Pentecost: Breath of God

 

The Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles and Mary at Pentecost, Elizabeth Wang, at radiantlight.org.uk
The Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles and Mary at Pentecost, Elizabeth Wang, at radiantlight.org.uk

FIRST LESSON:  Acts 2: 1-21

This passage completes the succession from Jesus to the disciples and is made complete with the arrival of God’s promised Spirit.  This is the moment that had been predicted by both John the Baptist and Jesus and the passage is written to reflect that earlier prophecy.  This is the moment for which the world has been waiting.  This passage has probably received more attention than any other in the Book of Acts.  Certain faith traditions draw on it because of the experiential presence of faith and others use it to frame the season of Pentecost, when the church and its community are renewed and reborn by the power of God’s Spirit.  According to the passage, the entire community is baptized into the realm of the Spirit.  There was no one left out, no one that wasn’t up to the standard of baptism.  It was as if the very breath of God showered onto the crowd with no plan at all.

The word for Pentecost (literally, “fiftieth day”) was used by Jews for a day-long harvest festival more commonly known as the “Feast of Weeks”.  The image of “tongues of fire” and the flames that are often used to symbolize Pentecost (as well as our own denomination) echoes the fire that was frequently used in Jewish and Greco-Roman writings as a metaphor for the experiences of prophetic inspiration.  The Hebrew word for God’s Spirit is ruah.  It is not limited to wind or even breath, although it is often translated in that way, but is, rather the very essence of God once again breathing all of Creation into being.

The “gift of tongues” should not be confused with the spiritual gift of glossolalia that concerns Paul in 1 Corinthians 12-14.  The Pauline meaning denotes a special language given to a few believers by the Spirit in order to edify the whole congregation.  For the writer of Acts, though, this Spirit came upon all, rather than merely a chosen few.  In many ways, the Pentecost experience of “tongues” has more to do with hearing and understanding than with speaking.  It has to do with rhythm.  Rather, the Pentecost story is about unity, about what happens when we open ourselves to the entrance of God’s Spirit into our lives.

So God’s Spirit is poured out upon a community of believers.  The Holy Spirit is not a “personal” gift from God.  There is nothing personal or private (and certainly not restrictive) about it.  The church has always tended to be comfortable with worshiping the Father and the Son but often the Holy Spirit is seen as a sort of marginal, misunderstood entity.  Jurgen Moltmann was known for referring to the Holy Spirit as the “shy member” of the Trinity.  But it is clear from this story that the arrival of the Holy Spirit is not hidden from view and, for that matter, is anything but shy.  The Spirit’s arrival is a noisy affair with special effects that draws an interested public “from every nation” to the community.  This arrival of the Spirit completes the picture.  It is the last piece of the story—God created, redeemed, and is now empowering the people of God to be who God created them to be.  This is the way that God sustains us in this world and the next.  Joan Chittister says that “God creates us, Jesus leads us, and the Spirit shows us ways that are not always in the book.”

The Spirit does not imply a ghostly-type image.  Talking about Spirit is talking about God–God in power like the force of wind or in intimacy like breath.  This is not speaking of bits and pieces of God.  This is the fullness of God, the total essence of God.  This is God’s Kingdom coming.  Pentecost is hope at its deepest level and the promise that everyone can be ignited by the Spirit in order to live out their God-called life.  Nothing but fire kindles fire.

Several years ago, I had an experience that, for me, gave life to this Pentecost story.  I was traveling through Hungary as part of a church choir tour and one of our singing opportunities was the Sunday morning worship service of a small, extremely poor Protestant church on the Pest side of the city.  No one in the small congregation spoke any English.  We, of course, did not speak Hungarian either.  You have to understand that the Hungarian language is usually grouped closely with Finnish because of its syntax, but it has so many words and sounds that are borrowed from Turkish as well as centuries of various gypsy languages that it has no real commonality with any language.  So, our communication was limited to hand signals, nods, and smiles.  The entire worship service was in this language that was more unfamiliar than anything that I had ever heard.  We went through about an hour of unfamiliar songs, foreign liturgy, and a 30-minute sermon that meant absolutely nothing to us.

