Peter’s Corner: Eastertide, Grace and the Holy Spirit, and Mr. Rogers on Holy Ground

As I promised in my last posting, now that I have told my story up to Now, I want to begin writing about our ministry at Saint Stephen’s and how we practice aspects of that ministry. So this time, I want to write about what we can learn from this season, Eastertide and the “first coming” of the Holy Spirit.

Eastertide, the 50 days/seven weeks between Easter and Pentecost, has always been for me a time of great joy, the joy that comes with the Resurrection and the triumph of life over death. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death is your sting”? (1 Corinthians 15: 55) But this joy is also about the presence of the Holy Spirit that comes with the grace of the Resurrection. Note that I did not say my joy was about the coming—as in expectation—of the Spirit, as if to confirm that I was waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. I haven’t been waiting. Here’s why.

There is a fascinating passage in the Gospel lesson from John (20:19-31) that is read on the second Sunday after Easter. This lesson is John’s account of the second appearance of Jesus—in the evening--to the apostles and disciples in the house with the locked doors where, still fearful, they were gathered.

Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’(v.21.23)

It is this passage that has helped me understand how much “grace abounds” since the Resurrection and that the Spirit has come from Jesus, through his apostles, to us. Because I’ve always wondered about the transformation that occurred in the apostles, especially in Peter, when the Holy Spirit would not come until Pentecost, I found myself looking for clues in the post-Easter Sunday lessons, like the one I quoted from John above. And, given the state of things in the world just now, not just in our own country, the mystery and reality of grace take on perhaps an even deeper meaning. Anne Lamott says this about how grace works: “…grace can be the experience of a second wind, when even though what you want is clarity and resolution, what you get is stamina and poignancy and the strength to hold on.” And these days, isn’t “holding on” what we find ourselves doing? But’s there’s another idea here.

Recently, in conversation with a friend we found ourselves talking about Fred Rogers, aka Mr. Rogers. It is easy and comfortable for me to talk about Fred Rogers because I spent some time working with him on various projects when I was in Pittsburgh. The conversation with my friend led me to reflect later on how Fred Rogers made sense of and “practiced” grace and the work of the Holy Spirit, and I remembered a story he told in a talk he gave in 1995. It went like this:

When I was a student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, I used to visit different churches to hear how different ministers preached. One Sunday, I went with some friends to a sanctuary thinking we were going to hear a certain well-known minister to find out (after the service began) that an 80-year old supply [minister] was substituting for the well-known pastor that day. Well, I’ve heard some octogenarians preach who were superb but this man was not one of them. He went against every homiletic rule that we were studying in school. In fact, I think he delivered the most poorly crafted sermon I have ever heard in my life. When he mercifully ended it, I was about to say so to one of my friends who was sitting beside me. But before I had a chance to open my mouth, she looked at me with tears in her eyes and whispered, “he said exactly what I needed to hear.” I was utterly amazed. That terrible sermon? Exactly what she needed to hear?

I thought about that for a long time, and finally I realized that I had come in judgment and my friend had come in need. The Holy Spirit was able to translate the words of that feeble sermon to speak to the need of my friend….a real mysterious gift for her, but ultimately a profound gift for me as well. That experience changed my life ever since, I’ve been able to recognize that the space between someone who is offering the best that person can and someone who is in need is holy ground.

-Father Peter Kountz