Day of Pentecost
I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been watching with horror and fascination these past few weeks as Kilauea Volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii spews fire and a seemingly endless stream of ash and molten lava. One video I watched repeatedly was of a Ford Taurus gradually being completely devoured by a lava flow. I know it’s destructive and dangerous, but can’t help feeling awe as I watch both demolition and creation happening right in front of my eyes.
Scripture frequently employs fire as a symbol for God, and—like all the best symbols—it is multi-sided. There are illustrations of fire both sustaining and destroying life. John the Baptist and Elijah both called down fire to destroy the wickedness of the world. Moses met God in a burning bush, and the Israelites were led safely through the desert by a pillar of fire at night and a pillar of cloud by day. Of course, today’s reading from Acts is one of the best and most famous stories about God’s Spirit coming among us as fire.
Because many of us know the story of Pentecost, we tend to forget that the disciples were not gathered together in the marketplace to experience the coming of the Holy Spirit. No one told them to wear red. No, even though it’s been weeks since the resurrected Jesus commissioned his followers to go into all the world, spreading the good news of the Gospel, the disciples are still hanging around in a room in Jerusalem. Together with faithful Jews of every culture and land, they are celebrating God’s generosity at a Jewish harvest festival called the Festival of Weeks. It was a traditional religious commemoration held every year; I doubt that anyone anticipated God showing up in a new and startling way. But then came the fire. Uncontrollable and disruptive, the Holy Spirit rushed in, flickering over the disciples’ heads, opening their mouths and the ears of the crowd, and altering the world.
This story is a reminder that when God begins a project, it’s unsettling for everyone involved. Who can forget teenage Mary, visited by an angel telling her she will bear God’s own child? Or Jesus sending a Samaritan woman (two strikes) to tell her village that she’d met the Messiah? Or how that same Messiah endured unspeakable pain and death, and then unimaginable resurrection? Today Peter quotes the prophet Joel, explaining that God is pouring out the Holy Spirit on all flesh–young and old, slaves and free people, Malaysians and Iraqis, North and South Koreans, Haitians and Cambodians, men and women and people of all gender expressions, of all physical and mental abilities—everyone will see visions and dream dreams because the Holy Spirit cannot be contained. This was radical stuff in the 1st century and it’s still radical stuff now.
I’m not sure we, as a church, are completely ready for or comfortable with the Holy Spirit coming among us, upsetting the status quo like that. Sometimes it feels like we’d prefer to control the Spirit’s movements, or that our yearning for the Spirit’s surprise has devolved into absolute certainty of the Spirit’s core characteristics, traits, and ways of being in the world.
We should be careful when we start to feel like we understand what to expect from the Holy Spirit. It’s in just such moments that Pentecost is likely to erupt and scatter all our pretty theologies, erasing old ways of thinking and acting and believing in order to make space for the Spirit’s disruption. The Spirit might insist on this particular space for her newest disturbance, obliterating what was and bringing forth something new and completely unexpected. God is not finished creating yet. Just ask Hawaiians.
Sometimes this idea is scary. But frankly, sometimes I really long for a radical change—for society, for organized religion, for the whole creation to be wiped out by lava or fire and built up again from scratch. Pentecost usually feels like a celebration to me, a baptism party for the church, when we rejoice in our adoption as God’s children. But sometimes—this year in particular—I’m feeling pretty low about the state of the world, particularly the state of our (in)humanity. This week my heart has been heavy with all the horrific violence in Gaza—thousands injured and at least 58 (mostly young people) dead. A woman leaping to her death with her child in her arms. Ebola. Rumors of wars plus an actual war in Syria. There really are times I wish God would just let lava cover the face of the earth and start all over, better this time.
Into exactly such moments God sends Pentecost, this sizzling, sparkly reminder that God does not abandon us to our pain, confusion, lethargy, sinfulness, or hopelessness. We have a very limited scope of what is happening and what is possible, rooted in a very finite view of what we know or think we know. Pentecost blows through all of that like wind, like fire, like lava, reshaping reality, whether we understand what’s going on or not. Pentecost points us to God’s promises so articulately expressed by Paul in his letter to the Roman church: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”
Isn’t that a gift? When we are all out of words to pray, when our anger or our fear or our anxiety threaten to overwhelm us, when our expectations of God are so limited that there is just not much there there, the Holy Spirit scoops us up with all of those thoughts and feelings and places everything in God’s lap. The Spirit listens to and interprets our tears and the sighs of our hearts, as well as the groaning of creation itself—falling rocks, melting ice, dwindling numbers of bees and polar bears, rising temperatures, black holes, volcanoes and all. All of creation groans in suffering, and yet our sighs are laced with hope. Paul calls these groans not “death rattles” but “labor pains,” suggesting that we aren’t in the throes of death, but on very verge of the birth of new life.
Jesus’ incarnation and cross showed us God boldly entering into the brokenness of the world. The presence of the groaning Spirit demonstrates that God stays with the broken world all the way through to the end. And the end is, in fact, a new beginning. So what now? The Holy Spirit does not simply console us and move on. Oh no! The fire that consoles us like a warm hearth on a rainy day also burns hot enough to consume the underbrush and weeds that keep us from growth, leaving behind nutrient-rich soil conducive to new life.
Yes, the Holy Spirit is our Comforter, our Refuge, and our Advocate, but the Holy Spirit is also our Instigator, Agitator, and Fuel, goading us to comfort and advocate for others. Creation is still groaning. People are still crying. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we offer our thoughts and prayers—and then we act. Prodded by fire and adopted as God’s own children in our baptisms, our stories become extensions of the story of the Resurrected Jesus. Supported and guided by the spirit of our living Lord, we are sent out to bear all the fire of God’s love to places where there is no light, no hope, no warmth. Come, Holy Spirit,come.
~Pastor Susan Schneider