Listen to the sermon from Sunday, May 15, 2016 titled “Confusion or Community?” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.
Today we celebrate Pentecost when the Spirit came upon the disciples and created the church. God’s invisible abiding presence, which we call “the Holy Spirit” was symbolized from early rabbinic times by a dove. And to this day the white dove represents the Spirit in Christian art.
I think of Bernini’s marvelous alabaster window in the chancel of St. Peter’s basilica. But according Debbie Blue’s book “Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to the Birds of the Bible, the actual bird the rabbis had in mind was this:
the Rock Pigeon!
Not the eagle, not the condor, certainly not the hawk, but the gentle and ubiquitous pigeon. Kind of shocking, but cool when you think about it. It’s so democratic!
What bird is more prevalent and available in the worst and best places where people gather? What bird is friendlier or more comfortable with people? Sure, some see them as pests, but, asks Blue, “What if the Spirit of God descends like a pigeon, somehow – always underfoot, routinely ignored, often despised?” Pigeons have been used since ancient times to carry messages. They are associated in ancient cults with fertility and creativity. And of course, they are messy, just like we are, just like the Spirit of God who has joined us in our mess.
It surprises me to hear John tell us today, “as yet there was no Spirit, (John 7:39) because the Spirit was part of God’s story from the beginning. The Hebrew ר֫וּחַ (ruach) which occurs 205 times in the Hebrew Bible is always translated by the Greek πνεῦμα (pneuma) which occurs 383 times in the New Testament. Both words mean “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit,” depending on the context.
It first appears in Genesis 1:2 where the breath or wind or Spirit of God blows across the waters of chaos as creation begins.
In Genesis 2:7 God blows into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life, and he becomes a living being.
Later the Spirit of God is associated with the preaching of the prophets who speak a word from God in a most spirited way. The Jews believed God had withdrawn that Spirit of prophecy because of Israel’s chronic failure to live up to their covenant, that the Spirit by which God speaks would not return until the Messiah came.
That’s probably what John means, and why it’s so significant that the Spirit descends upon Jesus at his baptism in the form of a – pigeon! – and sends him into the wilderness to be tested.
In his first sermon at Nazareth, quotes from the prophet Isaiah – The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…,” and claims “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It is nothing less than a claim he is the Messiah!
Fifty days after the cross and resurrection and ascension, on the day of the ancient festival of Pentecost, the disciples are all in the upper room praying when there is suddenly the sound of a mighty rushing wind and flames like fire appear over each of them and they begin to speak a word from God.
Thus fire, which is a symbol of God in every religion, is also associated with God’s Spirit – warmth, sustaining energy, sudden explosion, fire controlled and beyond control. The fire is why everybody who got the memo is wearing red today symbolizing our spiritual “enthusiasm,” from the Greek εν Θεός (en Theos) – “the inward God.”
ר֫וּחַ (ruach) and πνεῦμα (pneuma) are primal words for power and life and spirit, both human and Divine – forces beyond our control.
When Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be born of water and Spirit, he says “The wind – πνεῦμα! – blows where it wills and you hear the sound of it, but you do not knowwhere it comes from or where it is goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the πνεῦμα!” (John 3:8).
God’s Spirit is like breath – essential to life. Breath is dynamic, constant, entering and centering and exiting in rhythm. People as different as spiritual mystics, first responders, and combat troops actually teach breathing as a means of calm empowerment, even in the midst of crisis!
They call it “box breathing” because it has four simple steps like the sides of a box. Breathe in for four seconds; hold it for four seconds; breath out for four seconds; hold for four seconds. Then repeat. Try it! In: one, two, three, four. Hold: one, two, three, four. Out: one, two, three, four. Hold: one, two, three, four. In: one, two, three, four. Hold: one, two, three, four. Out: one, two, three, four. Hold: one, two, three, four. Each step of this respiration is essential to life. It slows your heart rate and focuses your mind.
It is so essential to life, we are born knowing how to do it. Yet sometimes – in adulthood, under stress, we need to be reminded, don’t we?
The life of the church in the Spirit of God is a kind of breathing, too. We come in and hold together to be joined to one another again. Then we go out and work to fulfill our mission to be God’s embodied love wherever God sends us. Then we come in and hold together…. God breathes in and holds us. God breathes out and sends us. Breathe in, breathe out, repeat.
It is easy to miss the miracle of Pentecost as the birth of the church. We might confuse the spectacular and showy as signs of the Spirit when God’s Spirit is as common and ordinary as pigeons. We might think speaking ecstatic incomprehensible tongues in a trance is a sign of God’s Spirit when God’s Spirit in the Bible always leads people to speak God’s truth in love in ways everyone can understand. Breathing is a sign of God’s Spirit. A diverse crowd of people joined in one community is a sign of God’s Spirit!
Scholars point to Pentecost as God’s undoing of the curse of Babel, and that’s why we read that ancient story, too, at Pentecost. It explained to the ancients why the world God created is so divided and confused. Arrogance. Selfishness. Greed. It divides us and pits us against each other.
Pentecost gathers a diverse people in humility, forgiveness, graciousness. God’s Spirit creates community instead of confusion. That is the miracle of Pentecost and the place to look for God at work among us: to join many members into one body. As Ephesians describes it: “Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (Eph 4:16-17).
Let’s practice our breathing again: In: one, two, three, four. Hold: one, two, three, four. Out: one, two, three, four. Hold: one, two, three, four. Let us breathe in the Spirit of God, and be joined to one another. Let us breathe out God’s love into the world wherever God sends us until God gathers us again. Let God transform our confusion into community and make us the breathing presence of God in this place. Remember the old prayer song? Join me if you know it: “Breathe on me, breathe on me. Holy Spirit, breathe on me. Take now my heart, cleanse every part. Holy Spirit, breathe on me.” Amen. May we pray?
We confess, dear Lord, that we are both confusion and community. Sometimes our pride and selfishness and greed set us to our own agendas and keep us from listening to and caring for one another. This divides us. But your Spirit breaks down those divisions and joins us again. Let your Spirit be strong in each of us and make us the community of Christ that the world may hear a word of good news and encounter your living, breathing love in the name of Christ. Amen.