Signs of the Spirit – a Pentecost sermon

Pentecost is very often remembered as the coming of the Holy Spirit, the moment at which the disciples, and therefore the church, receive the Holy Spirit. And yet, as by now we are well aware, this is not the Holy Spirit’s first entrance into the narrative of scripture – far from it. This is the same Spirit who hovers over the waters of creation, the Spirit whom God breathes into the first human, the Spirit who moves again over the waters of Jesus’ baptism, and is breathed by Jesus on the disciples in the upper room after his resurrection. So what, in the context of the Spirit ever-present through the whole creation, and the Spirit already actively involved in the life of Jesus and his disciples, does it mean to say that the Holy Spirit is received at Pentecost?

Perhaps we might want to say that the disciples receive the Spirit in a new way at Pentecost, or that they become aware of and open to the Spirit’s presence in ways that they weren’t before. Perhaps we might want to say that in Pentecost, through the action of the Holy Spirit moving over and through the disciples, God is in some sense doing a new thing. Perhaps we might want to say that in Pentecost God provides a template for renewal, new life, movement and change in the ongoing life of the church and the world.

However we understand it, there is no doubt that this is – among other things – a moment of high drama. The Spirit, eternally present, now reveals her presence in dramatic and miraculous signs. And, like all good drama, the narrative of Pentecost points beyond itself. Here we have three dramatic signs, which are so familiar to us but must have been so strange to their first audience: the wind which rushes through the room; the tongues of fire which rest on the disciples but do not burn them; and the multiplicity of languages which the disciples suddenly find themselves able to speak.  And each of these signs signifies something about the Holy Spirit which speaks far beyond the Pentecost narrative itself.

The rushing wind might call to mind other winds in scripture: the wind moving over the chaos of creation; the mighty wind which Elijah encounters on the mountain; the wind of the storm which Jesus stills; Jesus’ own words about the Spirit being like a wind which blows where it will. It is a sign which speaks of wildness beyond human control, and of movement which moves not only itself but all that it touches. And we might ask ourselves where in our own lives, as a church and as individuals, we have experienced that wild movement.

The sign of fire too mind other fires: the fire around which Jesus and his disciples so recently gathered to share breakfast on a beach, or the one around which Peter denied knowing Jesus; all the ways in which the God of the psalms is likened to light and fire, whose “word is a lamp for my feet”; and again we might find ourselves on the mountain with Elijah whose encounter with God is presaged not only by wind and earthquake but also by fire. This is a sign which speaks both of illumination and of risk. And we might think too of our own fireside gatherings: of stories shared of lament and hope.

And then we come to our third Pentecost sign: the disciples’ sudden ability to make themselves understood – to make the good news of Jesus understood – in languages not their own. And here there is a specific echo of the Tower of Babel, of languages as a gift which divides. But here those languages speak no longer of division but of unity. And notice what sort of unity: this is not the erasing of difference. There are still many languages, many peoples, and they are not the same. The unity of Pentecost is not that of uniformity, but of transforming difference so that it no longer divides. Here, the boundaries which once separated neighbour from neighbour become bridges between people who are still different, still uniquely themselves with all their own customs and stories and languages, but united within and across their diversity. This is not a reversing of Babel, but a transforming, onwards movement to a different sort of unity, predicated not on becoming the same but on communicating across boundaries. Indeed, God is doing a new thing. And we might like to think about our own lives and experiences and communities, about the times when we have spoken or listened across the boundaries of difference to find a new sort of unity. We might want to ask God to show us where we are being called into this sort of transformed and transforming relationship within diversity.

Very often, this is where we leave the Pentecost story – after strange wind and fire, miraculous gifts of speech and understanding. And if we stop there, we might think that this is where the gift of the Holy Spirit is located: in the extraordinary, the powerful, the strange, the miraculous. But of course, this is not the end of the story. It is not the end – it is only just the beginning – of the church’s encounter with the Holy Spirit. And it is well worth paying attention to what happens next. Because very soon we encounter another set of signs. These are quieter, gentler, more ordinary signs, but they are no less important and no less indicative of the presences of the Holy Spirit. We see these signs in the shared life of the early followers of Jesus, in the sharing of life and of faith which will become what we know as ‘church’.

In the breaking of bread, in the sharing of food and resources, in the welcoming of strangers, in the declaring of what Jesus has done, in generosity and good will, and in porous boundaries which do away with the very notion of ‘them and us’: in all these things and more, the Holy Spirit is revealed, just as much as in the dramatic signs more usually associated with Pentecost.  This is the Spirit who remains, steadfast and abiding, pervading the life of the church from the moment of Pentecost as she has pervaded the whole universe from the moment of creation.

Again, we might find ourselves drawn back to the mountain with Elijah. After the wind, the earthquake, and the fire, comes “the sound of sheer silence” in which God is. In a similar way, after the grand drama of Pentecost dies away the Holy Spirit remains, and still remains, in the quiet signs of the communal life and worship of the church. This is the Spirit who steadfastly abides with us, as we abide steadfastly in the places to which God has called us. This is the Spirit whose life of renewal moves as much in the silence and in the sharing of common life as in the spectacular or miraculous. This is the Spirit who invites us with the whole creation into new, transformed, and transforming life infused by her wild and gentle power.

This reflection is part of Hodge Hill Church’s ‘Trees of Life’ series: