Come Holy Spirit, Comforter, Spirit of Truth,
everywhere present and filling all things.
Treasury of Blessing, Giver of Life,
Come, dwell within us and between us… Amen.

On the day of Pentecost, the disciples, “filled with the Holy Spirit” rushed out into the streets of Jerusalem “and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability,” proclaiming the Good News to the crowds of people in town for Shavuot and answering their inevitable questions.[1] Jesus had told them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”[2] The Spirit, as Jesus promised, had reminded them and empowered them, and now here they were.

Scholars and preachers go through all sorts of hermeneutical contortions to interpret this event as some sort of reversal or overcoming of the linguistic scattering of the nations at the Tower of Babel. I suppose that’s why our lectionary pairs that Genesis story with the reading from the Book of Acts, but I don’t think that’s what Luke, the author of Acts, was trying to convey. I’m always left wondering, “If that’s what he was trying to put across, why didn’t he just say that?”

What Luke did was quote Peter answering the people in the streets who asked, “What does this mean?”[3] That was not, and Peter did not understand it to be, a question about linguistic interpretation, which it might have been if the event was meant to reverse or overcome the linguistic splintering at the Tower of Babel. Instead, Peter answered it as an existential question by saying that the Pentecost event fulfilled God’s promise, spoken through the Prophet Joel, to “pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, [so that] your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.”[4]

One of the things I do when I start to write a sermon is read the assigned New Testament lessons in the original Greek. I’m no Greek scholar, but I know enough that I can often find entries into the text that I might have missed reading only the English. This question, in Greek, is Ti thelei touto einai? It can be translated in another way which underscores the question’s ontological nature: in addition to “What does this mean?” it can also be understood to ask “What does this want to be?”

When I realized that, it reminded me of an earlier story in the Book of Genesis when Adam was made a partner in creation and given the important task of completing it. “Out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.”[5] What God asked of Adam is what the people in Jerusalem were asking, “What does this want to be? Give it a name. Give this creation meaning.”

That is what naming is: to name something is to give it meaning – before a thing is named, we can’t work with it; we can’t think about it; we can’t communicate it. The power of naming has been called “a mode of sacramental communion with the world,”[6] a step toward redemption,[7] or even “an act of redemption” itself.[8] It is a prophetic act: it is the prerogative of the creator to name the creation and give it meaning, but God grants this privilege to Adam; Adam speaks on God’s behalf, as God’s partner in “the drama about to unfold in history.”[9] Adam’s commission may have been lost in the Fall, but in Christ “what is fallen has been cancelled and what was original has been restored.”[10]

By his incarnation, by his life, his words, and his actions, by his dying and rising again, and now by the coming of the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ mission was and is to restore our humanity, “to show us how to be fully human.”[11] Not how to be something new, not how to be “Christian,” but simply how to be fully human as God originally intended. Adam’s prophetic ministry of completing creation is part of that wholeness: we share Adam’s stewardship of creation, and his task and responsibility to name it. The Pentecost event confirm’s Christ’s restoration to us of Adam’s prophetic commission to say what creation wants to be; through the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, we receive the power and privilege of answering the question, “What does this mean?”

Adam could not do it alone: when he had finished naming all the animals, “there was not found a helper as his partner” so God created Eve.[12] Likewise, none of us can do it alone. We need partners; we need a community. As seminary professor Matthew Skinner once observed, “The community of Jesus’ followers [is] a community of meaning-makers.”[13] Jesus modeled this when he called the Twelve and gave them special names. He re-named Simon as “Peter.”[14] He nicknamed James and John “the Sons of Thunder.”[15] It may have been Jesus who called Thomas “the Twin.”[16] He named all his disciples “servants” but then, after washing their feet at the Last Supper, he changed that to name them “friends.”[17] It is through such “words and names [that] we humans build relationships.”[18]

