Pentecost – May 28, 2023
Consider creation. Genesis tells us that God made humanity from two ingredients. One is dust, mud, dirt, the stuff we find outside under our feet. God shapes us from this earthy clay like a kid making a mud pie. But, the Creator does not stop there. God breathes into this shape made from mud, God’s own breath, and the human becomes alive, a creature of matter and spirit. It’s God’s own breath that makes us live.
Today, on the Feast of Pentecost, we hear that the Lord sends a mighty wind in order to fill a dead world with fresh breath and call back to life the corpse of humanity. Pentecost means that Easter is not a private affair for Jesus and a few friends. Jesus rose, not for himself alone, but as the front person for an entire new creation. The Holy Spirit comes as a breath of fresh air for all of us who want to breathe.
So, let me ask….do you think that collectively, as a society, the pandemic of Covid-19, racial injustices, and rising gun violence have left many of us holding our collective breath, waiting for the next tragedy to occur? Perhaps there are many of us desiring a double portion of peace so that we can breathe again. In today’s passage from John, Jesus does that for the disciples.
He says ‘peace be with you’, twice and then breathes on them telling them “receive the Holy Spirit”. This is where the breath of Jesus becomes important. The Greek word for ‘breathed on them’ only appears one time, and that’s here, in the Greek New Testament. But, the Greek readers of the Hebrew Bible would recognize the word in Genesis 2:7 where God breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life; and he became a living being.
So, when Jesus breathes on the disciples, he is breathing new life into them. He is essentially freeing them from fear, stressing the importance of Jesus’ breath in our lives, and ushers in the Spirit to an empowered community.
My colleague Debi Thomas, shares about the Pentecost story: “The story is a fantastical one, full of details that challenge the imagination. Tongues of fire. Rushing wind. Bold preaching. But at its heart, the Pentecost story is not about spectacle and drama. It’s about the Holy Spirit showing up and transforming ordinary, imperfect, frightened people into the Body of Christ. It’s about God disrupting and disorienting our humdrum ways of engaging the sacred, so that something new and holy can be born within and among us. It’s about the Spirit carrying us out of suspicion, tribalism, and fear, into a radical new way of engaging God and our neighbor.
We are told that the disciples were “filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” “At this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.”
Debi goes on…Those of us who speak more than one language might be the best equipped to grasp the import of this miraculous moment. Those of us who are bilingual (or better yet, well versed in many languages) understand implicitly that a language equals far more than the sum of its grammar, vocabulary, and syntax.
Languages carry the full weight of their respective cultures, histories, psychologies, and spiritualities. To speak one language as opposed to another is to orient oneself differently in the world — to see differently, hear differently, process and punctuate reality differently. To speak across barriers of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, culture, or politics is to challenge stereotype and risk ridicule. To attempt one language as opposed to another is to make oneself a learner, a servant, a supplicant. It is a brave and disorienting act.
When the disciples and their friends began to speak in foreign languages, the crowds gathered outside their meeting place understood them. And this — the fact of their comprehension — was what confused them. They were not confused by the message itself; the message came through with perfect clarity in their respective languages.
What the crowds found baffling was that God would condescend to speak to them in their own mother-tongues. That God would welcome them so intimately, with words and expressions hearkening back to their birthplaces, their childhoods, their beloved cities, countries, and cultures of origin. As if to say, “This Spirit-drenched place, this fledgling church, this new Body of Christ, is yours. You don’t have to feel like outsiders here; we speak your language, too. Come in. Come in and feel at home.”
It is no small thing that the Holy Spirit loosened tongues to break down barriers on the birthday of the Church. In the face of difference, God compelled his people to engage. In the face of fear, Jesus breathed forth peace. Out of the heart of deep difference, God birthed the Church. So happy birthday, sisters and brothers. Receive the Holy Spirit. Together, may we grow into all that Christ longs to pour into us, his Body in this world.
There is a prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi that speaks to how we might be transformed by the receiving of the Holy Spirit. It goes like this:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in self-forgetting that we find;
And it is in dying to ourselves that we are born to eternal life.