With thanksgiving for God’s energizing and life-giving Spirit that breathed life and hope into generations before us, I’ll begin with a prayer of blessing from United Methodist minister, Jan Richardson.
God of the journey, who calls us to travel with faith,
who reminds us we are of the earth
yet breathes into us the breath of life…
awaken us to the blessedness of earth,
that we may honour those who once dwelled
along these paths that we now travel.
Creator who breathes life into each new generation
surround us with the winds of your spirit,
and may we hear with tenderness
the stories they bear. Amen
Sacred Journeys, page 135, adapted
Today is the celebration of Pentecost, one of the three most important festivals in the Christian calendar, the other two being Christmas and Easter. On Pentecost Sunday we remember the story of the transformative encounter with the Holy Spirit that Jesus’ followers experienced and which energized, emboldened and shaped them into a unified community of faith.
Before Pentecost became an important Christian holy day it was already one of the most important festivals in the Jewish calendar.
In the 1st Century, C.E. it was expected that any devout Jew who was able to travel would go to Jerusalem for the celebration of Shavuot (Hebrew). This originally began as a harvest festival but had also become an essential holy day to commemorate the giving of the Law at Sinai. In Greek the name for this festival is Pentecost. Pente, which means fifty, reflects the fact that this pilgrimage festival was held 50 days after Passover.
The first Christian celebration of Pentecost is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles as we read this morning although it wasn’t until later, after Paul’s conversion and during his mission trip to Antioch that the word Christian was first used as a name for Jesus’ followers (Acts11:26b). In the book of Acts, we learn that devout Jews had gathered from far and wide as had about 120 of Jesus’ followers. (Acts 1:15) This core group of people who followed Jesus’ teachings were trying to hold together their shocked and dispirited group after Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. Members of their community had experienced mystical encounters with the risen Christ but as a whole they were still grief-stricken and reeling from the shock of the loss of the physical presence of their beloved teacher and friend. They had followed Jesus’ instructions and stayed together in Jerusalem to await empowerment by the Holy Spirit. Earlier in Acts, the author records the risen Christ as saying, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts1:8)
It seems likely then that the disciples were expecting, or at least hoping for, what Jesus promised when he was preparing them to carry on without his physical presence. However, they didn’t know how or when this reception of the Holy Spirit would happen.
In John’s Gospel, following the account of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask God, and God will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. …the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom God will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (John 14:15,26)
This is exactly the empowerment and unifying experience the disciples needed at this crucial time in the formation of their community of faith. We don’t know everything that happened to the disciples on that day of Pentecost but we do know the outcome. Timid disciples became bold apostles teaching and preaching and carrying on Jesus’ ministry in a way that drew on their own spirit-given gifts. They became, as the apostle Paul later described, the Body of Christ. So important is this experience, as a turning point in the cohesion and growth of the early Christian community, that biblical scholars often refer to Pentecost as the birth of the Christian Church. Theologian Jan Richardson, whose words of prayer I shared at the beginning of this reflection, marvels at the transformation of the disciples at Pentecost when she says, “They are no longer a group of believers but rather a catalyzed community, a body that, enlivened by the Spirit, will endure and continue the work of Christ.” (The Painted Prayerbook website)
That is what the story of Pentecost is all about. In amazing and miraculous ways that we cannot fully understand, Jesus’ followers experienced Christ’s presence through the Holy Spirit in a powerful and communal way. That they expressed this experience in mystical and prophetic language is not surprising although it does sound strange to our modern sensibilities.
The symbolism of wind and fire used to describe the Pentecost experience is significant. A whole reflection could be based on the scriptural importance of both these metaphors in the stories of our faith tradition. At the moment I’ll just say a little about the importance of wind as symbol of the Holy Spirit. The word for “spirit” in Hebrew is “ruah” which literally means breath or wind. God’s spirit, as understood by 1st Century Jewish/Christians, is like breath to human beings and is everywhere like the winds of creation. In Latin the word for spirit is “spiritus” from which many of our words, such as “inspiration”, are derived. Take a moment now to draw a breath inward in unison – breathe in – breathe out. We have just “conspired” – to breathe together – the word from which conspiracy comes. When I use the word inspiration, when speaking of our life together as a community of faith, I am intentionally aware that God’s spirit is breathing life and meaning into our ideas and vision of ministry.
As a Christian community, we are in fact carried by the winds of God’s Spirit to places we never imagined that we could go on our own.
It’s like the folktale about a stream which runs its course down a mountain and then encounters desert wilderness. The stream cannot flow through the desert and simply sinks into the desert sand. Hard as it tries, the stream cannot forge its way through the desert. Finally, the desert says to the stream, “You won’t be able to cross the desert using the old methods that worked for you further up the mountain. It is no use your hurling yourself at the desert like that. You will never cross the sand like this. You will simply disappear, or turn into marshland. No, you must trust the wind to carry you across the desert. …You must let yourself be absorbed in the wind, and then the wind will carry you.” But, the stream had a nature and identity of its own and did not want to lose itself by being absorbed into the wind. “That’s what the wind does” the desert told the stream. “…trust the wind. If you let yourself be absorbed by the wind, it will carry you across the desert and let you fall on the other side, to be a stream again.” It was not easy for the stream to let go and trust something out of its control so the desert persisted by saying, “You certainly won’t be the same stream you are now if you fling yourself into the sand and turn into a marsh. But let the wind carry you across the desert, and the real heart of you, the essence of everything you truly are, will be born again on the other side, to flow a new course, to be a river that you can’t even imagine from where you are standing right now.” The stream thought for a long while and “something deep in its heart had a memory of a wind that could be trusted, and an horizon that was always out of reach, but was always a new beginning. So the stream took a deep breath, and surrendered to the power of the wind” and was born anew. (Wisdom Stories, compiled by Margaret Silf, page 23-24)
And so it is with Christian communities of faith today. We must intentionally trust God’s spirit to carry us onward on our journey to where we have not been before. If we do not allow our ministry to be inspired by God’s spirit we run the risk of becoming mired in the sands of our own inertia, fatigue, doubt and fear. It is important to remember the struggles and challenges of the past, to look back and see how far we’ve come. God is constantly surprising us with new ways of responding to the challenges and opportunities that are available to us as individuals and Christian community. Just like the stream we must be willing to risk, to let go of conventional expectations, and trust God to lead us into the future. This requires a daring and courageous faith, one that we as Christians aspire to.
I’ll conclude with some words of encouragement from theologian, Barbara Brown Taylor:
“Receive the Holy Spirit. That is, breathe. Deeply. Receive your life as a gift invisible as air, and prepare to be astonished by all the forms that breath can take. Under the power of the Holy Spirit, shy people have been known to step up onto platforms and say audacious things. Cautious people have become daredevils, frugal people have become philanthropists and people who used to be as sour as dill pickles have become rich with friends.
There is no limit to what the Holy Spirit can do. You just cannot hold your breath, that’s all. You have to keep breathing, keep paying attention, keep responding to whatever crazy idea you come up with next. Some people call it intuition. Others call it inspiration. Forever and ever, the church has been calling it Holy Spirit.” (Page 73, Bread of Angels)
Thanks be to God
for Christ’s constant presence
through the Holy Spirit
an inspiration for us all.