At one point I looked around and realized that they had their heads down and were speaking what must have been a common prayer.  We put our heads down.  As I sat there, praying my own prayer along with them, I was suddenly aware that something had changed.  I still, of course, could not understand the words but somewhere in there I had heard something inherently familiar.  I looked at the person next to me and said, “That’s the Lord’s Prayer.”  I started with the second petition of the familiar prayer and slowly those around me began to join in.  When we came to the end, there was sort of a stunned silence around us.  We had all finished at the same time.

This was not a case of my somehow miraculously understanding a language that I did not know.  It was, instead, a hearing of an incredible rhythm that runs beneath all language and connects us all.  That rhythm is the Spirit of God.  I realized at that moment that the point of the Biblical Pentecost story was not the speaking, but the hearing and the understanding.   Regardless of our differences, there is one common voice that connects us all, if we will only listen.       

That is the way we are called to live—with one voice—even though it may be a million different languages.  In essence, it is the reversal of the Tower of Babel story.  Where the Tower of Babel account divided people because of their lives, Pentecost restores communication and unites different languages with a common voice.  The difference is in the hearing.  The difference is that sometimes it IS about our not being control.  The difference is that this unruly, uncontrollable Spirit of God has empowered all of us.  It is not a private affair.  This is not a personal spirit.  This is God’s Spirit that does what it set out to do in the first place—to create the world into being.  This Pentecost story is the release of God’s Spirit into the world.  The heavens have opened up and poured out on us all.  And the new creation, the taste of all things to come, has begun.

Pentecost did not create a church.  Pentecost breathed God’s breath into the world and equipped all of us for work. 

 1)      What is your response to this passage?

2)      What is your own image of the Pentecost experience?

3)      What messages does that original Pentecost have for today’s church and for us?

4)      What is your understanding or image of the Holy Spirit?

 NEW TESTAMENT:  Romans 8: 14-17

Put very simply, Paul is contrasting two ways of living—the way that we are tempted to live in this world and the way that God calls us to live.  He plays with notions of slavery and freedom—slavery to the perils of this world or freedom in God through Christ.  Slavery means fear.  Slavery means having no rights of inheritance.  Slavery means no hope.  Freedom, then, means to belong to a family and to have the rights to an inheritance.  We have been adopted by Christ and will share in the inheritance that God provides.

When we believe in God, we become children of God.  But this also means that we suffer with Christ.  But this, too, is part of God’s promise of the renewal of all of Creation.  It is a hope that we cannot see on our own but are rather empowered to see through the Spirit of God.  Here, there’s more to being a Christian than just knowing the right stuff and doing the right things and professing the correct beliefs.  To be Christian, you must open yourself up and invite God’s Spirit to enter your life.  It is not enough to be “spiritual and not religious” no matter how in vogue it may be today.  Inviting God’s spirit to enter one’s life, becoming heirs of God’s Spirit, inheriting this Spirit of Pentecost, if you will, is the way that you will be glorified through Christ in God.  It’s that simple.

In an excerpt from a sermon entitled “Are You Saved”, Amy Miracle (how cool would that be to be Reverend Miracle?) says:

 Frederick Buechner put it this way: “No matter who you are and what you’ve done, God wants you on his side. There is nothing you have to do or be. It’s on the house. It goes with the territory.” That is the claim of scripture and the claim of the Christian tradition but we never seem to believe it. Surely there must be a catch, some book I need to read, some technique of prayer you need to master. There must be some minimum standard. How could salvation be available to absolutely everyone?

In her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes, “when I was six or seven years old … I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find… For some reason I always “hid” the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street…. Then I would take a piece of chalk and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions. After I learned to write I labeled the arrows: SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY. I was greatly excited, during all this arrow drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passerby who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe.”

Salvation is like that. And the death and resurrection of Jesus is the arrow that points the way to this free gift. The very fact that salvation is free might be a problem.

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What does the “adoption” language mean to you?

3)      What images of God does this bring about for you?

4)      What image of salvation does that bring about for you?

 GOSPEL:  John 14: 8-17, (25-27)

Philip still didn’t get it.  All this time and he still didn’t get it.  If we look at Jesus, if we look into Jesus’ eyes, we will see the eyes of God.  Well, the truth is that that is probably as difficult for us as it was for Philip.  Is it so hard to believe in a God that is that accessible to us?  Is it so hard to believe in a God that would dare to get that close to us?

