There’s a danger in hearing the familiar story of Pentecost, in which the Holy Spirit comes to the disciples as they huddle, scared and confused, in a locked room. It’s the same danger we face when we read about Jesus’ miraculous healings, or of God’s appearing to Noah or Moses or Abraham or Saul, or of Paul’s dramatic conversion to Christianity when he’s knocked off his horse by a blinding divine light.
The danger is that we’ll pigeonhole these fantastical stories in the past. That we’ll read the scriptures as history, as what happened long ago – and leave it at that. When we do that, we miss so much of the power of these words. History was then. The power of the Holy Spirit is now.
So it might help to have a little context. Because Luke’s account in Acts 2 of how the Spirit came to the disciples is not the one-and-only. If you read around a little, you find that God sends God’s Spirit again and again, in both the Old Testament and the New. It’s how God gets things done in the world.
In Acts the Greek word that is translated “Spirit” is pneuma. It’s the root of our word pneumatic, meaning filled with air. The tires on your car are pneumatic. But pneuma means more than that – it means breath and wind, too. And so when the breeze shows up in the Bible, you know God is up to something. That’s holy wind. That’s pneuma – or, in the Hebrew scriptures, ruach – wind, breath, Spirit.
That Spirit, that divine wind, is with us from the very beginning. You’ll remember at the very start of Genesis, the earth forms like this:
“A wind from God swept over the waters.” That’s the Spirit.
The Psalmist picks up that theme in Psalm 104, telling of a Holy Spirit that is continually renewing and re-creating the Earth and all that lives on it.
Creating the world was only the beginning of God’s work. God sends the Spirit, the very same one, to a series of people – spiritual adepts, you might call them, ordinary people who have shown an extraordinary sensitivity to God’s leading in their lives. God pours out the Holy Spirit on Moses, and then shares it with the men he has gathered around Moses to lead the tribe of Israel to the Promised Land.
But there are two passages in the Hebrew scriptures that especially point to the Pentecost event that Jesus’ disciples experienced. The first is the one that Peter quotes, from the prophet Joel. Joel is looking ahead to a time when God will pour out God’s Spirit not just on a few chosen leaders, but on everyone, on all the believers. Joel is quoting God, and God says it will happen like this: “I will pour out my Spirit on every kind of people: Your sons will prophesy, and also your daughters; your young men will see visions, your old men dream dreams. When the time comes, I’ll pour out my Spirit on all those who serve me.”
Remember, this is ruach, the Spirit that created the world! This is powerful stuff. And Joel says it’s going to be spread around like weed-and-feed on the lawn. It’s going to be everywhere.
And then in 2 Kings we have the story of the wonder-working prophets Elijah and Elisha. Elijah is essentially handing the mantle of leadership to the younger Elisha, and he’s just about to be taken up in a whirlwind into heaven. (There’s that wind again.) But first Elisha wants something from him.
[2 Kings 2:9-10]
“A double share of your spirit,” that’s what Elisha wants. And Elijah grants it to him – this powerful Spirit that has first been granted him by God.
Here’s where it gets interesting: Luke in some ways sees Jesus as a new Elijah, a mighty prophet who came to inaugurate a new age of faith. And just as Elijah poured out the Spirit on his disciple Elisha, Jesus pours out God’s Holy Spirit on his disciples at Pentecost. Joel’s prophecy comes true in that little room. The Spirit descends on the disciples, and the message of God’s love as it is expressed in Christ spreads to the crowds in their own languages – in words they could understand.
And so what we have at Pentecost is not a one-time event, not a singular miracle, but an expansion of the Holy Spirit’s power, enough to transform this infant faith community and to last throughout the centuries. What we celebrate at Pentecost is a moment of new openness and receptivity to this Spirit that gave birth to the church.
Of course, the Spirit doesn’t disappear after Luke’s account. In the New Testament it shows up especially in the writings of Paul, who sees it as the animating force behind all of the gifts we exercise in Christ’s name.
[1 Corinthians 12:4-7]
That’s the Holy Spirit at work. It’s that ineffable power source that makes it possible for us to use our gifts to build up the body of Christ, to bring the best that we’ve got to this community of faith, to recognize the Spirit at work when we see it, and to honor and celebrate the Spirit when we see it at work in other people. This is not something we can delegate or deny. This enlivening, empowering wind of God, this Holy Spirit, touches all of us. Not just your pastor or your Church Council – not just those set apart to be leaders. All of us.
So I ask you today to be alert for signs that the Holy Spirit is moving in your life and in our church, and in the wider church as well. Remember ruach, that original creative Spirit of God that moved over the waters at the beginning of the world? The ruach of wind and breath and Spirit. That’s the Spirit that moves in us and among us even now. It’s as close as the summer breeze, and it’s as life-giving as a lungful of air. Take a deep breath with me now, won’t you? In, out. You know what the doctor calls it when you take a breath? Inspiration. In all things, may the Holy Spirit be that for us.