Too often we only think of Pentecost in terms of the birthday of the Church, and we long to blow out candles on our own cake and sing happy birthday to me. And yet the symbolism that Luke uses in his portrayal of Pentecost is far deeper than all of that. Wind and fire as symbols of the Spirit are energetic and dangerous, renewing and destructive, dynamic and uncontrollable. The first takes us back to the pages of Genesis as God speaks creation into being and the Spirit broods over the face of the deep bringing form out of chaos and beauty from the void. And the second takes us to the thunderous mountain of Sinai and a theophany of fire as God speaks through the earthquake and storm bringing a new community into existence, a community of exiles, an Exodus-Shaped people.
Problems arise for us when balloons and birthday cake (as lovely as they are) become an escape from the real meaning of this fiftieth day of Easter, when the wild giving of God’s Spirit is reigned back under our control, domesticated and tamed almost out of existence. And I wonder if this is precisely what is going on in too many places. Perhaps we find God’s encounter with us so very disturbing, God’s presence so totally terrifying, that we cut it down to size, trivialising it, reducing it to manageable proportions.
So, perhaps we need reminding that the birthing of the church is not all there is to Pentecost. Indeed, perhaps we need reminding that the church already has at least two other birthdays, and arguably more. Two we might like to consider would be The Annunciation, when Mary says ‘yes’ to God’s invitation and conceives the Christ in her womb, and the dying Christ’s handing over of his Mother to the Beloved Disciple at the foot of the cross. It is not for nothing that Orthodox bishops wear an icon of the Madonna and Child round their necks, rather than a pectoral cross as western bishops do. From the moment of his conception in her womb, we have the infant Lord with his first disciple, Mary, his mother. Here, it seems, is the church in embryo.
And Luke has by no means forgotten this when he comes to write the sequel to his gospel, the Acts of the Apostles. Just as John the Baptist leaps for joy inside Elizabeth, greeting baby Jesus inside Mary, just like King David dances before the ark of God’s presence, so on this Day of Pentecost the apostles dance about like a bunch of drunks, and Mary with them. For each of them are full to the brim with the divine intoxication we call the Holy Spirit, and the picture Luke paints is the scene of a divine break-in, of a mass home-invasion. And against such breaking and entering, there is no security, no defense.
Singing ‘happy birthday’ and blowing out candles on a cake is a pretty silly shield against this terrifying reality, like fitting a nice new security door after the walls have blown away. Like the giant door of the Church in the film Chocolat violently blown open by a gust of wind as a new exotic and provocative visitor silently arrives. But God under our roof, God as our house guest, is just not part of the game-plan. Somehow, it has all gotten out of hand, becoming much too real, much too threatening. The wind of God’s Spirit is noisy and violent, and the fire of God’s presence burns like a bush-fire inside each one of us, turning us all, whether we like it or not, into prophets, into truth-bearers and truth-tellers.
Yes, to be sure, this is the birthing of God’s church, but not the founding of the familiar Sunday club we like so much, somewhere safe to shelter from the stresses and strains of life out there. Yes, this is the start of something new alright, but not the comfortable clubbing together of the like-minded, the predictable, cosy huddle we call Anglicanism! Pentecost is the bursting of the old wine skins, the beginning of a really wild adventure in faith and hope towards the love at the heart of all things, and we’d best hold on tight for the ride.
For the Spirit will push us and prod us until we go the right way, undermining all our facile certainties, insisting we explore new truths, dismantling all our friendly idols till we worship and serve the living God alone. It is as if the battle of the powerful against the vulnerable, the war between good and evil, never ends, as if the dangerous work of peace-making is never done.
‘The Lord has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’ Sounds like a breeze, doesn’t it? But the way of Christ is the way of the cross, and life in the Spirit is the scene of a break-in. The Pentecost choice is as stark a choice as ever we face, for it is the Easter choice all over again. Will we choose night or day, darkness or light? Do we choose death, or resurrection life?
Fr Ryan Green