Looking Along the Beam: The Pentecost
Looking Along the Beam: The Pentecost
A Sermon By Derek McCormack
Today in some churches – those of the English tradition - it is WhitSunday or WhitSun or just Whit. The name WhitSunday is a derivative of White Sunday referring to the white colour of the robes traditionally worn by baptismal candidates on the day. Later, when infant baptism took over, it referred to the white clothes that women took to wearing to church on the day – a tradition taken up and surviving still today in the Pacific Island churches.
But some of English tradition also thought of the whit (originally wyt) as wit - referring to the knowledge that the Holy Spirit brought at Pentecost.
The word Pentecost means fifty days – its fifty days after the Passover and Easter Friday. And so Whitsunday is the seventh Sunday after Easter. It also happens to be ten days after the Ascension.
In the Jewish calendar Pentecost is the Harvest Festival and a time of thanksgiving for the pouring out of God’s goodness in the provision of daily needs.
In the Christian church it is the pouring out of God’s goodness in the gift of the Holy Spirit that is the chief focus of the time of Pentecost.
There are traditional readings from the Bible for the Christian Pentecost.
From the Prophecy of Joel we read something like this:
And it shall come to pass,
that I will pour out my Spirit on EVERYONE;your sons AND your daughters shall speak with inspiration,
your old men AND your young men shall be inspired, with visions and dreams,
EVEN on the men and women who are the lowest servants
Will I pour out my Spirit - in those days.
From the Gospel of John is read something like this (this version based on the text from the The Message interpretation of the Bible):
Jesus said, "Take it from me: Unless a person is born again,
begins over in a new way,
it's not possible to see what I'm pointing to—to God's kingdom."
"But," said Nicodemus, "how can anyone be born who has already been born and grown up? You can't re-enter the womb and be born again.’
Jesus said, "You're not getting it. Let me say it another way.
“Unless a person submits to the original creation—the 'wind-brooding-over-the-water' creation,
“the invisible moving the visible,
“an opening into a new life—
“it's not possible to be aware of God's kingdom – to be in it.
“When you look at a baby, it's just that: a body you can look at and touch.
“But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can't see and touch—the Spirit—and the person becomes alive a living spirit.
“You know something of the wind – it blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it’s going.
“So it is with the Spirit and being born of the Spirit.”
From Acts of the Apostles is read something like this:
On the day of Pentecost the disciples were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a strong wind came and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and rested on them and they began to speak in other ways … now there were Jews from every nation present in Jerusalem at that time and they each heard them as if they were speaking in their own languages.
Acts is the report that Gospel-writer, Luke, wrote about what happened with the Apostles after Jesus had left His earthly life. What Luke describes near the beginning of this account is something very weird. Christians have tried all sorts of ways and concocted all sorts of experiences and produced all sorts of strange rituals, and practices to repeat, follow, obey, recall, line up with what they find recorded. And others have come up with all sorts of theories and explanations.
Perhaps we need no more said on it – but I’d like to say a bit anyway…
Imagine that you are standing in a garden shed. The door is shut. It’s dark inside but through a small hole in the door a beam of light shines through the gloom. It shines across in front of you. You are looking at the beam side on. It cuts through the darkness like a bright straight blade. You can see the light itself and the little pool of the shed that it illuminates where its end falls. Perhaps the fuel cap of a lawnmower. In the beam as you look at its length you can see dust and motes floating, maybe a fly as it travels through it. You can see the quality of the beam change. It brightens briefly it narrows and then returns to its former width. If you watch it long enough the angle changes and its small terminus lights up different parts of the lawnmower. Then after studying it for some time from the side, really examining it and observing it closely, you move and put yourself in front of the beam so that it is falling onto your face and then onto your eye. And now you are longer aware of the beam of light at all. You are looking along the beam not at it from the side. You are letting the beam impact on you. You are not now observing it, studying it; you are letting it intrude into you. And now you can see the sky, the clouds, the sun, the trees waving through its light, their leaves and twigs, and their colours and tones and shading mediated by the same beam that before showed almost nothing.
In the one case you saw the light at a distance – you didn’t interact with it – or if you like, you didn’t embrace it. You knew about it but you didn’t know it.
I think that is like what happened at Pentecost. The followers of Jesus had been observing the beam – observing the Spirit of God from the side, in Christ. Then in an amazing experience they had the beam fall on their eyes and they saw – they saw into the Kingdom of God and mediated by the Spirit it impacted on them – it intruded into them.
There are two ways of knowing: to know about and to know.
Since Pentecost is about other languages…The French have two words savoir and connaitre: savoir is to know about – to know a fact; and connaitre is to be familiar with, to know intimately, to have experienced.
