As I consider these readings the first thing that strikes me is the statement in the first verse of our first reading that the disciples were all gathered together in one place. Since March 16, we have not been able to do that. This Sunday, May 31, marks the end of the initial order from the diocese to cease in-person worship, and it doesn’t look as though we are able to resume that any time soon. As of May 30, 2020, more than 105,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, with 1.8 million confirmed cases, and we all know that the real numbers of both are undoubtedly much higher, given the lack of testing we still have in this country. Who know when we will be able to be gathered together in one place again?
We too, some of us, have been huddled behind locked doors. Others of us have locked away their hearts and closed themselves to compassion, recklessly disregarding pleas for social distancing and mask wearing, endangering each other and workers without considering consequences and the care we owe each other in the name of decency and honor. They do not realize that they have locked themselves away as much as any prisoner kept in chains in a dungeon deep. They have clenched their hearts like fists against the power depicted in our readings today—a power we celebrate today, celebrate so that we can instead open our hearts to it, break our hearts open to it—the power of love.
Jesus’s ministry and teaching during his earthly ministry was centered on love, reconciliation, renewal. On feeding and healing those who were hungry and hurting in body and in spirit. On rescuing the lost, the outcast, the oppressed and restoring them to a place of hope, of dignity, of full membership in the community. Each and every miracle and encounter we see with Jesus recounted in scripture calls us to consider the ways in which God has likewise been present to us in our own lives, to respond with gratitude, and then to embody that same generosity, charity, and love in action out into a world that groans under suffering and domination just as much now as it did 2000 years ago.
And yet Jesus does not leave us without his presence or other resources. Jesus reminds us that the power to follow in his ministry as his disciples is given to us in our very breath. I am convinced it is vitally important for us to lay our passage from Acts and our passage from John alongside each other, with our psalm reading as the hinge. In John, we hear that familiar story of the disciples in the room, afraid of the forces outside of it that might be coming to get them, the same forces that seized hold of Jesus and crucified him. And make no mistake. It wasn’t the “Jews” who killed Jesus. It was the death-dealing power of empire, and those who were willing to go along with it, making a so-called “bargain with the devil” in order to maintain their own places of influence, wealth, and power, that killed Jesus. Indeed, those forces are still are at work right now, working to usurp Jesus’ message of hope and peace and replace it with one of division, hatred, and fear.
That’s why Jesus’s final gift to his disciples that we hear recounted today is so important for us to hear anew. The final gift to us is the breath of God. A gift that was implanted in us in the very beginning of creation, as Psalm 104 reminds us, created as God sends forth the Holy Spirit like a wind or breath to move over chaos and draw forth from it new life and new growth. That breath is the foundation of life itself, a gift given to each of us that also calls us to seek to live in wisdom, compassion, and peace with each other. Not by participating in the oppressions of this world, but by embodying and embracing the power of life and love over the forces that preach hate, contempt, and death. What a precious message of renewal, so desperately needed in this time and in this place!
That breath of God, given to us in double portion when we invite the Spirit of God to reside within our hearts, calls us to reject any power that would deprive another of breath, whether by exploiting them for their labor or by kneeling upon their necks to drive the breath from their helpless bodies.
We already have too much of violence in our lives. So I think it’s important to remember that although the SOUND of the Spirit in Acts is described as sounding like a violent wind, the image from our gospel tempers that, and reminds us that the gift of the Spirit of God comes gently. It comes to make us brave, to make us hopeful, to make us powerful through love.
Growing up in Tornado Alley in Oklahoma, I know what a violent wind is like. Perhaps it is fears of being seized by a violent wind that leads so many of us Christians to want to hold the Holy Spirit at arm’s length. So we are called to understand that the Holy Spirit only goes where she is welcomed. The Spirit of God’s means of working are collaborative, as we see in our epistle, requiring assent, just as Mary assented to God’s call to her at the Annunciation. The Spirit seeks to break us open, yes, but through love, where we have closed ourselves off from the hope and possibility of the good things God offers to us, and our own human frailty and sinfulness keeps us from working toward and embracing.
The Spirit does not storm into our lives, upending our own agency but comes alongside us, gentle as a breath, to speak words of healing into the well of pain that twists and disfigures our world by our silences and our closing ourselves off to each other. The Spirit calls to us lovingly, gently, to realize the power of love, hope, healing that we can all contribute to, that is our lasting inheritance as Jesus calls us to share in his incredible work of blessing and reconciliation. That breath to us of our ability to be his Body in the world and to continue his ministry.
