It is a wild story of an untameable God that we tell on this day. “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.” On the day of Pentecost—the Jewish festival commemorating the giving of the Law, marked fifty days after Passover—the disciples were gathered together in the house where they had been staying, in that posture of open expectation that Jesus had told them to take while they waited for what God was about to do next And what God was about to do in their midst was something they could hardly have even begun to imagine. “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” They felt this wild wind, they saw what seemed like fire swirling in the air all around them, and suddenly their tongues were freed to speak in all manner of languages. Not, mind you, the ecstatic tongues that Paul will call “the tongues of angels” in 1st Corinthians 13; no, it was rather more practical than that.
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“Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?” asked the people who heard them; and you can almost hear the sneering tone with which they said “Galileans.” Aren’t these a bunch of small town hicks from Plum Coulee, Rosenort, Altona—you fill in the blank with the name of whichever southern Manitoba farm town you want— “How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia… on and on the list goes. How is it that “in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power”?
Wind swirling and rushing inside of a building, fire dancing in the air, small town fishermen gifted with the ability to speak in languages they had never before heard in their lives; you don’t see that happening everyday, do you? Which can make it very easy for us to begin to think about the Holy Spirit as something that happened; past tense, full stop. As Frank Crouch puts it, it is easy to hear the story as being about “a burning breeze that swept through some distant place in a distant age, leaving perhaps only a trace of its passage among our own people in our own time.”
“I feel the winds of God today,” Jessie Adams wrote in her great hymn text. “Today my sail I lift.” Not just back then in the wildness of that first Pentecost; not just the Wesleyan revivals in England in the 1700s or in the Great Awakenings in America in the 18th and 19th centuries; not only on Azusa Street in Los Angeles in 1906. Today.
It is a hymn set to an old Irish folk tune, “Star of the County Down”, which is more than fitting because its imagery of setting out on the sea is one that evokes the stories and legends of the Celtic missionary saints of the 6th and 7th centuries who set sail trusting utterly that the winds of God would take them where they most needed to go. Most famous among those characters is Brendan the Navigator, whose little coracle was said to be equipped with a sail but no rudder by which to steer. He was simply prepared to go where the wind—where the Spirit—would take him.
The winds of God; and in both Hebrew and Greek the same word is used for spirit, wind, and breath. In Hebrew it is ruach, in the Greek of the New Testament it is pneuma. I feel the wind, the breath, the spirit of God, around me and in me and through me, and I welcome its presence as that which moves me, challenges me, presses me; that is the force of Adams’ hymn text.
It is the wind of God that dries
my vain regretful tears,
until with braver thoughts shall rise
the purer, brighter years;
if cast on shores of selfish ease
or pleasure I should be,
O let me feel your freshening breeze,
and I’ll put back to sea.
Spirit of God, press us beyond self-absorption and self-importance—what Adams calls “vain regretful tears”—push us past the illusions of what she calls the “shores of selfish ease”, and let your freshening breeze carry us back to sea. It is something echoed in Bruce Cockburn’s 1973 song, “All the Diamonds,” as he sings,
I ran aground in a harbour town
Lost the taste for being free
Thank God He sent some gull-chased ship
To carry me to sea
Thank God I wasn’t left complacent in the harbour; thank God, Cockburn sings, that he was was reminded that,
All the diamonds in this world
That mean anything to me
Are conjured up by wind and sunlight
Sparkling on the sea
It is something not unlike this understanding of the Spirit that comes through in the Gospel according to John. Here Jesus speaks to his disciples of the coming of the paraclete; a Greek word variously translated as advocate, comforter, consoler, guide. The followers of Jesus will be accompanied, in other words, for though Jesus will not be with them bodily, they will not be left on their own. “When the Spirit of truth comes,” he says to them, “he will guide you into all the truth.” Or as Jessie Adams puts it in the closing verse of her hymn, “Great pilot of my onward way, you will not let me drift,” and because she knows she can trust that truth, she closes with the same words with which she began: “I feel the winds of God today; today my sail I lift.”
That’s a way of understanding the Spirit that makes every day a little Pentecost; that makes all of us, in some real sense, Pentecostals. The criteria are not “have you been slain in the Spirit” or “do you speak in tongues”, but rather do we trust that the winds of God are taking us where we need to go, even or especially if that means letting go of the safe and predictable shoreline? And—this is a crucial “and”—do we have the courage to be still enough to recognize that the breath of God is as close to us as our own breath?
Still, we need to contend with the wildness of that which was experienced by those disciples on that particular Pentecost day, because it was in that experience that they found themselves set free. Not just them, either, for at the heart of the experience was a proclamation that said that something extraordinary was being brought about for all people; for “all flesh.” As Frank Crouch observes, “If we are used to thinking of any group as a better or more divinely-ordained voice for conveying the plans and purposes of God, God’s Spirit tells us otherwise. All flesh—boys and girls, young and old, free and slaves, whether they be women or men—are graced with the Spirit’s direct connection to the prophecies, visions, and dreams of God. This was institutionally unsettling back then,” Crouch notes, adding with a hint of wry humour, “and [it] is institutionally resisted today… [for] in this story, God shows no regard for our structures, hierarchies, or status quo.”
Galileans—Galileans of all people!—are graced with a kind of wisdom and authority that frees them to stand and speak—no, proclaim—the new thing, the new creation, that God has begun in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
And you—us—of all people! As Jesus has told us, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” Graced by the breath of God, we are freed to dare to dream as God dreams; to inhabit this creation as if it were already the fulfilled new creation; and, when we feels the winds of God beginning to stir today, we are challenged to set sail.