Savoir is like knowing from looking at the beam from the side; the other, connaitre, like knowing by looking along the beam at the vision it mediates by its light.
In another way we might say that by looking at the beam we contemplated it, but by looking along the beam we enjoyed it. On the one hand observing on the other participating with the beam.
What did the disciples see when they, as it were, looked along the beam at Pentecost?
Here the Bible uses symbols. This is always a problem for literalists. To them the appeal to the symbolic as an explanation of part of the Biblical text seems to be a retreat for those who don’t really believe – a handy excuse for, and disregarding of, what seems to be unbelievingly and embarrassingly miraculous.
But, according to C S Lewis – who wrote in favour of miracles, and at the same time in favour of the symbolic - symbols exist for conveying to the imagination what the intellect is not ready for. He refers to Freud and Jung and modern poets, prose- writers, and artists, who he says have taught us that symbols are the natural speech of the soul, a language older and more universal than words. You’ll recall that in their work of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud and more so Carl Jung, found that certain symbols, images, and archetypes often appeared and worked almost universally in the dreams and stories of their patients and clients.
So what are the symbols used by Luke to describe the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost - possibly symbols that might be often used in the traditions recorded in the Bible.
First, there’s a sound - like a rushing wind.
Secondly, a vision - something like tongues of flame.
Thirdly, words - something like - everyone could understand in the own language whatever was said – almost as if it was a pan-language, a language of universal understanding, a language that spoke directly to the spirit.
And as we might expect there are other places in the Bible that we find these, for example:–
Moses saw a bush that looked like flames had settled on it but it didn’t burn and out of it came a voice.
Elijah experienced an Earthquake then a rushing wind, and fire and then a still small voice that he identified as God’s
Ezekiel was shown a valley of dry bones – and a voice that asked him – can these bones live? – kind of like, can a person be born again? – can life be re-started with all that has gone before to destroy, and decay and break down and break up? And then the wind blew and the dead bones were brought to life as full-bodied people.
Philip the apostle was caught up by the wind and taken to a place where a man was reading the words of the Bible, which he couldn’t understand the deeper meaning of.
And of course, the one I want to mention, which is also referred to in The Message version of Acts that I read out about the Pentecost, is the one right at the beginning of the Bible where we read:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty and darkness was over the waters and a great wind brooded of the waters. And God said, let there be light and there was.
So here at the beginning we have wind, words, and light - which of course is associated with flame in a culture without electricity. So we could think of the Pentecost account saying something like: there was a rushing wind and a light that separated and shone on them, or from them, and then they spoke.
Now, wind as a symbol brings much to mind. There is a wildness and elementality to it.
It speaks to the emotions. The wind in the beginning is brooding over the waters. Climbers speak of the wind howling and moaning in the mountains, a sound of despair and distress. Janet Frame in her autobiography writes about one of her earliest memories: a toddler standing out at the road hearing the wind singing down the wires and being filled with the sadness of the world by it. At night the sound sends little children running to their parents beds at night crying mummy I don’t like the noise. Parents might say, there’s nothing to be frightened of its just the wind.
But of course we know that’s not right – the little children are wise. The wind is wild and destructive. Tornadoes in Albany or Joplin, cyclones in Samoa or Australia, hurricanes toss humanity and its creations around, rip-up and destroy. Storms at sea are terror – do you remember that old hymn that prayed for “those in peril on the sea”?
The wind stirs things up sometimes in a bad way. But the stirring is necessary; it makes the world work, it makes the weather, it cleans the air. The world without wind is a dead world.
The wind can also stir us up. In some countries a legal defence for murder or mayhem is that the wind made me do it. Hot or incessant winds like the Sirrocco or the Mistral have been believed to cause temporary passions akin to madness. Lesser experiences confirm the wind’s ability to change our feelings and the way we are. Some people enjoy the buffeting; others are irritated and agitated by it. Apparently wind disrupts the halo of negative ions that are around our bodies on our skin and this decreases the levels of the mood-enhancing chemical, serotonin, inside our bodies depressing our mood.
Sometimes the effect of the wind can feel life-giving and more, what we might call spiritual. A friend of mine told me of a night that he woke in a sweat of anxiety – he went to the window and opened it to get some fresh air and the wind came in and it was like it was being blown into him and he was filling up like a balloon. The experience calmed him and excited him at the same time and he felt that he had been filled up by the living breath of God.
We might think of the wind as symbolising a stirring up of us that is somehow necessary for us to become fully aware. As Jesus says we don’t know where the wind comes from or where it is going – so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit – which means the same as being born of the great wind that was there at the creation in the world.
