5/12/13, That They May Be One

Acts 7:55-60; Rev. 22:12-14 & 16-17, 20; John 17:20-26


Who- is the Holy Spirit to you? How do you experience the Spirit in your life of faith?

On a day to day basis, the Spirit speaks to me through the loving actions and wise words of others as well as through nature.  I think of the Spirit as the life of the Divine breathing through everything. I breathe in life (oxygen), I breathe out life (carbon dioxide.)  Both of these substances are essential components of animal and plant life.  The created world keeps going on because of this breathing. This is one example to remind us always that Spirit is the presence of God in the world.

I will confess though, that the Spirit has gotten also my attention in some out-of-the-ordinary ways that turned out to have a life-changing effect on me.   Once I found myself flat on my back with an unknown lady praying over me. She asked for me to be delivered from the chains of generational religious bondage. Another time I found myself prone on the floor, laughing, laughing, laughing as some friends prayed over me for healing from cancer. These two stories may be enough to convince you that I really am as crazy as some people claim.

Today, the Church marks the Feast of Pentecost, as told in the 2nd chapter of Acts.  The followers of Jesus are gathered together in a room in Jerusalem.   Suddenly, a sound like a mighty rushing wind blows through. Something that looks like tongues of fire lights on each of them.  Subsequently, they are enabled to speak in languages that they had never learned.  Acts calls this the baptism with the Spirit, empowering the disciples for witness to the world.

When one thinks about it, this is really a pretty strange story… but then, the scriptures present us with lots of strange stories.  Modern scripture study helps us to understand that behind many of these stories is a remembrance of a significant moment in time enhanced by metaphorical interpretation.  So it is with the Pentecost story. 

Before the Christian holiday of Pentecost ever existed, the Jewish people also celebrated a Jewish holiday they called Pentecost. This makes it likely that the disciples, good Jews all, were gathered together for the purpose of marking this feast when the Spirit made its surprise visit to them.

Ancient Israelite tradition says that Shavuot, or Pentecost must be marked as the 50th day after Passover. On this 50th day after their liberation from slavery, God gave Israel his “Word” or the Torah, through Moses at Mt. Sinai. Still today Jews worldwide celebrate Shavuot or Pentecost just as their ancient ancestors did.  The Jewish tradition is to study scripture throughout the entire night of the 49th day.

So we can conclude that the disciples were there in that room in Jerusalem studying scripture. Perhaps their review of Torah reminded them that the Holy Spirit descended upon certain people to assign them a specific work, and then departed after the purpose was accomplished. (cf. 1 Samuel 16:13-14; Ps. 51:11). At Jesus' baptism, the Spirit descended on him giving him a special assignment.  He had now completed this task and was gone.

They might also have been reminded that the Joel prophet had spoken this, “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh… Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.” (2:28-29) When Jesus was making his farewell speech in the Upper Room before his death, he promised his followers: “But the helper… whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I have said to you.” (John 14:26)

So what really happened at Pentecost? As they reviewed ancient stories and thought about their times with Jesus, did the disciples suddenly understand what had happened to them on the first day after Jesus’ resurrection?  Because John’s story, the gospel for today, is that Jesus appeared to them in the room where they were hiding out.

He offered them the gift of peace,  breathed on them, and sent them out to be his witnesses , promising them empowerment by the Spirit.

 Remember the OT story about the creation of the world, begun when a mighty wind swept over the water of the deep? This is a metaphorical way of imagining how the spirit of God breathed life into being. Remember the story of the call of Moses when the fire of a burning bush spoke to him? This is a metaphorical way of imagining how God’s energy is imparted to humans to accomplish a difficult task.  Perhaps then, this passage from Acts is a metaphorical rather than a literal interpretion of Pentecost.  An experience of something like wind and fire, life and energy,  sent the apostles into the streets and synagogues to preach the gospel.  Envisioning the fire “as of many tongues” released the disciples to speak in foreign languages making it possible for this new story of God’s presence and power to be offered to all humanity, not just the nation of Israel.   

Marcus Borg tells of an old Native Indian who begins his tales with this introduction, “Now I don’t know if it really happened this way, but I know this story is true.”  So it is with this story of Pentecost.  We needn’t spend time arguing about whether Luke really got the history of what happened 50 days after Easter correct.  We can simply acknowledge that something remarkable was experienced by a group of grieving, frightened and disillusioned Jews… something that persuaded them to invest the rest of their lives in telling a new story of faith to people of all races and cultures. 

So-  how do you experience the Spirit of God alive in you? Although unusual things can happen, it is more likely that the Spirit will get your attention in more subtle ways.  Just keep your eyes and ears open and your heart in a place of response so that like disciples throughout the ages, you too become a bearer of the good news simply through the living of your life.  As St. Francis said to his own followers, “Preach the gospel always, and if necessary use words.”  And in one word, “BREATHE.”   

By Sandi DeMaster