Acts 2:1-24, 37-42
Today, we celebrate Pentecost, a day when we remember the gift of the Holy Spirit, promised by Jesus to the disciple, sent by God after Jesus’ ascension as comforter, advocate, empowering agent that enables the disciples to stop hiding and start doing the work of Jesus in the world. The word for Spirit in both Hebrew and Greek also means both Wind and Breath - Spirit, Wind, and Breath, all the same word. And so Pentecost is a day when we think of those images and more: the violent rushing wind that produces tongues of fire; God’s breath filling the disciples, giving Peter a voice to preach; the Spirit being poured out on all who gather.
And we wonder: What is this Holy Spirit thing, exactly? What does it mean for us, what does the Spirit do for us? Sure, God is always larger than our understanding, but I think we can relate to God as creator and parent and ruler, and we can relate to Jesus walking by our side, teaching and healing. But even if Jesus calls the Holy Spirit a Comforter, the Spirit has always felt much more nebulous to me. A Comforter is the delightfully fluffy blanket I can get under to snuggle in my bed on a cold night. The Spirit? The Spirit is weird, elusive, slippery, hard to grasp, even though sometimes I catch glimpses.
So I’ve been thinking about some of the imagery we use for the Spirit this week. On Pentecost, we celebrate God’s Holy Wind. The wind can cause a turbulent, stormy sea for a ship, putting people in danger. But a sailboat without any wind is powerless. The wind across sand dunes shapes beautiful works of art out of the terrain, and wind also churns sandstorms that congest and blind as sand whips through the air. We’ve learned to use windmills and wind turbines to harness the wind and convert the energy to power our world. At my birthday lunch this year, where I gathered with my mom and brother at a park so we could keep socially distanced, we were delighted when the forecasted rain didn’t come - but then realized the wind was our bigger challenge. My mom’s whole lunch plate got turned upside down, and the balloons she brought had to be tied to a tree, and my brother Tim was chasing my birthday napkins all through the park. The wind, though, was the only thing making some of my outdoor visits this week tolerable in the extreme heat - the wind was a relief, a gift. What kind of wind is God’s Holy Spirit in our lives, in our world?
This week in my video devotion, I sang for you the song we just shared a few minutes ago: Spirit, Spirit of Gentleness, by James K. Manley. It’s a beautiful piece, and I told you that I especially loved the refrain: “Spirit, Spirit of Gentleness, blow through the wilderness calling and free; Spirit, Spirit of restlessness, stir me from placidness, Wind, Wind on the sea.” It reminds me that the Holy Spirit is not just one thing. Sometimes it is like the gentle wind, and sometimes the spirit is restless, stirring us up when we’d rather be complacent. What kind of spirit do we need moving through our lives, our world, right now? I think usually I’m longing for the gentle spirit, but what I need is the spirit that won’t let me be, the spirit that says my placidness is really complacency, apathy, inaction, and God is calling me to move with the Spirit.
And I think about breath, God’s Holy Breath. The Spirit as Breath is an intimate image: God wants to give us the gift of God’s own breath! That’s amazing, humbling, overwhelming! God’s breath is in you. God’s breath is what created you, God’s breath is what resurrects you, God’s breath is what gives you life in this world and enables you to embody the work of Jesus, to be the hands and feet of Christ. The Creator of the Universe has given us God’s own breath. How are we breathing, right now? And I cannot think of God’s Holy Breath filling me up without thinking about George Floyd, a black man who we watched die at the hands of a white police officer, who knelt on Floyd’s neck while Floyd gasped for air, for life, for breath. “I can’t breathe.” Lord, have mercy on us. We are so broken by the sin of racism. What does it mean to celebrate Pentecost, to be offered the Holy Breath of God, when we have to reckon with the atrocity of snuffing out the breath, the life, the fire, the Spirit of God in God’s black and brown-skinned children? Baptist Pastor and Harvard University Chaplain Cody J. Sanders writes, “We are asphyxiating the Body of Christ by the violence and violation that has become our way of life” a way that we’ve accepted, he says, as an everyday reality of our world. “We expect,” he continues, “– even as we dread – news of another murder of a George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Ahmaud Arbery to come across our screens any day. And among the myriad feelings we have when it happens, surprise isn’t one of them. ‘We can’t breathe.’ We’re suffocating in our systemic legacy of white supremacy, and we’re killing our black siblings in the process.” (1)
What kind of Pentecost do we need today, church? What does the Spirit at work in the world right now, right here, look like? In the midst of a pandemic, one more thing that’s become a source of division, in the midst of our sinfulness, in the midst of pain and suffering and such brokenness, how does Pentecost come to us? What does it mean for us?
