The Feast of Pentecost—the fiftieth day after Easter Sunday—and we are called to mark the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the world in a whole new way. Pentecost is a festival in the Jewish calendar, celebrating the gift of the Law—the Torah—to ancient Israel at Mount Sinai. The Torah was the mark of the covenant between God and humanity; was the “way” offered to the people to form them as uniquely belonging to God. And now here, on the very day that the ancient way was celebrated, the young church was sealed with the mark of a new covenant. God’s Spirit, flowing in them and through them and all around them, setting them on a whole new way of being in relationship and covenant with God.
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Tonight we tell two quite different stories about the gift of the Spirit. They stand in marked contrast to one another, but both offer important insights and both need to be heard. There is the well known account in the book of Acts, with its tongues of fire and swirling wind, which unleashes a multitude of languages in the mouths of the disciples. “Amazed and astonished, the people asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” How indeed? Yet for all of the astonishment of that moment, what happens next is even more amazing. Peter stands to speak, and for the very first time he speaks with authority. Picking up improvisationally on the words of the prophet Joel, Peter boldly speaks to what God in Christ through the Spirit is doing for the world; for young, old, slave, free, men, women. This is Peter? The one who all through the gospels had evidenced a real talent for putting his foot in his mouth and for losing heart at the most important moments? The Spirit is indeed on the move.
Yet alongside of this we also read from the Gospel according to John. As Karoline Lewis notes, “For John, the day of Pentecost is not tongues of fire or a bewildering, amazing, perplexing cacophony of voices, but the peace of one voice, the shepherd’s voice, who bestows on his disciples the abiding presence of ‘I am.’” I have to confess that John’s imagery resonates with me personally far more than does the account from Acts. Jesus comes bringing peace, and breathes into the disciples the Spirit’s presence as advocate, guide, comforter. I’ve not seen tongues of fire in the air, and I’ve certainly never found myself unexpectedly speaking Italian, Urdu, or Arabic, but I have been guided, challenged, moved, held, and deeply comforted by the presence of that Spirit. Were you to ask John, though, whether it is he or Luke who speaks most truly of the gift of the Holy Spirit, he would have answered simply “yes.” But which of you has the facts down straight, John? “Yes,” he would have said, furrowing his brow ever so slightly at the very modern nature of the question.
Yes, the Spirit of God is untamable wind and fire, and yes, the Spirit of God is in us and through us as our very breath. Yes.
In his book I Believe in the Holy Spirit, The Roman Catholic theologian Yves Congar articulated the seemingly paradoxical character of this truth well. “The Spirit is unique and present everywhere,” Congar wrote, “transcendent and inside all things, subtle and sovereign, able to respect freedom and inspire it.” The Greek word pneuma—like the Hebrew word ruach—holds multiple meanings: spirit, breath, wind. On a hot summer day you might sit out under the shade of a tree and enjoy the comfort of a light breeze against your skin. You’re not really aware of your own breath or of the beating of your heart; they are just there. Push ahead three or four hours, after the thunderclouds have rolled in and the wind has suddenly picked up. As you run for shelter, that wind pelts the driving rain against your face, and you struggle to catch your breath. Same breath, same air, and in a sense still the same wind, just ramped up and swirling, lashing the falling rain sideways against your body.
So no, just because it is John’s imagery that most resonates with my own experience, I can’t just gloss over what Luke has to tell me in the account from Acts. The Spirit who is “transcendent and inside all things, subtle and sovereign, able to respect freedom and inspire it” cannot be domesticated to suit my own spiritual experiences. Sometimes the Comforter needs to knock the wind out of the church and land it flat on its back; knock me flat on my back.
And in all honesty, there is a section in John’s account that can be at least as puzzling as anything in the Acts account. “‘Peace be with you,’ Jesus says to them, adding ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” They are frightened when he first appears, and he offers them a word of peace. Good stuff. He then deepens that by breathing upon them the presence of the Holy Spirit, who has been promised as their comforter, advocate, and guide. That’s even better stuff, and you can feel their fears evaporate. They can be sent—they will be sent—out into the world just as Jesus himself had been sent into the world by the Father. This is their commissioning, and they’re being given what they need to live into it in fullness. No more are they like scared rabbits, ready to flee the Roman guards. No longer will they fumble in the dark, trying madly to get their heads around what he’s been teaching them. Now they are become what he knew they would be all along.
And yet… “When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”
Huh? What has just happened there? They can forgive or retain other peoples’ sins? That’s a lot of clout, right? And how does that possibly line up with other things that he taught them about forgiving their enemies and doing good to those who harm them?
In his comments on this passage the New Testament scholar Matt Skinner insists that we keep in view the fact that all through John’s Gospel “Jesus talks about sin as unbelief, the unwillingness or incapacity to grasp the truth of God manifested in him; [that] sin in John is not about moral failings; primarily it is an inability or refusal to recognize God’s revelation when confronted by it, in Jesus.”
Consequently, the resurrected Christ tells his followers (all his followers) that, through the Spirit that enables them to bear witness, they can set people free from that state of affairs. They can be a part of seeing others come to believe in Jesus and what he discloses.
Failure to bear witness, Jesus warns, will result in the opposite: a world full of people left unable to grasp the knowledge of God. That is what it means to “retain” sins… He is simply reporting that a church that does not bear witness to Christ is a church that leaves itself unable to play a role in delivering people from all that keeps them from experiencing the fullness that Jesus offers.
And doesn’t that make a whole lot more sense? Rather than commissioning them to go out into the world with a whole lot of legalistic clout, able to essentially condemn people in their sins by refusing to offer forgiveness, he is commissioning them to go out as deep witnesses to all that he had given them. “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” Not as agents of condemnation and not as wielders of moral clout, but as embodiment of the very grace and forgiveness they themselves had received. Go out and do this faith, live this vision, and with every breath you take know that you are also breathing in the very Spirit—pneuma, ruach—of God.
That’s what he said to them, and that’s what he says to us. That’s Pentecost.