According to John’s Gospel, when Jesus appeared to the disciples in an Easter epiphany, he said, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” Then the text says that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Only a literal reading of the text would regard this as the first connection the disciples had with the Holy Spirit, who is also called the Advocate or Comforter and the Spirit of Truth in John’s Gospel. The language of “Holy Spirit” is just another symbolical way of talking about God and God’s relationship to the world. One of the key things the Gospel of John teaches about the Holy Spirit, I believe, is that present day disciples of Jesus experience the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ. The Christ image is the Christian’s dominant image of God. We understand the Spirit of God as the Spirit of Christ.
When John says that Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” he wants his readers to recall the creation story where God breathes into the human creature the Spirit of life and the human creature becomes a living being – a living being that reflects God’s image, as the first creation story emphasizes. All human beings by virtue of being alive due to the Spirit of God have a connection to the Holy Spirit whether they realize it or not. Our very existence is due to the Holy Spirit.
When the Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples gathered on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, as in the Gospel of John, this does not mean that the Holy Spirit literally comes down from heaven or that this is the first connection the disciples have with the Spirit of God. The imagery of the Spirit descending, as when the Spirit symbolized by the dove descends on Jesus at his baptism, is simply meant to emphasize a new vision or new experience coming from God.
In reality the Spirit is already with us, among us, and in us. The experience of the Spirit of Christ at Pentecost points to a new vision, a new revelation, a new awareness that comes from God. The language of the Spirit descending, or falling upon the people of God in our sacred texts, is the way sacred language highlights a new experience or new revelation or new understanding or new vision that comes from God.
So, what is the new thing that the Spirit of Christ wants us to know and realize and do? It’s what Jesus did. It’s to continue the work that Jesus began and called disciples to do. Last week I talked about doing works of mercy and works of justice. Here the point is made that these works of mercy and works of justice are not to be limited or confined to any particular group of people. Of course, I’m talking about the church at large. Individuals may indeed be called to minister to a particular group of people, but the church at large is called to love the world.
We know from the Gospels that Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. Tax collectors were persons despised by many fellow Jews because they collaborated with the Romans against their own people and contributed to their oppression, while they personally benefitted from their collaboration. They were regarded as traitors who cared only for their own well-being, and it’s very understandable why they were so regarded. Sinners was a semi-technical word used to refer to all persons who disregarded, or for whatever reason, did not keep the law as applied by the Jewish religious leaders of the day. Jesus, in violation of the Jewish holiness code, welcomed all such persons to table fellowship. Jesus’ inclusive practice of table fellowship is a sacred symbol that beautifully and powerfully conveys what God’s kingdom is like.
What Acts 2 teaches is that the spirit of Jesus is the inclusive Spirit of Christ who is now working through Christ’s disciples just as he worked through Jesus of Nazareth to break through barriers, tear down walls, build bridges, and bring all people together to eat and fellowship at the same table.
Practically everything in this passage points to this. When the Spirit of Christ makes itself known it takes the form of tongues of fire. Luke is careful to emphasize that the tongues of fire rests on each of them – that is, everyone present. No one is excluded. Sinner or saint. The Spirit rests on them all. Good Jew or bad Jew. They, of course, were all Jews because this is how it had to start. Jesus was a Jew, and his first followers were Jews. Pentecost is a Jewish holy day celebrating Israel’s liberation from Egypt. So this inclusive message had to first go out to the Jews, before it could go out to the uttermost parts of the earth.
To emphasize the inclusive nature of the Spirit of Christ Luke says that when they were filled with the Holy Spirit they began to speak in other languages and those present who came from different parts of the Roman world heard the message in their own native tongue – that is, native to their particular context in the Roman world. What did they hear? Luke says they spoke about “God’s deeds of power” – deeds of mercy and justice, deeds of healing and liberation, as when God liberated an enslaved people from the power of Pharaoh. There are Pharaoh’s everywhere. There are Pharaoh’s right here in the United States of America in the halls of power.
But then, as now, there are people who don’t get it. Luke says that all who heard the disciples speak about God’s deeds of power in their native language were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
Peter goes on to tell them just what it means. He says, “This is what was anticipated by the prophets, such as the prophet Joel who said, “In the last days God will pour out God’s Spirit on all flesh.” Do you hear that sisters and brothers – all flesh – Jews, Samaritans, Gentiles, all flesh. Sinners and saints, the good and the bad, the liberated and the oppressed – all flesh. The old and young alike, both women and men will have visions and dream great dreams of what God’s world of peace and righteousness will look like. And everyone, every single one, who opens their heart. Every person - every Christian, Muslim, Jew, or Buddhist. Everyone – straight or gay or transgender. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord. Everyone – dark skinned or white skinned. Everyone – educated or uneducated. Everyone – physically fit or physically unfit. Everyone – mentally brilliant or mentally challenged. Everyone who responds to an open invitation to have a seat at the table of fellowship is welcomed and embraced with loving arms. Everyone who opens their heart to the Spirit of inclusion, the Spirit of forgiveness, the Spirit of mercy and grace – will be saved – will be healed and restored and liberated and reconciled and made whole.
