Pentecost B: Breathed Into

PentecostFIRST READING: Acts 2:1-21

To read the Lectionary passage from Acts, click here

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 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. The word for Pentecost (literally, “fiftieth day”) was used by Jews for a 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 “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—that underlying rhythm that is part of us all, the rhythm that is God, our Source and Sustainer. So, the Pentecost story is about unity.

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. But it is clear from this story that the arrival of the Holy Spirit is not hidden from view. The Spirit’s arrival is a noisy affair with special effects that draw an interested public “from every nation” to the community.

This arrival of the Spirit completes the picture—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. The Spirit does not imply a ghostly-type image. Talking about Spirit is talking about God. The Hebrew word for it is ruah–God in power like the force of wind or in intimacy like breath, the very essence and being of God. This is not speaking of bits and pieces of God. This is the fullness 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.

Pentecost did not create a church. This is not merely the church’s birthday. Pentecost is the point at which God’s very Spirit was breathed into the world and equipped us for work. Last week, we read of Christ’s Ascension, that holiest of absences that left a veritable void in the Gospel story. And so we waited. What Pentecost tells us is that we are the ones for which we’ve been waiting. It is not meant to be a feel-good, warm-fuzzy kind of day. The Holy Spirit is risky and sometimes painful, bringing about change and out and out revolution. The Holy Spirit invites failure rather than promises success, compels discomfort, rather than consolation. The Holy Spirit is not something that we just try on for size; it is tongues of fire that consumes us and leaves nothing behind except what was supposed to be in the first place—the ones for which we’ve been waiting.   In a 2007 commencement speech, Richard Lederer said “Let there be no distance between who you are and what you do.” That is our calling; that is what Pentecost is about—shrinking the distance between how we live and who we are called to be. So, get started…

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. (Shelli Williams)      

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What is your image of the Pentecost experience?
  3. What lessons could we learn from the Pentecost experience?
  4. What is your response to the Lederer quote about the distance between who we are and what we do?


 NEW TESTAMENT: Romans 8: 22-27

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

This passage is a well-known depiction of God’s ongoing Creation. Like labor, both church and Creation long for the new life to arrive in its fullness. But it is not an “either / or” notion—Creation is ongoing, the coming of God’s Kingdom is both already and not yet. In fact, Creation is groaning through the birth of what it is to be even now. We understand that. Our own groans about what is wrong with the world, what is wrong with our country, what is wrong with the United Methodist Church are heard even now. What if we thought of those groans as the rumbling of the Holy Spirit as it is poured into our lives?

But God, as loving parent of all Creation, puts a mighty arm under the fractured Creation, not merely preserving it and protecting it, but setting it free to be. (This flies in the face of dualistic understandings of earth and heaven or mind and spirit. It does not speak of “rescuing” or even “saving from”, but adoption, redemption, freedom.) It is not God turning away from what is wrong with the world but picking it up and pulling it into being. In Feasting on the Word, Clayton J. Schmidt refers to Peter Storey’s notion of this “great nevertheless of God.” Schmidt says that “at first glance, [the world] seems full of angst: groaning and travail, unfulfilled longing, unseen hope, concerns too deep for words. But the hope here can be put in terms of what Peter Storey has called “the great nevertheless of God.” [Storey] developed this idea while serving as bishop of the Methodist Church in South Africa during the struggle against apartheid. Even while surrounded by the strong-armed agents of repression, Storey knew that the Holy Spirit was active in his nation. The government had all the power; nevertheless, God was with the poor in South Africa. The South African regime did not hesitate to use force in order to stop rebellion; nevertheless, Storey, along with Desmond Tutu and others, led the black South Africans in a peaceful revolution. The odds were heavily against the peaceful revolution; nevertheless, with God on their side, they were victorious. In the end, there was strong temptation to retaliate; nevertheless, God gave them a means of forgiving enemies and forming a reconciled nation. No matter what the odds, if God is in something, no obstacle can block the great nevertheless of God.”

Paul’s Letter to the Romans is considered his masterpiece. In it, he contends that all those who are indwelt with the Holy Spirit are shaped for that eternal glory that is already theirs in Christ. We are not alone. No matter how difficult life gets, we are supported by God’s Spirit. The Spirit teaches us and reaches for us even in our weakness. The phrase “we do not know what we ought to pray” is often used to support the notion of speaking in tongues, but it is more likely that Paul is just trying to make the point that life is difficult, full of limitations, and that no matter what, we remain secure in the Lord. Instead, God knows our mind, knows what we pray, knows what we need, if we are just open to what God provides us. Marjorie Thompson says of prayer, “Perhaps our real task in prayer is to attune ourselves to the conversation already going on deep in our hearts. Then we may align our conscious intentions with the desire of God being expressed at our core.”


  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What images of Creation does this passage bring about?
  3. What does this say to you about prayer?
  4. What does this say to you about how we should look at the way the world is and our part in it?

GOSPEL: John 15: 26-27; 16: 4b-15

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

The word for “Spirit” here is “parakletos”, or paraclete. It has a range of meaning that includes advocate, encourager, comforter, helper. A paraclete was a patron or a sponsor that would speak and advocate on behalf of another. In other words, the Spirit, parakletos, advocates on behalf of Christ and on behalf of that for which Christ stood and taught and died. So the Spirit will enable the disciples to grasp what they had not gotten before, to grasp what Jesus was all about. The Spirit is a way of talking about God not as an other-worldly being, but as our companion. It is a redefining of truth.

Keep in mind that when Jesus returned, he did not find the disciples out doing what needed to be done. Instead, he found them huddled in a room, scared to death at the prospect of what might happen to them. So this is the promise that they are not alone, that God will see that they are equipped and empowered to do what needs to be done in the world. But it won’t happen unless Jesus leaves. Otherwise, they’ll just stay shut away from the world waiting for Jesus to show up and fix things.

But empowered by the Spirit, we are to make a case for Jesus in the world. Jesus is both fully absent and fully present. That is our mission—to become the hands and feet and voice and life of Christ in the world. It entails exposing sin as the killing of love, or God in Christ. It means exposing Jesus for the way Jesus was. Spirituality, then, is a way of advocating for God in the world, entering the advocacy and comforter that is God. God so loved the world. Human beings did not recognize that love. They killed it. God reaffirmed it. We can receive it, share it, and ourselves become advocates for that same love and life in the world, accompanied by the Holy Spirit. It’s not a matter of knowing everything to do; it’s a matter of knowing where to look for the strength that you need to be the change that you hope to see in the world.


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does the Holy Spirit mean for you?
  3. So what makes us uneasy about the concept of the Holy Spirit?
  4. What does it mean to you to talk about Jesus as both fully absent and fully present?
  5. What do you feel that you are empowered to advocate in the world?


“The celebration of Pentecost beckons us to keep breathing. It challenges us to keep ourselves open to the Spirit who seeks us. The Spirit that, in the beginning, brooded over the chaos and brought forth creation; the Spirit that drenched the community with fire and breath on the day of Pentecost: this same Spirit desires to dwell within us and among us.” (From Jan Richardson, The Painted Prayerbook, available at, (Pentecost A) accessed 7 May 2008.)


Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

God creates us, Jesus leads us, and the Holy Spirit shows us ways that are not always in the book. (Joan Chittister, In Search of Belief, p. 161)


Try, with God’s help, to perceive the connection—even physical and natural—which binds your labor with the building of the Kingdom of Heaven; try to realize that heaven itself smiles upon you and, through your works, draw you to itself; then, as you leave church for the noisy streets, you will remain with only one feeling, that of continuing to immerse yourself in God. (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955))


The Spirit of God is like our breath. God’s Spirit is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. We might not often be aware of it, but without it we cannot live a “spiritual life.” It is the Holy Spirit of God who prays in us, who offers us the gifts of love, forgiveness, kindness, goodness, gentleness, peace, and joy. It is the Holy Spirit who offers us the life that death cannot destroy. Let us always pray: “Come, Holy Spirit, come.” (Henri J.M. Nouwen)





Spark of God, Spirit of Life! I remember and celebrate your dwelling within me.


Divine Fire, you never waver in your faithful presence. Amid the seasons of life, you are my inner illumination.


Ever-present Light, the spark of your inspiration has been with me in every moment of my life, always available to lead and guide me.


Eternal Joy, the dancing flames of your joy are reflected in my happiness and in the many ways that I delight in life.


Spirit of God, your fiery presence gives me passion for what is vital and deserving of my enthusiasm.


Blazing Love, the radiant glow of your compassion fills me with awareness, kindness, and understanding.


Purifying Flame, your refining fire transforms me as I experience life’s sorrow, pain, and discouragement.


Radiant Presence, your steady flame of unconditional love kindles my faithful and enduring relationships.


Luminous One, you breathed Love into me at my birthing and your love will be with me as I breathe my last. Thank you for being a shining Spark of Life within me. Amen.


(Joyce Rupp, in Out of the Ordinary: Prayers, Poems, and Reflections for Every Season, p. 199)

Easter 6B: Abide


Power-of-His-PresenceFIRST READING: Acts 10: 44-48

To read the Lectionary passage from Acts, click here

Backing up just a little bit, Peter has summarized Jesus’ earthly ministry in the preceding verses. In verse 38, he tells the crowd that in Jesus’ baptism, God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power. But then the Holy Spirit comes, as a “gift” on all who were there listening to him speak. But what is surprising to those good circumcised believers that are standing there listening, the ones who have done everything right, the ones who have followed all of the religious rules, is that the Spirit comes upon all who are present—even on the Gentiles.

Here, “speaking in tongues” is a sign of the presence of the Spirit. The pouring out of the Spirit and baptism are closely associated in Acts and Baptism follows the coming of the Spirit. Peter’s question is an important one: If someone has received the Holy Spirit, if God has somehow compelled someone to come forth, if God has somehow some way shown up in their life, then how can we withhold baptism? So he orders them to be baptized under his authority.

Once again, the coming of the Spirit was sudden and unexpected—and unplanned as to who was going to receive it! This now removes any lingering doubt that the Kingdom of God was open to Gentiles and others. The idea of “speaking in tongues” is sort of foreign to us. We’re not really sure to what this was actually referring. Clearly there is language content, but, like the Pentecost experience, perhaps it has more to do with listening than the actual speaking. Once again, the writer of Acts focuses on hospitality and welcome. This speaks loudly to those that are more comfortable with God’s grace being carefully mediated to those that have done everything right.

But the point is that, in all honesty, these people that were of Jewish descent that have become a part of this new Christian movement had already begun to define and limit what the movement was about. So, they were utterly astounded when suddenly Gentiles started showing up with evidence that somehow God had burst into their life. On his blog, Episcopal priest Rick Morley writes a reflection on this passage:

In other words, they have no clue. They have no idea what God is doing, what God is capable of, or who God is able to reach. Instead of being open to the infinite possibilities of God they are closed-minded, thinking that the only way to God is a way that looks like the way that they came to God. As if God can’t be reached by other routes. As if their understanding of God is the only right way. The only possible way.

Of course, this is the quintessential struggle in the New Testament Church between Jewish and Gentile Christianity. The question, “Can one follow Jesus without also being Jewish,” sat over the nascent church like a wet blanket. But, of course, this is also the quintessential struggle of the church today. Most of us can’t imagine a church, or “doing church,” differently than what we have already. As our rolls and pews slowly empty out, we talk about “tweaking this” and “tweaking that.” We’ll add a few drums and post what we’re doing to Facebook. Because that’ll draw them in.

And so, what we have in the Book of Acts is a glimpse into a mirror. Just like the first Church couldn’t see the reign of God past their own paltry view of the possibilities, neither can we. Towards the end of the third chapter of Paul’s Letter to Ephesians, we see a glimmer of someone who “gets it”: Glory to God, whose power working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. (Ephesians 3:28)

It’s like when we look out into the world around us, we see just a sliver—just the tiniest wedge of possibilities. But, God sees the whole sky. The whole infinite expanse of the universe brimming with possibilities. New things to be done. New people to be reached with His love. New ways to crash the reign of God into creation. What gives me the slightest glimmer is that the church in Acts was “astounded.” At least they weren’t “disgusted,” or “dismayed.”

Sometimes when I hear prophets and dreamers in our own day spin visions of what the church can become, the reaction I see is disgust and dismay. I think we need to summon the ability to see the world, the church, and our lives from God’s perspective. We need to pray for that. And then work to make it happen. But, if we’re unable to do that—and I admit that it’s a large task—then at least we need to recapture the ability to be “astounded” when God begins to do something new in our midst, and breathes life into these dry bones we’re always rattling. (From “Even Astonished”, by Rick Morley, May 1, 2012, available at, accessed 9 May, 2012.)

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. How does this speak to our churches today?
  3. How does this speak to our world today?
  4. What meaning does this passage bring to baptism for you?
  5. When are you “astounded” by God?



NEW TESTAMENT: 1 John 5: 1-6

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

This passage sort of repeats the same theme that we found in the Acts passage—that all who believe are adopted children of God. The mark of loving God and obeying God is not “burdensome”, for we are given the power that compels us to follow God and to love our fellow brothers and sisters. To believe in Jesus as the Son of God is at the very core of our faith and through this faith, God reigns.

As people come to Christ, come to God, God’s power is shown more widely throughout the world. And through the mention of water and blood, we are reminded that Jesus experienced both baptism and crucifixion. The Spirit was part of both of these events and is continually present as the soul of the church.  The writer goes on into the following verses and tells us that there are three things that together testify to our belief in Jesus Christ: Holy Spirit at work in the community, Baptism, and Crucifixion as shown in the Eucharist. This is probably a statement against those who believe that Jesus came by water but not through the Spirit that was present in other ways. They were perhaps espousing that Jesus, as God, did not really die, denying Jesus’ very humanness, denying that Jesus was one of us.

The passage depicts love as obedience to God. I don’t think it means that our obedience proves our love for God but rather that if we love God and abide in God’s love, then our obedience to God, our listening to who we are and who we are called to be, is what we do. In essence, our love for God leads us to do nothing less. We tend to think of “obedience” in a bad way, as something that in some way makes us do something other than we want, other than we would do naturally. But here, obedience to God is actually being who we are, tapping into the real us, the real love of God at our very core of being and then living that out in every aspect of our lives. Every aspect of Jesus’ life was for God and for us. We are called to be and do no less.

