In 2005, I was living in Montreal, on a working gap year between university degrees.
Because I worked Sundays, the only church I could attend was a small francophone Pentecostal group who worshipped Sunday evenings at the downtown Salvation Army building. I remember one Sunday, at the end of a praise song, the music leader remained standing, eyes closed, and said “Let us stay standing for a moment and feel how good our God is. Let us worship God with our whole being and be grateful for God’s presence.” At that point, having worked all day, my internal reaction was “I’m tired! I don’t want to worship God anymore – I want to sit down!”
It wasn’t just the fatigue: I am a WASP, of solid British descent on both sides, with a mixture of Methodism and the Church of England in my heritage. Enthusiasm in worship makes me nervous, and I associate this enthusiasm with the Spirit.
It is, after all, the Pentecostal churches who are known for an exuberant style of worship, including impromptu prayers and improvised expressions of gratitude and praise. I, true to my heritage, find it all overwhelming and run away.
This is what I think of when I think of the Spirit, and probably the impulse to run away from the Spirit is not entirely illogical. Life in the Spirit is full of the unexpected, the uncomfortable, the unsettled. We can neither contain nor exploit the Spirit; we must scramble to keep up with it; and as typified in the Book of Acts, it will often involve journeys into the unknown. It is symbolized by wind and fire, as we heard in the Pentecost story, and neither of these elements are to be messed with. Of all the members of the Trinity, the Spirit seems the least comforting.
But what is this Spirit? Why does the church celebrate Pentecost? What is the good news of a small group of apostles speaking in many languages?
First, a little background: Pentecost is the Greek name for Shavuot, which is a Jewish springtime festival. It marks the wheat harvest in the Land of Israel, and it commemorates the anniversary of the day God gave the Torah to the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai.
“Shavuot” means “weeks,” and the festival of Shavuot marks seven weeks from the end of Passover. Just as Shavuot is linked to the Passover, so is Pentecost linked to Easter.
Before his Ascension, Jesus promised the disciples that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them (Acts 1:8), which would fulfill the promise of the Father (Acts 1:4). The Spirit, therefore, is the fulfilment of a promise made by God to God’s people. And just as the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai brought the nation of Israel into a new relationship with God, so does the arrival of the Holy Spirit bring the followers of Jesus into a new relationship with God.
Now, for us reading the Bible today, we often ask the question “Did it really happen that way? Is this real? Is this fact?” It’s not wrong to ask the question, but I don’t think it’s a helpful one. It is a particularly modern way to view the Bible, as if historically verifiable data is the only valuable story, or as if it is an either/or choice between a pragmatic fact or a pretty fiction.
Rather than choosing between blind faith or hard-nosed skepticism, I suggest that we adjust our lens for reading Biblical texts. These stories are not explanations or in competition with science. They are testimonies, testimonies of wonder and awe, struggle and questioning.
The truth of Pentecost is not found in trying to explain how the disciples could have suddenly spoken different languages. The truth of Pentecost is in its teaching about the nature of the Spirit.
And so what is this Holy Spirit of ours? Well it is not ours, to begin. It defies categorization or explanation. It is that which both nurtures and challenges us, empowering us to bear witness to our stories in Christ. The Book of Acts understands it to be the same Spirit which spoke through the prophets of Israel and Judah, crying out for justice and mercy in the face of brutal exploitation. The Hebrew word for “spirit” is the same word for “breath,” and the Spirit is God breathing life into us, inspiring and uplifting us, making and renewing opportunities for ministry in the world: the same breath that breathes upon the scene of death and devastation in the reading from Ezekiel.
Pentecost is said to be the birth of the church, because it was on that day that the Holy Spirit kicked the apostles out of the house and into the streets, into the masses, and inaugurated the work of the church in the world. Acts 2:41 tells us that 3,000 people were baptized that day, thus setting an impossible standard for the rest of us.
