Earlier in this pandemic situation, some clergy people of a charismatic persuasion wondered aloud online, “What if our first return to the church building is on Pentecost?”
Well, we know now. Nothing will look like we had imagined or expected. And yet we are here, in body or in spirit, celebrating the symbols of our faith: broken bread for a broken body; wine for spilt blood; candles for fire; prayer for our universal language.
Come, Holy Spirit.
While the disciples were all gathered together in one place, including Jesus’ mother and his brothers, the eleven and about a hundred others, they prayed, and sang, and broke bread. They kept the faith, they kept the memory of Jesus alive, they kept one another.
When the Holy Spirit erupted among them, anointing them with fire and driving them before her with a great wind, they emerged among the people to great confusion.
“Who are these?” the people asked. “Where have they come from? What are they saying, and why am I hearing them, and never mind, they must be drunk.”
How quickly the crowd turned from Hosanna to Crucify; from hearing the miracle of the Holy Spirit poured out upon God’s chosen ones to proclaim salvation to writing them off as a drunken mob.
But those who remained to listen learned something that day about the nature of God’s mercy, and the love of God that would go even to the Cross for us; love that would suffer in solidarity with the oppressed, the undermined, the unjustly executed, the betrayed.
The people who were prepared to listen to Peter and the others were cut to the heart when they heard of the injustice they had been complicit in visiting upon Jesus. They asked, “What then should we do?” Peter told them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation. Repent: repent, and be baptized. Then you may receive the Holy Spirit.”
I was on the periphery of yesterday’s demonstration in downtown Cleveland, of the loud and peaceable march from the Free Stamp to the Justice Center early in the afternoon, before some other things happened, a part and yet apart. As the crowd surged past, I headed for higher ground with my mask and my breath and my social distance. I prayed the chants (selectively) as they marched by, but one woman called out, “Come down here! Come down here!” I didn’t realize until later that I knew her. I stayed where I was, praying. Perhaps, on a Pentecost like this one, a preacher like me shouldn’t be trying to speak in tongues. Perhaps, instead, she should be listening.
Later, other things happened. You know, the Bible describes different kinds of fire. There is the pillar of fire that led an enslaved people out of Egypt and protected them on the way to the Promised Land. Then there are the dumpster fires of Gehenna, where the worm never sleeps. We recognize the fire of the Holy Spirit which rests upon the disciples but does not burn them. It is a refiner’s fire, not a forest fire. It doesn’t even scorch the foliage of the shrub out of which God speaks to Moses.
But don’t let the smoke obscure the truth that is poured out upon all of God’s children. Black Lives Matter. Racism kills. Even this pandemic discriminates, stealing the breath of more Black, Indigenous, and other people of color than that of Whites. And just in the past week, George Floyd was killed Monday in Minneapolis, and it is only by sheer luck that Christian Cooper walked away unharmed from Central Park after a white woman called on the police to punish the Black man for holding her accountable for her dog.
While Jesus was crucified for failure to cooperate with the authorities.
You know, when the Gospel says that “as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified,” it doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit was absent until ten days after the Ascension. We even saw her descend like a dove at Jesus’ own baptism. But just as Jesus is the source of living water, and his followers can only dispense that living water themselves once they have received it, once they have drunk of it – think, perhaps, of the instruction that any baptized person can themselves perform baptism, in an emergency – so it is that we as Christians come to recognize the work and power of the Holy Spirit in the light of Christ’s Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension; the promise of his return with power and great glory, to judge the living and the dead.
We cannot recognize the powerful wind of the Holy Spirit if we will not bear witness to the breath crushed out of the neck of the crucified man. We will not hear the Holy Spirit in our own language until we hear the resurrected Christ call our name, although we mistook him at first for someone else, for the gardener (he matched the description). We will not feel the fire of the Holy Spirit until we come with fear and trembling to accept the judgment of Christ the King, and his mercy. His justice is unassailable, and in the last days, the prophet says, it will fall upon all flesh, with portents of fire and smoky mist, swept in on the breath of the Holy Spirit; a new vision of the kingdom of God drawn near: the vision of a new creation, not of destruction but of new life. Not of vengeance but of justice. Not of murder but of mercy.
“Then all who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved,” Peter promised, and thank God for that.
And so yes, this is a Pentecost like no other. Yet the Holy Spirit still shows up to do her work, breathing life to those in the dust, renewing the face of creation. May we know her by her gentle fire, and by her urgent provocation to prophesy what we know: that Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.