Everyone loves a good story, and Pentecost is a story which is filled with vivid imagery that captures our imagination. We have whirlwinds blowing about and Spirit-flames resting on the disciples. We have bold proclamation and instantaneous translation into multiple languages. We have sons and daughters prophesying, teenagers seeing visions, and Senior Citizens dreaming dreams. This is the experience of the Holy Spirit as described in Acts 2. And who doesn’t want some of THAT? Who doesn’t want to feel the Spirit blowing powerfully through their lives? Who doesn’t want to feel like they’re on fire for God? Who doesn’t want to dream dreams of an exciting future that God is creating for us? Sign me up for all of this, ALL of this!
I want my life to be like Pentecost. I want to experience the thrill, the excitement of it all. I suspect you feel the same way. And yet, if we’re really honest with ourselves, our experience of the Spirit is quite different than this. The whirlwind feels more like the breath it takes to blow out birthday candles. The Spirit flames are glowing embers that are left in a fire pit after the flame has gone out. Our bold proclamation rarely makes it beyond the doors of our church. And when was the last time we had a crystal clear vision or a revolutionary dream?
We all long for the juicy, perfectly-cooked steak that is the Pentecost story in Acts 2. But most of the time it feels like we’re eating a sat-in-the-bin-too-long McDonald’s hamburger instead. Why is this that case? Why is our experience of the Spirit so vastly different from the Pentecost story? Is it possible to get just a little pinch of this experience? Or should we lower our expectations regarding the way the Spirit-wind blows through our lives? These are some of the questions that drifted though my mind as I meditated on the Pentecost story this week. Hopefully, by the time I’m finished, you’ll have a few answers to these questions.
The first word of encouragement I’d like to give you is that not everyone in the Bible had a whirlwind experience of the Spirit. In fact, if you put Acts 2 and John 20 together you have a schizophrenic description of Pentecost! Acts is like a Michael Bay film with guns blazing and special effects galore. But John is more like a Silent Film from the 1920’s and no one is at the piano giving it a soundtrack.
John begins his Pentecost story with disciples who are hiding behind locked doors. They are scared out of their wits. The reason why they are lying low is that they fear they will suffer the same fate as Jesus did. They aren’t afraid of the Jews, as the NRSV states. They are afraid of the Jewish leaders who want to squash their spiritual revolution like a bug. They are also afraid of Roman soldiers who would stab you with their sword if you looked at them funny. There is no bold proclamation in John. There are no crystal clear visions or revolutionary dreams. There is only fear, worry, and probably a healthy dose of despair.
In this version of the Pentecost story, the resurrected Christ appears suddenly, out of nowhere. The first words out of his mouth are “Peace be with you.” How different this is from the ecstatic experience of the disciples in Acts 2. There are no whirlwinds or Spirit-flames in John. In their place is a greeting of peace as the risen Christ shows these scared disciples the wounds of his crucifixion. Wow! Then Jesus simply puckers up his lips and blows. [Demonstrate] This gentle breeze of the Spirit spring-cleaned the room like an open window. It replaced the stench of fear with the sweet smell of joy. This is how John describes Pentecost.
So, if you feel like your experience of the Holy Spirit is vastly different from the whirlwind and Spirit-flames of Acts 2, perhaps John is your go-to guy when it comes to matters of the Spirit. Perhaps his description of Pentecost is the one we should pay attention to this Pentecost Sunday. There is something powerful about his narrative that we might have missed because our eyes were fixed on the shock and awe of Acts 2. John is telling us that the Holy Spirit often shows up in our lives as the gift of peace in the midst of circumstances that cause us to be worried and afraid.
It’s sort of like Elijah’s experience of God in 1 Kings 19. There is a great wind that is so strong it begins to split mountains and reduce rocks to rubble. But Elijah discerns that God is not in the wind. Then there is an earthquake, that shakes the mountain he is standing on. But Elijah discerns that God is not in the earthquake. Then there is a fire, with no fire extinguisher to be found. but Elijah discerns that God is not in the fire, either [So much for the Acts 2 version of the Pentecost story!] Finally, Elijah hears the sound of sheer silence. Apparently, sheer silence is deafening because Elijah hears in this silence the voice of God who says “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
We can take this imagery back into our gospel lesson where the risen Christ is asking his disciples the same thing: “What are you doing here Peter? Mary? And the rest of you scaredy-cats? Why all the fear? The worry? The despair? Receive the Holy Spirit. [Pucker and blow] This is my gift of peace to you.”
The second thing we learn from John’s version of the Pentecost story is that bold proclamation rarely comes from a place of strength. It comes from a place of weakness. After the risen Christ gave a greeting peace, the first thing he did was show his disciples the marks of the crucifixion. Let that sink in for a minute. It will blow your mind!
Perhaps John is trying to tell us that we proclaim the good news of Jesus through our scars instead of our strengths. We would all prefer to be whirlwind proclaimers who feel like we’re on fire for Christ all the time. But the strength of our testimony lies in our heartaches, our failures and our weaknesses. The strength of our testimony lies in the story of how Jesus sought us out when we were little lost lambs, and brought us back into the fold of God.
St. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians: “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” [1 Cor 1:26-28]
So the next time we’re tempted to have Pentecost envy; the next time we’re waiting for our whirlwind to arrive, perhaps we can remember our Lord who showed his scars instead of his strengths. Perhaps we can remember Jesus who washed the feet of his disciples and suggests we do the same.
If you’re still not convinced that John’s version of the Pentecost story is the way to go, Let’s take a look at our second lesson where Paul talks about the way we function as the Body of Christ. “There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; and there are different ministries and the same Lord; and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good.” [CEB]
First of all, notice the Trinitarian formula Paul uses here. There are different spiritual gifts, ministries and activities… but the same Spirit, Lord and God. I don’t think it’s an accident that Paul wrote this the way he did. It’s purpose is to remind us that spiritual gifts are relational. God is in relationship with God’s-self. This relationship is beautiful, intimate and profound. Likewise, we, as the Body in Christ, are in relationship with one another. This relationship is equally beautiful, intimate and profound.
We would all like to be Nadia Bolz-Weber or Bishop Elizabeth Eaton. We would all like to be Rob Bell or Brian McLaren. But, Friends in Christ, all of our gifts are important. the goal is that we serve one another, instead of trying to outshine one another.
Each of us has talents and abilities we are well-equipped and best-suited to offer the Body of Christ. Some of these gifts come in the form of whirlwinds and Holy Spirit bonfires. Others come in greetings of peace and a calm, gentle breath. If any of these gifts are missing, the Body of Christ is weaker for it.
I have come to the conclusion that this is what John is trying to teach us in his version of the Pentecost story. Therefore, our goal is not to wish for what we do not have. Our goal is to let what we have shine as brightly as we can. Gifts of the spirit are relational. They are all important. They are all needed.
So let’s not fall into the trap of Pentecost envy. Let’s not lower our expectations regarding the way the Spirit-wind blows through our lives. Instead, let’s strive to be authentically us, revealing to others our scars as well as our gifts. Let’s allow the Spirit-wind of Pentecost to blow through our lives, no matter what the strength. Jesus reminds us in the gospel of Matthew that a single lamp put on a lamp stand “gives light to all in house.” [Mt 5:15] Notice he didn’t say anything about bonfires!
So, Friends in Christ, let your unique, Spirit-fueled, light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to God in heaven. Happy Pentecost! Amen!
Copyright ©2017 by David Eck