As we gather to celebrate Pentecost today, I find myself asking lots of questions: the most important of which is probably, “What is God up to in this crazy, messed up, broken world of ours?” What is God the Holy Spirit up to, with so much pain and division, discord, disagreement and even hatred among people, among God’s beloved, cherished, holy people? You may well be asking these same questions, too. What is God up to? Because it certainly doesn’t make sense.
Yesterday’s horrific news from London—a van running into a crowd of people at 50 miles per hour, and then people stabbed on London Bridge and elsewhere in the city—only reinforces how profoundly broken and discordant human life is today. And, of course, that’s just the latest example. There are many places that are far, far worse, in which regular violence is an expected reality of life. Where is God today, in this mess? That’s what I am wondering. That’s what I want to know. And, I think, that’s what the world wants and needs to know. Where is God when we need him, where is God when we need her?
Sometimes, especially lately, it seems that all we hear is a cacophony of voices and languages, much like that first Pentecost day. Only in that case, we read that although the languages spoken were many and varied, they miraculously could be understood. Today, unfortunately, understanding is a lot harder to come by. Perhaps that’s because we prefer to listen only the voices in our own heads—or the voices on our favorite cable news station—and so we don’t hear, and we certainly don’t understand voices and languages that differ from ours.
But even that can’t be the whole answer. It can’t explain why life is treated so expendably. It can’t explain why hatred is so rife, or what God is doing to transform the world from this mess into something that more closely resembles the Kingdom of Peace and Justice, the Kingdom of wholeness and abundant life that Jesus envisioned and taught us about.
Thankfully, despite all the discord and confusion, our scripture readings for today can probably help, if we consider them carefully. First, let’s recall the powerful reading from the Acts of the Apostles. In it we heard: “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like a rush of violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit ....”
Like the rush of a violent wind. Not hesitantly or wimpy. But forcefully. Revealing the power of the God. You may know that although we focus on the gift of the Holy Spirit especially at Pentecost, we find references to the Spirit throughout scripture–in both the Old and New Testaments. Interestingly, while in the church we have often used a gender neutral pronoun (it) or male pronouns (he, him), for the Holy Spirit, in the Old Testament and in the Hebrew Tradition, the Spirit is called Sophia, and referred to using feminine pronouns—she and her.
This is the same Spirit who enlivens and inspires the prophets, speaking through them to call God’s people to work for justice and peace. This is the Spirit who descends on Jesus in his baptism and drives him into the wilderness. And, of course, the Spirit blows in on the disciples at Pentecost. In fact, the Spirit doesn’t just blow in on them. The Spirit fills them, scripture tells us.
The second source for encouragement and understanding in our complex world situation is the gospel reading from John. In terms of the timeline, this gospel passage comes earlier. It actually takes place on Easter day. But we are hearing it again for its description of Jesus sharing the Spirit with his friends. What’s especially interesting is that these friends of Jesus are doing what a lot of us would like to do when our hearts and souls are filled with fear. They are in a locked room. They are trying to stay safe in a society that to them feels increasingly dangerous.
In their case, so long ago, they were worried that they might be arrested and crucified like Jesus. In our case, we might want to lock ourselves in out of fear of terrorism and violence. We may convince ourselves that it isn’t safe to go outside, to walk city streets, to take trips to London, Paris, Munich, or Stockholm. We may even start to believe that we can’t trust the people around us. Like the disciples, fear often grips us as well.
I remember after both 9/11 and the Boston Marathon Bombing I was uneasy about going out. On 9/11, I was working in Boston for Episcopal City Mission at the diocesan offices and I worried about riding the subway home from work downtown to Jamaica Plain, especially since two of the planes came from here. Once I was home, I didn’t want to leave the house again. I felt the same following the Marathon Bombing. Not the day of the attack so much, but the Thursday evening and Friday after, when the brothers reappeared in Watertown and the younger was at large.
Do you remember that bizarre day, when large swaths of the of Boston area were in lockdown? Quincy wasn’t, so we were able to go out for lunch and a walk, but I was nervous doing so. It was eerily quiet, with just the sound of sirens ringing through the air. Tanks rolled through city streets and SWAT teams knocked on doors in Boston, Cambridge, and Watertown, until the younger brother was found in a man’s boat. Thinking of it again, 4 years later, makes me a little uneasy. I just wanted to be home, with the door locked. I have no doubt that today people all over the world feel much the same.
But scripture tells us that it is precisely into those same locked rooms, and into our own locked and fearful hearts, that the Holy Spirit breaks in, breathing life and fire, power, strength, and courage into human souls. What’s more, and this is the truly challenging part, we read that from their locked rooms and from their locked hearts the disciples, the friends of Jesus, were in fact sent out. Do you notice how Jesus says, “’Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
They receive the Holy Spirit and then they are sent out, maybe even driven out, much like Jesus was driven out by the Spirit into the wilderness following his baptism, to confront demons and temptations, and to contend with fear, uncertainty and a world of pain and loss. On Pentecost the disciples were sent out into wildernesses as well. They were sent out to be the Body of Christ, to be Christ’s presence, to be God’s presence—God’s living, breathing, loving presence—in a wilderness world that desperately needed them.
And, by now, you’ve figured out where I am going with this. We—who have likewise been filled with the Holy Spirit—are being sent out as well. God’s Spirit empowers us to unlock our doors—whether to our homes, our church, or our hearts—so that we can let God in, and so that we can go out, like the first disciples, to be the Body of Christ, to be Christ’s presence, to be God’s living, breathing, and loving presence, in a wilderness world that desperately needs us.
To return to my opening question, where is God in this crazy, messed up, broken world? God is right here. Right here with us, and in us. Alive in us. Propelling us forward, to confront evil. Propelling us onward, to transform cold and hardened hearts. God is right here, burning in us, giving us the power to heal and hope, to love and make whole.
On Pentecost, God’s power becomes our power. On Pentecost God’s life becomes our life. And on Pentecost God’s love becomes our love. It’s not the end of an ancient story, typing up the loose ends of Jesus’ life long ago. Rather, it is the beginning of an ever new story, and ever new reality—inspired by the life of Christ, in fact continuing his life, in new ways and in new places. Pentecost is the story and reality of God’s presence in and with and for the world now and today. It is nothing less than God’s Spirit, alive in us, that gives us the power and strength and courage we need to take on this messed up, broken, painful reality that we know, and transform it into something better, something whole, something alive. Because if we don’t do it, who will?
Where is God? God is right here. Can you feel him? Can you feel her? Alive in you, burning in your heart, taking hold of your soul? “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like a rush of violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit ....”
To God be the glory: Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD