The Day of Pentecost

Sermon for The Day of Pentecost, Sunday, May 20 2018, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 104:25-35, 37b; Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Fire and water, the volatile elements – this is the imagery of Pentecost, the day we mark as the coming of the Holy Spirit to the earliest followers of Jesus. The word Jesus uses for the Spirit, translated here as “advocate”, appears in older translations as “comforter”, but it must be said that the accounts of Pentecost do not make it sound like a terribly comforting experience – confusing, amazing, frightening probably. “The dove descending breaks the air/in flames of incandescent terror,” Eliot wrote. But for all the fire and volatility and drama, it is at its heart a miracle of understanding, a miracle of communication, of language not transcended but perfected – and I have already mentioned translation once this morning, and will again before we’re done. Appropriately, the words most relevant to Pentecost are among the hardest to translate, and at the same time some of the richest and most evocative words, in our multi-author, multi-language, polyvalent scriptures.

I’d like to look first at the passage from Ezekiel, and consider what’s happening there, and how it may relate to what happens in Acts. The prophet, at the time of this vision, is living, traumatized and barely functional, among the exiles in Babylon. His city has been destroyed, Israel scattered, almost exterminated. And he is taken in vision to a bonepit, a mass grave, the remains of his people, the brutal triumph of empire, the absolute death of the liberating vision of Exodus. “Mortal,” asks God, “can these bones live?” He cannot say yes – that, at the edge of the bonepit, would be absurd. But he cannot say no, for that would be the last defeat of hope. He hands the question back to God – and God hands it again back to him, and calls him to action, tells him, impossibly, “Speak to the bones.” And then, in that moment of utter contradiction, bones standing and yet dead, a second call, for which our language fails.

Both Hebrew and Greek have a single word which can be translated as “breath”, “wind”, or “spirit” — ruach in Hebrew, pneuma in Greek — so any occurrence of one of these three words in an English translation usually carries the other two with it. The spirit of God which moves over the primal chaos at the beginning is also God’s breath, and is also the wind – the animating force which creates movement and life. The word of God which brings meaning out of this chaos is borne on that breath, on that wind. So when poor damaged Ezekiel is directed to “prophesy to the ruach”, it is a remarkable moment. The prophet is told that he, this broken man, will speak truth to the wind, to the breath, to the spirit. That he will be given the words which will call the bones to life. That his will be a voice which will create, once again, the possibility of a world. And he speaks, and the wind attends.

The disciples, as the story of Pentecost begins, are not in such a dire situation as Ezekiel in exile. They have lost their teacher, it is true, in fact lost and regained and then lost him again, but while they may be confused and uncertain, they have their community, brought back together in forgiveness and healing, and they have the promise of an ongoing presence. Still, they are waiting – perhaps the closest analogy is not to the prophet, but to the bones in between the two calls, back in human form, standing up, ready to be alive, and yet not quite fully remade.

And then it comes, the ruach, the pneuma. And this time, it is they who speak – and all the scattered peoples of the empire hear and understand. It is a miracle of communication which, at the same time, reminds us that all human communication is in some small way a miracle. For all that every human language is a crude attempt at capturing meaning, for all that we come from histories and bodies so impossibly different, for all that social and economic forces try to set us against us each, to see each other as threats and competitors, for all that we ourselves scarcely, most of the time, even know what we ourselves mean – still we do talk to each other. Still that gap is, however partially, always being breached. And every time we somehow manage to reach each other across the gulf between our human solitudes, it is something sacramental, it is the work of God.

And Pentecost is also a miracle of diversity – because the distinction of languages and cultures is not erased. The tongues of fire which rest on the disciples are, very specifically, divided tongues, and even the division is redeemed. Each language retains its particularity, each culture is whole and honoured. All that is foreign and frightening, all that is despised and unknown, every way of being human, all are contained in this, and all, for that one moment in the wind, can understand each other. This is how our scattered bones can come together. It is not the return to some imaginary innocence in which we are all the same, for that is a dream that ends in murder, in the great sin of the residential schools, in so many of the oppressions in which the church has been complicit. This is not a miracle which makes everyone the same, and very certainly not one which makes everyone into nice middle-class white Europeans. It is a miracle of diversity and difference, the enshrining of the multitude, all together in one place but all individually themselves.

Sometimes we stand at the bonepit, exhausted and beaten, and find ourselves called to speak to the wind, for only the wind will listen. And it may be only in vision that we can see the wind attend – Ezekiel almost certainly did not see the people restored in his lifetime. Sometimes we have only the dream that the bones may live, and come together, bone to their bone, that the ruach may recreate us. But we must keep on speaking, still. We must never accept the bonepit as the truth, as the end, even if it is all we can see.

And sometimes we are startled by the fire and wind we were not asking for, did not expect, for the sudden startling moments of connection, of understanding, of inspiration, both beautiful and fearful in their challenge. Sometimes, in the chaotic crowd of the great city, we understand each other to be jointly, to quote Eliot yet again, redeemed from fire by fire – and from that understanding, we begin to go forward, to build a new world. When we extinguish the paschal candle during the final hymn, we are not saying that the fire is out because Easter is over. We’re saying that the fire has moved into us, that we have to carry to forward.

“I have many things to say to you,” Jesus tells the disciples, “but you cannot bear them now.” Perhaps we are always at the edge of what we can bear, not able to absorb one more sorrow, one more challenge, one more demand on our language, our bodies, our hopes. And the comfort we really can find in the idea of the Holy Spirit is the realization that we ourselves are not the final place of God’s truth, that we will not understand everything, and that what we think we do understand will change over time, that we do not have to create all of justice, all of goodness, all of love. The wind blows and keeps blowing, and we are just a moment in that wind. We speak our moment, and know that the ruach will still be moving, in ways we can’t even imagine now. The visions and dreams will come and dissolve. The sun may turn to darkness and the moon to blood, and through all this we will carry wind and fire in our small bodies of earth – and it may be all a great deal less dramatic, day by day, than it sounds, it may look like boiling potatoes and standing on picket lines and caring for those we can, it may look like a simple conversation between two people, known or unknown to each other. But beyond it all, the wind is moving towards the great reconciliation, the time when all things will be perfectly different, and we will speak across all the boundaries, and be understood.