(June 8, 2014)
(Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:26-36; 1 Corinthians 12:1-13; John 20:19-23)
Have you ever thought about the day of Pentecost?
On the overhead, and in your hand, you have a copy of Jean Restout’s famous painting, Pentecoste. I have given it to you today because I sincerely hope it finds its way to onto your fridge doors, your bedside tables, and perhaps inside the covers your treasured Bibles and prayerbooks. I don’t even mind if it gets tacked to the back of your toilet door!
In short, I hope it can become something of a companion for you, indeed for us, throughout this season of Pentecost.
I quite like Restout’s depiction of the day of Pentecost. It seeks to capture the moment of this dramatic coming of the ‘breath of God’.
Restout must have spent some time with the Acts text we have just heard. There he seems to have seen a otherworldly element to the events depicted. The coming of the Holy looks something like a meteor shower, volcanic eruption, or some other catastrophic event. Perhaps we can imagine it as a creative ‘Big-Bang’.
Restout includes something of an apocalyptic element to the Spirit’s dramatic descent.
And there is good reason for this. The prophet Joel also painted just such a picture of this Spirit let loose on all creation. I find that the latter part of Peter’s quoting of Joel draws me deeper into this painting:
And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smokey mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day (Acts 2:19-20).
Here the last day is not described in wrathful terms. It seems to be a time to anticipate, a truly ‘glorious day’.
The artist also captures an uncertainty, even a fear, in the Pentecost story. Here God’s Spirit is certainly wild and untamed. The ‘fire’ and ‘wind’ emanate from a single divine light and seem to target each individual. The tongues of fire seem to be being shot at, even chasing, their intended recipients!
The painting points to Pentecost as both a cosmic and a personal event.
Having said all this, I remain most intrigued by the different reactions or responses to this promised and expected event. Mary, and the other women, seem quite naturally open and receptive. The disciples, however, are torn by the event (please be assured I read nothing into this gender divide!). Resout depicts some running, some ducking, and some hiding. (My favourite is the disciple cowering before the altar. If he could get lower than the floor, I am sure he would!).
These disciples seem to encapsulate something of an unease with things of the Spirit: some of us are eager; some are unsure, and; some are running in fear. Perhaps when it comes to the Spirit there are some things that never change. We who make up the church still respond in very different ways to Pentecost.
Of course, this is not to play any of these characters down. After all there is a flame for each one and he ones running now will soon publicly defend this blowing of God from heaven.
Well, enough of Restout.
I am really wondering what we, might make of the account of the account we have just heard: a tiny community gathered; the sound of a rushing and violent wind; tongues of fire dividing and resting on each head; fluent, unlearned languages from across the known world ‘speaking about God’s deeds of power’.
And all those ‘devout Jews from every nation’ listening in. They gathered in Jerusalem for the festival of Weeks and it would seem they got so much more. Luke tells us the coming of the Holy Spirit left them ‘amazed’, ‘astonished’, and later ‘perplexed’.
Perhaps Pentecost does the same for you today? Perhaps this event, at least in part, is intended to amaze, astonish, and perplex?
But even if this is so, this ‘amazement’ is certainly not a place for us to stay. The onlookers rattle out their questions: ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?’; ‘How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?’
Many onlookers on that first Pentecost were far from content with their astonishment. They ask and seek for answers. The pinnacle of this: ’What does this mean?’
Surely, it remains an essential question almost two millennia later: ‘What does all this mean?’
Peter, backed by the other eleven apostles, offered the first answer. After clarifying that this was not some sort of early morning drinking session, Peter points to the words of the ancient prophecy: ‘…this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel.’ Pentecost was, firstly, an anticipated and God-communicated event.
Peter’s chosen quote also speaks in terms of a wide outpouring of the Spirit of God upon ‘all flesh’, ‘your sons and your daughters’, ‘your young’ and ‘old’, and your male and female ‘slaves’. It pictures of generous outpouring of the life-giving breath, or wind, of God that simply ignores age and class. As we have seen, this also involves all creation.
And the pinnacle of all this coming: ‘Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’. The coming of the Holy Spirit, secondly, leads us to God’s salvation and the church to mission.
This name ‘Pentecost’ is derived from the Greek for ‘fifty’ and points to the number of days since the life-changing events of Easter. There is here a deliberate and inherent linking of Easter and the coming of God’s Spirit. They are part of the one story.
And we too are a part of this story. Pentecost also, traditionally, celebrates the birth of the community gathered by God. It is the church’s birthday.
Pentecost Sunday begins the season where we are invited to be more consciously open to the empowering presence of God among us. It is offered in the hope that this openness might become something of a life-long habit and inspire whole lives to be lived in the presence of God.
On the day of Pentecost the Spirit of God, reflecting this same Spirit’s activity in creation, created something new: communities of people profoundly empowered by the very presence of God. Our Psalm sang of the ‘breath’ of that ‘created’ and ‘renewed the ground’. This same wind is blowing something new into existence again: the very church, or community, of God.
So, what does Pentecost mean?
It means that God’s empowering presence is loose in our world and that there is nothing more important than our openness to what this Spirit is doing.
Image Ref: “Jean II Restout – Pentecôte” by Jean II Restout – Art Renewal Center. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jean_II_Restout_-_Pentec%C3%B4te.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Jean_II_Restout_-_Pentec%C3%B4te.jpg