Both John Oda-Burns and David Sheetz have, in recent sermons here, expounded a little on their understandings of the Christian year, focusing particularly on the part of it that we are currently plodding through, the seemingly interminable Sundays after Pentecost.
Since they, my illustrious predecessors, have blazed the trail, I am emboldened to follow them a little along the same path and share with you my observations. We are not in conflict, just noticing different things and sharing our perspectives.
To me, our Christian year has two complete cycles, very different in length, and each cycle has three subdivisions. The first cycle consists of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany; the second cycle is Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. Each cycle begins with a season of preparation—Advent or Lent—goes through a season of God’s action in the world—Christmas or Easter—and ends with a season of–well, “let down”? We don’t even have real names for these non-seasons; they’re just the Sundays after Epiphany and the Sundays after Pentecost. The buildup and the excitement are over, and we get back to routine. We even have a routine description for it: “ordinary time.”
But maybe it’s just as well—we can’t live most of our lives on the mountaintop of excitement and celebration, and this is one way the church reminds us that God is present in our daily lives, our mundane lives, as well as in the highlights.
In particular, if you follow my outline of the Christian year, each triad of seasons can be a reminder to us to practice recognizing God in action in the three aspects that Christians have understood as especially characteristic of God. And traditionally “Ordinary Time” is particularly the domain of the Holy Spirit, when we should be able to see most clearly that aspect of God who builds community.
When I was in third and fourth grades, my family was living in an area which had very poor public schools. So my parents sent me—an unchurched little Protestant—to a Roman Catholic parochial school. Of course I attempted to fit in, and one of my first lessons came when Sister Corrine gently explained to me that we didn’t start the Sign of the cross by touching our nose, we didn’t end it by hitting our chest, and the words were “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Well, I knew what a father was, and I knew what a son was, but I hadn’t the foggiest idea of what a holy ghost was, except that I deduced that it wasn’t related to Hallowe’en. Since those two years were pretty much the sum total of my childhood religious education, I just figured that it was one of those grown-up things that might be more accessible when I got older—like coffee.
Much later I came to understand that the church has always made a connection between God the Holy Spirit and the church as the Body of Christ. Humor me for a moment by letting me remind you of a little linguistic history. Our wonderful English language has an unusually enormous vocabulary, largely because we are without shame in stealing anything useful from every other language we encounter. This means that it is possible for us to make very subtle distinctions, but it also means that sometimes we are forced to make very subtle distinctions when we really don’t want to, or when we are dealing with words or concepts from another language that does not, or at least need not, make our particular distinctions.
One such word in New Testament Greek is πνεύμα (“pneuma”), which we in church customarily translate “spirit” (or, in my childhood, “ghost”). We have stolen it into English, just not into a churchy context—think pneumonia or pneumatic. Its underlying literal image in Greek was probably something like “moving air”; in Greek it might be used where we in English would differentiate among wind, breath, respiration, soul, life, inner being, personality, ghost, evil or benign spirit, God, or (one I particularly like) volcanic emissions.
But for our purposes—volcanoes by definition not being part of ordinary time—the concepts behind naming one aspect of God the “Holy Spirit” are those of the moving air in a living body, its breath, which was its life. (Our theological terminology developed, of course, long before the discovery of the circulation of the blood, let alone the discovery of brain waves.) A living body has πνεύμα—breath, spirit, life—a dead body doesn’t. This is true whether we’re talking about an individual body or a communal body. So you can see why the NT and early Greek-speaking Christians used the word πνεύμα in connection with God—God’s breath, spirit, life—and actually went so far as to identify God as πνεύμα—as the life of the church, as the breath giving life to the body of Christ. Or, to put it another way, the communion (same word as community) of the Holy Spirit. We will reaffirm that understanding in a few minutes when we remind ourselves that we believe in the Holy Spirit, “the Giver of Life.”
So then, what can we learn today about this community that God gives life to? Well, today’s Scripture lessons are pretty negative—on the whole, they tell us more about what God’s community isn’t than about what it is. In both Old Testament passages—Isaiah and the Psalm—the image for the community is a vineyard. This is an extremely common image in the OT, and the hearers then would not need the words of Isaiah—“For the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting”—to understand that the vineyard was God’s people, into whom God put a whole lot of work, just for the love of that vineyard. The result of God’s love should have been the ripe, juicy grapes and first-growth wine of justice and righteousness—but instead the vineyard produces only the bitter, wild grapes of bloodshed and wailing.
And for once the gospel lesson is not particularly comforting, either. Jesus quotes from the prophet Micah about community breaking down even in the middle of families.
The Old Testament writers seem to think that the state of the vineyard—its broken walls, its overgrowth of briars and thorns, the destructive animals running wild—is God’s punishment for Israel’s ingratitude. We are more likely to think it’s the natural consequence of the sort of irresponsible and neglectful behavior that leads to bloodshed and wailing. Jesus seems to agree; as quoted in Luke, he calls it a sign of the times. And if you allow for a certain amount of updating of the vineyard metaphor, the whole thing doesn’t seem too far off as a description of our current situation in the greater communities of our lives—our culture, our nation, our world.
It is easy for us to say that the Holy Spirit lives in and gives life to our church community—which she does. It’s harder to trust that that same Holy Spirit is working in our greater, broken communities of the nation and the world, but that’s part of what we’re supposed to be practicing in ordinary time—recognizing and cooperating with God when God is working in community. Another way to look at it is that the Holy Spirit is the life of the Body of Christ—but that the Body of Christ is—ultimately—the whole human race, and indeed probably everything in God’s creation. It’s a very large job and a very large vineyard.
But neither Isaiah nor the psalmist is ultimately pessimistic. The psalmist ends with the expectation that God will again tend his vineyard and “give us life.” And the same Isaiah that spoke of bloodshed and wailing today in a later passage promises that under God’s keeping, “in days to come, Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom and out forth shoots, and fill the whole world with fruit.” May the Holy Spirit enable us to spread this fruit, this full life, to the whole world.