacred ordination. Of course, they must be heterosexual, unmarried and celibate as well. When asked why this cannot change, the Church claims their hands are tied.
The Church does not have the authority to ordain women, they say, because Christ chose his apostles only from among men, because this has been the practice of the Church since the time of Christ, and because the Church has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God’s plan for “His” Church.
The Catholic Church is very adept at following the letter of the law, but not so adept at following the spirit of the law. In fact, the church often ignores the fact that the Spirit has already come to town and thrown a party for equality!
Although the Apostle Peter himself claimed that our sons and daughters will prophesy and the Spirit will be poured out on both men and women, there are still places in Christianity today, 2,000 years later, that are debating whether or not women can be priests or pastors. Religious institutions that follow the letter of the law more skillfully than the spirit of the law can kill the spirit.
And yet when the Spirit comes to town, the nature of power changes. Power becomes much more democratic. Rules evolve, if not dissolve altogether. Peace and harmony replaces law and order as that which keeps the community together.
In Acts 2, Peter himself is quoting from the prophet Joel, who predated him by a few hundred years. Joel is the one who states that our sons and daughters will prophesy. Why, then, are we still debating the Spirit’s calling of women?
Last week, as you know, I was ordained a priest by the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests. We were all gathered together in one place, a modern day Jerusalem called Tampa, Florida. And while we all believe in and adhere to certain laws, rules, and customs, we were open to the Spirit paying us a visit.
The Spirit came to Tampa, the wind blew where it chose, and five women were ordained to the priesthood and diaconate. It was our Day of Pentecost, a week early in terms of the lectionary calendar, although the Spirit hardly sees the lectionary calendar as a “legal boundary.”
As I stand here this evening, I recognize that the Spirit has also come to Bloomington, Indiana in general and to this little congregation in particular. The Spirit is blustery and unpredictable. And it’s ready to throw a birthday party for the church. Don’t shut the windows!