The Day of Pentecost

Sermon for The Day of Pentecost, Sunday, May 31 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35,37b; 1 Corinthians 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 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 by her nature movement, the wind which drives us forward, the fire burns away the old undergrowth of our souls and leaves the ground for new growth, the cascade of water. The movement which sent that first odd band of women and fishermen and general losers out, in all their inadequacy, without even knowing what they were doing most of the time, to try to heal the world.

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. But there is comfort, of a sort, in the very upheaval. 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 intimacy even deeper, if also perhaps even more unpredictable. 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.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus creates what sounds like quite a bit of a disruption at the final day of the Festival of Booths. At least some scholars believe that the festival featured a ritual pouring of water at, and symbolically from, the Temple, harking back to prophetic passages in which a great stream of living water flows from the Temple to fill the world with God’s presence. There are two movements in what Jesus says—he replaces the Temple with his own body, his own self, and more particularly with his body crucified, lifted up, a paradoxical siting of God’s life in the place of death, God’s power in the place of weakness. But—in a move which is coherent with the Jewish prophetic tradition — he also replaces both the Temple and his body with the heart of each person who comes to the water thirsty, and becomes in that need, the very source of water. We, in and from our own neediness, are to become not only the place of God, but the source of that presence for the whole world.

“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 maybe more thirsty now, almost three months into this modified isolation, cut off from each other in so many ways, and moving now into a confused period of partial re-opening, which appears to be guided neither by good data nor by human need, but by economic considerations. When, just as the pandemic is exposing the social divisions in our society, the lack of safety for the poor and the racialized, anger at the murder of black bodies is erupting in the United States, and the fires are rising. And we are small people, trying to find our proper response, when the wind and water and fire come together in a storm.

We may be longing for something that feels like normalcy, or for that brief and now vanishing sense of social solidarity which flickered in the early days of COVID-19; we may be longing for justice, a new way of being society or simply for some clarity. We may be struggling to figure out how to live in this uncertain interim time, we may be uprooted in unpredictable ways. We may feel that we have come to the moment of crisis and somehow failed; because we all fail, mostly, because there is never a clear moment of perfect action, and because every crisis turns into a long and complicated series of choices. And just because of this, we are all invited. It is our thirst, our longing, which brings us home, if we can own it in humility, making space for those who come beside us, while holding onto our own complex, different, sometimes strange and even frightening, truths, our thirsty and searching selves. To go out, in the different ways we are called to go out, and speak to this wavering world.

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. Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, the coronavirus map of Toronto with the impoverished outer suburbs lit up or the bodies coming out of the Mon Sheong long-term care home, these are the terrible signs of Babel.

And sometimes we long for the restoration of a kind of pre-Babel simplicity, as we long for the imaginary infant innocence of Eden, which will end the division and the pain by making all things not only one, but ‘‘the same’‘. It is a terrible misunderstanding of God’s intentions, the attempt to destroy difference, to erase the multitude of tongues. 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.

And we can all be small 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 fragile 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 in the noisy city of many languages and many needs, and we are called to speak so that this city, in all its pain and all its possible 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.