Healthy relationships, those which honor the subjectivity and agency of each participant and which encourage us to “become fully human,”[19] were labeled I-Thou encounters by philosopher-theologian Martin Buber.[20] Such relationships, said Buber, establish “a sphere of communication between I and Thou, a sphere which is common to both of them but which reaches out beyond the special sphere of each.”[21] He termed this “the sphere of between” and it is here, he said, where meaning is found: in Buber’s words, “[T]here is the inexpressible confirmation of meaning. Meaning is assured. Nothing can any longer be meaningless. • • • The meaning of life . . . has more certitude for you than the perceptions of your senses.”[22] Here, in the sphere of between of healthy I-Thou relationships, is where we encounter the Spirit and find the Kingdom of God.[23]

The power of evil would prefer that we forget that, and so we are constantly being told otherwise! We are buffeted and beaten by events which confuse and frighten us; things we can’t fathom and can’t seem to do anything about – viral pandemics, a confusing economy, pointless territorial wars, farcical conspiracy theories, and senseless killings. We are pummeled with messages that life is dangerous and scary, absurd and nonsensical, that the cosmos is without meaning. We are encouraged by prominent authors like Albert Camus to surrender ourselves to the “indifference of the world.”[24] We are taught by respected scientists like the late Isaac Asimov that we live in a “universe ruled by chance and impersonal rules, empty and uncaring.”[25] Works of great literature by such lights as William Shakespeare convince us that life is merely “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”[26] Even our law seems to insist that we are bereft of our God-given prophetic power of making meaning.

In the weeks since I was invited to preach at this Pentecost service, in the weeks during which I was giving thought to this homily, the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health,[27] written by Justice Samuel Alito, was leaked and will soon be issued. If adopted in its leaked form, the decision will overturn Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and rip away American women’s right to medical autonomy.

During those same few weeks, we have seen shoppers shot to death in a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York, worshippers gunned down in a Presbyterian church in Laguna Woods, California, and elementary school children massacred in their classroom in Uvalde, Texas. In the first five months of this year, there have been more than 270 mass shootings in this country, the 250th less than ten miles from this cathedral in the Collinwood neighborhood of Cleveland. Uvalde was #251.[28]

I support medical privacy and reproductive autonomy for women, including the decision whether to terminate a pregnancy or to carry it to term, subject, of course, to the same sort of regulatory oversight applied to all healthcare. I support responsible gun ownership under reasonable regulation. But I believe that the reasoning of our courts in these areas denies the very thing I have been extolling this evening, our God-commissioned human responsibility to make meaning.

According to the Dobbs decision, the significance and import of the U.S. Constitution is “fixed” by 200-year-old definitions, the document itself providing the standard by which it is to be judged. Alito spends more than half the 98 pages of the opinion rehearsing and discussing the status of abortion law in and before 1868, asserting that the Constitution and its amendments are static; they are governed by the way their words were defined and understood at the time of their adoption in the mid-19th Century.

This is not the first time the Supreme Court has said something like this. In 2008, the Court handed down its most recent Second Amendment decision in District of Columbia v. Heller which struck down our capital city’s attempt to regulate handgun ownership. The late Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion, spent most of the brief reviewing “written documents of the founding period” before concluding that the right to “keep and bear arms” must be understood according to the definition of those terms as used in the late 1700s.[30]

The concept of “originalism,” upon which both Dobbs and Heller are premised, is founded on the notion that no changes in law, in medicine, science, or technology, or in society at large have any bearing on the meaning of the Constitution since the day it was written. Spirit-empowered, Spirit-guided Christians don’t read any document in that way! Not even the Bible! Rather, as Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “older texts are reappropriated, reinterpreted, and read with new eyes in new contexts.” The scriptures show themselves alive as “the word gradually unfolds its inner potentialities . . . like seeds . . . needing the challenge of new situations, new experiences, and new sufferings, in order to open up.”[31]

From a religious perspective, the Dobbs and Heller decisions are saying that no movement of the Holy Spirit in American life over the past 200 years has any value or significance whatsoever. They surrender our God-given, Spirit-driven human vocation of making meaning in changed circumstances to the changeless and impersonal inertia of an inanimate document. They say that in the encounter between living persons and what Justice Scalia once called “the dead Constitution,”[32] it is the dead thing which prevails.

Martin Buber, who described and praised I-Thou relationships, would describe such an encounter as an I-it relationship, one of subject to object.[33] Buber believed, or perhaps one should say hoped, that in such a relationship the subject, the living I, having agency, would predominate.[34]

Sadly, the opposite frequently, perhaps even regularly, occurs. I-it relationships are nearly always depersonalizing and alienating, lacking essential elements of human connection and wholeness: the subject surrenders to the object and loses agency. When I-it relationships prevail and “become embedded in cultural patterns and human interactions, the result is greater objectification of others, exploitation of people and resources, and forms of prejudice that obscure the common humanity that unites us.”[35]

This I-it attitude prevails in our nation. Helen Lewis of The Atlantic has recently observed that in our discussion of women’s reproductive healthcare we are “los[ing] the ability to talk about women as more than a random collection of organs, bodies that happen to menstruate or bleed or give birth.” Our debate about abortion rights has “dismantle[d] [women] into pieces, into functions, into commodities.”[36] Our I-it relationship with firearms has turned theaters, grocery stores, churches, and schools into shooting galleries, and audience members, shoppers, worshippers, and children into targets!

This is the world of District of Columbia v. Heller. This is the world of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health. It is Asimov’s empty and uncaring universe. It is Macbeth’s idiotic tale. It is Camus’s world of meaningless indifference, but it is in no way gentle or benign. It is a world in which women are not fully human, in which students are not fully human, in which church members are not fully human, in which none of us is fully human.

I don’t believe that Shakespeare or Camus or Asimov were themselves evil, but I do believe that the power of evil can and does use their words to promote its I-it relationships in its attempt to frighten us and to plunge us into meaninglessness and despair. I don’t believe that the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court are themselves evil, but I do believe that the power of evil can and does use the court’s decisions to foster and impose its terrifying I-it world of depersonalization and objectification.

The alternative, of course, is the world of the I-Thou relationships I described earlier, those which establish the “sphere of between” in which we encounter the Spirit and find the Kingdom of God, in which meaning is assured.

Meaning only arises in such interactions, those between living “I’s” and living “Thou’s“. The “dead Constitution” is neither. Neither the Constitution nor its amendments determine what they themselves mean; it is we who determine their significance, the fully human people who live with and under them, exercising our Spirit-empowered prophetic responsibility to speak on God’s behalf to give this world meaning.

The Heller and Dobbs decisions and the world-view from which they spring deny this spiritual truth and, thus, can only be called blasphemous. If you believe even a small part of what I have said tonight about Pentecost and the gift and responsibility of meaning making, then I encourage you, I implore you, I beg you, regardless of how you may stand on the abortion issue or what degree of firearm regulation you may think appropriate, to oppose these decisions and any statutes, regulations, or further jurisprudence which may flow from them. Reject their world of meaninglessness and I-it objectification!

Commissioned by God the Father, restored to wholeness through the example and sacrifice of God the Son, and empowered by God the Holy Spirit we are entrusted with the stewardship and completion of creation, and given the prophetic responsibility to give it meaning. That includes determining the nature and meaning of the government under which we live and the Constitution which establishes it; it includes also the nature, meaning, medical care, and safety of the lives we live and the bodies we inhabit.

We are Adam in the Garden of Eden naming creation. We are the disciples standing in the street answering the world’s question, “What does this mean?” Pentecost is not a reversal of what happened at the Tower of Babel; it is, rather, the Holy Spirit’s confirmation that the prophetic task, the privilege and responsibility to speak on God’s behalf and make this world meaningful, is ours. Let us step up to that task remembering Christ’s words, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” [37]

Come Holy Spirit, Comforter, Spirit of Truth,
everywhere present and filling all things.
Treasury of Blessing, Giver of Life,
Come, dwell within us and between us . . . Amen.[38]

====================

This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on June 5, 2022, Pentecost Sunday, to the people of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio.

