The Day of Pentecost

Sermon for The Day of Pentecost, Sunday, June 04 2017, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Acts 2:1-21; Ps 104:25-35,37; 1 Cor 12:3b-13; John 7:37-39

Wind, fire, water. Three of the four classical elements, all drawn into the imagery we use to speak of the Holy Spirit, that most mysterious figure of the Trinity. That we do not imagine the Spirit also as earth is probably a defect in our own imaginations, and in some ways perhaps a very dangerous defect, but it is true that humans fairly consistently, and with some reason, imagine the earth as stability, as stillness; and staying still is the one thing the Holy Spirit never does. The Holy Spirit is almost by definition movement, the wind which drives us forward, the illumination which keeps on opening up our understanding, bringing us into new places, new times, new ways of seeing, as it opened up the early church from the closed doors of the upper room into the marketplace, sent that first odd band of women and fishermen and general losers out to heal the world. As the Spirit continues to work now, teaching us how to read our own times, how to act out that healing ourselves.

In the beautiful language of the Book of Common Prayer, the Holy Spirit is called the “Comforter.” But it must be said that the Pentecost experience does not, on the face of it, sound terrifically comforting. The experience of tongues of fire resting upon a small group of people, who are suddenly empowered to speak so that a crowd of other people of all known languages and cultures can understand them, would have been a lot of things, but “comfort” would not be the first word that came to my mind. Still, it is not wrong. Because what that experience is most fundamentally about is the realization that, although Jesus will never again be with the disciples in the way that he once was, God has not left the church, God has not left us, alone; instead, God has come to establish an even deeper intimacy with us. The God who came into our human flesh in the incarnation will, from now on, be among us in all our human lives, God will work within us, through us and upon us. The wind and fire will rest on us, the water will flow from our own hearts. It is an intimidating sort of comfort, but that is the sort of comfort God generally offers.

We will speak, the coming of the Spirit promises, and we will understand. The Pentecost story looks back to a much earlier story—the division of tongues at Babel, the myth of a sort of primal breakdown of communication, the original failure of human community. Babel is almost an alternate story of the fall, of how we came to be the difficult wounded creatures that we are. Why we cannot say what we want to say, cannot speak to each other as we wish to speak. Communities are divided by language, culture, history; and we are each one of us divided from each other. We have seen, and continue to see, too many attempts to explicitly destroy shared speech, to turn different communities, different people, away from each other. We break apart the already broken languages, choose someone to be the other, the one we cannot, or choose not to, understand, to be the enemy, the outcast, the scapegoat.

And even when we mean well, when there is no hostility, all human speech—all human communication, because what I’m saying isn’t limited to those of us who communicate primarily with words—is an approximation at best; whether word or sign or music or picture or gesture or touch, it is the struggle to share between these human solitudes some fragment of truth. Even in our most intimate relationships, that attempt will fail more often than not.

We long—temptingly and fatally—for a restoration of a kind of pre-Babel simplicity, as we sometimes long for the imaginary infant innocence of Eden. “The dream of a common language” can be a dangerous dream, leading us towards a desire for one tongue only, one “best” culture, one way of being to which everyone has to subscribe, which will end the division and the pain by making all things not only one, but the same. It is the terrible misunderstanding of God’s intentions which led to the atrocities of the residential schools, among many others; the attempt to destroy difference, to erase the multitude of tongues. It is the misguided and angry need to make everyone the same which is driving the protests against our Muslim neighbours, attacks on mosques or simply on women in headscarves, the same need which drives hatred of and violence against queer people here and around the world. In a milder way, it can be seen in every call for unity which is based on erasing difference, every urging towards a homogenous group identity. Every attempt not to redeem but to reverse Babel, to make it as if it had never been.

But this is not the message of Pentecost. Pentecost redeems the diversity of language, of being, redeems even the divisions. It is important, I think, that the image which is used is precisely an image of divided tongues resting on the disciples. What had been the flaw, the fall, becomes in itself the redemption. And all languages and cultures are there, all ways of being human, and they are all real and honoured. All that is foreign or frightening, all that is despised or unknown. None of the history which has led to this moment goes away. It is taken up in a greater community, a greater understanding—diverse, confusing, strange, frightening even—but all encompassed in God’s great work for the redemption of all things. The coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day, in the words of the prophecy which Peter quotes.

For that day, beyond and outside of history but known in part within it, is a day in which nothing will be lost, nothing will be left out. All the divisions, all the broken histories we have lived through, all of our pains and our failures of communication and our frustrated longings, are to be redeemed. Not denied, not erased, but made part of God’s story, part of God’s life, in ways we can barely comprehend. Fire and air and water, the central elements we believe to be in opposition to each other, all part of the dance, all grounded in the Incarnation, that ultimate statement of solidarity with earth. We will speak in our own strange tongues, and all our divided speech will be part of the Word. We speak as we are spoken.

“Let all who are thirsty come,” says Jesus, a saying which adopts the ancient imagery of Isaiah, and is picked up in the final vision of Revelation, the great summons of the Spirit and the Bride. All who are thirsty, take the water of life as a gift. And we are all thirsty, for water, for love, for justice, for mercy. We are all invited. It is our thirst, our longing, which brings us home, if we can own it in humility, making space for all those who come beside us, while holding onto our own complex, different, sometimes strange and even frightening, truths, our thirsty and searching full selves.

And we can all be springs of the water of life for each other, and for the world, if we allow the Word to work in us, through all our various gifts and weaknesses, our partial redemptions of Babel, our partial communications between the divided tongues. We carry the water and the fire and the wind in our small bodies of earth—we are called to care and nurture and tend, we are called to the fierce determination of resistance, we are called to the making of art and beauty and scholarship. We are called out into the noisy city of many languages and many needs, and we are called to speak so that this city, in all its pain and potential goodness, may understand. As I said at the beginning, it is a particularly uneasy comfort which the Comforter brings us. But it is this into which we are called, and into which we go.