The Day of Pentecost
Take a deep breath. Maybe put your hand on your chest.
Feel your lungs expand and contract. Your chest rise and fall. Breathe in. Breathe out.
You are running squealing with joy, playing a game of chase with mom or dad, not knowing the path you’ll take but letting your legs carry you with glee, running with reckless abandon… not even noticing as you breathe faster and faster with excitement.
You are running away from the neighborhood dog, fear gripping you, legs feeling like lead and body working so hard to go a few feet, lungs pumping like mad to match the adrenaline coursing through you.
You have fallen to the ground, tripped and bruised, unable to stand again, knee searing with the kind of severe pain that constricts your lungs, forcing yourself to take shallow breaths like a woman in labor.
You are getting to the last mile of a 5K, or a half marathon, or a whole marathon, breath and legs and heart working together in a determined rhythm to get to the finish line.
You have just come home from the funeral of the best friend you never imagined you’d have to bury, grief surrounding you like a lead vest, so heavy you feel like you can’t breathe.
You are sitting in the audience at a show so captivating the whole audience had been holding its breath, and the moment the curtain goes down you and everyone around you exhale together a collective “Wow” as the applause erupts.
You are gathered in a living room with friends, reliving stories from years ago, laughing so hard your chest hurts as you gasp for air.
You are in a hospital waiting room, or a job interview, or a room where you will face the person who abused you, the anxiety of anticipation leaving you breathless.
Your boss just left the company unexpectedly, and you’ve been told more responsibility is coming your way, but no one seems to know what’s up. For weeks, you go in to work confused, unsettled, unsure of what comes next, unable to breathe easy.
Your boss ascended into heaven unexpectedly, and you’ve been told more responsibility is coming your way, but no one seems to know what’s up. For 10 days, you and your co-workers are confused, unsettled, unsure of what comes next, unable to breathe easy.
But it’s the Feast of Weeks, which is also called Pentecost, so you still gather together. In the midst of confusion, you stick to the rituals and rhythms that shape your life. And Pentecost is a suitable feast on the occasion of uncertainty.
Pentecost was a Jewish festival day commemorating the giving of the Law by God to the Israelites. All Jews gathered on this day to commemorate this feast. After all, the Law is what shaped their community life as Jews. The giving of God’s Law was a culminating event after they had fled slavery in Egypt and began to wander in the wilderness, wondering what came next.
Its occurrence fifty days after Passover corresponded with tradition that Moses received the Ten Commandments fifty days after the Exodus.
The Exodus, of course, was quite an event: Moses parting the waters of the sea to allow safe passage through them and away from their Egyptian captors. The Israelites narrowly survived the Exodus only to find themselves wandering in the wilderness, rather than the promised land they had been expecting.
God had promised them deliverance, but not a timeline.
The law was a way for God to provide for them, to bring some order to their chaos, to let them know God had not abandoned them or forgotten God’s promise.
Pentecost was God’s promise still unfolding, in process, while everything was still unsettled. God’s promise, delivered quite differently than expected.
Perhaps, then, Jesus’ disciples should have been a little more prepared for the surprise they got that Pentecost. Jesus had promised them the Holy Spirit in a way that sounded a lot like what they would expect at the therapist’s office. They were promised an Advocate, a Comforter, a Helper, to be with you forever. They received rushing wind and fire and confusion and accusations of public drunkenness. Hadn’t Pentecost taught them anything by now? God’s promises often turn out a lot differently than you expect.
We sit here today, also wondering what’s to come of the promise made on that Pentecost day some 2000 years ago — the promise of prophecy, and dreams and visions, and the Spirit of truth being poured out on all flesh. The factions alone in this country are enough to prove that the spirit of truth is glaringly missing. It seems the only part of Joel’s prophecy we’re seeing with any regularity is blood, fire, and smoky mist. The state of the world has all of us at least a little bit depressed, sometimes a lot depressed, sometimes to the point where it sits on your chest and makes it hard to breathe.
It’s not a coincidence that we feel like we can’t breathe when we’re anxious, depressed, or grieving. In the most biblical and theological sense, to lack breath is to lack Spirit. To lack Spirit is to lack breath. The utterly uninspired state of the world can and should leave us breathless. The inspiration of the Holy Spirit is the literal breath of God becoming our own. The Holy Spirit isn’t a muse – that’s not what we mean when we talk about the “inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit is our very source of life.
The biblical scholar Ellen Davis spoke at a climate justice event I attended recently, an event that featured dance and poetry and music. Her words that night could have been spoken to the disciples on that Pentecost day 2000 years ago:
“We are here because we live in the age of the unthinkable. … I daresay none of us expected to find ourselves in this new era looking toward a future whose dimensions are unknown and much of what we do know is frightening. We are here because we have an inkling that [the performers] can help us rethink what it means to be people of faith living in this situation.
They will do it by showing us something beautiful. Even heartbreakingly beautiful. It may be a paradox to look to what is beautiful in order to reckon with something ugly and ominous. That is just what beauty does: Inspires us with a vision of what is good, indeed, what is Godly.”
When our breathing rushes and slows, starts and stops with the ups and downs and changes and chances of this life, Beauty inspires us. Beauty is how we stop to catch our breath.
It may seem senseless to seek beauty in the midst of confusion, to seek inspiration in the midst of grief. It’s more instinctual to scatter and flee, like those at the Tower of Babel, or demand explanations and answers, like the disciples of Jesus do. But beauty is how the Spirit comes upon us. It is our own little daily Pentecost.
God’s promises to us are still in process, and they will always unfold in different ways than we’d hope or expect. So like the disciples, we still gather and pray in the rituals and rhythms that shape our lives. Chances are, the Spirit will show up — we will be inspired — in ways we never imagined.
You are leaving church after an uplifting service. The rhythm of hard rubber smacking asphalt dots the grunts and cheers from the basketball court as you walk by. Squeals of children and hollers of parents float past. You notice the overflowing sidewalk garbage cans and the delivery guys on bikes whizzing through red lights; you notice the smell of the flowering lilac and radiance of peonies. A breeze dusts your cheek and teases the branches of the trees, and the messy beauty of it all settles into your gut, and you take a deep breath. A breath that is the same as God’s very Spirit alive in you.
Come, Holy Spirit.