Air Hunger

Pentecost Sunday

Acts 2:1-21

Psalm 104:24-34

1 Corinthians 12:3-13

John 20:19-23

 

Then the LORD God formed man from the dust

of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the

breath of life; and the man became a living being.

                                       Genesis 2:7

 

When he had said this, he breathed on them and

said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

                                     John 20:22

 

You who pour mercy into hell, sole authority in the

highest and lowest worlds, let your anger disperse

the mist in this aimless place, where even my sins

fall short of the mark… Arouse my heart again with

the limitless breath you breathe into me, arouse the

secret from obscurity.

                                    Leonard Cohen,  The Book of Mercy

 

Pentecost, with its attention to the life-giving breath of God, seems especially poignant this year, with the world immersed in a pandemic caused by a virus that takes away breath and, tragically often, life.  In spite of assurances that the worst may be over, many of us continue to live day-to-day with simmering anxiety that threatens periodically to boil over into full-blown dread, that we or someone we love will become sick and perhaps even die. One of the most fearsome things about the virus is the way it attacks the respiratory system, making it difficult for the lungs to oxygenate blood. Inadequate blood oxygen causes faster and deeper breathing, which causes changes in blood chemistry that lead, among other things, to panic. The name for this response and the terror it causes is “air hunger,” and anyone who has had a serious asthma attack has experienced at least a measure of it. It is a dreadful thing to watch, much less experience.

It’s small wonder, then, that we are so anxious, for breath is essential to life. This is as much a theological claim as a physiological one; Creation is animated by the breath of God, and the breath that sustains the life of every creature has God as its first cause. Just so, the lectionary for this Pentecost reminds us that God’s ultimate intention, both for us and for the rest of God’s beloved Creation, is not sickness and death but healing and wholeness, given freely in the limitlessly merciful and limitlessly powerful breath of God. Read more

Not As You Suppose

Pentecost
Acts 2.1-21

One Friday night I was working late at church, when a young boy wandered in among the pews. He was there for a Scout dinner in the other room, but excited to see the sanctuary doors open, he ducked in to have a look. I invited him on in, along with his mom. They were hushed and reverent as they gazed around, but I did manage to overhear his parting words. Looking at the wall at the front of the sanctuary, he pointed to the cross hanging there and said with grave solemnity and great awe, “Look! They have a giant lowercase t.” Read more

The Good Work of the New Humanity

Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:24-35
1 Corinthians 12:3-13
John 20:19-23

Works of pride, by self-called creators, with their premium on originality, reduce the Creation to novelty—the faint surprise of minds incapable of wonder.
– Wendell Berry

We seldom associate Pentecost Sunday with work of any sort, even good work. Perhaps this is because the wild imagery of wind and flame and the strangeness of glossolalia tempts us to see Pentecost as distinctly other-worldly. Or perhaps we have simply assumed that work itself is inherent in the curse passed down from our primordial ancestors, and that the redemptive power unleashed at Pentecost is part of God’s action to release us from that curse—and so from work.

This is a misreading, both of the first chapters of Genesis—the gifts of tilling and keeping the garden were part of God’s instruction to humankind from the beginning—and of the story of Pentecost in its broader theological context as the commencement of the mission of proclaiming the gospel. It tends to obscure the fact that human work of a certain kind is part and parcel of our faithfully embodying our role as icons of the triune God. Read more

What Wishes Pentecost to Be?

Pentecost Sunday

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:24-34
John 14:8-17

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. Read more

The Advocacy of the Spirit

Pentecost Sunday
Acts 2:1-21
Romans 8:22-27
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Although this piece is about Pentecost, I am writing it on the Feast of the Ascension. This fact along with the Pentecost reading from Acts 2 brings Elijah to mind. Like Jesus, Elijah ascends into heaven. Unlike Jesus, he does not conquer death prior to his ascension. Like the followers of Jesus, Elijah has powerful experience of the Lord’s presence.

In 1Kings 19 Elijah has just accomplished the most powerful act of his prophetic ministry. On behalf of the one true God, Elijah has challenged the prophets of Baal, who enjoyed the favor of the king and queen. God vindicates Elijah’s bold fidelity and Elijah purges the prophets of Baal. Ahaz and Jezebel vow revenge; Elijah flees. He is now a fugitive from royal justice. This is an incredible reversal of fortune. This is not at all what Elijah anticipated or what he thought God had in store for him. Read more