Pentecost B

May 21, 2012

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary

    Acts 2:1-21

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

    Note: The Common Lectionary during Eastertide substitutes readings from Acts for Old Testament lections.

    To read a sermon on that Ezekiel text, click here:

    What does the H1N1 flu virus have to do with Pentecost? Probably very little except for the way that such a flu strain can remind us that spiration, breathing, is worth pondering. 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 in Mexico wearing surgical masks at airports and out on the streets 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.

    Pentecost celebrates the day the Holy Spirit of God came upon the church in power for the very first time. And like the breath in your lungs right now, if we did not have the Holy Spirit, the church would be dead. 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. Did you hear that? It is the only one.

    The Holy Spirit of Pentecost was poured out for so many reasons. The Spirit now gives us gifts and talents, provides us with our life’s callings in whatever vocation and work we pursue. The Spirit animates every worship service.  The Spirit keeps faith alive even when our bodies are dying, allowing even gravely sick people nevertheless to testify to the hope that is within them. The Spirit touches us at the graveside of a loved one, allowing us somehow and against all odds to say the Apostles’ Creed and to believe it when we say, despite the casket in front of us, that we really do believe in “the resurrection of the body.” The Spirit pours itself out at the baptismal font and stays with our baptized children even in those far countries where our more prodigal sons and daughters sometimes travel. (And when one of those wandering sheep returns to the fold, there is never any doubting what Spirit it was that led this one back home.)

    The Holy Spirit of Pentecost does all of that and more. But let us not forget the very first effect this Spirit had: the Spirit of God brought people together, allowed a common understanding of the same gospel among people who were very different from one another. So I would be so bold to suggest to you this Pentecost Sunday that although you may indeed have God’s Spirit within you, if you inhale, and so also exhale, ideas and viewpoints and behaviors that tend to drive wedges between people, then it is fully possible that you are breathing in spirits other than just the one true Spirit of God.

    If your desire always to be right makes you shut out those who question some idea you have expressed, you may run the risk of fracturing community in ways that run counter to the unity of the Spirit of Pentecost. Spirit-filled people listen to each other in love.

    If your desire to be loyal to your home nation causes you to forget about, or not much care about, the fact that you have brothers and sisters in Christ living in probably every nation on earth, you may run the risk of downplaying the unity of God’s church in ways that run counter to the Spirit of Pentecost who wants gospel love to transcend barriers of language, culture, and ethnicity.

    If your desire to go with the flow in this pluralistic and relativistic culture leads you to downplay the cross as the way to salvation, then you are inhaling a spirit that runs counter to the Holy Spirit of Pentecost who brings the one true message, ever and always the same, to all people everywhere. Spirit-filled people know the truth and love it fiercely.

    In all my talk here about various uses of the word “spirit,” there is one I have not mentioned: it’s the one you see on liquor stores that say they sell “spirits.” 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 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.

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

    Author: Doug Bratt