June 4, 2017 Pentecost
Acts 2:1-21 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 John 7:37–39
Every holiday has its images and symbols. Christmas has the star, shepherds, mangers, angels and the holy family. Epiphany has the wise men, presents, and camels. Palm Sunday has palms; Good Friday thorns and the cross; Easter also has the cross, the empty tomb, and eggs. And Pentecost has wind and fire.
But when I examined the overall story of Pentecost I realized that it also contained water and earth. I’m not sure if Luke, the original author of the book of Acts, was deliberate in their inclusion – but I think that it is really neat that all four of the ancient principle elements: Earth, Wind/Air, Fire and Water are involved because when we examine how the four elements work together in this story we get a more complete understanding of what Pentecost means to us.
And although this might seem like I’m stretching the prose and poetry of the Gospel, the symbolism of the four elements was very important in the first century, since most of their science was based on these elements.
Let’s start with the element of air or wind. When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.
Air is the element that they are talking about, but wind is the mechanism by which we see air. We know air is there when we see the trees or other objects move. Air or wind doesn’t really have a noise, rather it’s the movement of it through things that creates noise. The sound of wind has often been used as a metaphor or vehicle of God speaking. In Job God speaks out of a whirlwind. So when the disciples heard this mighty wind they would have known that God’s presence was now among them.
And if you think about it, the description of air and wind is a good way to describe God. Like air we cannot see God, yet God is essential to our living and His presence continually surrounds us. Like the wind we can see God in the movement of our lives. Many people will say things like, “God pushed me to where I needed to go,” or “God put something in front of my path.” We don’t physically see God doing those things but we see the effects of God’s movement.
The next element is fire: Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.
For the ancient Hebrews fire was one of the main designations of the presence of God. There are actually 34 references in the Bible to God manifesting as fire. Moses first met God when he encounters the burning bush. God appears as a pillar of fire on the Red Sea. And later Moses encounters God as a fire again on Mt. Sinai. Also, God’s Holy Fire was a well-known purification method. Isaiah has a vision that his lips are purified with a live coal from God’s altar by an angel so that he could speak the truth and become a prophet. The Temple offerings were burned so that they would become pure for God.
So when the fire appeared on the disciples while they were praying this indicated that God was with them, and that each person was being purified. What happens then is that each person is given the gift of a language as the first step to the evangelism of Christ’s message through out the world.
But I want to elaborate a bit on this gift idea. We all say that we have each been given gifts and graces to use in the service of God. When we are young we are encouraged to try different subjects, like the sciences and the arts, or music and sports. One purpose of education is to find out what we are good at and develop those attributes to use in life. We say to people that they should find out what they are passionate, or “on fire,” about. The same could be said with our relationship to God and how we do His work in the world. I had a friend who entered seminary fully intending to become a minister – but then she discovered that her fire was in academics.
We all of us need to find out what our fire is for Jesus and God. Do you have a ministry that you’ve always wanted to do but have never tried? Do you want to start a prayer group or a book group? Is there a specific group of people who you want to help? A church is where we should be bringing our fires for God and nurturing them.
The next element that is mentioned is Earth. First the scripture says that: there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And then later Peter says that the prophet Joel proclaimed: in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below. So Earth is not only mentioned as the entire planet but also as the nations that make up the world.
The Hebrew word for humanity means: from the earth, or made from earth. The disciples are understood to be connected to the physical planet. But also the gift of languages from many countries and cultures started to break the boundaries of Christ’s message being just for the Hebrews, and expands the Christian idea to all of humanity. The disciples of Christ who had been insulated within their culture because they knew only their language could now step outside of their culture and travel freely to other cultures because they knew other languages. I wonder if Joseph of Arimethea was there. Remember he’s the disciple who supposedly immigrated to England and set up the first church there. Perhaps he received the gift of speaking the old Saxon-Celtic and that’s why he went to England.
The Gift of Languages shows us that we are all part of humanity and all children of God. Today that isn’t such a radical idea, but we still need to be working on it. I am sure that each of us carries around prejudices about certain groups of people or even about certain people. But even by using our own language we can break down those barriers and try to at least understand each other and find our common ground and humanity.
The final element of Water isn’t mentioned in our reading today. But after Peter finishes speaking about Jesus the crowd asks him what they should do and he answers: Repent and be baptized. And we learn that three thousand people were baptized that day.
Water is of course essential to life. It is part of the rule of threes: You can live three weeks without food; three days without water; and only three minutes without air. Water is what we use to clean ourselves, both internally and externally. But being baptized is more that just being washed clean. It is also a willingness to let go of our sinful nature and actions, and to bravely accept the fact that we are going to take on new actions – even when we don’t know what they might be.
And that’s a lot about what accepting the Holy Spirit does in our lives. We will be letting go of that which is harmful and replacing it with something new – but new, by definition, means something unknown. And the unknown can be scary.
But when we are washed clean we are opened up to greater connections of what we find in this life that we share with others on this earth. When we make those connections we open ourselves up to options of what is around us so we can learn and grow, and we are more aware of how God is guiding us in our lives to find out what our passion is and how we can use it to serve Him with our love.
Pentecost is the awakening of ourselves to God, the love that He shows us in Christ, and the continual connection that surrounds us that we have with Him. So take a moment, breathe, pray, and listen for the wind of God that brings His fire into your life.