Pentecost – May 31, 2020
Acts 2:1-21 and John 20:19-23
Today, we celebrate Pentecost. It’s often called the birthday of the church, because it’s when the first believers received the gift of the Holy Spirit and began the mission of being Christ’s witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”. It is a bold mission. A mission marked by wind and fire.
Fire and wind are powerful biblical symbols. They have the potential both for creation and for destruction. In Genesis, the ruach – Hebrew for Spirit/wind/breath – the ruach of God broods over the face of the primordial waters and God calls forth life with God’s breath. God calls Moses through a bush that burns but is not consumed, and leads the Israelites with a pillar of fire out of death into life (in Exodus). The Spirit sustains all living creatures, renewing the face of the earth (Psalm 104:30). The Holy Spirit inspires prophets, both men and women, to see visions and to dream dreams (Joel 2:28; see also Acts 2:17).
Wind and fire are powerful symbols. Today is Pentecost the day we celebrate holy fire – flames that brought understanding, unification and new hope. And we celebrate holy wind, that breath that brings new life, that transforms.
Jesus enters into a locked room, into a room filled with fear, into a room where people have begun to give up hope, to ask if all they believed was merely a mirage. And Jesus breathes on them. The Holy Spirit is fire. It’s also breath. And breath is life. Jesus calls us to be witnesses. He calls us to bear witness to what he’s done until our feet reach the farthest extent of our imaginations.
In the classic 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, a powerful wind, God’s ruach if you will – in the form of a tornado – comes into Dorothy Gale’s drab, dull life and it lifts her out of her place, spins her around, disorients her and drops her smack in the middle of a new world, where she has a very important mission to accomplish. In this new world, nothing is the same as it had been before the wind came. There is beauty and wonder the likes of which Dorothy has never seen before, but there is also danger. As Dorothy is faced with these new dangers, she also meets others who have exactly the gifts she needs – wisdom, compassion and courage. And in the end, Dorothy and her new friends accomplish an incredibly unlikely mission.
Today is Pentecost, when we are reminded of the gifts of fire and wind to empower us all for mission.
And these past few days, again, we hear the words. “I can’t breathe”. “I can’t breathe” were the dying words of a black man named George Floyd as a police officer kept a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes while he lay handcuffed on the ground.
The flames of Minneapolis these past few days signify death and destruction. No neighborhood deserves to be destroyed. George Floyd did not deserve to die that way. Only God can take flames of death and transform fire into new life and hope for the future. So we call on God for healing, for change, for transformation; for the Holy Spirit’s power.
Remember that before the gifts of Pentecost, a crucified victim and resurrected conqueror of imperial violence teaches us to witness, to see, to speak, to move, to be. We’ve been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. A gift of empowerment to be Christ’s hands and feet in this world.
As Dr. Eric Barreto, Associate Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, says so well: “Witness, you see, is not just a verbal activity. Witness is not characterized solely by words or speech or language or even a tweet. Witness is a bodily act. Witness walks alongside the oppressed. Witness looks into the eyes of the dying, not as a spectator but as if our lives are intertwined, for they indeed are.
Witness notes the thin, capricious, unjust line between the living and the dying. Witness votes with love.
Witness says, “Enough,” but then does something about it with the power some of our hands wield, the persuasion some of our voices are given, the places where privilege lets some of us stand without the threat of state violence.
The kind of witness Jesus calls for here includes our mouths and our eyes, of course, but also our ears. Witness trusts the testimony of those who have been oppressed, even without video evidence. Witness trusts those who have been harmed.
Such witness makes demands upon our lives. My friends, hear Jesus say to us, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” And now hear him say, “You will be my witnesses in Ferguson and Waller County, Texas; Baltimore and Staten Island; Cleveland and Louisville; Falcon Heights and Minneapolis; and to the ends of the earth… Before the flames of Pentecost, the call to the disciples was already clear: witness, see, speak, move, be.” Thank you, Professor Barreto.
It starts with self-examination and listening to those whose lives are different from our own. It ends with justice, compassion, and empathy that manifests in our lives and on our streets. We are all interconnected. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ, respecting the dignity of every human being.
Receiving the Spirit, the church receives Jesus. And so the church receives Jesus’ own capacity to make God manifest, bringing light to the world. The Holy Spirit – the breath of God – is a powerful and unpredictable force. As we know from hurricanes and tornados, wind can do indescribable damage. But as any good sailor will tell you, you also cannot get anywhere without the power of the wind.
Fire and wind. It’s Pentecost. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, may we be willing to be moved and changed and transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. Let your feet reach the farthest extent of your imaginations. Thanks be to God for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Amen.