BIBLE READINGS:† Acts 2:1-11††† John 20:19-23
The emblem of the Holy Spirit is a dove. It has become the go to symbol the church identifies with Pentecost. And there is much to be said for this dove. It was a dove bearing an olive branch that flew back to Noah on the Ark, signalling the good news of dry land after the great Flood. The Spirit of God descends "in bodily form like a dove" upon Jesus at his Baptism, according to Luke's Gospel. A nice white dove suggests innocence and purity, peace, and the olive branch of reconciliation. Certainly, the Holy Spirit is deeply involved in purifying our hearts and minds so that we "may have in us the same mind that was in Christ Jesus," as St. Paul says. And it is certainly true that the Holy Spirit is actively engaged in the human enterprise of peace making whenever we work our way through conflicts great and small toward the goal of reconciliation.
St. Paul didnít have any time for doves, but he knows one thing for sure, that the sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit is love -- the love of God which is the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, binding different and unlikely people together, creating new community on new common ground in the Body of Christ.
The coming of Godís Spirit in Acts seems totally different from Paulís understanding. It has nothing to do with the innocence and purity and peace and reconciliation, rather, Acts gives us the stunningly powerful imagery of a raging wind and flames of fire -- elements of nature to be respected and handled with care, for they can be dangerous and destructive, as well as cleansing and comforting. The author of Acts has moved way beyond doves here. He is rooted not so much in the symbolism of Noah's Ark, but in the great passage of Ezekiel concerning the valley of dry bones, where the Spirit blows like a rushing wind bringing the energy of new life to a destroyed, limp, and lifeless nation. He is echoing the voice of John the Baptist as he points to Jesus and says, "I baptize with water, but one is coming who will ... baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." He has in mind the figure of the prophet Isaiah, who was touched by coals of holy fire when he received the divine call to go and speak the word of God to the people of God.
The author of Acts knows that the Resurrection is simply the beginning of God's mighty work of redeeming us in Christ; we still have to be charged with energy and fired up to start acting and living as Christís disciples. The dynamics of new life through the death and resurrection of Jesus still has to be fleshed out in our lives, and this is the work of the Holy Spirit, this is how we will be caught up in God's work and God's purposes so that God's will may be done on earth as it is in heaven, in our lives, our times, and our places. By giving us the forceful images of wind and fire, Luke suggests that God still has one more surprise in store, even after the shock of the Resurrection. God has a yet more wonderful purpose. God has finished commanding his people, telling his people, speaking to and shouting at his people. Through the gift of new life in Christ, the Spirit of God is going to involve all God's people in God's work.
At the end of Matthew's Gospel, the risen Jesus is shown appearing to his disciples in Galilee, and sending them out to baptize all nations, to preach and to teach everything that he has taught them. At the end of John's Gospel, the risen Lord appears to the disciples and says, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you," and then Jesus breathes on them just as God breathed life into Adamah in the beginning. "Receive the Holy Spirit," he says. And here in Acts 2, we see the effect and the result of this gift of the Holy Spirit to Jesus' disciples ready to go forth into the world. It is as though the rushing wind has caught them up into God's purposes, and the flames have set their heart and minds afire with the desire to bear witness to the good news of salvation.
Filled with the Spirit of God, the disciples can now speak, preach, teach, and communicate in such a way that they are understood by all sorts of different people in many different languages. The power of God to recreate the human community in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit breaks through the human boundaries of language and culture. It does so just as effectively as that same mighty power of God in Christ broke through death, the ultimate boundary of human life on earth, and broke through hell, the barrier constructed by evil and sin. In the words of the old hymn, we are "ransomed, healed, restored and forgiven," in Christ-and now we are put to work with the Holy Spirit.
But is this scene from Acts 2 really about us? Isn't it just one more miracle story affecting only a handful of high-class saints long dead? St. Paul, who quite famously was not there at the time and knew nothing of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection or the wind and fire of Pentecost first hand, was absolutely and utterly convinced that just as Jesus was Emmanuel, God-with-us and God-for-us, so the Holy Spirit is God-for-us and God-in-us. This is why Paul writes so passionately and convincingly in 1 Corinthians about how God is now getting the job done in us that he started in Jesus. We have a variety of gifts, he says, but it is the same Spirit that activates them. We are engaged in a variety of ministries and activities, but it is the same Spirit of God who energizes them in us. Wherever, and in whomever, we find wisdom, faith, knowledge, and healing - there is the Spirit of God at work for the common good of all.
There are times when we need to focus on the gifts of the Spirit to each of us as individuals, and that's when the issues of Christian life and work come into play for every one of us. What shall we be and do as we grow up in Christ? But there are also times when we need to focus on the gifts of the Spirit to the whole community of faith, to congregations and denominations and to the whole Church at large.
But there are also times, and surely we are now living in one of them, when we have to stand back from our self-oriented examinations and concerns as Christians living and working among other Christians, and ask the Holy Spirit of God to blow mighty winds of change into the way we live with men and women of other faiths in our local and nation-wide communities.
We are surely living in a time when we have to pray that the Spirit of God will descend with wisdom, knowledge, and discernment upon the political leaders of our country, to change the ways we deal as a nation with refugees and other stateless people. As St. Paul characteristically puts it: just as the body is one, and has many members, all the members of the body, though many, are one body. So it is with the world we live in. It is almost overwhelming to consider that God invites us to receive the Holy Spirit into our hearts and minds to build us up individually, and to receive the same Holy Spirit into our lives in the body of Christ to build up the community of faith, and to receive the same Holy Spirit into our lives to bring reconciliation and peace to all the communities of the earth. But this is God we are talking about: God with us, God for us, God in us; God involving and engaging us in his work. And with God, all things are possible, and with the Spirit of God with us, in us and for us, all things can work together for good. Let it be. Amen.
Acknowledgement: Rev Angela Askew