Happy Pentecost! It’s a brilliant, beautiful feast. And it’s also an important feast for us, this year more than ever.
But, before I begin, I have two confessions to make:
- I came to the readings weary from a week of horrible, frightening, heart-rending news, searching for words of peace and comfort.
- I didn’t find them.
Instead, I was confronted by them.
I was struck this week by how raw, elemental, and powerful the imagery in our Scriptures on the Spirit are.
In the Pentecost narrative itself, the coming of the Holy Spirit is described as the “rush of a violent blast” (Acts 2.2). This is no Spring breeze, but more like the feeling of walking into a wind tunnel. Elsewhere, this wind of the Spirit is described as being unpredictable: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3.8). (We might also think of it as Job’s Whirlwind.)
Similarly, in one of the Gospel readings for today, Jesus compares the Holy Spirit to “rivers flowing with living water” (John 7.38). While ‘living water’ could refer to any flowing water, the context suggests he has abundance in mind: less a babbling brook than the mighty Euphrates, Nile, Mississippi, or Amazon.
And of course, the image that comes to mind first on Pentecost Sunday: fire. Yes, the “divided tongues, as of fire” that fell upon the Disciples when they were filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2.3), but also that all-consuming, purifying fire of God’s righteous judgment, about which John the Baptist prophesied: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but … he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Mt 3.10ff).
Or, the fire about which Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luke 12.49).
Fire. Water. Wind. And all of these images in ferocious motion, the basic stuff of everyday life co-opted by the Power of God to be agents of change in the world. A change in wind signals a change in weather. Wind makes waves, whips up fire, and stirs up the earth. Rushing water is almost unstoppable in its force, flooding its banks and carving canyons. A raging fire consumes everything in its path, leaving only what is pure and cannot burn (and even then, it’s normally melted beyond recognition).
These are the images our Scriptures use for the All-Holy, Good, and Life-Giving Spirit, which we celebrate, invoke, and appropriate today. And it is only because they aren’t comfortable or easy that they are able to offer something better than comfort and ease: Hope. Hope for new life in the midst of death and suffering. Hope for change and transformation in a deeply hurting world.
And on this Sunday morning, the hurts of the world cannot be ignored. 370,000 people have died so far in this year’ pandemic. Hundreds of thousands are tumbling into poverty while millionaires become billionaires. Racialized violence is setting American cities aflame — again and still. (Lest we Canadians are tempted into self-righteousness, the only thing we have done in response to the chilling findings of Commissions on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Truth and Reconciliation has been to quibble over the definition of the word ‘genocide.’)
It is a deeply hurting world. As my good friend, Rev. Andrew Rampton, put it yesterday, “The Spirit doesn’t come to renew the face of the earth for nothing.”
But there is a myth in our culture that transformation is easy and that life in the Spirit is a state of never-ending bliss. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.
The Spirit of God is not all ‘love and light.’
Or rather, it is, but love and light are not easy and comfortable words.
True love calls us out of our comfort and safety, and into the arena, to that difficult, vulnerable place where we must do justice and make peace — not the fake peace of this world that puts a square of toilet paper over a gaping wound of injustice and calls it ‘reconciliation’, but the true peace of the Kingdom of God, which is nothing other than the presence of justice in all, for all, and through all. This is what love demands.
Likewise, true light is not soft and gentle, but blinding and uncomfortable. God’s light reveals what we’d prefer remain hidden. In this week particularly, we all must be willing — especially those of us who are white — to turn that light onto ourselves and ask God to show us the truth of our own hearts, and where the ancient seeds of hatred or indifference and the insidious weeds of self-protection and ‘us vs. them’ may have taken root in us. This is what light demands.
And, brother and sisters, this is the hope Pentecost offers us.
On that morning in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, the Apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit, allowing them to spread the Gospel without barriers of language: A gospel, yes, about the forgiveness of sins, but also a gospel that challenged and transformed relationships, that erased the old human divisions between Jew and gentile, slave and citizen, male and female.
This is the message of Pentecost: The old is crumbling before our eyes. God is doing a new thing.
The Refiner’s Fire is kindled.
The Mighty River of God’s justice is flowing.
The Winds of Change are blowing.
Are we ready?
Are we ready to be broken? To be melted? To be molded? To be filled by God’s Holy, Good, and Life-Giving Spirit?
Are we ready to be changed?