By Father Casey
You may recall that back in February I traveled with a group of pilgrims to Mexico to visit the vast overwintering population of monarch butterflies. What we witnessed was unlike anything I’ve seen. It felt like standing in a New York City tickertape parade, if the shreds of paper were exquisite living creatures and the location was a gorgeous mountain forest.
The monarch butterfly is a remarkable creature. Every year this species makes a 6,000-mile migration across North America, which it accomplishes over the span of five generations. That is to say, the great, great grandchildren of the butterflies I saw in Mexico in February will return to Mexico this coming autumn, after the intermediate generations traveled as far north as Canada. And incredibly, having been born thousands of miles away, and without ever having seen them, those descendants will return to the exact same trees on the exact same mountains of Mexico that their ancestors visited the year before.
It’s so outrageously marvelous that it almost defies comprehension – and indeed, scientists are still studying how it can even be possible. But for we who believe, within those scientific explanations we recognize the imprint of God’s grace and beauty and pure delight. For to stand in the midst of a million monarchs is to witness God’s joy in flight.
The monarchs’ migratory pattern is visually represented in a striking way at the national parks where they overwinter. On the flag poles in the parking lots are flown the Mexican, Canadian, and American flags. It is a visible symbol of the creature’s multinational identity. Even though they only mass together on those mountains, they do not “belong” to Mexico. Their existence transcends national boundaries. They are not “of” any one country but are creatures of the world.
Those three flags have been on my mind as we prepare for the Day of Pentecost. The Book of Acts tells us that after Easter, after spending many weeks with the risen Jesus, the disciples were still struggling to make sense of it all. They were hiding out together, praying and waiting and wondering what to do next. Do they stick around Jerusalem or do they go home? Do they focus on bringing the gospel to their own people – who spoke the same language and practiced the same religion and belonged to the same country – or should they venture out farther?
On Pentecost, God made the answer clear. With a rush of wind and a burst of fire, the Holy Spirit erupted into their midst. And suddenly, people of many nationalities and languages were all praising God together. Acts lists all the countries represented that day, a diverse and global congregation, all gathered into a unified fellowship. The Holy Spirit was making a point: salvation belongs not to one place or people, one language or nation, but to all.
When we are baptized into Christ, we are baptized into a way, truth, and life that transcends borders. We become citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20) and members of a Church that surpasses national boundaries. We are the living embodiment of the reality envisioned by John in his Revelation: “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb,” praising God eternally (Revelation 7:9).
While most of us are fortunate enough to be citizens of the United States, Pentecost reminds us that the reign of God is transnational; it defies borders and boundaries. Thus, when Christian people gather together in worship of God, there is no single flag that identifies our citizenship. Just like the monarchs who may dwell in one country for a time but who belong to a much larger reality, members of Christ may dwell in one country but we belong to a much larger reality. We may be proud citizens of a nation, but our ultimate allegiance is to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
After prayerful consideration by the clergy, vestry, and other leaders of the parish, the time has come for us to move our nation’s flag from a permanent place in the Nave. Next week, after Memorial Day weekend, it and the Episcopal flag will both be properly and respectfully placed in the Sacristy along with all our other important objects that are used on occasion for services. Rather than being a static fixture in the church, the flag will now be brought out on specific occasions during the year when it is appropriate (Independence Day weekend, for example). We certainly intend no dishonor to an important symbol of freedom, but rather to help us distinguish our American and Christian identities, and remember that as followers of Christ, we are members of the worldwide reign of God.
Glory to God for sending the Spirit to those earliest followers, to lead them out from Jerusalem to every corner of the world.
And glory to God for sending us that same Spirit, who breaks down our divisions, transcends all boundaries, and binds people of every language, culture, tribe, and nation into one fellowship.