The UMC Lectionary Calendar suggests a framing question for Pentecost, which curiously doesn’t mention the Holy Spirit at all: What can you do to make Pentecost the day that you as a congregation witness about Jesus Christ to your neighbors who do not yet know his saving love?
The question is not without merit, but it may be getting ahead of itself. Among the dangers in approaching Pentecost with a question that directs us to focus on what we do to a subset of other people is the assumption that we can identify the needy neighbor. Once you’ve pegged somebody who “needs,” it’s remarkably easy to fall into the us-versus-them trap of thinking that we, the God-knowers, “have” God to offer, that we mediate God to the world.
This week’s lectionary passages, which all highlight the Spirit as a person of what Richard Rohr calls the “eternal flow” of the Trinity, speaks otherwise.
The Spirit is unknowable, completely other, unbounded, holy.
We cannot hold or have or grasp God. The text in Acts signals as such by using a simile, “a sound like the rush of a violent wind,” to describe the sudden, unanticipated arrival of God’s Spirit. Furthermore, the author employs unique phrasing that emphasizes God’s singularity. The Greek for rushing, pheromenēs, violent, biaias, and wind, pnoēs, are the only time the forms of those particular words are used in the New Testament. Language, itself a creature that God uses to communicate with us in ways we can understand, can only describe God in the approximate.
The Spirit is a regenerative enlivener. Marks of the Spirit at work are inclusiveness and diversity.
In Acts, the Spirit creates/gives life to what becomes the church, in a continuation of its animating work. Psalm 104 makes clear that God continues to create abundantly as God did in the beginning, through ruah, Spirit. God’s face renews the face of the ground; when God gathers God’s spirit, ours is gathered with it. All creatures are made to be doubly dependent on God for food, in addition to breath. We are never in the position to gate keep God to the world – God is fundamentally a life giver, sustainer, and renewer to the totality, individually and collectively.
Just as ripples on the surface of water indicate an unseen presence below, inclusivity and diversity are marks of the Spirit’s work. Those gathered in Acts hear one message, each in their own language. And after taking pains to list the varied peoples who witness Pentecost, the author references Joel and to emphasize that God’s enlivening spirit is further poured out on all flesh. The diversity of peoples in Acts recalls the diversity of non-human creation in the Psalms, all of which depend on the Spirit for life and the sustenance of it.
The Spirit mediates our relationship with God and one another.
Like the crowd in Acts, we might hear a familiar, life-giving voice coming from unexpected places and bodies. It is likely to be puzzling. Like the Apostles, we may speak a word that the Spirit transforms into witness and renewal for someone else. In either case, the Holy Spirit mediates, making us known to each other and God to us.
As Luke Timothy Johnson writes in his commentary on the Apostle’s Creed, “It is in the way God has revealed Godself through the work of the Holy Spirit among humans that we have been able to discern in the Spirit another ‘person’ of God.”
Given the layered richness of this passage, I had to laugh when I realized that Google offers a question more in line with the Pentecostal passage than the lectionary help. The two top hits for Pentecost after the obligatory Wikipedia entry are “What is Pentecost? What Does it Matter?” and “Pentecost is this Sunday. What the heck is Pentecost?”
It’s a delightful and appropriate irony that Pentecost still puzzles us. The crowd who witnessed the first Pentecost essentially asked the same question in amazed and perplexed response: “What does this mean?” or literally, “What wishes this to be?” I like the literal translation, because it indicates that the crowd discerns intention in the goings on.
Our Pentecostal task remains the same, for as John reminds us: the Spirit is our constant companion in the now-not yet, sounds of violent rushing wind and divided tongues of fire, or not. The Spirit is always at work animating and renewing our life and life together. So, what the heck is the Spirit doing? What does this mean?
What can you do to make Pentecost the season that you as a congregation assume a prophetic posture of holy curiosity and receptivity to a wildly inclusive, diverse-united God who gives and renews life from unexpected places and bodies? If you’re open to it, you might even discern signs of Spirit when you go to meet that neighbor who doesn’t know God.