ʺThe wind blows where it wills. You hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goesʺ.
On Sunday we celebrate Pentecost (Whitsunday) one of the three great festivals of the Christian year. But these days you would not really know unless you are a complete insider. On 3rd June 1770, Captain James Cook, sailing through the Coral Sea clearly did know the significance of this day, and named the paradise like islands he was passing, the Whitsundays. Much has changed in 250 years, and not all for the better.
Pentecost celebrates the all-pervading presence of God: God who creates, God who redeems, and God who gifts life.
Pentecost origins are embedded in the biblical creation narrative where we are reminded that nothing exists outside the breathing (wind) of God: breath that especially enters humans to make us truly alive. It is through this divine breathing we have ʹsoulʹ.
But is this reality universally cherished and fed? President Biden claims that on a visit to the Kremlin in 2011, when he was Vice President of the US and Vladimir Putin Prime Minister of Russia, he looked into Putinʹs eyes and said: ʺMr Prime Minister, you have no soulʺ. Bidenʹs observation which echoes through the Ukraine invasion, is given credence in the ongoing creation narrative.
We find it in the story of Cain and Abel, a narrative not so much about humanity’s first children, but about each one of us. In each of us Abel (wind spirit or soul) abides, as does Cain (possessor, controller, owner). In each of us Cain is quite capable of predominating to the extent that Abel dies. I have always been certain of the universal reach of the creative and redeeming love of God, but I am not a universalist, I do not presume rest in the presence of God is an inevitable human destiny.
Because everything exists through the omnipresent blowing of the spirit of God everything is connected to everything else, and we should be able to find language to address or speak to everything and everyone else – with respect. But as we know to our loss and shame, this is not so. This reality is picked up in the ongoing creation narrative.
The Tower of Babel narrative highlights human resistance to respect, and humility in the commonality of life. Again, this is not a story about an event at the beginning of time, but about all time, and especially our time. Humans, unhappy with living appropriately choose dominance, superiority, elitism; they choose to build a tower. The consequence, we are told, is that humans lose the capacity for genuine communication, beyond self-interested tribal interests. How tragically true this has become of global political life – not least, recent past in Australia.
In his brilliant book, the Go-between God, John Vincent Taylor talks of the Spirit as divine energy holding all things in harmonious unity: the Spirit is the ʹgo-betweenʹ. In the famous chapter 37 of Ezekiel, the prophet picks up the same theme when he describes the spirit putting back together the broken pieces of Israel.
Today marks the end of a week of prayer for Christian unity and the week marking reconciliation in Australia. A season celebrating and praying for unity aways precedes the celebration of Pentecost. Harmony and reconciliation is always the mark of God’s presence.
As we turn to the New Testament, we can hardly be surprised to learn that the birth and ministry of Jesus: the taking of human nature and subsequent proclamation of the Kingdom of God, is ascribed to the action of the Spirit. (Jesus’ conception was ʹof the Holy Spiritʹ while his ministry commencing at his baptism was marked by the Spirit ʹalighting on him as a doveʹ).
In the creeds Christians assert the Holy Spirit is the ʹLord and Giver of Lifeʹ. John tells us he wrote his gospel that we might understand Jesus is the Son of God and that in him we would experience life. Clearly the gift of life was manifest in everything Jesus said, and in every person he touched. What then of his death through crucifixion. Was this to be the end of such imminent divine presence? No! Early in his Gospel John makes it clear that after his death and resurrection, that same spirit they experienced in Jesus would become manifest in them ʺout of the believers shall flow rivers of living waterʺ.
Pentecost is therefore the outpouring of the same spirit that was in Jesus, the imminence of God is not restricted to any locality but is poured out on the believing community. The Spirit is the Spirit of the crucified and risen one. The resurrected Jesus is present to us through the spirit and in our baptism, we are baptised into that spirit.
2000+ year ago those gathered in Jerusalem on that fiftieth (jubilee) day after the resurrection were from all possible nations and tribes. For them and potentially for us all, the Tower of Babel is reversed. Each hears in their own tongue ʹof the wonderful work of Godʹ.
What is this common language? It is not so much what the ear hears, but what the eye sees and the heart expresses. Described by Paul as ʹfruitsʹ the Spirit is made manifest in ʺlove, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-controlʺ. He says ʺthere is no law against such thingsʺ, in other words, it is in such traits that transformative life resides. Like laughter, this is common and unifying language.
On the day of Pentecost there was so much exuberance that those passing by rather derisively remarked ʺthey are all drunkʺ. One of the marks of this exuberance was speaking in tongues or glossolalia. Glossolalia is not specifically, or exclusively, a Christian phenomenon. It is a feature of many and varied exuberant expressions of spiritual awareness. It most certainly should not be claimed as a badge of identification for born again or class A Christians. If there is such a badge it is demonstrated in the afore mentioned fruits.
Paul is later to describe ministries which he identifies as gifts or empowerments of the spirit. I do not wish to dwell on them but to highlight one – the one most strongly emphasised – prophecy. There is much pious nonsense spoken of in relation to this ministry. Prophecy is essentially the gift or capacity of making God or truth known. Jesus is the greatest of all prophets because it is in him that God and truth are most perfectly known. Islam makes the right call when it refers to Abraham, Moses, and other Old Testament figures as prophets, for they each make God known. We should all covet prophecy for we are all to make God known.
I do hope and pray that Pentecost can recover its place alongside Christmas and Easter as one of the three great festivals. I hope and pray too that Pentecost can be reclaimed from Pentecostalism and the extravagances associated with it. In our narrative and living we, the Christian community, are vehicles of the Spirit’s renewing breath that began the process of creation and is fully invested in its redeeming.