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What happens if we deny Jesus’ humanness?
  3. What does “obedience” to God mean to you?
  4. What would it mean for you for every aspect of your life to be for God and for others?


GOSPEL: John 15: 9-17

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

Jesus continues to prepare his disciples for his physical departure from them. In last week’s passage, he told them that he is the true vine, God’s agent, and that they are the fruit. They represent him in the world—to bear fruit, to do in his name. This is how God’s power will be extended among humans. Jesus has loved them as God has loved them. They are continuing to love him by being obedient to his commandments, to continue to be in a loving relationship with God even after Jesus is gone. This is the kind of love that leads to ultimate joy. Jesus is the model for our behavior and Jesus is the one that loves others so much that he gave his life for them.

The word servant is difficult for us, but to be a servant of God was an honor in Old Testament times. Jesus, then, had chosen these and appointed them to see converts who would be servants. And Jesus depicts what happens when this great love is fulfilled—the fruit of love is abundant joy. The goal, then, is not purity or spotlessness, but a joy that fulfills itself in love.

The way that Jesus addresses the issue of status is interesting. Essentially, the image of servant is abandoned in favor of one of abiding friendship. While the language of serving and servitude has dominated Christian tradition, this little correction deserves more reflection. Perhaps it means that God does not want slaves but, rather companions. It creates a different model of spirituality. Of course friendship also means letting the other be and acknowledging that otherness in its integrity and sacredness. Certainly there is no thought of ‘pocketing’ God or Jesus in a way which reduces either – a kind of power-play which makes them manageable (pocket-able and in my control). Some people either want to dominate or be dominated. They live lives as if it is either-or. The model here is different. It does not compromise the integrity or holiness of the other, but affirms companionship in such holiness. We are not just asked to be friends; we are friends for a purpose; we are friends to bear fruit in Christ.

And, once again, if we love God, if we abide in God, we will keep God’s commandment. It will not be merely that we choose to do so. God chose us. And as children of God, we can do nothing else. It is who we are. From that standpoint, “disobedience” to God is not just doing wrong. It’s more than just ignoring the speed limit. Rather, it is not being and living out who we are. It is being someone other than who God made us to be. It means that we love God and that we love each other. It means that we are no longer estranged from God are separated from others. It calls us all to the table and invites us to sit down and share a meal. No one is excluded. No one is left out.  No one is waiting in the wings wondering if they will be welcomed or shunned. Emily Dickinson once said, “my friends are my estate.” In other words, those with whom we share our lives ARE our lives. Love them as you love your life. Love them the way that Jesus loved. Love them enough that when the chips are down, you can do no other than to love them more than life itself. It is that kind of love that IS fruit, that IS life. It is the love into which God calls us.

In Scripture, hospitality reflects a larger reality than mere survival. It links us to each other and to God. It is understood as a way of meeting and receiving holy presence. Sure it was risky, probably even more risky than it is today, but it was the expectation. It was what we are called to do—to meet God in every face we encounter. It doesn’t mean that we all have to like each other or even get along. A stranger is still a stranger. But we are called to recognize that running beneath all of our lives is a common humanity and a common Creator. It’s not about overcoming differences but rather transcending them and being reconciled to one another in love. And our love for each other is a reflection of our love for God. And letting each of us be who we are is letting God be God.


  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does this “friendship” in and with Christ mean for you?
  3. How does that change our relationship to God?
  4. What would the world look like if we loved each other more than life itself?
  5. How does this speak to the commonly-used phrase “a personal relationship in Jesus Christ”?
  6. What does this say about hospitality?
  7. What if we had that same “expectation” of hospitality as we find in Scripture?



Some Quotes for Further Reflection:


Today we are bombarded with a theology of certitude. I don’t find much biblical support for the stance of “God told me and I’m telling you, and if you don’t believe as I do, you’re doomed.” A sort of “My God can whip your god” posture. From Abraham, going out by faith not knowing where he was being sent, to Jesus on the cross, beseeching [God] for a better way, there was always more inquiring faith than conceited certainty. (Will D. Campbell)

My business is not to remake myself, but to make the absolute best of what God made. (Robert Browning)


We are what we repeatedly do. (Aristotle)




Close by reading the words of “The Servants Song” (Richard Gillard, in The Faith We Sing, # 2222):

Brother, sister, let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you; pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too.

We are pilgrims on a journey; we’re together on this road. We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.

I will hold the Christlight for you in the night-time of your fear; I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear.

I will weep when you are weeping; when you laugh, I’ll laught with you. I will share your joy and sorrow till we’ve seen this journey through.


When we sing to God in heaven, we shall find such harmony, born of all we’ve known together of Christ’s love and agony.