Sermon for the Day of Pentecost , June 12, 2011. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, MA

Acts 21:1-21Psalm 104:25-35, 37b
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13John 20:19-23

Spirit, wind, and fire

Come, Holy Spirit. Take our minds and think through them. Take our mouths and speak through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen.

Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
but when the leaves hang trembling,
the wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
but when the trees bow down their heads,
the wind is passing by.

Do you remember that poem? Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) wrote it years ago, and it’s a poem that I often read as a child. I share it now because today is Pentecost, the day we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit as the wind and breath and power of God. Who has seen the wind? No one! Unseen, invisible, free of human meddling and control, the wind comes and goes as it wills. We can’t see it, we can’t hold it in our hands as it passes by, and yet we recognize it by its effects: the leaves hang trembling; the trees bow down their heads.

According to the story we heard from the Book of Acts, it was on Pentecost, a Jewish festival that is celebrated fifty days after Passover, that the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles with tremendous power. They couldn’t have predicted when the Spirit would come, and they couldn’t have known what form it would take, but they had prayed eagerly that the Spirit would come. Jesus had made them a promise. Just before the Ascension, when the Risen Christ withdrew from his disciples’ sight, he had promised his followers that he would send the Holy Spirit to them. Jesus told them not to scatter but to stay together, to remain in Jerusalem, and to be steadfast in prayer. “Stay here in the city,” Jesus says at the end of Luke’s Gospel, “until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). In the Book of Acts, which picks up the story, Jesus promises his followers, “You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now… You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:5,8).

So Jesus’ friends are gathered together in one place on the day of Pentecost — presumably to pray — when “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. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (Acts 2:2-4).

I hear these words and at once I can’t help thinking of our own very recent experience of “a sound like the rush of a violent wind” and “divided tongues, as of fire.” Just ten days ago, severe tornado winds — whose deafening sound people often compare to the roar of a freight train — accompanied by thunder and lightning swept through this region, destroying or damaging thousands of homes, killing several people and upending the lives of many thousands more. When we think of wind and fire, many of us probably flinch: we think of extreme weather events, of the massive wildfires blazing right now on the east side of Arizona, and of the hurricanes, droughts and floods that are likely to become the new normal because of climate change. Or we may think of the metaphoric winds and fires that threaten to undo us: the winds of war, for instance, or the fires of hate.

It is just because we so easily — and justifiably — link wind and fire with internal and external forces that are violent, death-dealing, and destructive that I welcome the imagery of Pentecost. Into this violent and turbulent world comes another sort of wind, another sort of fire: the wind and fire of God’s Spirit. It is the very gift we need.

Wind is an ancient biblical image for the presence of God. In Genesis, the creative wind of God moves over the waters of the deep. During the Exodus, the liberating wind of God blows back the sea and gives the Israelites a safe path on which to walk. In the book of Ezekiel, the life-giving wind of God blows across the valley of dry bones and breathes life back into them. At Pentecost, the empowering wind of God sweeps through the house where the disciples are gathered.

Those of us of a certain age grew up praying not to the Holy Spirit but to the Holy Ghost. The word “ghost” goes back to an Anglo-Saxon word “gast,” which is the root of another word, “gust.” The Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit is like a holy gust of wind, a creative, life-giving and sacred Presence that blows where it wills and that comes upon us unexpectedly and with power. God’s Spirit may enter us like a strong gust of wind, filling the entire house of our being, or the Spirit may come as quietly and gently as the breath. As we heard in today’s reading from the Gospel of John, the Risen Jesus breathes on his disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). In that very intimate and quiet gesture, the Holy Spirit is given with enduring power.

Wind is one image of the Holy Spirit, and another is fire, a divine fire that flames forth and shines out from all things. God is manifest as fire throughout the Bible — in the burning bush confronting Moses, in the pillar of fire that leads the Israelites to freedom, in the flaming chariots of Elijah and Elisha. The Desert Fathers and Mothers of the 3rd and 4th centuries who went into the wilderness to pray were well acquainted with the fire of the Spirit. As one story tells it, a young Desert Father went to see an older, wiser one in search of spiritual advice. “Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’” 1

Jesus came to bring fire to the earth (Luke 3:16, Luke 12:49, Matthew 3:11), and his life, death, and resurrection led to the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, when the disciples were baptized with the Spirit and with fire. And what does the fire do? The flame of the Holy Spirit burns away the barriers and tensions that divide people from each other, and releases among the disciples a capacity to communicate with all the peoples of the earth. The languages that pour forth from the disciples are not an incoherent “speaking in tongues,” but easily identifiable languages “from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). The Holy Spirit creates community. The Spirit opens the way for all the peoples of the earth to communicate in love with one another, even across our differences.

