Day of Pentecost A

June 02, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    John 20:19-23

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary

    Acts 2:1-21

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    Comments and Observations

    When I spent some time in Japan some years back, I witnessed daily something I have seen at best rarely here in the United States: commuters on trains and buses with surgical masks on.   Some were sick and did not want to spread it to others.   But some, I think, were afraid of getting sick and so donned masks in case not everyone with a virus was as considerate as some so clearly were.    In any event, it was a strange sight to see but it did remind me of one thing: spiration, breathing, is pretty vital and is also a constant of life.

    Without realizing it, we all breathe in and out many times every minute. Respiration is that fundamental process of life by which our bodies refresh their supply of oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide. It is a powerful phenomenon and yet the same thing that keeps us alive can kill us, too. The spectacle of all those people wearing surgical masks provides a vivid reminder that spiration, necessary though it is for life, can also prove to be our undoing if we breathe in virus-laden microbes.

    The Latin word for “spirit” (spiritus), the Hebrew word for “spirit” (ruach), and the Greek word (pneuma) all mean “breath” or “wind” at their most basic linguistic level. But, of course, that implies a number of things. For one, it implies that “spirit” is an invisible phenomenon–no one can see the wind, only its effects. It can also imply that “spirit” may at times be a rather fleeting thing. After all, the refrain of the book of Ecclesiastes is that much of life seems like no more than a “breath,” a transient, vapory blip that disappears in an instant. At the same time, however, we know that both wind and breath are not only invisible and sometimes fleeting but they can also be awesome realities. The “breath of life” provided by someone giving CPR literally is the difference between life and death.

    And certainly we are aware of the fact that the wind can be hugely destructive–you don’t need to be able to see the wind or know where it comes from to respect its reality and power.   Back in 1998—right on Pentecost Sunday as it happened—the Midwest experienced what is called a “derecho.”   It’s a fairly rare phenomenon in which atmospheric conditions conspire to set up enormously powerful straight-line winds that travel for hundreds of miles along a weather front.   That Pentecost Sunday the winds started in South Dakota and blew clear across to the East Coast, roaring through Michigan at 130 MPH and knocking out power and just about every traffic light in the central part of the state.   You couldn’t see the actual wind—it had no color, no tangible substance, nothing you could photograph.  But the winds had a lot of oomph that day!   Four people in Michigan were killed and over 150 seriously injured by the objects the wind tore apart and tossed about.   (If you want to see an amazing radar loop of the derecho coming through Michigan, you can view it here:  http://blogs.woodtv.com/2011/05/31/may-31-1998-derecho/ )

    Pentecost is the one day of the year when the Church acknowledges in a big way a fact that is true every Sunday and at all times:  namely, if we did not have the Holy Spirit, the church would be dead for the same reason you’d soon keel over and die if you stopped breathing right now. Of course even so, it is part of the very nature of the Holy Spirit that it doesn’t call much attention to itself. The Spirit’s job seems to be a history-long highlighting of Jesus. So in order not to get in the way of anyone’s ability to see Jesus as the Living Lord, the Holy Spirit seems quite content to remain about as invisible as a puff of air. The Spirit does not mind one bit if you look clean through him so long as what you are looking at through the Spirit is the Christ of God.

    But make no mistake: the Holy Spirit is not the only game in town. There are any number of spirits in life that we can breathe in, get whipped up by, and so be shaped by. But whereas some spirits can consume our lives, only the Holy Spirit of God will finally bring us true life. When God’s Spirit comes down and fills us, we find a purpose, a clarity, and a spark of life that will not and cannot come from anywhere else. The entire creation began when the Spirit of God blew over the waters of chaos. The creation of humanity in the image of God came to its zestful culmination only when the Spirit of God was breathed into the first man’s nostrils. The re-creation of humanity into the image of Christ likewise requires this Pentecostal encounter with the breath of God through the Holy Spirit.

    All other spirits in life lead sooner or later to disappointment, confusion, and aimlessness. There is in Scripture a clear parallel between what happened in Genesis 11 at the Tower of Babel and what happened in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost. Both stories talk about how a group of people are “all together” in one place under the heavens. Both stories have to do with a multiplicity of languages and of God’s involvement in that phenomenon. But each story is the mirror-image opposite of the other.

    In Genesis 11 the people decide to mount up to the heavens on their own. They want to build a monument to human achievement so grand and so tall that it will become the focal point for a greater human unity and resolve. But the result of this mounting up to heaven is just the opposite: people end up scattering, having been confused in their languages. Confusion and disunity, not clarity and unity, occur when people on their own try to construct the meaning of life. Of course, Christianity is hardly alone in telling a story about what can happen when mortals try to mount up to be gods. The fall of Icarus, the fate of Prometheus, and other such myths all have the same bottom line: the higher up human beings try to fly, the farther it is they will finally fall.

    Most other religions leave it at that. We are told to learn our place in the grander scheme of things and just be content. For people to get close to the gods is detestable to the gods themselves and so dangerous for the people who attempt it. As a well-known line from Shakespeare says, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods: they kill us for their sport.”

    But the Christian vision tells a different story. At Babel humanity tried to mount up to God and fell into confusion as a result. But that was not because God did not want fellowship with humans. God did not frustrate the people at Babel because God just can’t stand human company. God’s ultimate goal, as a matter of fact, is to have fellowship with us. To get that goal, God eventually became human himself! The problem at Babel was that this storming of heaven was being done in an arrogant way and on human terms alone.

    The gospel shows us what can happen when God, on God’s own terms of humility and grace, brings heaven down to us. God himself snuck down the back staircase of history to deposit a baby into a manger one starry night long ago. In humility, not pride, the Son of God built his own reverse tower from heaven to earth not so that we could spritely spring our way up but so that he could come down. What happened on Pentecost was another example of this same movement: since we cannot get to heaven, heaven comes to us. And when that Spirit of God blows down from heaven, Babel is reversed! Instead of scattering, people come together. Instead of confusion, a gospel clarity comes. Instead of being a maddening barrier, the multiplicity of languages is transcended so that the same message gets through to everyone.

    This Spirit of the living God, this wind and life-giving breath of Pentecost is the only Spirit that can do this.  And once it comes, it is all-encompassing.   That’s why on the original Pentecost, the apostles were at first deemed to be drop-dead drunk.   I’m not sure when “spirit” and “alcohol” first got yoked together, but maybe it was Acts 2. When a person is drunk, the alcohol within him affects everything: thinking, speech, and physical movements are all affected. When the crowds in Jerusalem watched Peter and company carrying on after receiving the Holy Spirit, the conclusion of many was that they were drunk. In a way, they were! They had a new Spirit within them that affected their thinking, their speaking, and their every action and movement. That’s what the Spirit of God is supposed to do for all of us. Pentecost is a good day to check if it does.

    Illustration Idea

    As Frederick Buechner notes, the word “spirit” gets drained of meaning through over-use. We hear about “school spirit,” the “spirit of ’76,” “team spirit,” “the Christmas spirit.” The new electronic sign by a local high school near my house regularly posts the hours of operation for something called “The Spirit Shop.” But it can be difficult to define just what “spirit” means for any of those things. The adjective “spiritual” has not fared much better. This word has been plastered all over the place in the last twenty years to the point where it can define everything from genuinely pious Christian faith all the way over to those who talk about the “zen of economics.” Ostensibly “spiritual people” may be those who attend church every week or those who never go to church but who use their Jeep Grand Cherokee to zip up to the edge of a cliff on weekends so they can meditate on the unity of sky, rock, and soul.

    At the same time, again as Buechner observes, we cannot deny that for all its vapory, insubstantial features, the “spirit” of something can be strong and contagious. It is remarkably easy for even a very calm and quiet person to get whipped up into enthusiasm by the “spirit” of a political rally, a football game, or (more grimly) of a lynch mob. When that big statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled some years ago, you could see the “spirit” of enthusiasm wash over that crowd in Baghdad. You could no more see that spirit than you can see my breath right now, but you knew it was there. Of course, a similar spiritual contagion has also been whipping up into a frenzy crowds of looters in Baghdad. “Spirit” is real but it can function equally well to inspire good behavior and bad.

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 104:24-34; 35b

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

    Author: Stan Mast