Something is wrong with this picture. People don’t start spouting off languages that they have never learned. What languages? This stuff is nonsense. These people must be drunk. So runs the first anti-Spirit argument in the Church’s history. Or at least the first argument that we know of.
The Day of Pentecost. Not one of those twelve disciples of Jesus got up that morning thinking that anything very amazing was going to happen. It was the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, the Feast of Weeks so-called, that took place seven weeks after Passover. It commemorated the Giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. Whatever else Pentecost was about, it certainly was never on anyone’s mind that the festival of Jewish national and religious identity was going to be a time when the doors were blown open, the breath of God palpably breathing life into a community, and the outbreak of Divine Fire of the kind not much seen since Moses’ famous burning bush. The very experience of Pentecost turned out to be international, multi-cultural, and pan-ethnic, not a national holiday celebrating that chief of all Jewish sacredness, the Torah. Jesus had promised that the Comforter, the Advocate would come. He had promised that power from on high would clothe his community. But no one expected anything of this sort to happen.
It is ironic that this mind-blowing experience would take place in the middle of a festival celebrating the Law. Religion specializes in law, in regulating human conduct, in policing morality. People frequently suppose that religion, of whatever sort, is actually about making people good, with some believing that if we get to be good enough we will qualify for everlasting life. It is quite a shock to find out that God is not tamable, quantifiable, willing to be sequestered under the confines of human categories and schedules. No, by God! If God wants to rush in like a mighty wind, unleashing dreams and sparking visions, then God does just like that. God is not only lamb, but tiger; not only dove, but eagle; not only fragrant incense smoldering in a smallish pot, but a great big bonfire so hot it will roast your skin if you stand too close to it for very long.
Isn’t it rich? No one believes prophecies very much until something happens and people run scurrying to the books and charts of antiquity to find out whether there was ever anything like it, or any prediction of it. So that is what they did, I think, on the morning of Pentecost sometime around the year 29 CE, best we can calculate. They said, “Aha! Here is it in the Book of Joel, which of course we read every day. ‘The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will pour out my spirit on all flesh. (All flesh!) And your sons and your daughters shall prophesy. Your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams.” If you keep reading you will find yourself in the thick of language describing events that signal the end of one world and the beginning of another, things that clearly fall outside history or even future history. What Joel says and what happens on Pentecost is that God can never again be said to be apart from people. God has filled them with good things, and they will never be the same.
Now it happens that the Holy Spirit did not just appear out of nowhere, but in fact had been around forever. The Holy Spirit had brooded over the darkness of the primeval waters of creation. The Holy Spirit had been that Wisdom that emanated from the Creator as stars were bursting into flame and planets spun out of the cosmic breath. The Holy Spirit had spoken by the prophets. Jesus himself had been driven by the Spirit into the wilderness after his baptism. He had returned, filled with that same Spirit. His whole life had been a spirit-filled life par excellence. And all of those things are bits and pieces of the story that we tell about how God is not only the Source of all things, but God is somehow present in everything, in everyone, and everywhere. The Holy Spirit is the code word for talking about God being in the here-and-now. There was never a time that God was not, just as there is no place where God is not. The Eternal is now.
Pentecost is not only a day and event that happened once upon a time. Nor is it an annual chance for the church to act wacky as if somehow that is what the Spirit of God is up to. Pentecost is the experience of being filled if you are empty, of being brought back to life if you are a huge pile of dry bones, of finding yourself if you are wandering about aimlessly, of being empowered to live a life of service if you are in the hole of selfishness, of finding your flesh tingling with exquisite sensations if you have been dead to bodily joy, of being electrified and vivified if you have been hopeless. And it is more.
What better day to celebrate New Birth than the day when this whole community called Church was born, wailing its birth-cry in myriad languages, dripping with joy, its timidity melting in the flames that settled on every head? What is going to happen when, in a moment, David and Theodore are plunged into the waters of baptism (would that we had a font big enough to bathe them both in water deep enough to resemble the burial of Christ in the tomb, which is what it is supposed to look like!)? What is going to happen to you when you arrange yourselves around the font and ultimately feel drops of water falling on you like showers of grace and blessing? Will you shudder with excitement that the Spirit of God comes upon you, freeing you, strengthening you, leading you to the Truth of who you are in your deepest Self? Will you miss the connection between the Spirit and the Water and the Power and Source of your life? Will it be just another day, when you say the same things in the same tone of voice that you have said as long as you can remember? Or will it be as if you suddenly find your voice, and a language that comes from somewhere deeper than your brain, stranger than your dreams, in which you simply cut loose and say, “Yes!”?
I am not trying to talk you into pretending to be impressed on Pentecost in a way that is not real for you. But I do believe that the Spirit of the Lord God is running through this place right now, as powerful as if it were high voltage, and stealthy as if it were a silent ghost. And it is not because today is somehow special and singular. It is on the loose every day. You have only to let yourself be open: open to the power that is already yours. And in due time, that Spirit will make out of you and out of us all a people that will do amazing things. Be open. And just you wait and see.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2014