The truth is, once again, that they are afraid Jesus is going to leave before he had finished his work.  And what then?  The focus here is on doing the works of Jesus and doing them in the world.  Jesus defines his role here as a “helper” (paracletos).  It can also be translated “advocate”.  It is, once again, the reminder that we are not left to fend for ourselves.  The work will continue.  But it will continue with us, guided and aided by the Spirit, the very essence of God.

Jesus broke into history not to finish the work, not to demonstrate power, but to bring love and unity and empowerment to those who were here.  That means us.  Maybe we’re not called to walk on water; maybe we’re not called to heal paralytics; maybe we’re not even saddled with the responsibility of bringing the entire Kingdom of God into its fullness of being.  Maybe we’re called to just open our eyes and do what comes next, respond to whatever it is the Spirit showers our way.  Maybe we’re just called to be who we are and use our gifts in the best possible way to work in our own unique way and do our own unique part in building the Kingdom of God.  Maybe that’s the peace that Jesus left us.

In a sermon entitled “Doing Greater Things”, Tony Campolo tells this story:

I was in Haiti. I checked on our missionary work there. We run 75 small schools back in the hills of Haiti. I came to the little Holiday Inn where I always stay and shower and clean up before I board the plane to go home. I left the taxi and was walking to the entrance of the Holiday Inn when I was intercepted by three girls. I call them girls because the oldest could not have been more than 15. And the one in the middle said, “Mister, for $10 I’ll do anything you want me to do. I’ll do it all night long. Do you know what I mean?”

I did know what she meant. I turned to the next one and I said, “What about you, could I have you for $10?”  She said yes. I asked the same of the third girl. She tried to mask her contempt for me with a smile but it’s hard to look sexy when you’re 15 and hungry. I said, “I’m in room 210, you be up there in just 10 minutes. I have $30 and I’m going to pay for all 3 of you to be with me all night long.”

I rushed up to the room, called down to the concierge desk and I said I want every Walt Disney video that you’ve got in stock. I called down to the restaurant and said, do you still make banana splits in this town, because if you do I want banana splits with extra ice cream, extra everything. I want them delicious, I want them huge, I want four of them!

The little girls came and the ice cream came and the videos came and we sat at the edge of the bed and we watched the videos and laughed until about one in the morning. That’s when the last of them fell asleep across the bed. And as I saw those little girls stretched out asleep on the bed, I thought to myself, nothing’s changed, nothing’s changed. Tomorrow they will be back on the streets selling their little bodies to dirty, filthy johns because there will always be dirty, filthy johns who for a few dollars will destroy little girls. Nothing’s changed. I didn’t know enough Creole to tell them about the salvation story, but the word of the spirit said this: but for one night, for one night you let them be little girls again.

I know what you’re going to say: “You’re not going to compare that with Jesus walking on water.” No, I’m not, for very obvious reasons. If Jesus was to make a decision which is the greater work, walking on water or giving one night of childhood back to 3 little girls who had it robbed from them — giving one night of joy to 3 little girls that armies had marched over — which do you think Jesus would consider the greater work, walking on water or ministering to those 3 little girls?

And Jesus said, “The work that I do, Ye shall do and greater works than these shall Ye do because I go unto my Father.” I can’t replicate the power acts of God in Jesus Christ, but every time I perform an act of love in his name, I am imitating Jesus and he is saying, “Well done thou good and faithful servant.”

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      Why is it so hard for us to see God in Jesus or see God in the Spirit in our lives?

3)      What stands in our way of doing what we are called to do?

4)      What is your reaction to the notion of not being called to “do it all” but rather to be and do the unique part to which you are called?

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Let there be no distance between who you are and what you do.  (Richard Lederer in a 2007 commencement speech at Case Western Reserve University)

 God is not what you imagine or what you think you understand.  If you understand, you have failed. (St. Augustine)

 God enters by a private door into each individual. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

 Closing

Breathe on me, Breath of God, fill me with life anew,

That I may love what thou dost love, and do what thou wouldst do.

Breathe on me, Breath of God, until my heart is pure,

Until with thee I will one will, to do and to endure.

Breathe on me, Breath of God, till I am wholly thine,

Till all this earthly part of me glows with thy fire divine.

Amen.

(Edwin Hatch, 1878, UMH # 420)

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