Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:24-34, 35b; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23
In the revue “Beyond the Fringe”, the ‘End of the World’ sketch features, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett seated, huddled, on the top of a mountain.
Jon: How will it be, this end of which you have spoken, Brother Enim?
Omnes: Yes, how will it be?
Peter: Well, it will be, as ’twere a mighty rending in the sky, you see, and the mountains shall sink, you see, and the valleys shall rise, you see, and great shall be the tumult thereof.
Jon: Will the veil of the temple be rent in twain?
Peter: The veil of the temple will be rent in twain about two minutes before we see the sign of the manifest flying beast-head in the sky.
Alan: And will there be a mighty wind, Brother Enim?
Peter: Certainly there will be a mighty wind, if the word of God is anything to go by.
Dudley: And will this wind be so mighty as to lay low the mountains of the earth?
Peter: No – it will not be quite as mighty as that – that is why we have come up on the mountain, you stupid nit – to be safe from it. Up here on the mountain we shall be safe – safe as houses.
Alan: And what will happen to the houses?
Peter: Well, naturally, the houses will be swept away and the tents of the ungodly with them, and they will all be consuméd by the power of the heavens and on earth – and serve them right!
All very dramatic, much like the account of the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 – a mighty wind, tongues of fire and all the other imagery that is conjured up when someone says the word ‘Pentecost’. But hang on a minute that’s not how the Holy Spirit is usually described in Scripture. The more usual description is much more like that in our Gospel reading from John 20, where the day of Pentecost has no tongues of fire or a bewildering, amazing, perplexing cacophony of voices, but the peace of one voice.
It’s the evening of Easter Sunday and the disciples are in a room, with the doors firmly locked. As accomplices in the work of the executed criminal, Jesus, they’re afraid they’ll be arrested. The authorities would surely want to nip this subversive group in the bud before it gets out of control. Fear and anxiety that’s their mood.
All of a sudden, Jesus is there in their midst. “Shalom, Peace with you”, the normal Jewish greeting but … Jesus had promised that he would bring a special kind of peace, to his disciples. A peace they couldn’t get anywhere else, a peace that no one and nothing could take away from them. The Peace of God is about being in tune with God, even if that means a state which is far from peaceful or quiet or harmonious.
The Spirit invites us to be reconciled to God through Christ, demanding that we no longer hold on to the values and idols of the world. Don’t expect everything to be perfect, don’t expect that everything will go well, don’t expect that there will be no challenge or stress.
The Blessing in the 1982 Liturgy captures it perfectly:
“The Peace of God which passes all understanding, keep you hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Back in that Upper Room, there’s no doubt: it’s the crucified Jesus himself, risen from the dead. Their fear changes to indescribable joy. He gives them their mission: “As the Father sent me, so am I sending you.” Then he breathes on them. In the creation story, God breathed over the waters. He also breathed on to the clay of the ground and formed the first human being. Today he breathes on his disciples and gives them a new life, giving them the life of his Spirit, saying: “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
The book of Acts also describes the disciples of Jesus being gathered together in one place on the day of Pentecost. It’s important to recognise that the Church received the gift of God’s Spirit collectively. Nowhere in Acts is the Holy Spirit described as coming upon an individual, not even the apostle Paul. Peter, Stephen, and Paul are described as being filled with the Holy Spirit when they speak at times of crisis, as is Jesus in the gospel narrative.
But, as Paul emphasises to the Corinthians, the Spirit is bestowed on the Church corporately. Paul urges the Corinthians to cease their petty rivalries, and to recognise that the “manifestation of the Spirit” is always given “for the common good”. Individuals receive gifts from the Spirit, yet each gift is for the body as a whole. This implies that if a gift can’t be shared, and shared for the good of others, it’s not from the Spirit. It also implies that any attempt to rank individuals according to their possession of “better” gifts would be at odds with each gift’s common purpose for the good of all.
The disciples experience the Holy Spirit as a powerful, living presence. But it’s not a power that keeps them out of struggle and conflict. Rather, it gives them peace in the midst of these tribulations. As the Spirit inspires them to preach to all nations, the persecution will intensify. The primary function of the Spirit is to continue the very presence of Jesus who, as the Word made flesh, must return to the Father.
So what does this mean for us at a time when we’re unable to gather for worship, celebrate the Eucharist together and be nourished by Word and Sacrament as we’re accustomed to and when any experience of our collective identity as God’s Church is mediated via the Internet?
In our society, with its highly individualistic culture, it’s tempting to become accustomed to thinking of ourselves as having a private relationship with God which doesn’t necessarily involve interaction with other people. Lockdown only increases that temptation, but only with other people are we members of the Body of Christ. The other Christians are integral to our relationship with God. It’s as parts of that Body that we’re nourished by Word and Sacrament, that we receive God’s Spirit.
When the Body’s dispersed as it is at the moment, it’s not dismembered, and it certainly doesn’t cease to exist. We’ve received God’s Spirit in our Baptism, and we continue to exercise the gifts we’ve received, conscious that we’re doing so as members of a Body which is unable to gather, but is nonetheless still Christ’s Church.
It is precisely because we’re the Body of Christ, who’ve received God’s Spirit through our Baptism and renewed in the Eucharist, and have received the Holy Spirit given by God to the Church, that we’re able to sustain ourselves through this period of isolation, and can look forward to the day when we can once again gather to worship God together, and be renewed in the Spirit for the work to which God has called us. And yes there certainly will be a mighty wind, if the word of God is anything to go by!!