“Something Has Changed, Yet Remains the Same” (June 8, 2014: The Day of Pentecost–Whitsunday; Canterbury Episcopal Chapel, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama)

“…We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”—Acts 2.11[1]

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

I did not grow up with the 1928 Prayer Book, but was radically exposed to it during my senior year at General Seminary while serving as the Seminarian at Saint Thomas Church (Fifth Avenue), which utilized it in the recitation of the Daily Office and for the chanting of the Coverdale Psalter[2] at Sunday morning Masses. For those of you familiar with the liturgical customs of Saint Thomas Church (or who have had to bear through my endless ravings about the place), you will know that it holds a highly unique position within the greater life and witness of the Episcopal Church, having as its mission, “To worship, love, and serve our Lord Jesus Christ through the Anglican tradition and our unique choral heritage.” As you can probably imagine, the traditional language of the 1928 Prayer Book, combined with the liturgical customary of Saint Thomas Church, steeped in the great traditions of Anglo-Catholicism, and the glorious, heavenly sounds of its Choir of Men and Boys all emotionally clutched onto me and provided many Wesleyan Aldersgate-type moments. For me, all of these moments were Holy Spirit moments. They each brought me into the presence of the Holy in ways that were both profound and transformative.

But even though I came to have a deep appreciation and love for the language of the 1928 Prayer Book, my exposure to it also made me have a renewed appreciation for the 1979 Prayer Book and what it did for the liturgical life of our Church. It made me realize that even though traditional Elizabethan English lies deep within the history of the Anglican Christian tradition, language changes and the 1979 Prayer Book was the result of conscious efforts by the Church to communicate the faith of Christ in the language of the current times. Also, the rubrics of the 1979 Prayer Book gave way to greater participation of the laity in the liturgy and for a greater variety of expressions of worship in Christian community. The 1979 Prayer Book was the result of the Church being intentional in listening for what the Holy Spirit was saying to it in its time. In an ironic use of words, the 1979 Prayer Book was “meet and right so to do.”

19th century French critic Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr once said that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” What we hear today from Acts 2, in a more positive context from that of Karr’s original meaning, is of an event that ushers in a change, but one that manages to keep that which its changing the same. Today is the Day of Pentecost, in which our Lord fulfilled His promise to His disciples given immediately before His ascension into Heaven: “…For John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”[3] Pentecost is also the fulfillment of another promise from our Lord in Matthew 28.20b: “…I am with you always, to the close of the age.” With Jesus making good on His promises to us, we see the descent of the Holy Spirit, the gift of Christ for His people, upon a variety of people from a variety of lands, speaking in a variety of tongues. By intentionally listing the various peoples upon which the Holy Spirit fell on that Pentecost day, Saint Luke the Evangelist, the author of Acts, foreshadows an important change that will take place throughout the course of his book—a change from the view that “…unless you are circumcised…you cannot be saved,”[4]to that of “…whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”[5]The most important point that comes from our Acts lesson—the point that has always remained the same—is that God shows no distinction between anybody: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”[6]So today, in a more positive way, we see something that changes, yet also remains the same. We see that the grace of Jesus Christ, realized through our belief in Him through the power of the Holy Spirit, is something offered not just to one specific group of people in one specific way, but offered to all people in a variety of ways. On this day, the Holy Spirit has come, filled the hearts of the faithful, and has renewed the face of the entire earth.

From the Letter to the Hebrews, we hear that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”[7] Although Jesus, Himself, and the message He brings us—“I came that you may have life and have it abundantly”[8]—has never changed, time has and as time has changed, so has the use of language. That is what we see in the Day of Pentecost—the telling of the same message, but in a radically different way. Through Pentecost, Christ begins the conversion of hearts and minds to the reality that His salvation is being brought to the people of every land with every different style of language. Not only has His resurrection forever opened the gates of Heaven to all who believe, but the descent of His Holy Spirit has expanded the reach of the Gospel message, so that every person on Earth who hears it may come to the same confession of faith like that of Saint Peter: “…You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”[9]

What I am specifically being reminded of this Pentecost is that while I may have a strong preference for Anglo-Catholic worship, not everybody does and while I may feel the Holy Spirit’s presence through it, it may make others feel that God is far away from them. As Episcopalians, that is why I think that the 1979 Prayer Book is such a valuable instrument for us. Its rubrics allow for flexibility for various sorts of liturgical expressions—Low Church, Broad Church, and High Church/Anglo-Catholic. This flexibility allows for a community to treasure the particular traditions that make them who they are, so that they may continue to hear what the Spirit is saying to them as God’s people. For me, over time, this has come with the realization for the need to embrace styles of worship that are different from that which I prefer. By doing so, I have seen and felt the Holy Spirit do some marvelous things.

The Good News is still the Good News: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”[10] The Good News will NEVER change. Because of His offering Himself as a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice on a cross, Jesus paid a price for our sins that in no way could we have paid and freed us from the dominion of sin and death. Because of His resurrection, the way to eternal life has been opened to us. Because of Jesus, the human form of God, “…we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us.”[11]From Eucharistic Prayer B, we have been brought “out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life,” all because of Jesus.[12]

Article XXIV of the Articles of Religion states: “It is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God…to have public Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments, in a tongue not understanded of the people.” By God’s grace, the Holy Spirit has come and revealed that all the peoples of the earth are His people. Because all people are His people, God has expanded the way in which His Word can be heard, understood, and received by everyone who hears it throughout every place on Earth and throughout all time. For some people, in our own time, Anglo-Catholicism is how that happens; for others, it may be through Low Church Evangelicalism; for others, charismatic Pentecostalism; for others, contemporary Christian worship. But though there may be differing styles of worship and languages spoken through which the message of salvation is preached and received, the message, itself, is and forever will be the same: “…The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[13]

The Spirit of the Lord has filled the world; O come, let us adore Him. Amen!

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the Revised Standard Version Bible, Old Testament Section, Copyright 1952, New Testament Section, Copyright 1946 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[2] Myles Coverdale, who served as the Bishop of Exeter from 1551-1553, was a Biblical scholar and translator credited with the production of the first complete English translation of the Bible, first published in 1535. Amongst Anglicans worldwide, Coverdale’s translation of the Psalter is the most familiar and treasured and was included in every prayer book of the American Episcopal Church until the ratification of the 1979 edition.

[3] Acts 1.5

[4] Acts 15.1b

[5] Acts 2.21; cf. Joel 2.32

[6] Galatians 3.28

[7] Hebrews 13.8

[8] John 10.10

[9] John 16.16

[10] John 3.16

[11] Ephesians 1.7-8

[12] Eucharistic Prayer B from The Holy Eucharist: Rite Two, The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David According to the Use of The Episcopal Church (New York, New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 1979), 368.

[13] Romans 6.23b

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