So, in light of the inclusive nature of the Pentecostal Spirit some tough questions: Where is the Pentecostal Spirit of Christ in Christian groups today who want to make everyone into their own image and are unable to recognize the image of God in those they think they have to convert? Where is the Spirit of Christ in churches that exclude and reject and condemn our LGBTQ sisters and brothers? Where is the Spirit of Christ when Christians scream “Send them home” and want to separate children and parents and deny the undocumented children of God the only home they have ever known? Where is the Spirit of Christ in the Kentucky Baptist Convention who wants to defellowship all Baptist Christians who support the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship? Such a spirit is the very opposite of the Spirit of Christ who invited all to table fellowship.
May the Pentecostal Spirit of the Christ who is Lord of every human being fall on all who think they alone are God’s chosen ones and have a corner on the truth. And may the Pentecostal Spirit of Christ fall on all of us progressive Christians who take pride in our progressiveness and look down on the unenlightened and who don’t know nearly as much as we think we do. That about covers all of us doesn’t it? How long will it take for us to see that we all are connected by the Holy Spirit, that we all belong to God and one another, and that the only thing that will ever matter to God is how well we love one another? I’m pretty sure that’s what God ares about – how well we love others.
John Philip Newell tells about the time he and his wife lived in community with ten others in an Edinburg slum. Newell was a student working on his Ph.D. These young students rented six apartments on a common stair at the heart of one of Edinburg’s worst pockets of social and economic deprivation. The idea was simply to be in a part of the city that had been forgotten and neglected. Their commitment was to live there and engage the neighborhood. Their only rule for community life was to meditate and pray together every evening and to share a common meal on Sundays.
Since most on the stair were young couples, it was here that they began their families. They produced so many babies in the first couple of years that the rumor was that they were a fertility cult. It was the children of the neighborhood who were the first to get to know them. Others were cautiously perplexed as to why these young families would want to live there, but the children took immediate interest and enjoyed their presence.
They would knock on their doors after school. Sometimes it was just to have a word – someone to speak to, someone to listen to them. Other times it was to come in for a snack – a quiet place, a type of sanctuary in their often chaotic lives.
The problem, however, was that they had other things to do as well. Newell was trying to write his Ph.D thesis. Others were hoping that their baby’s afternoon nap would not get interrupted by children knocking at the door. So they came up with the bright idea of placing a star on a different door in the stair. The children were told that they could knock on that door with the star but not the other doors. By the third day of the experiment word had got around at the local school with its hundreds of children that they were running an afterschool club. Go to the apartment with the star! Hordes of children came.
They had to downscale the operation. Over the years there were quite a few children who became close to them. Some of them would even join in the evening prayer. The most regular visitor for evening prayer was James. He was an unusual looking boy. His eyes were crossed, which always made it difficult to know where he was looking. His face and hands were unwashed, and the smell of his clothes from a household full of cats and dogs made it difficult to be in close proximity to him.
One evening James arrived late for community prayer. They would often have some sort of icon they used as a way of meditation. That evening it was a copy of a famous painting of Mary and the child Jesus that had been placed on the mantelpiece above the hearth. The community was seated in a semi-circle and the only remaining seat for James was a little stool in front of the fireplace. But when he sat down, he did not face the icon, he faced the group. Perhaps he did not know what they were doing or maybe his eyesight was not good enough to see what their focus was on.
But as he sat there facing the group as the group focused on the icon, James began to smile at them. And the more he smiled at them, the more the focus of the group shifted from the icon to James. Finally, James became the icon. James became a window into the face of God. James became a vessel full of the Holy Spirit.
How long will it take for us to shift our eyes from all the things that make us different to see all the things that make us alike? How long will it take for us to stop judging and condemning and excluding, and open up our little circles? When will we stop trying to control God and stop projecting on to God, who is far more gracious than most of us we want God to be? Maybe if we could just open our minds and hearts just a little bit it might just be enough for the Spirit of Christ to plant a little seed that will grow into a beautiful tree, like the mustard seed that becomes a great tree where all the birds of the air can find shelter. Then, maybe we would see that the fire of God’s Spirit rests on everyone. The more we gaze into the eyes of the broken and the hurting, or even the arrogant and self-righteous who we have allowed into our circle, the more we might realize how much alike we all are – that we are all broken and hurting, we are all arrogant and self-righteous. We are all human after all and we are all loved with a magnanimous, magnificent love.
Oh God, I pray, I long for the Pentecostal Spirit to fall on us, to rest on each one of us so that we might see that we are no better or worse than anyone else – that we all belong, that we are all your offspring, that we are all both sinners and saints. Let the fire of your Spirit who lives within each of us ignite a passion in our hearts to spread your loving kindness, your gentle mercy, your humble goodness, and your passion for fairness and justice everywhere we go. Amen.