The lessons read at the service were Genesis 11:1-9, Psalm 104:25-35,37, Acts 2:1-21, and St. John 14:8-17,25-27. These lessons are from the Episcopal Church’s version of the Revised Common Lectionary (see The Lectionary Page).

Illustration: “Creation of Adam in the Paradise” by Jan Brueghel the Younger (1602-1678), Stedelijk-Museum, Leuven, Belgium.

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Notes:
Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.

[1] Acts 2:4 (NRSV)

[2] John 14:27 (NRSV)

[3] Acts 2:12 (NRSV)

[4] Acts 2:17 (NRSV)

[5] Genesis 2:19 (NRSV)

[6] Maria Popova, How Naming Confers Dignity Upon Life and Gives Meaning to Existence, The Marginalian, July 23, 2015

[7] Maaza Mengiste, The Act of Naming, Words with Borders Magazine, September 2016

[8] Popova, op. cit.

[9] Michael Scott Horton, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology (Baker Books, Grand Rapids:2006), p. 10

[10] Karl Barth, Christ and Adam: Man and Humanity in Romans 5 (Collier Books, New York:1962), p. 75

[11] Adam Thomas, Fully Human, Episcorific, December 12, 2009. See, also, Susan Marie Smith, Rites of Healing and Transition in the Baptized Life, in In Spirit and Truth: A Vision of Episcopal Worship, Sylvia Sweeney, et al, eds. (Church Publishing, New York:2020), p. 123

[12] Genesis 2:21-25 (NRSV)

[13] Matthew Skinner, Pentecost: When Christians Dream, Huffington Post, June 12, 2011

[14] Matthew 16:18

[15] Mark 3:17

[16] John 11:16; 20:24; and 21:2

[17] John 15:15

[18] Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss (Oregon State University Press, Corvallis:2003) quoted in Popova, op. cit.

[19] Matthew Martin and Eric W. Cowan, Remembering Martin Buber and the I–Thou in Counseling, Counseling Today, May 8, 2019

[20] Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. by R.G. Smith (T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh:1958)

[21] Steve Odin, The Social Self in Zen and American Pragmatism (State University of New York Press, Albany:1996), p. 409

[22] Buber, op. cit., p. 110

[23] Ibid., pp. 38,119-20

[24] Albert Camus, The Stranger, trans. by Matthew Ward (Vintage Books, New York:1989), p. 132

[25] Isaac Asimov, The ‘Threat’ of Creationism, in Science and Creationism, Ashley Montagu, ed. (Oxford University Press, Oxford:1984), p. 192

[26] William Shakespeare, Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 29-31)

[27] Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health, No. 19-1392, Draft Slip Opinion (U.S. Sup. Ct., February 2022)

[28] See “List of mass shootings in the United States in 2022,” Wikipedia, accessed May 30, 2022

[29] Dobbs, Draft Opinion, page 9

[30] District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008)

[31] Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (Doubleday, New York:2007), pp. xviii-xix

[32] Bruce Allen Murphy, Justice Antonin Scalia and the ‘Dead’ Constitution, New York Times, Feb. 14, 2016

[33] Buber, op. cit.

[34] Zat Rana, The Right Kind of Relationships, Ladders, August 21, 2018

[35] Martin & Cowan, op. cit.

[36] Helen Lewis, The Abortion Debate Is Suddenly About ‘People,’ Not ‘Women’, The Atlantic, Mary 14, 2022

[37] John 14:27 (NRSV)

[38] Adapted from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s prayer “O Heavenly King!” the only prayer in the Orthodox tradition addressed to the Holy Spirit. See Andrew Jarmus, “O Heavenly King!”: Teachings on the Holy Spirit Revealed in Prayer, Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada website, accessed May 29, 2022