The Liberating Power of Pentecost

The Book of Acts depicts Pentecost as a very violent experience. The disciples are gathered in one place and suddenly there comes a sound like the rush of a violent wind and it fills the entire house where the disciples are all sitting in one place. Can you imagine; if right now such a thing happened to us; out of nowhere a powerful wind came with a roaring sound—we would be frightened. Surely we would feel there was danger. Then, immediately after our first shock, comes the second–tongues of flame appear on each of our heads. We first see them on others, of course, because we cannot look right on top of our heads. We see the fire and of course we feel frightened. Will the fire injure? Will it set the building on fire? In the midst of this chaotic and frightening experience comes a third, even stranger one: we feel our mouths opening and we begin to speak a language we do not even understand. There are some people around us we know speak different languages and, as we speak, they are nodding; they understand what we are saying even though we do not. Such is the violent, topsy- turvy experience of Pentecost. It is scary, surprising, and hard to believe. It catches us unaware, it upends our usual sense of reality. It breaks through the normal divisions of language, space, and time.

Of the three persons of the Trinity, it is undoubtedly the Holy Spirit who is the hardest to relate to. We can understand a father and a son, a parent and a child. Even if God the Father isn’t human in the way that Jesus is, we still think of the Father as personal as today’s gospel reading from John describes. Jesus says, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” But what of the Spirit? Jesus says when he is gone he will send another to be with the disciples. This one will be the Advocate—the Greek is paraclete—meaning “to come along side”. Even though Jesus has ascended and is no longer with them in physical form, this Advocate will remain with them at all times, will be close at their side, will envelop them with the power and presence of Jesus’ love. This Paraclete is also sometimes called the Comforter—meaning “to make strong”—or the Counselor—the one who gives wise direction. But the principal word used in Scripture is simply “spirit”—a word which both in Hebrew and Greek means “breath, wind”. The Hebrew ruach means, literally, “moving air”. This is the Sprit who moves over the vast and unformed deep at Creation. This is the breath of God which calls all things into being. As the psalmist says ,“You send forth your Spirit and they are created and so you renew the face of the earth”. Although we sometimes speak of Pentecost as the sending of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit had never been absent. The Holy Spirit was present at creation; this Spirit inspired the prophets to speak truth and judgement. In Jesus’ life and ministry the Spirit is always present and active. It is by the Spirit that Mary Conceives; the Spirit is present at Jesus’ baptism; it is the very Spirit who drives him into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan; it is by the power of the Spirit that Jesus heals and works other acts of power, and it is the Spirit who raises Jesus from the dead. Shortly after his resurrection, he breathes on his disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit”.

Although the Spirit may seem illusive to us and hard to relate to, I suggest that it may, in fact, be an image for the Divine that is very helpful and important for us in our own day. The Sprit is above all, energy—the energy of life; the energy that calls things in to being, that builds up increasing complexity, that brings a unity which multiplies instead of contracts. Certainly this view of God fits well with what science tells us of the Big Bang and evolution. The creative power at the heart of all things is always unfolding, always moving, always bringing the new out of the old. We all share one breath, one air—we share it with all the other animals, even with plants. It is the breath of life that breathes through all things—the breath, the wind, the spirit of God.

 If the Spirit has always been present, then why the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost? I think this can be summed up in one word: “globalization”. No longer is the gospel just for the small band that had formed around Jesus; now it was for everyone, everywhere. This is echoed in today’s collect: “Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promise of your Holy Spirit”. The Good News of the liberating love of God in Christ is no one group’s possession; it is international and cosmic. Pentecost pushes the disciples beyond their previous boundaries; it challenges them to open themselves to the new, to the foreign. We are so used to hearing this Pentecost story that we have a hard time feeling how disruptive it was. The early Christian community was Jewish and to accept Gentiles was a huge thing—a bridge too far for many. Yet, the church opened up, sometimes with great resistance and anxiety, to other races and other cultures, so that there was a new mix, bound not by clan but by the Christ experience. Socioeconomic distinctions were also upended, with the very poor and the very rich living and worshipping together. Of course there were conflicts in communities then as there are now, but it is important to understand how revolutionary and disruptive the early church was in terms of breaking down and breaking through old dividing lines of race, region and class.

The hallmark of the Holy Spirit is dynamism—it is air that is always moving; the Spirit is never fixed. Some early Christians found it impossible to believe that Gentiles could be brought into the fold. It struck at the very core of their identity, of their sense of what is true and false; of who is in and who is out; of who God is and who God isn’t. But the Spirit is prophetic; the Spirit speaks through prophets in every age who announce the terrible but life-giving judgements that speak the truth we sometimes do not want to hear. The Paraclete—the one who is alongside of us, leads us into new places—new places that, at first, may seem disorienting, sometimes even frightening—like a mighty wind that seems to be destroying things, like a fire than may burn things down.  Pentecost happens again and again—and it is happening now.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, I have been thinking a lot about the changes I have seen in my lifetime. I was 17 when the riots occurred. I do not remember hearing them mentioned—if they were it didn’t reach my ears as a teenager in the Midwest. I have a very vivid memory from around age 12 of sitting in the public library in Barrington Illinois, furtively thumbing through a medical encyclopedia. I was terrified that the librarian would know what I was doing—that she had that x-ray-eyed, special telepathy with which we invested all librarians. I was afraid she knew the topic I was headed for—the dreaded topic as I thumbed through “Elephantiasis” then on to “F”, “G”, and finally “H”. My hands were shaking as I turned the pages. I came to the dreaded entry I was seeking, the shameful disease I so feared, “Homosexuality”. I prayed this was not my fate. I prayed I didn’t have it and, if I did, that it could be cured. And now here I am more than 50 years later, married to an amazing man, able to be myself without shame or fear. Indeed the Spirit is doing a new thing. Of course gay liberation has been only one part of a greater movement of liberation that has brought great changes in or society—changes that some embrace and others abhor. Some see these changes as the work of the Spirit, others see them as diabolic and destructive. What is important in discerning whether the new is ultimately good, and holy is what I call the “Gamaliel Test”. The Book of Acts depicts the apostles being arrested and brought before the Jewish counsel authorities to be judged for heresy. One Rabbi on the council, Gamaliel, urged his fellows not to move too quickly to suppress the Apostles and their preaching. He says these words, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men …because if this plan or this undertaking is of human orientation, it will fail, but if it is of God you will not be able to overthrown them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”    

The Spirit is always bringing forth new things. She broods over the unknown. She hatches new life where we would not expect it. The Spirit brings surprises—rushing winds, tongues of fire, new languages that we often do not understand.  The Spirit brings freedom—liberation to people oppressed by slavery and the color of their skin; to women oppressed by a male society; to gay and queer people defined as pathological. It is easy to be discouraged by the bigotry and fascism we see rising in our country and all over the world. It is disheartening, sickening. But is important not to forget how far we have come. We need to open our eyes to see the work of the Spirit. If, as Gamaliel says, it is of God, it will thrive and prove to be good. In my small Midwestern town there were just a few “colored” people. They knew their place, and when they didn’t, bad things could happen.  Now we have an African -American Presiding Bishop. In my childhood, a woman could not be on the parish vestry. Now we have had a female Presiding Bishop. The Spirit brings forth the new; the Spirit bring forth freedom.  Paul say in todays’ reading from Romans, “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba, Father, Amma, Mother” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God”.

May Pentecost ever fall upon us. The presence of the Spirit which blows–sometimes like a gentle breath and sometimes like a gale. The Spirit who, like a flame, can sometimes gently warm, and sometimes burn down in order to bring freedom. The Spirit of God fills the whole earth, the whole cosmos, bringing new and deep unity beyond our divisions. The Spirit blows us out into the world to touch others in need. All these are actions of the Spirit who, although called different things by different tribes and creeds, can best be described most simply by one word: love. The Spirit is love—which burns, comforts, prods, cajoles and woos. This love conquers all things and calls us into the life of freedom.

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