Anglican Church of Canada
Pentecost Sunday, May 23,2015
Psalm 104::24-34 / Romans 8:22-27
Happy Pentecost! The festival of the Holy Spirit, the birthday of the church. Again we hear the familiar story: the disciples gathered together after Jesus’s ascension, waiting to see how they will go on. There is the sound of the violent wind from heaven, filling the house. There are the divided tongues of fire, resting on each of their heads. There is the miraculous speaking in tongues – not the babbling that we understand as speaking in tongues, but actually speaking in other languages, and the miracle that they are understood by people of many different lands. There is the impassioned sermon of Peter, making sense of it all in terms of Old Testament prophecy. And let’s not forget how the story ends, with the mass conversion and baptism of 3000 people. It’s a pretty spectacular show!
But you know, I can’t help wondering if we are making a mistake in making quite so much of the Pentecost story, year after year. We celebrate it as the birthday of the church (which it is), and we make it the one Sunday when we celebrate about the Holy Spirit (which it shouldn’t be). When we think about the Spirit, often the first thing we think about is the spectacular signs and wonders of Pentecost. And yet these signs and wonders are only one aspect of what the Spirit is about – and maybe not the most important one for us.
Because the problem with the Pentecost story, is that it really doesn’t seem to have much to do with the way most of us experience church. Even on a joyful celebration like this morning, there aren’t exactly mighty winds and tongues of fire, miraculous gifts or even mass conversions. Oh, we may have had glimpses and glimmers of that powerful, life-changing energy of the Spirit at one time or another in our lives. But we are Anglicans, after all, we like to go back to doing things decently and in order.
The disconnect between the Pentecost story and our experience of church can lead to some unhelpful conclusions:
• It can make us think that the Spirit doesn’t have much to do with us, that the Holy Spirit is only for Pentecostals and charismatics.
• Perhaps it can make us feel that we are missing the boat somehow, that a church born at Pentecost should show more of these miraculous manifestations. It can make us feel inadequate.
• Perhaps it can make us think of the Spirit we confess in the Creed as somehow distant, or unreal, a pale Holy Ghost we are supposed to believe in in the abstract, but who we can conveniently ignore
All of which would be very sad conclusions to have to come to. Fortunately, they are wrong.
And so, this year, anyway, I would like to concentrate more of some of the other Scripture readings beside the Pentecost story in Acts. All of them have to do with the Holy Spirit, but they speak of the Spirit in very different ways than Acts does. They remind us that the Spirit is much richer and more mysterious, much more varied and unpredictable, much closer to us and much more real than we may be tempted to think from the Acts story alone.
First of all, let’s look at the Psalm for a moment, that beautiful psalm rejoicing in God’s presence in creation, and specifically at how it talks about the Spirit of God. Now it has to be said, right off the bat, that something has gotten lost in translation. Whenever the Bible talks about Spirit – and this applies both to the Hebrew of the OT and the Greek of the NT – it is using a word that means both wind and breath. Think about what a different impact the word has in the different languages: in English, the word Spirit implies something separate from the natural world. It’s the same word we use for ghosts, for goodness sake. Whereas in the Biblical languages, the words they use are very connected with the physical world. The image of “Breathe on me, breath of God” was present every time they used the word. Perhaps we would be better to refer to the third person of the Trinity as the Holy Wind, or the Breath of God.
That sense of the breath of God infusing all creation runs through today’s psalm. It speaks of God creating and providing the basis of all life: causing grass to grow for the grazing animals, water to gush forth, God providing prey for the lions, God opening his hand to give all things food in due season. In the cycle of life, God who gives life takes it away:
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.
There is an echo here of the creation story in Genesis 2, when God takes a lump of clay and breathes into it to create humankind. It is the breath of God that is the principle of life in all creation.
Now notice how different this account of the Spirit is from the one in the Pentecost story. Here the Spirit of God is not something spectacular and exceptional: it is something everyday, something that runs through all creation, something as close to us as every breath we take. It is every bit as miraculous as the Spirit of Pentecost, but it is an everyday miracle: it is the miracle of life.