Normally when we gather for Bible Study, even our online version, I ask for someone else to read the scripture. I already do a lot of talking in the study - it’s nice to hear some other voices! But this week, when we read through Acts 2, I told the group I would read the first part of the text. Why? Well, because Acts 2 near the beginning of our reading includes a long list of place names that sometimes don’t roll off the tongue so easily. I’ve read this text in worship enough years as a pastor that I can barrel through, even when I’m not sure, but sometimes for readers, all these place names stop folks in their tracks. When Luke, author of the Book of Acts, is describing the events of Pentecost, he tells us that the disciples are gathered together in one place. Pentecost was - is - an important festival and part of the Jewish faith. Shavuot - the Feast of Weeks - is a harvest festival, and also a remembrance of the receiving of the Torah - the law by the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. When the Holy Spirit arrives, it shows up where the disciples are with a sound like the rush of a violent wind. What looks like flames rest over each disciple, and they begin speaking in other languages, enabled by the Spirit. This is important, because people from all over lived in Jerusalem or had come to celebrate the holy day. And everyone, no matter where they’re from, can understand the disciples. Now, Luke could have just stopped at that - telling us that there were Jews from every nation gathered together, and they could all understand. We’d get the point, right? But Luke insists on going into detail. And that’s where the list of places comes in. Who is gathered? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans, Cappadocians, Pontians, Asians, Phrygians, Pamphylians, Egyptians, Libryans, Cyrenians, Romans, Cretans, and Arabs. Wow! All of them are hearing about God’s deeds of power in their own language.
Why does Luke need to list out everyone of these places? Why not just leave it at “people from every nation” and save us from the tongue twister? I don’t know Luke’s heart, of course, but here’s what I think. Luke wants us to know that the message Peter shares about Jesus Christ and the gift God shares of the Holy Spirit is for everyone. But not just everyone as a generic, catch all term. Luke lists out all these people to make it clear: Every. One. Luke gets very specific. Luke makes it clear that this message is for each one of the everyone. Sometimes, the broadness of saying “everyone” glosses over the wonderful unique particularness of each person included in that everyone. The generic “everyone” allows us to gloss over the particulars we'd really rather not include. It’s like when we know that we’re supposed to “love everyone” and “love our neighbors” but it gets harder when Jesus starts telling us exactly who he means by everyone and who he means by neighbors and it turns out when it gets specific it also gets really hard. Who is there on Pentecost? Each and every one. Theologian Willie Jennings says that Pentecost prods us toward a Spirit that is “boundary-crossing and border transgressing.” The Spirit prompts the disciples to “go to those to whom they would in fact strongly prefer never to share space, or a meal, and definitely not life together.” (2) And when they do, when the wind and breath and fire of the Holy Spirit takes hold of them, it changes the world.
It fits, then, that Peter uses words from the prophet Joel as the text for his Pentecost Sermon. Peter shares Joel’s vision: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” But for Joel, for Peter, for God, all flesh is not some generic that allows us instead to leave people out. Joel’s words get specific about just what all means: sons and daughters. Young and old. Even slaves. Even those who had no rights, no status, no position, no power. All of these, each of these - they have dreams and visions and truth to share. Peter’s sermon preached to each one of these in the crowd is effective. Thousands respond to a message about Jesus Christ, who cannot be held by the power of death. They respond with repentance. They respond with baptism. They respond by committing to life together - sharing in learning, prayer, and food and fellowship. And together, each one as a part of the one body of Christ - full of life and breath and Spirit - they change the world.
How will we respond? If we take our cue from Acts 2, we find some direction in our own baptismal vows. We answer these questions when we’re baptized, confirmed, when we renew our baptismal covenant, when we join the church: "Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?" and "Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?" Can we say yes with our whole hearts? Can we say yes not just with words, but with deeds? Sometimes, friends, I long for the Spirit to be at work in my life - but I have to admit I’d rather it just ruffle my feathers like a gentle breeze, the soft breath of God, moving on the air. And sometimes, God’s Spirit might fill us just like that. But most days, I know that what I need is a wind so strong that it lifts me from my complacency, lifts me from my sin, lifts me from my apathy. I need to open my heart to the Spirit that sets my heart ablaze with a commitment to seeking God’s justice, to seeing each one, to working to ensure that the breath of God is not snuffed out in violence and hatred, to preaching the good news of Jesus’ boundary-crossing love.
“Spirit, Spirit of restlessness, stir me from placidness.” Come, Spirit, come. Amen.
(1) Sanders, Cody J. , “‘We can’t breathe’: an apt Pentecost prayer for white Christians,” Baptist News Global, Accessed on 5/30/2020.
(2) As quoted by Cody J. Sanders.