Breathing, Babbling and Building Together
It was the Jewish Festival of Weeks, the time of the feast of the harvest. It was celebrated on the fiftieth day after Passover, seven weeks after the highest holiday in the Jewish year. It was, a holiday of sorts. There was no work on this day, none of the daily routines. Instead, observant Jews made their way to the temple to sacrifice animals, and to bring their newly harvested grain, an offering of the first fruits back to God.
But in this festive atmosphere, in the bustling streets of Jerusalem there were in addition to the regular crowd, a motley assortment of characters gathered quietly hidden away in one place. Scripture tells us that there gathered together were the original eleven disciples, an additional specially selected add-on to replace Judas, Jesus’s mother and brothers and several women. All followers of the Jesus who had been crucified just seven weeks before. Devout and observant Jews all. Orthodox Jews gathered to celebrate a sacred festival.
The followers of Jesus, this rag-tag assemblage who had devoted themselves to their teacher were not yet the history-makers we know them to be now. Imagine them. Certainly they must have been grieving, it had been a mere fifty days give or take since the one they knew as Messiah had been killed. Undoubtedly there were questions about who would harness the reins of this ministry, and whether there even was a ministry to be continued. They may have wondered if this Jesus that they had followed and learned from, and worshipped was the promised one they had waited for, or if the visions they had had of him after his death were real. There must have been questions, even among the faithful as they wondered what was next.
These early disciples were not who history has told us of, for at this point in time they seem to have lacked a vision, there was no single mindedness of purpose to guide them. Their grief was raw, their future dim, and what lay ahead may even have been dangerous. And there they were gathered together in Jerusalem with what they did have, their memories, their hopes, their as yet unfulfilled promises and the company of one another.
The book of Acts is “Part Two” of Luke’s writings, “Luke Remixed,” if you will, the “Luke New and Improved Directors Cut, now with Never Before Seen Footage.” But, while Luke’s first book is filled with answers about who about the details and drama of Jesus, Luke’s second book, the Acts of the Apostles focuses not on the how. For the storyline in Acts is the unfolding story of the church and how it came to be. It is less a story about any one person, and more a story of how passion would reclaim the ministry of Jesus for a new generation.
You have heard this morning’s scripture. And you know the tale. In our Christian liturgical tradition we retell it every year. We put the red altar cloth and vestments on for their once a year debut. We celebrate the birth of the church. We sing of the Spirit. And sometimes we even forget what we are celebrating, which is unrestrained passion. Passion which could not be contained or bound in tidy packages.
Act’s version of Pentecost is filled with special effects and dramatic events. It is the Avatar of its age, (without the blue tint). Just imagine what it might be like if James Cameron were to direct it. There are tongues of fire dancing over heads. There is gusty wind. There is deafening noise. There is unbridled chaos. And into this cacophony and disarray there suddenly weaved a new energy, a new life which neither the disciples, or Luke, or we the twenty-first century audience had met up until this point. On that loud and windy day in Jerusalem the Holy Spirit made its formal debut.
Luke describes this Spirit in the Greek as pneuma . Literally, the elemental life force, the breath of the spirit. But we have come to know this Spirit in even deeper ways in the church throughout our history. We know it as the third person of the trinity, sometimes personified as the feminine aspect of the Godhead. The Holy Spirit who fills with inspiration and grips with enthusiasm. The one who weaves its way into the lives of the weary and restores hope. The one who breathes new life and fire into the heart. The one who engages and dances and mediates. The Holy Spirit who ignites a movement and passions a revolution. The Holy Spirit who acts as advocate and comforter. And with each inhalation and exhalation this pneuma promises that the Jesus movement will not be forgotten, and that the church will be born. The truth of the message of Jesus will not be relegated to the first century Middle East. A life-changing transformation will happen. And like that, poof, it was.
But having said all of this, I must confess something. Just between you and me, I wonder if at times we have gotten so carried away with the image of the Holy Spirit as fire and wind, as noise and energy that we lose sight of the subtle ways in which it snakes its way into our hearts, the small fires of hope it kindles, the breath gentle and soft as a baby’s sigh. The tiny epiphanies are also ways, I believe that the Holy Spirit gradually ushers its way into our lives and these too can mark us indelibly.
The Catholic sister, Joyce Rupp, in her book, May I Have This Dance reminds us, “My Pentecosts are rarely large, powerful gales; rather, they are usually little gusts that change my life a little at a time. Like the rushing wind of Pentecost, however, they have been unpredictable and unexpected.” And I think she is right. Pentecost may be less about the obvious and more about the subtle, those little unexpected gales that can change our lives in an instant if we are attentive to them. I don’t believe that each of us need to have tongues of fire blazing over our heads, or ecstatic noise coming out our mouths for true Pentecost to happen in our lives. Sometimes it is as simple as saying “yes,” or as common as saying, “I believe.” Quiet daily Pentecost can happen when we live yielded to the Spirit who blows us where it will, and looks around with eyes wide open on the way.
