A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on May 28, 2023 by Revd Sally Hitchiner
Readings for address: Acts 2: 1-21, John 20: 19-23
Who said all these quotes? I’ll give you a clue. They are all from the same group and I have changed the same word in each.
“Now I know there is something strong than fear — far stronger. The Spirit.”
“The Ability To Destroy A Planet Is Insignificant Next To The Power Of The Spirit.”
“For my ally is the Spirit, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, a crude matter this is not.”
“Remember, Your Strength Flows From The Spirit. But Beware: Anger, Fear, Aggression – The Dark Side, Are They.”
You may have guessed it. If you replace the word Spirit with the word Force, they’re all quotes from the Star Wars movie franchise.
The Holy Spirit has sometimes been spoken about in very abstract terms, spoken about in terms of what it can do for us. Charismatics may talk about it as a force giving miraculous powers, liberal Catholics may talk about it as a force helping us to break down barriers of language and oppression.
We struggle to talk about the Spirit any differently than a movie would talk about a tameable superpower. There are some serious problems with this. Individuals have used these ideas of depersonalisation and power for deeply destructive ends. Pentecost was often employed in teaching that legitimated the charismatic and unaccountable force exerted by leaders. It makes you wonder, have we been so immersed in a broken culture that we can’t see what Pentecost, who the Spirit really is.
So, do we skip over Pentecost this year?
I’m sure you know us better than that.
I’d like us to think again about Pentecost. Perhaps we will discover a new breath of life in the old thing.
If we are going to reflect on power, we should start with our own: Pentecost is not primarily a Christian festival. It was the Jewish Harvest Festival. Its roots are in the last day of the Hebrew Creation story, marked on the seventh Sunday after Passover – seven sevens, a week of weeks. They brought the fruits of creation to the Temple in thanks for God’s abundance. Throughout the second half of the Old Testament Jewish people were carried off as slaves to surrounding nations in the Exile. Eventually they were freed but many had become so used to the languages and customs that they chose to adopt those countries as their own, occasionally making the journey to Jerusalem for the holidays. But this was expensive and only possible every few years and you were hardly going to drag the first fruits of your labours all that way.
By Jesus’ day it was becoming more a thanksgiving for something more portable – the gift of the Torah.
The Torah was the five books of the Jewish Law. Some Christians talk about the Torah as if it is a cumbersome list of abstract “Thou Shalt Not”s. But to devout Jews then and now it was much, much more. To understand what this meant to them, we need to understand what they understood about being alive.
They observed that there is a small wind that comes out of your nose and your mouth when you are alive, and when you are dead, it stops. The word for breath is the same as the word for Spirit and the word for Wind – Ruah in Hebrew and Pneuma in Greek (like a pneumatic drill in English). Wind, Breath, Spirit – when you hear any of those words in the context of the Bible they are interchangeable. If a person speaks there is more breath or wind or spirit that come out from their mouth so they thought that speaking was not merely conveying information but the giving of something of your spirit to the hearers.
God speaking the law to his people was God connecting with the people in the most meaningful way possible.
In creation God took a lifeless human shape made of clay and breathed God’s Spirit into its nose making it come alive. No distant zapping life or death like the lightening bolts of the Greek and Roman gods. The Hebrew God comes right up close and gives Spirit, breath from inside Godself into the first human to bring them to life.
Sometimes I wonder at what point does part of your body stop being you. If you donated an organ, those were cells that were part of you that are now part of them and hold the space for your cells to replace them. The same is true with breath. When someone performs mouth to mouth resuscitation, molecules that were carried by blood cells from some distant parts of your body are blown out of you and into someone else’s lungs and carried throughout their body. A molecule that was in your brain a few moments earlier could then be in their brain. God’s breath, God the Spirit created the possibility of spirit, life, within humanity.
God marked them as God’s own by speaking to them. God’s breath, God the Spirit going forth from God’s mouth to give something of God to this people in the form of the Torah. And it was this that distinguished them from other people. Whatever happened to them, God had given them, not just instruction, but spoken to them directly, God’s breath had been given to them. And that was why they gathered each year to thank God for this gift. Even the disciples in hiding gathered to give thanks for this abundance.
Outwardly, the disciples didn’t have much abundance. They didn’t have armfuls of first fruits or easy access to religious texts. They were scared. They were confused. A few days earlier they had Jesus with them. Just when they thought it was about time to finally change the world, he went. He ascended back to heaven, promising to send the Holy Spirit to help them become his witnesses to the ends of the world.
