Monday, May 16, 2016

Pentecost

Today is Pentecost. Pentecost is the Greek name for the Jewish Feast of Weeks, which occurs fifty days after Passover. The Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost, marked the end of the grain harvest and commemorated God giving the Torah to the Hebrews.[1] In time, as Christianity developed an identity separate from Judaism, Pentecost became the Church's annual celebration of God's gift of the Holy Spirit, which we heard about in today's readings.[2]
In the Old Testament, only prophets and prophetic figures – persons like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Deborah, and David – received the gift of the Holy Spirit. In contrast, the New Testament teaches that God gives the Holy Spirit to everyone who walks the Jesus path. This is why, after receiving the sacrament of Holy Baptism, the person is anointed with oil, symbolizing the gift of God's Spirit.
The account of Pentecost, as recorded in the Book of Acts, associates the Holy Spirit with three images or symbols: wind, fire, and language.
Language
Probably the best known and most controversial of the three – wind, fire, and language – is language. The text reports that each person heard the gospel in her or his own language. Then as today, Jerusalem was a cosmopolitan city because Judaism had spread along the eastern Mediterranean coast. Notably, Alexandria's Jewish population rivalled Jerusalem's in size. Jewish religious festivals regularly attracted crowds of pilgrims. So there is nothing surprising in the report that Jews of many nations and ethnicities were present.
The text is vague about what actually happened. Scholars, popular among charismatics and Pentecostals, argue that the Holy Spirit miraculously enabled early Christians to proclaim the gospel in a wide variety of languages. Other scholars, popular among Christians who believe that the Holy Spirit's gifts are less flamboyant and more commonplace, argue that the people speaking Parthian, Arabic, and so forth already knew the language. In either case, our emphasis should be on the event's meaning and not on what happened. Jews from far and near all heard the gospel in a way individually understandable.
In other words, God speaks to each person, then and today, in a way that the individual is most likely to understand. God's language is the language of love, the only truly universal language, one that every human intuitively understands, for at the core of our being each of us seeks unconditional love and acceptance.
Someone once compared the Spirit to a pair of eyeglasses.[3] When a pair of glasses fits comfortably and has the correct prescription, the wearer hardly notices the glasses. So it is with the Spirit. We overlook the Spirit's presence in our lives because we seek flashy, dramatic signs. Instead, look for the Spirit in moments of unexpected joy, moments when you discover yourself loving a previously unlovable person, moments of spiritual insight, and moments of synchronicity, i.e., serendipitous coincidences that lead to love and creativity.
 Fire
The desert fathers and mothers were Christian hermits who lived in the Egyptian desert from the mid-fourth century through perhaps the end of the eighth century. This is one of their memorably instructive stories:
Abba [Father] Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, "Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace, and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?" Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, "If you will, you can become all flame."[4]
Whether it is the tongues of fire above the disciples described in the Book of Acts or the fire on an elderly monk's fingertips, the image is metaphorical. The fire –observable physically in our lit candles and symbolically in the red of my stole and on the altar – connotes the passion that the Spirit tries to evoke in Christians.
Christians since the first century AD have described Jesus' arrest, trial, crucifixion, and death as his passion. In his passion, Jesus opened his arms and lovingly embraced everyone, just as s/he is. We echo Jesus' passion when we declare with genuine conviction that all are welcome.
Spiritual passion, like the moon, has seasons when it waxes and wanes. When our spiritual passion wanes, we can renew it by pausing to recollect times we have experienced the Spirit, times we have loved a neighbor in God's name, and times God has fed us with living bread or slaked our thirst with living water.
Wind
You may remember when English speaking Christians routinely called the Holy Spirit the Holy Ghost. That practice's roots lie in the Anglo-Saxon word gast, derived from a Germanic word meaning both gust and spirit.[5] Similarly, the Hebrew word for wind, ruach, and the Greek word for wind, pneuma, also denote both God's Spirit and the human spirit.
Speaking in tongues points to the Spirit's presence. Fire emphasizes passion. Wind signifies movement. The Christian life, individually and communally, is a life of dynamism and growth. Christians and Christian communities who sit still are like stagnant ponds that weeds and algae slowly choke to death.
Theologian Reuben Alves has described the Holy Spirit as the "aperitif of the future," saying:
We want the Spirit to be like airplane coffee, weak but reliable, and administered in small quantities. Or we want the Spirit to be a can of diet soda, bubbly and; ubiquitous, and capable of easy ownership. The heady aperitif tantalizes us, assuring us that the banquet to come will be magnificent.[6]
The Spirit speaks in ways that we can hear, fires us with passion, and moves us to action in ways that are often unpredictable but always life giving.
Almost fifty years ago, Al Unser was a favorite for winning the Indianapolis 500, until he skidded and hit the wall. He lay slumped in his burning car for only a few seconds before another driver stopped alongside Unser's burning wreck. While other cars roared past, some dangerously close to the second car, its driver, a young man named Gary Bettenhausen, clambered out, rushed over, and pulled Unser from the flames. This courageous act cost Bettenhausen, who had spent months and a small fortune in preparation, whatever chance he had had to win.[7]
"They'll know we are Christians by our love" is the title of a popular Christian song[8] The work of the Spirit, in touching us, filling us with passion, and moving us to act calls and empowers us to act with love for God and our neighbor that emulates and incarnates Christ's.
May they know we are Christians by our love. Amen.



[1] Mark J. Olson, "Pentecost," Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. D.N. Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), Vol. V, pp. 222-223.
[2] Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:14-17; John 14:8-17.
[3] R. Maurice Boyd, The Fine Art of Being Imperfect And Other Broadcast Talks (Nashville: Abingdon Press), 1998.
[4] Joseph of Panephysies, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, tr. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1975), p. 7, cited in "The Problem of Unanswered Prayer," Homiletics, October-December 1992, p. 13.
[5] C. Frederick Barbee, 'From the Editor,' The Anglican Digest, Pentecost (1995), p. 2.
[6] Ruben Alves, quoted in Beverly R. Gaventa, "The Unruly Spirit," Christian Century (May 12, 1993), 515.
[7] Og Mandino, The Greatest Miracle in the World (New York: Bantam, 1975), p. 54.
[8] Peter Schools.

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