And this is where I think it is easy to be misled. I do not think that any book of the Bible is meant to be an instruction manual. That’s too easy. The Bible presents us with stories, stories that challenge us to look deeper into our own lives and times. I do not think it serves us to read this story of the birthing of the church and sigh wistfully over the image of 3,000 people in the pews. If we read this story and panic, thinking that we must recreate it 2,000 years later, then we are acting out of fear, and fear is not a gift of the Spirit.
What, then, is our role? What is the church called to be? How are we to embody the gifts of the Spirit in our time and place?
The answer is extremely simple and not at all easy. The mission of the church, the Book of Acts tells us, is to bear witness to God’s saving work in the person of Jesus the Christ. And if you are anything like me, your hackles have just risen.
The vocabulary of “witness” and “testify” does not come too easily to the lips of United Church congregants. “Justice,” “peace,” “compassion,” yes. But witnessing and testifying seem to have become the provenance of the Christianity that teaches all must be converted, that asks strangers if they have found Jesus.
Now, I think we have something to learn from this brand of Christianity; I think their comfort in speaking of a personal relationship with God and with Christ is a beautiful thing. But “bearing witness” does not mean being overbearing.
Yes, it can include sharing the delight of one’s faith and the story of its journey. Yes, it can include prayer. But it also includes worship. It includes fellowship at table together, whether it be dinner or communion. It includes compassion. It includes the generous sharing of resources. It means living out in action what we profess in word; it means walking our talk.
And what does God’s “saving work” mean? I do not think this is about being saved from eternal damnation, a smoky underworld with horns and pitchforks. I think, my friends, it also means being saved from the hells of our making. It means being saved from the living hell of hopelessness and depression, isolation and fear, cruelty and hate. It means being saved from our self-absorption, our ego, our reflexive self-preservation. It means being saved from greed, consumerism, and the self as accumulator. It means being saved from the fundamental sins of both pride and despair: the belief that we don’t need God, and the belief that God doesn’t need us.
We are not called to save the world from itself, or to save souls from damnation. We are called to be the people through whom God may be at work, thus saving all of us.
The kicker here is that the Spirit will never wait for us to be ready. The Spirit is always doing a new thing, leaping over the horizon while we’re still looking in the rearview mirror. The church, we are told in Acts, is often slow to discern God’s work in its midst. We have always struggled with the tension between opening ourselves to the new thing God is doing, while having the structure and institution necessary to any organization of a certain size. We simultaneously fear that we are changing too quickly and too slowly.
All churches – not just St Paul’s, not just the United Church of Canada – all churches are struggling to discern God’s vision for the future. All of us have fear and doubt. But that is part of the deal. God’s involvement has never been a safeguard against hardship or loss.
The prophet Ezekiel wrote while in exile in Babylon with the people of Israel, in the early 6th century BCE. His people experienced the destruction of both Jerusalem and the Temple, which was the residence of God, and it was a major theological crisis. It was tantamount to God’s total abandonment of God’s people. The valley of dry bones speaks to the utter despair of Israel.
But God does the impossible: God makes life possible where there was none. God will have none of this staying-in-my-grave business: God says twice that God will bring us up from our graves.
I will not tell you that we must not grieve what we have lost. I will not tell you that you must not grieve the changes you have undergone; I will not tell you that you must not grieve the shuttering of churches across our country. What I will tell you is that grief is not the final story. Our Scriptures tell of new life: God brought Israel out of exile and resurrected Jesus from the dead. Whether we like it or not, whether we are ready or not, the Spirit is at work, breathing upon us.
And it will never look like it did before. The resurrected Jesus preached no sermon on the mount, performed no miracle healings, drew no crowds. The rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem when the Israelites returned home was a long hard slog. But if we only pine for what we once had, we will miss what God is doing now, where God needs us now.
One last thing: do not make the mistake of believing that God has need only of the young. When Peter quotes the prophet Joel, his vision calls us all: old and young, women and men, slaves and free. We are all needed to build the kingdom of God.
God is with us now. The Spirit breathes upon us now. May we have the courage to follow where we are called. Amen.