And so what does it mean for us to truly be a Pentecost people in the twenty-first century? What does it mean for us to celebrate the Pentecost spirit both in our own life journeys and as a body of faith here at Peace United Church of Christ? What does it mean for us to allow the Spirit to move in our midst in both the quiet and the bombastic? In both the nuanced brush-stroke and the bold outline? In both the obvious and the subtle?
We often talk about things which are as “natural as breathing.” We take for granted the easy respirations, the inhalations and exhalations which keep our bodies operating. We take them for granted, that is, until we have struggled to breathe.
Several years ago I had minor surgery, perfectly routine which should have been an outpatient procedure, but as I was recovering from the anesthesia, I began to become very anxious because I felt I could not catch my breath. I cried out in my post-anesthesia stupor in the recovery room that I couldn’t breathe as my chest rose and fell in what felt like hummingbird respirations. A kind nurse rushed to my side, reassured me that what I was feeling was normal, that I was merely hyperventilating and I could indeed breathe just fine, but more important than her words were what she did after speaking them. She knelt next to my gurney so that we were at eye-level and said firmly but gently, “Watch me and do exactly what I do,” and then she took exaggerated Lamaze style breaths, all the while holding my gaze as I struggled to follow her breathing pattern, to match the rise and fall of her chest with my own. Within minutes I felt myself calm, but I know now that my peace had less to do with what she did, and more to do with how she did it. With grace, and with a healing which seemed to be rife with the holy she led me back to safe ground.
Perhaps to be Pentecost people we must start by breathing deeply. We can breathe in the healing, soothing gentleness of God and as we inhale that peace we can begin to center ourselves. And after finding that peace, we can exhale a quiet and deliberate desire to pass that Christ-filled joy onto others. Just as the word, “conspire” means “to breathe together,” as believers in the passion of Pentecost, we can lead a holy conspiracy, breathing in the Spirit’s movements to bring about radical healing, and gentle justice, together.
Perhaps the second step of this Pentecost revolution can be found in another way then, through the babbling. Luke recounts for us that part of the excitement of that Pentecost two thousand some odd years ago was that the disciples spoke different languages but could all be heard. They babbled aloud, with different dialects and with different words and yet they were all understood. Perhaps this is a lesson for us in how we find the Holy Spirit. Through speaking our story in truth, through teasing out a common language, a familiar narrative we can begin to recognize the similiarities of our lives and our hopes. And we can find the ways that we are not that different from our brothers and sisters, and can see that our friends and enemies are more like us that we knew. For I believe the babbling, the truth-speaking, and authentic open listening lends itself to the Spirit’s transformation. And is part of the Pentecost story.
And finally, after all this breathing and babbling, we can begin to build. As people of Peace United Church of Christ, as people of the wider Christian community, we can build on the truth of the Spirit’s ways and proclaim Pentecost anew.
This week as I was preparing for this sermon I happened upon some of the writings of the Benedictine writer Joan Chittister. This mystic writer talks about what it means for us to build on the momentum of Pentecost. She writes: “It is this point in the liturgical year when the curtain between here and there, time and eternity, for the most minute fraction of time splits open, and we begin to see not only what we are but what we can be.” I love this image of liminality, for the moment of Pentecost changed everything in the life of the church. What began that day as a handful became 120, and before the day was over had grown to more than 3,000. Disciples who had not believed themselves capable of sharing the message of the risen Christ discovered within themselves abilities and gifts they’d never known. They built the church. A church that survived nearly two thousand years after they walked this earth.
And now the future of the church lies at our feet, and asks for our response in this century, in this age. And my sense is that we as the larger Christian church are in our own liminal time, standing in that thin space where we can see what we hope to be. And I believe it is time that we proclaim ourselves as Pentecost people.
For when we see ourselves in the face of those in need and know that we are called by Christ to serve them, we are being a Pentecost people. When we refuse to allow the scriptures to be used as tools of oppression or exclusion, we are being a Pentecost people. When we feel the call to welcome the stranger and forgive the enemy, we are being a Pentecost people. When we choose the path of love in spite of the potential to have it hurt us, rather than closing our hearts in fear of abandonment, we are being a Pentecost people. When we trust that the call of God will not take us into places where the grace of God will not go, we are being a Pentecost people. And when we abandon ourselves to the whim of the Holy Spirit who blows where it will, and leads us into new life, we are being a Pentecost people.
The birth of the church is still in its infancy for history is long, and God still speaks to us today and invites us to breathe in new life, and babble new words, and build the new community.
May it be so for us today.