Pentecost. Fifty days after the Passover in the Jewish calendar – fifty days after Easter in our liturgical one. The final feast day ending our season of Easter. Pentecost. A word that simply means fifty – yet which can conjure up for us incredible images if we let it. But it’s hard to find images that match the description in our reading from Acts. Searching on Google produces a wide range of images from classical paintings to modern ones, from realistic portrayals to cartoonish looking ones, but it is surprising how very tame almost all of them look. Even showing small tongues of fire on the heads of the apostles and Mary, the depictions often have a pious group sitting or standing still with hands calmly folded. There is no sense of the movement, astonishment, confusion, violent wind and the noise, of fire and heat, of speech heard in myriad languages reaching out from the room where the Apostles were into the surrounding streets where crowds gathered.
Luke tells us: “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”
What a different depiction of the coming of the Holy Spirit than the one we heard the Sunday after Easter in John’s gospel describing Jesus’ appearance to the gathered Apostles Easter evening. Peter and the “other disciple” had seen the empty tomb. Mary Magdalene had met Jesus and been sent to tell the disciples that she had seen him, and what he had said. And there they all were, visitors in Jerusalem, hiding out behind closed and locked doors - still confused and uncertain – not quite sure what to make of Mary’s words or the fact of the empty tomb. And Jesus came into their midst. ‘Peace be with you”, he said. Then he breathed on them saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” A simple breathing on a group frightened and uncertain, somewhat taken aback, yet reassured by Jesus’ reappearance among them.
How different a group they appear now as they are gathered this time in anticipation of the Spirit’s coming. They have walked with the resurrected Christ, been reminded of much of his teaching, been with him this time when he disappeared from their midst at the Ascension, and have remained in Jerusalem as he instructed awaiting their “baptism with the Holy Spirit”, when as Luke put it in the previous chapter Jesus says they “will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come opon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”.
I can’t help but wonder what they were expecting. The previous depictions of the coming of the Spirit in the gospels are limited to the dove descending at Jesus’ baptism and to his breathing on them Easter evening. Every other mention of the Spirit’s presence has no image associated with it except the result, the change in whatever situation Jesus encountered. How could they have imagined what did occur? The sound of the rushing wind heard not only in the room but beyond it as well, the tongues as of fire, their appearing drunk to the crowd when they emerge to speak with them and the power with which Peter did speak. As described by David Sellery: “Jesus promised his disciples the power of the Spirit of truth. And on Pentecost the Holy Spirit delivered. The frightened fugitives in the upper room were transformed into powerhouses of evangelical grace. Inarticulate fishermen became spellbinding preachers. Marginally literate country folk became towering evangelists. Fair weather disciples became fearless martyrs for the faith. It was all as Jesus had promised: They were filled with the Holy Spirit and nothing in the world has ever been the same.” i It is no wonder Luke has Peter quoting from the book of Joel with it’s signs and portents of the last days. No wonder the early church expected Jesus’ imminent return when the Spirit’s coming was so dramatic and powerful, so like what they were looking for when in that same previous chapter in Acts they aske Jesus if this was to be when he would restore the kingdom of Israel.
So what image of the Spirit’s coming do you carry with you? What are you expecting as we gather today? The breath of God breathing in you; the advocate in our reading from John’s gospel, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father and will testify on Jesus behalf; or the Comforter, the one who eases our distress, encourages us, and comes to us in times of trouble to remind us of Jesus’ presence and promises?
The word in John’s gospel translated for us as Advocate is the Greek word Paraclete which literally means one who comes alongside another, one who stands by your side. In this sense, the Paraclete can be an advocate – to come along side to defend and counsel – or comforter – to come along side to provide comfort and encouragement. But the one who comes along side might also do so to strengthen you for work, or to muster your courage, or to prompt or even provoke you to action. For surely there was nothing comfortable about what the disciples of Jesus experienced or set out to do – to testify to Jesus as the Messiah, to the coming of the kingdom, to everything that got Jesus crucified in the first place. No, they were set on fire – literally and figuratively – they became passionate witnesses to Jesus, to God’s redeeming, loving, transforming presence in the world. They were transformed from followers gathered around Jesus into a community gathered and sent out, and nothing in the world has ever been the same. Can we say the same? A quote from Brennan Manning: “The gospel is absurd and the life of Jesus is meaningless unless we believe that He lived, died, and rose again with but one purpose in mind: to make brand-new (the) creation. Not to make people with better morals but to create a community of prophets and professional lovers, men and women who would surrender to the mystery of the fire of the Spirit that burns within, who would live in ever greater fidelity to the omnipresent Word of God, who would enter into the center of it all, the very heart and mystery of Christ, into the center of the flame that consumes, purifies, and sets everything aglow with peace, joy, boldness, and extravagant, furious love. This, my friend, is what it really means to be a Christian.”2
And to close, a portion of T.S. Elliot’s Four Quartets from Little Gidding
The Dove descending
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.
-T.S.Eliot 1888-1956 from Little Gidding, Four Quartets