In a time of tension, when conflicts and wars threaten to tear communities apart, the Spirit sends us out into the world, giving us words that heal, words of love and blessing, words that connect us with each other and that honor our shared humanity. As one commentator [Lionel McGehee] puts it, “Once more the gifts of the Spirit are poured upon us: the gift of tongues — not Arabic or Greek or Hebrew or Coptic — but the language of love, the language of justice and dignity, the language of humble longings” — the very languages that are needed to transform the world into God’s community of love.

Pentecost comes again whenever people are inspired to seek reconciliation and mutual understanding, and discover anew their shared humanity. And Pentecost comes again whenever the frightened and forgotten, the oppressed and the outcast find their voice. Scholars tell us that the long list of languages that the disciples at Pentecost could suddenly speak was a list of the people whose identities had been “overrun by the languages and customs of a long line of conquerors and empires.” 2 It is a list of the peoples forced to live under the rule of the Roman Empire, and who, through the power of the Spirit, have now found their voice and their God-given identity. By speaking to each person in his or her own language, the Holy Spirit celebrates not only the unity of human beings, but also our precious diversity and individuality. Wherever the frightened or oppressed person finds her voice and takes her place within the human community, there the Holy Spirit is at work again in our midst.

How has the Holy Spirit been moving in your life? In visible ways and in secret, hidden ways that may be known only to you and God, members of this community are already letting the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit transform them. Maybe the Holy Spirit is opening your eyes to your belovedness in God, and has been sweeping over you, giving you courage to say yes to life, despite all the good reasons for cynicism and despair. Maybe the wind of the Spirit is already winnowing through your memories and judgments and opinions, working to set you free from everything that is petty and self-serving and small, opening you to a greater vision and a larger love. Maybe the Spirit is cutting through any frantic busyness and self-absorption, and catching you up at unexpected moments in the breathtaking beauty of music or nature or a child’s face, giving you joy in the midst of humdrum routine, joy even in the depths of sorrow. And maybe the Holy Spirit is sending you out to be a channel of God’s love, urging you to serve, and heal, and bless in the world outside, so that you can spread the gifts of grace that you have received. Thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit, your generosity has made it possible to build and to pay for our beautiful new buildings. Thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit, many of us are already responding to the wind and fire of the tornadoes and storms by casting our lot with love and by offering prayers, and clothes, and food, and labor as we reach out to our neighbors in Springfield and Monson and other communities, and help them to rebuild their lives.

“I can’t believe I just did that!” That’s the sort of cry that springs from our lips as we give ourselves over to the Holy Spirit. I can’t believe that I just spoke up and told the truth in love! I can’t believe that I just pulled myself out of my daily routine and spent several hours helping a neighbor in need! I can’t believe that I took some time for silence and listened to the voice of love that dwells within me! I can’t believe how connected I feel with myself and with other people!

At Pentecost the wind and fire of God came upon the disciples, and it comes upon us today in the baptism of David Nunnelly at Puffer’s Pond this morning and in the renewal of our own baptismal vows, in the gift of bread and wine at the Eucharist, and — in a little while — in the simple pleasure of enjoying each other’s company over a meal, as we listen with attentiveness for what is new, and welcome the loving Spirit into our midst.

Do we want the holy wind of God to blow through us now with fresh power? Do we want God’s holy flame to set our souls on fire? Then let us ask for the Holy Spirit, ask for it to come with power into our lives, into our community, and into the world.

Send forth your Holy Spirit, O God, and renew the face of the earth. Come, holy wind, holy breath, holy fire of God: blow through our hearts and make all things new. Amen.

1. Joseph of Panephysis 7, Sayings, p. 103, quoted by Roberta C. Bondi, To Pray and To Love: Conversations on Prayer with the Early Church, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991, p. 7.

2. Homiletics, April/June, 1995, p. 39.