With this in mind, let us turn to the epistle reading, to this really remarkable passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Now, I know some people don’t much like Paul, but he quite outdoes himself here. He is talking about all of creation – not a theme that comes up often in Paul – a creation very much sharing in the sufferings of this present age, a creation “subjected to futility”. That is a phrase that certainly rings true in our own age of environmental degradation and exploitation. The rivers that are being polluted, the forests that are being clear-cut, the mountains ripped open by strip mining, the thousands of species facing extinction: if that isn’t being “subjected to futility”, I don’t know what is. The whole creation is groaning in labour pains, longing alongside us for redemption from its bondage to death – redemption from what we are inflicting on it.
And here he comes to speak of the Spirit. Just as all creation is groaning in pain, so we too, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly alongside it, as we long for redemption. There is, it seems, a kind of fundamental longing deep down inside of each one of us, a longing we share with all of creation, a longing for redemption from a world of sin and futility and exploitation and death, a longing for God’s kingdom, a kingdom of peace and wholeness and justice and life. That longing, Paul says, is precisely the presence of the Spirit within us.
Paul goes on: We do not know how to pray as we ought. As often as not, we don’t know what to pray for for ourselves; we don’t know what we really want, or the things that we think we want may not turn out to be the best for us. We don’t know what to pray for for the world: we all want peace in the Middle East, for example, but no one has the slightest idea what the next step is to get there. We don’t know how to pray because we don’t really know much. But prayer does not begin in the head, and it’s not really about finding the right solutions or the right words. It begins somewhere deep down inside us, in a place too deep for words. It begins with that fundamental movement of the Spirit within our hearts. It begins with that groaning for redemption that we share with all creation, with sighs too deep for words. And this groaning and sighing within us, that is the presence of the Spirit at our core, closer to us than our own breath, giving life not only to our bodies but to our souls.
Again, a very different aspect of the Spirit than what we see in the Pentecost story. And I so greatly value the glimpse that Paul gives us here into the life of the Spirit, because I recognize it. Unlike the Pentecost story, which seems mostly spectacular and exotic, the Spirit that Paul talks about is one that is very much present and evident in our church.
Whenever our hearts reach out to one another in a community of caring, treasuring and valuing each other, aching with each other’s burdens, longing for each other’s well-being, that is the Spirit at work within us.
Whenever we are touched so deep within ourselves by the beauty of God’s creation, whenever we are hurt and angered by the callous waste and destruction of the natural world, whenever our hearts groan alongside the rivers and forests and seas, that is God’s Holy Spirit groaning within us.
Whenever we hold up in sorrow and hope the needs of the world, as we do here together in the Prayers of the People, as we do each of us in our private prayers; whenever we grieve over the latest outrage in the news, over the kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria or the children killed in bombing in Syria, over another callous murder, or another shooting of a black teen on the streets of America; whenever we feel so sickened by the senseless violence that we don’t know what to say, but only long for it to end – that is the Spirit praying within us, the Spirit of God’s endlessly vulnerable compassion for this world.
Whenever we hold up – as we do, for example, each week in our Eucharist – the hope of a new, redeemed creation, the vision of God’s kingdom where all will find a place at the table, where every tear will be wiped away, where humankind and all creation may thrive in the fullness of life for which we have been created; whenever we celebrate and long for God’s kingdom, then it is the Spirit of God within our hearts shaping and giving life to that longing.
These are the signs of the Spirit I see in our midst. I see them every Sunday when we gather to hear and celebrate this vision of our redemption; I see and hear them during the week, whenever we meet and share, usually in quiet, everyday ways, our sorrows and our hopes and our longings. These, much more than spectacular Pentecostal miracles, are what I look for as signs of the Spirit in our midst. These stirrings of the Spirit deep in our hearts are our Pentecost. They are what keeps us coming back here, gathering together to care for one another, and to celebrate our hope together. They are what gives birth to our church.
So do not ever despise the gifts of the Spirit we have been given. Do not despise the wordless, helpless sorrow at one another’s suffering, or at the state of the world. Do not imagine the Spirit is absent in our church, or too weak, just because we do not speak in tongues. Honour and cherish the longing in your hearts. It is God’s gift of himself to us; it is the holy presence of God’s own Spirit.