The events we hear recounted in our readings today remind us that as long as we center ourselves in love and faithfulness to God and to each other, nothing can separate us from each other. Indeed, the Spirit’s greatest deed of power in our readings today is her power to break through any barrier that we humans can erect—those of ethnicity, class, or language. And through language that the Spirit enables the witness of the disciples to the crowd outside their room.
Once the disciples accept that gift of breath, that gift of Spirit, what do they do with it? They go out and proclaim. They go out and tell out the joyous story of God’s reaching out to us to reclaim us and draw us into relationship with the Creator of the universe. Their discipleship moves from learning to themselves proclaiming the message Jesus had imparted to them. They go out to share the peace of Christ for the transformation of the world. Many of us marvel at the idea of the gift of being able to speak in all the different languages of the onlookers in the streets of Jerusalem gathered for the festival celebrating the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.
Very often, churches who have been gathered together on this feast have invited members of the congregation who have the ability to speak parts of the passage in other languages, and we have heard parts of this passage spoken in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Hebrew, Tagalog, Japanese, Creole, Korean, Mandarin, Arabic, Yoruba, Swahili. Yet the true miracle lies deeper—through the power of the Holy Spirit, each person felt heard by God, and by the strangers who poured out of that room.
The gift of language is irretrievably tied up in our identities. I have spent the last 2 weeks watching my mother struggle to both express herself and understand what is going on around her due to damage to the parts of her brain that control speech and language. Her first three days post-stroke, the only sentence she really had mastery of was “I’m mad.” And the doctors and nurses were usually unfortunately too rushed to spend the time to try to understand what my mother was trying to say, or to consider that she didn’t understand what they were saying most of the time. So the two sides were at an impasse. After a week, she started talking in longer sentences, and talked about memories rather easily. Yet if someone asked her a direct question, she struggled, and often found herself saying her other favorite sentence: “No.”
Yet I am reminded that at the root of the gift of language is the gift of breath. As disciples, Pentecost reminds us to use our breath not to promote the hatred and contempt that power this world of our. We are called to use our breath, our precious breath, to sing out God’s message of love, of hope, of community, of being joined together by our common origin. We are to use our breath not to condemn the oppressed but to declare our unity and our love regardless of the categories that could be used to divide us.
As the events of the last week have proven, we are divided by language in this country. It’s not a division based on lack of fluency. It’s a division fueled by lack of care and concern for the welfare of others. When someone who is sworn to protect and to serve the citizens of his community callously ignores pleas like “I can’t breathe.” When we fail to take seriously the divide in the justice system that excuses and accepts the killing of a suspect over $20, but at the same time insists that his killer deserves the protection of due process in abundance, we are not speaking the same language when we talk about justice or the sanctity of life. When we close our eyes to oppressions and micro-aggressions suffered daily by our neighbors, when we deny our kinship with each other and dehumanize each other, speaking the same language doesn’t seem to matter much.
At the root of that gift of breath, and at the root of that gift of language, lies our charge to use our lives in service to God, by using our own breath to testify to God’s power to redeem and repair the world. We are called to protect the ability of our fellow human beings to breathe, whether that ability to breathe is threatened by violence, racism, poverty, and injustice, or by COVID-19.
The breath of the Spirit implanted in us is the breath of love, a word we are too quick to discount or limit to romance. Perhaps it might help us to think of it as a powerful wind, after all.
The Spirit not only blesses us with the gift and responsibility of taking the language of love that animates our very existence as God’s children and translating that love into action in defense of the defenseless. The Spirit gives the listeners, those to whom we are called to minister and stand alongside, the assurance that they are heard and understood—that God calls us to speak and hear in the language of love, compassion, mercy, and grace. To be able to reach into the depths of every person, to cherish their most basic identity as a child of God created in God’s image, no matter what their circumstance, and be willing to lay our lives alongside theirs in recognition that we are all beloved, that no one is beyond redemption, that no one has forfeited the claim we all have to life, dignity, and hope.
Our message, powered by that gift of breath, is one of healing, of unity, and, ultimately of peace. Not peace as the absence of tension, that ignores the plight of the hurting in order for us just to “get along.” God did not send Jesus into the world to protect the status quo or to urge our surrender to the principalities of this world. Jesus’ peace is founded on love in action that is the foundation of our very existence.
May we use the gift of our breath, the gift of our love, to welcome the Spirit into our lives, for the life of the world and protection of our neighbors.
Preached at the 10:30 online service at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville on the Day of Pentecost, May 31, 2020.
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13