“Breathe on us, breath of God,
fill us with life anew,
that we may love what thou dost love;
and do what thou would’st do.”
(The Hymnal 1982, #508, alt.)
You may have heard it said that in the story of the Acts of the Apostles, the principal character is the Holy Spirit. The Pentecost story we just heard certainly gives the Spirit a leading role, as she drives the bereft and defeated friends of Jesus out into the city streets to babble, to rant, to sing and shout of the mighty acts of God. As Episcopalians who are fond of calm and order, we can probably relate to the skeptics who accused the disciples of being drunk!
It is not in our character to lose control, to be slain in the Spirit, to be caught up in ecstasy in public places. Perhaps we are the poorer for it. On this day of all days we should welcome the prophetic voice who speaks out to disturb and discomfort us; because, who knows, we might hear a word from God that makes sense to us in a new way, as those Jerusalem pilgrims once heard and understood the message of the Gospel in their own languages.
Our tradition tends to value the inner ecstasy, the contemplative transport of delight, gained from listening to a sublime piece of music or seeing the stained glass colors reflected in a sacred space. The enthusiasms of our early lives are tamed and channeled, sometimes to our detriment. The church where I first served as a priest had a tradition that on Easter Day, after both main morning services, members of both choirs would gather in the choir loft as the service ended, to sing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus as the postlude. Members of the congregation and clergy would join in if they wanted to. We made a joyful, untidy, uproarious mess of the great music. It was all very satisfying at the end of a long and intense Holy Week.
My sons sang in the choir at the time, and on the way home on this particular Easter Day one son, probably about ten at the time, told me that he felt like he had drunk three Cokes and two Mountain Dews. He was high on music and joy. I remember looking in the rearview mirror and telling him, “Never forget this feeling. Never forget that you can get this high from singing great music. You won’t need drugs if you have this.” He was really intoxicated with the Spirit.
Imagine if we could all experience that intoxication. Imagine a church where everyone spilled out of worship overflowing with joy and excitement about the Gospel. Imagine how we would seem to the other brunch-goers, the other park wanderers, our neighbors and co-workers, our fellow shoppers at Vons or Ralphs. Maybe they would sneer. Maybe we would find the cathedral packed next week with people clamoring for baptism. I wonder what it would take for us to allow ourselves to be swept up in the Spirit.
The Spirit continues to cause holy mayhem throughout Acts, but this is nothing new; the Spirit has been a key player in the salvation story from the start. Remembering that the Bible uses the same word for spirit and for breath, we start with Genesis: in the beginning, the Spirit or breath of God swept over the face of the deep. The Spirit brought creation to life and continued to hover, guiding Noah to land, lighting bushes on fire, sending Samuel to anoint David, filling Elijah with courage and power, raising up dry bones in the desert for Ezekiel. Isaiah proclaims the word of the Lord, in a speech adopted by Jesus as his mission statement: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, … he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners.” (Isaiah 61:1)
Imagine if we could bring this good news to all those who live in captivity today, those held captive by poverty, war, mental illness, despair, and fear. Our tradition of sacred song provides us with the words we need to summon the Spirit into our midst. Are we brave enough, rash enough, to sing them with a genuine desire to be caught up in the Spirit’s creative work?
“Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me,
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.”
(Lift Every Voice and Sing, #…)
What if we sang that song every day and meant it just as much as we mean the welcome we offer before Communion every Sunday?
The Spirit moved over the waters in the beginning of creation. There was chaos, disorder, darkness, and then there was light, light by which to discover and unfold the beauty of creation. As another hymn puts it,
“Praise the Spirit in creation, breath of God, life’s origin:
Spirit, moving on the waters, quickening worlds to life within,
Source of breath to all things breathing, life in whom all lives begin.”
(The Hymnal 1982, #507)
It seems pretty clear, from all that we have learned, that the Spirit is telling us to change our ways, to reduce our waste, to curb our appetite for luxury and comfort, to share what we have so that all of our brothers and sisters may know the fullness of life in the Spirit. It’s my Pentecost prayer that all the nations of the earth will join together in this effort, and that we who are sometimes called a Christian nation will take a leadership role in the Spirit-led work of creation care.
Today is one of the great baptismal feasts of the Church, a day when we graft new Christians onto the body of Christ. The Spirit is a major actor in this sacrament, as we anoint the newly baptized, saying, “You are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own for ever.” You will notice that we have added a promise to the baptismal covenant, a promise to cherish the wondrous works of Creation. Each us is one of those wondrous works. As St. Paul reminds us, each of us is gifted, each of us brings something to the table for the common good. The church is a kind of living potluck. We don’t get to dictate who brings dessert and who brings salad, but we trust in God to make sure we have all we need, and in joining the church we make a commitment to offer our gifts, to be used for the health of the whole body.
Paul was writing to the Corinthian Christians to correct their misapprehension that some gifts were more valuable than others. We know better. We need all the gifts: gifts of hospitality, of listening, of physical strength, of prayer, of service, of music, of generosity, of advocacy, of friendship, of discernment, of evangelism, of teaching, even of stirring things up so that the Spirit can do her disruptive and creative work. Nobody has all the gifts; all are valuable, all are part of the body. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
I read recently that Durham Cathedral in England has 800 volunteers. I know for a fact that Durham’s average Sunday attendance is a lot lower than ours, and yet they have 800 volunteers who do everything from embroidery to weeding to taking visitors on guided tours. There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all.
Jesus breathed on his disciples and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” On this Pentecost Sunday may the holy breath of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, descend upon us and intoxicate us with joy.
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges