Today we celebrate the feast of Pentecost, remembering the story of the arrival of the Holy Spirit among the apostles, which also marks the birth of the church. I love this story. And as I searched for images for our service today, I noticed that many folks imagine the story of that first Pentecost a little differently than I do.
For instance, this image from Giotto di Bondone seems strangely… civilized. It’s as if a bunch of white guys got together for a board meeting in a beautiful pavilion. The Holy Spirit is descending among them, but she descends in an organized fashion, with one extremely straight line of flame reaching towards each head. No one seems alarmed by the fire. I’m not even sure they’ve noticed.
This lovely image is slightly less formal. The apostles are sitting closer together, and they’re not enclosed by pillars. Also, thankfully, this artist includes one woman in the events, Mary of Nazareth. However, the fire still descends in an extremely orderly way, and things feel restrained, even solemn.
In our scriptures we receive a very different story. There is the sound like the rush of a violent wind! There are divided tongues of fire resting on each of the apostles. Everyone is filled with the Holy Spirit and begins to speak in other languages! It is so loud that folks outside hear the commotion and come rushing up. It is so raucous, some folks in the crowd assume that the apostles must be drunk.
The Holy Spirit is the wild element in our Christian Trinity. She’s an advocate, a comforter, an agitator, an innovator. She is a complicated and sometimes contradictory force who brings power and change. It is the Holy Spirit who finally gets the apostles out the door, on the move, interacting with the people, spreading the good news.
The Holy Spirit must really have been powerful in that little gathering of Jesus followers, because once the apostles get going, they don’t stop. They praise God, make disciples of Jesus, baptize, form radically generous communities, and travel off far and wide to keep the good news moving. They become the movement that is the church of Jesus.
I think we could benefit from some of that Holy Spirit power today.
We need Holy Spirit Wind. For those who cannot breathe, because of the pandemic sweeping our world. For those who cannot breathe, because of pollution. For those who cannot breathe, because of a knee on their neck, we need Holy Spirit Wind. Holy Spirit, come now.
We need Holy Spirit Fire. There have been fires this week in Minneapolis, one of my former homes, and elsewhere. And there are many decrying the destruction that riot and fire bring. It does seem that many actions may have been taken by white supremacists, and other agitators, and not those who protest racial injustice; a terrible betrayal. But when we witness the unleashing of the fire of anger and grief over loss of black life, we must remember that as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” Shame on us, if we cannot value life over property, if we ask for peace where there is no justice, if we ignore deadly police violence and focus only on protestor violence. We need Holy Spirit Fire. Holy Spirit, Come now.
We need God’s renewing, transforming force to enter into the buildings where we sit today. To enter into our hearts, and stir us to compassion and indignation and courage. To break into the institutions that enforce white supremacy. To break into the institutions that allow greed and violence when they are done by those who are white, or those who are in uniform. To break into a government and a society that too often condones hunger and want and oppression and death, that in these days regularly threatens free speech and a free press and human dignity.
We need Spirit boldness to give us hope that things can yet change for the good, and to empower us to be a part of that change. Holy Spirit, Come now.
I want you to know what is happening alongside the nighttime fires in Minneapolis. People are showing up peacefully in great numbers during the day to protest, and to pray, and to mourn. People are showing up to clean the streets. People are showing up with bags of food, because transit and stores are closed, and they don’t want anyone to go hungry. Small businesses and churches that have never spoken publicly about police brutality or white supremacy before, and many others who have been in the work for decades, are organizing and testifying with boldness. And yesterday afternoon, following news concerning infiltration of the protests, Minneapolis organized block by block to keep one another safe, to protect minority businesses and churches and community organizations that were targeted for destruction. There is a massive movement gathering to face this crisis, and to imagine and demand what would truly keep the whole community safe. Holy Spirit, Come now.
No matter who you are, or what you need to be freed from, or what you need to be freed for: I hope you open your heart to the gifts of the Spirit today. May you feel the presence of the God who comes to us as breath, as wind, as fire. She will surprise us; perhaps even alarm us; all for the good. For a wild, rich, bold, radically just future awaits us, if only we allow her to move us into something new, as she did so long ago. May it be so.