You’ve Got Spirit!
Last Monday, I asked the Bible Study group what they thought about Pentecost and one of the first comments was to wonder what it would have been like to be there at that first Pentecost. You can feel the writer’s excitement as we read, “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.” Sounds like Sunday worship at St. David’s? No, we are a little more sedate that this, the day which is seen as the birth of the church. Traditionally, Pentecost is about being as surprised and as totally enlivened by God’s Spirit as Jesus was. Wind, fire, tongues, a moment of conversion when thousands are added to a tiny community of faith.
If this is a little too much excitement for you, then we need to turn to the way the writer of John’s gospel has recorded Pentecost. It is much more personal as we see the Spirit of God brooding in the hearts and minds of people just as it brooded over the face of the waters in the days of creation in the first chapter of Genesis.
We see between Luke and John the two symbols of Pentecost that we have been given: the dove and the flames of fire. I noticed that in the United Church of Canada crest, we have the dove descending from above, but there are no flames present. Our sister church in the United States, the United Methodist Church, has the flames wrapping around the cross, whereas the Uniting Church of Australia has managed to combine the dove and the flames into one symbol. The image I have chosen for this morning’s bulletin cover combines the dove and the flames.
I can see why we like the dove as a symbol. It is the dove that brings an olive branch back to old Noah on the Ark, letting him know that there was dry land after days of flooding and being tossed to and fro on the water. Now, a new sense of security. There is the lovely image of the dove descending upon Jesus at his baptism and the voice of God proclaiming, “Behold my Son, with whom I am well pleased.” God’s blessing and affirmation.
What images do you associate with the dove? Purity and peace come to mind. In the Middle Ages, the cathedrals used to release hundreds of doves on the feast of Pentecost, but the practice was discontinued because the doves rained down more than peace and grace. The question is whether the gentle, graceful dove really is a good symbol for Pentecost as Luke describes it?
It has been said that in the Celtic traditions of Ireland they linked the Holy Spirit, not with a dove, but with a wild goose. Maybe the goose is a better symbol for what Luke is telling us happened at that first Pentecost. Geese are not controllable. They make a lot of noise and they have this habit of biting those who try to contain them. A symbol for the church? Geese fly faster in a flock than on their own and geese make excellent “guard dogs”. For over fifty years, geese have been protecting Ballantine’s bonded warehouses near Glasgow, Scotland. They guard 240 million litres of maturing whisky and as a bonus keep the grounds weed-free and the grass clipped. In 390 BC, it was the geese in Rome that woke up the city’s defenders when the Gauls were invading.
God’s Spirit seems to me more like a wild goose, demanding to be heard. Its song is not very sweet to many people. God’s Spirit comes with a truth and power that many would rather ignore. Quite often the Spirit forces those on whom it rests to become the noisy, passionate, and courageous people of the gospel.
The Apostle Paul said that a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit is love, but Paul isn’t referring to the dove-like love that is sold to us on a Hallmark Valentine’s Day card. He has in mind the love which is the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (words from the traditional communion service) which binds together different and unlikely people to create new community as the present body of Christ in our world.
Pentecost is the wild goose of the person who marched on the legislature for the sacredness of salmon, the person who bakes a casserole for a shut-in, the hospital visitor, the environmentalist, the worker at First United, the person who signed a petition for education in Africa, the volunteer with the refugee project, the person who seeks reform so that there are employment opportunities and shelter for all.
Perhaps this is the type of Pentecost Luke had in mind as he records the events of the first Pentecost. Nothing to do with purity and peace, but rather tongues of fire which enabled the people to hear and experience the presence of God in a language that each of them understood. It wasn’t just in English or French or Mandarin or Hindi; it was also the ability to understand the language of the world, the language of consumer economics, of unemployment, of texting and Skype, of tar sands and climate change, of emerging Africa; languages which the church has far too long had difficulty hearing or speaking.
The social-psychologist, O’Murchu, has written, “This Spirit is the living energy, the creative vitality that stirs the waves and whispers in the wind, that warms the sun and eroticises the moon, that vibrates in the sounds of nature, begetting novelty in every realm of [the universe].”
I wonder what our symbol is here at St. David’s? What is the presence of the Spirit in this place? At times, yes, it is the spirit of love and peace and gentleness, but does it ever become the spirit of a noisy, honking goose, tongues of fire, speaking a language that all outside these walls can understand?
Look at the banner that is at the front of the church this morning. There is a dove and there are flames above the dove. The banner, aesthetically, might have looked better without the flames, just a lovely dove descending upon us this morning…but there they are…flames to remind us that Pentecost is a time when God’s people should be on fire with the Holy Spirit. This is powerful stuff. When I see this, I think, wow, these people are courageous. This must be a place that is on fire with God’s Spirit, that flames and the cross which is above the banner, are their two main symbols.
Over the past three years that I have been here, I have come to believe that yes, the spirit of Pentecost is alive in this place. I have seen the Spirit move among us in some unique and wonderful ways. My prayer is that we will continue to embrace new and different ways of worshipping and thinking theologically, so that we, here in this place, in these pews, in our weekly activities and projects, might reflect the challenging and unique diversity of God our Creator.
I hope that you will join me in celebrating the Spirit of play and wonder that I find in this place as we worship together, care for one another, reach out to our community and, dare I say, push old theological boundaries and explore new emerging ways of worshipping the One who has given us life and breath.
If we follow the Spirit, it won’t allow us to rest in nostalgia and our past. This year, we celebrate 60 years as a congregation, 60 years of people worshipping and serving in this place. As we do this, we celebrate all of the ministries that take place, ministries that are radically different from the ones that could even have been imagined 60 years ago. We look to the future. I think that the fact that we have raised all of the money for the elevator is a sign of our enthusiasm for the future of St. David’s. We can do this because Pentecost is more than a past-event. It is the story, the experience, again and again, of God’s continuing presence with us. It is God’s Spirit becoming incarnate, not just in the one person of Jesus Christ, but also becoming incarnate in each one of us as we dream dreams and see visions of justice and compassion in our world.