Talk about a rollercoaster. They must have been still catching their breath. But Jesus had said to wait in Jerusalem so they found a safehouse. As they came to mark Pentecost, all of the remaining disciples piled into a small room together. The Gospel story talks about them keeping the doors and windows closed for fear of being caught. You can imagine this happening here in Acts too. Shh-ing each other every time someone moved.
You can imagine the sharp intake of breath when the latch on the door clicked and some of the women arrived with some food from the marketplace. When it was all set someone would have taken bread and blessed it, whispered a special prayer to thank God. Perhaps they paused, considering how far from that gift they felt in their confusion and exclusion from their faith… But habit took over, so keeping their voices low, they recounted the story of God’s small breath, God’s Spirit being given to their people in the words of the law.
But just then, at that moment the sound of the most almighty hurricane filled the whole house.
Not the small breath as someone spoke but a huge wind, a huge breath, a huge spirit.
God was breathing God’s Spirit all around them. I imagine a game show finale where the contestant has a minute in a wind machine with a ton of bank notes… more than they could catch.
The whole house is filled with the Spirit of God. This ordinary hide out now has the characteristic of the Temple of Old. These ordinary folk have been transformed into the high priests… all of them, every one of them is anointed, not with oil but with fire. Women as well as men, young as well as old, poor as well as rich. The Church was formed.
The start of this passage says “The day of Pentecost had come” – you could equally translate it “The day of Pentecost – everything that was meant by their Harvest Festival, the speaking of God to create a people- was fulfilled”.
So what does this mean for relationship with God? What does Pentecost tell us about the Spirit?
John’s Gospel was written after the other Gospels, including the book of Acts, more as a theological commentary on the others. Our gospel today of Jesus on the resurrection day, breathing on his disciples and inviting them to receive the Holy Spirit, gives us an insight into what is happening at Pentecost.
As powerful as the hurricane might have sounded, this life-giving breath wind is gentle as peace.
In our Gospel impartation of the Spirit, Jesus stands in the middle of them – the result of the presence of the Spirit in Acts is that Peter stands up and talks about Jesus being alive.
Jesus keeps a human body – after all God went through to get and keep a human form, God isn’t going to give that up. Jesus holds the space for humanity within God so that all humanity is present within the Godhead. Jesus talks within God about humanity, representing human hopes and challenges, not as observed from a distance, but from within – as human.
But because Jesus is in a body, he keeps our limitations of space. Even if Jesus was still on earth, one human body isn’t going to be able to be meaningfully present to every human being. You think of people straining to get a glimpse of the Pope when he visits. People treasure seeing the top of his head but that’s not as close as God wants to be with humanity.
So, God the Spirit steps up to be present with us here and now, but still investing in Jesus as the way for humanity to discover God. You have an experience of the Holy Spirit and you’re left feeling more love for Jesus. Without Jesus the Spirit would just be an external force zapping humanity from outside. When Jesus talks about sending the Spirit he says “I will come to you”. This is their friend Jesus, present with them made possible through the Spirit. Even if like their ancestors they are enslaved and carried far away from Jerusalem. Even if they are taught new languages and their Hebrew becomes rusty, even if they are alone and far away from anyone who loves them… because of the Spirit, the breath of Jesus is with them where-ever they go.
But there’s more.
In our Gospel Jesus says Peace be with you – literally Shalom (a)lecum. This is the whole life peace of Shalom – peace not just for the individual in body, mind and spirit but peace for their whole community… the whole world. Now we have the source – the Spirit breathes the breath of Christ within us, it is an invitation for us to join in, to speak out and create community… The first word for church – ecclesia literally means a gathering of people. A community called to gather around something… or in this case someone.
A little girl I know said recently that she knows Jesus lives inside her heart because when she puts her hand on her chest she can feel him moving around.
There is consent – Jesus says “receive the Holy Spirit” this could say “Welcome the Holy Spirit” – just as for the Holy Spirit giving Jesus to dwell in Mary’s body, there’s choice, partnership.
When community has broken down we can use our breath to choose, if you want to, to recreate community that has been broken. We can chose to speak truth, even awkward truth about abuses of power that others would rather not hear but is needed for us to have honest community. We can tell our stories and call others to more authentic community. When the right time comes we can choose to ask for forgiveness if we have sinned and we can offer words of forgiveness if we want to. We can work with God to build real peace. But this is an invitation to real partnership… the choice is yours.
In the Orthodox church when a priest baptises a baby and says “receive the holy spirit” he blows gently into the baby’s face. They genuinely believe that some of the Holy Spirit in them comes out of them and is breathed in by the baby.
Just as God spoke the Torah, just as God blew down and gave Godself to us at Pentecost, we are called to speak, to share our breath with each other and the Holy Spirit in you will be breathed in by the person you are speaking with. It is what we call church.
Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”