Pentecost • Acts 2:1-21 • Rom 8:22-27 • Jn 15:26-27,16:4b-15 • May 23, 2021
Alison Long’s homily right after Easter made an impression on me. Why, indeed, were most of the disciples still locked in fear in the upper room even after the news of the resurrection? Why, for that matter, am I holed up at home, now that local pandemic conditions have eased and I’m vaccinated? I think it’s because recovering from trauma takes time, and faith needs the soil of healing to take root.
So here we are, weeks after the Resurrection, celebrating Pentecost. Pentecost was the Greek name for a Jewish harvest festival 50 days after Passover. This festival came to commemorate the divine gift of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, after the Israelites fleeing Egyptian oppression had traveled for many weeks through the desert. Both the giving of the law to Moses and the descent of the Spirit on the disciples featured divinely given words and signaled the divine presence with flame.
The parallels go deeper. The Israelites’ initial escape from Egypt was a hair-raisingly traumatic experience. Their desert travels, through unfamiliar terrain with few sources of water or food, were long and disorienting, despite consistent signs of divine support. In Egypt, they had at least known what the rules were, although those rules were imposed by a foreign power. With the law given through Moses, they received a new inner compass of their very own. This served to reorient them, to unite and define them as a people even as their numbers later grew, and to clarify and affirm their relationship with God.
The disciples had also undergone a traumatic experience with the crucifixion of their beloved teacher. Though they did not flee through space, they hid in fear of the authorities and underwent a similarly disorienting period, also punctuated by signs of divine support, this time in the form of appearances of the risen Christ. With the descent of the Spirit, they too received a new inner compass to replace commands given from outside, although instead of a set of laws this new compass was an indwelling Guide and witness. The experience and gift of the Spirit served to reorient the disciples, to unite and define them as a community even as their numbers grew, and to clarify and affirm their relationship with God.
We too have been through a long and disorienting desert experience this past year and more, adjusting to deeply unfamiliar life circumstances, new deprivations, and a sense that even now the old rules don’t exactly apply any more. Some of us may be wondering how much we can ever fully relax or trust again. What new inner compass, what re-affirmation of God’s presence in our lives, what new communal identity might be available to us?
To begin with, the readings suggest that our new inner compass is just that—inner. Before departing from the disciples as a visible, tangible presence, Jesus told them that his physical presence would be replaced by the Advocate, an inner guide who would “testify on [his] behalf.” This Advocate would discredit the world’s way of looking at things—would “prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.” Remember that in John’s gospel, the world represents a viewpoint cut off from the divine Source, as branches can be cut off a vine.
We can choose, unlike the world, to be rooted in and “believe in” Christ the Vine even though we “see [him] no longer.” Jesus’ return to the Mother-Father, though depriving us of his physical presence, plugs us in more directly. Since “the ruler of this world has been condemned,” we are invited to turn directly to an inner authority, the Spirit of truth. Unlike worldly bullies who speak on their own authority, the Spirit speaks for the Author of all. This contrast in sources of authority is a theme throughout John’s gospel.
Since this authority is within us, God’s messages are not outside where we can see or hear them. Paul encourages to hope in “what we do not see.” These messages may not always even be expressible in words. But then, the same goes for the messages we have for God. As Paul says, the Spirit helps us pray with “sighs too deep for words” as God “searches the heart.”
Paul also speaks of labor pains, and the pregnancy image brings us back to the symbol of a transformative inner journey, an in-between time when nothing is as usual. Though Paul does not regard our fruition as complete, he suggests that we do have the “first fruits of the Spirit,” an echo of the Jewish harvest festival on which our Pentecost is superimposed. His emphasis on what is beyond words is a powerful counterweight to the verbal miracle of the disciples speaking all the native languages of an international crowd.
And even that story holds a caution, lest we become attached to specific words and the certainty and control they imply. The story begins with a powerful wind. As we hear in John 3:8, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” Wind is something we cannot see, predict, own, or control; we can only feel it, respect it, and rig our sails to dance with it.
Wind, like the word Spirit, also represents breath, invoking the divine act (celebrated in today’s psalm) of breathing life into all creatures. This, too, is a reminder of our utter dependence on something beyond ourselves. We would not survive as branches without the Vine. Like the Spirit who does not speak independently, we are not meant to be a law unto ourselves. We are meant to be connected, rooted, guided, carried on the wind… part of a greater whole.
Perhaps it is no accident that interdependence and interconnectedness are lessons of the pandemic. Despite the isolation it imposed, it brought out our dependence on everyone who grows and delivers our food, who helps heal our illnesses, who keeps us connected with what we need. It illustrated how none of us is fully safe until all are safe, throughout the world. Because many of us were more glued to the media than usual, and because many live meetings went online, it also strengthened our connections to people beyond our usual geographic circle. Our personal circles, like the circles of the early disciples, became international.
Could this bethe clue to the new communal identification being offered to us as we emerge from our own season in the desert? It is no longer enough to be a people set apart, whether by Mosaic law or by Christian teaching or by any other dividing principle. The global pandemic, environmental changes, and world conflicts are signs that if we are to survive, our community must become rigorously inclusive. It must be nothing short of the whole creation.
Are new divine Words being given to this new community, as words were given through Moses and through the Spirit? What inspired speakers are now illuminated by divine fire? What if the fire of the sun warming the globe could draw our attention to non-human speakers of the Word—to the living creatures we might still protect and learn from, to the soil and waters and air that sustain us and might still be saved? What if the miracle of communication this time were to touch not just the mouths of the speakers but the ears of us, the hearers?
The miracle of the polyglot disciples and their hearers is a reminder that God speaks many languages, and Paul’s letter is a reminder that not all those languages use words. In what language did you first sense the creative Mystery beyond all words? Was it touch, wingbeats, gardens, mountains, music, color, dance? In a language that is yours alone even as it binds you to all creation, God invites you to reorientation with the help of an inner Guide as unpredictable as the wind, as powerful as fire, as life-giving as breath.