And the Bible seems to be saying that what we know of the wind is what we can know about God. God is like the wind – passionate, brooding, powerful, active, penetrating, of purposes unknown, touching our most inner and un-sayable selves and emotions, and reaching out to and through the whole creation. And that is confirmed at the Pentecost.
But we also know from the symbols that there is another aspect of God – the aspect of Word. Pentecost tongues come with light (the tongues of flame). The first word that is uttered in the Biblical story, in the creation itself, creates light. That first utterance: in the beginning…God spoke, Let there be Light, and there was.
Word speaks to us of reason, order, law, rule, understanding, meaning, purpose, dialogue, and story. This aspect of God’s character initiates and permeates the Creation – it is the light of the Creation and it is the inner light that shines within it and from it. The word permeates the minds of all people as is symbolised at the Pentecost by everyone hearing in their own languages. Some call it the ‘cosmic logos’ – the wisdom, the reasoning, the inner light, for everything – the source of all truth and reason in which we can participate with our own words and reasoning.
The Bible speaks of a humanity that has lost touch with this permeating Word. Which is possibly the meaning of the Tower of Babel, the ancient story of language, separated, confused and compounded. The prophecy of Joel looks to when - in some days yet to be seen – all people will be put back in touch with the cosmic logos – the divine language or Word of the Creation. The symbol of the pan-language – the universal understanding irrespective of the uttered words – this symbol at Pentecost is the sign that this is indeed how it is in Christ’s Kingdom of God.
Some say – Jung, C S Lewis, amongst others – that it is the ‘cosmic logos’ that artists and mystics and poets seek to retrieve. It is why others say that prayer is best without words – which are trapped in a language confusing the work of the Language. It is why some feel inspired to speak in ecstatic tongues and apparently nonsense sounds and words.
The symbols of Word and Light resonate with the being of God just as Wind does. They bring a balance to the brooding wildness that brings about creation and ultimately us - a balance of reason with passion, power with order, feeling with meaning.
These two sides to God’s character that we see in the Creation and symbolised in the Pentecost events are also two sides to our own created character. We are created in God’s image according to the Bible. But the Bible seems to make it even clearer than that. In the second chapter of Genesis we find that God made humans by breathing into them – imparting, inspiring, the wind, the breath, the passion, the spirit of God.
And on the other hand in the Gospel of John we read that the Word was there in the beginning and through the Word all things were made and in the Word was the life and the light of humanity.
So we also have the two aspects incorporated into us: the passionate and wild side, and the side that is symbolised by the order and reason of the Word that gives light. The Pentecost reminds us of both – and re minds us with both.
But the interesting thing that we get from the Pentecost is that you can’t see the Kingdom of God without the Spirit, which is the wind or the passion of God. You need to begin again, go back to the very beginning, almost to the very beginning of the world, with this aspect. It is this, that allows you look along the beam and catch a vision of the Kingdom of God, to realise that you are in it – to realise and enjoy the reality, that, as Jesus said, the Kingdom is among you.
The only thing that allows us to know this and enjoy it is a renewed spirit. Then we can engage with and open up to the knowledge, the apprehension of the passion that stirs up, the visible moving the invisible, in way that is so profound it is like a new beginning, a new creation – like being born again.
Often in our wider society – even in many of society’s Christian circles - it is imagined that the Born Again person is conservative, stuffed up, dispassionate, joyless – unless singing interminable worship songs – but nonetheless in everyday life a person full of the word (The Rules) instead of the spirit – set apart from life, holy. And, I admit that there may be some warrant for this view in the Bible.
But I also wonder if being Holy is related to being wholly - about being more alive not less – seeing more of everything not less – being curious to look along that beam instead of being satisfied with contemplating it from the side and being only aware of a little.
Isn’t that what the Bible is saying about the creation in you being restored and released? Can there be any joy, any enjoyment, any engaging challenge, any pleasure, any hope, any satisfaction, any happiness, any love, any beauty, any laughter, or any passion, that isn’t part of God? That isn’t God’s alone? That isn’t wholly (with a ‘w’) Holy (without the ‘w’)?
A small parable from another tradition might be work here. There was a holy man in Baghdad who was so holy that people always asked him: how is that you are so holy? And he always gave the same answer: Ah. Because I know what is in the Koran. One day he was in a coffee house and inevitably the usual question was asked by the listeners to his teaching: how is it that you are so holy? And he gave the answer he always did: Ah, because I know what is in the Koran. However, that day a simpleton was present, and the simpleton said: but what is in the Koran? The holy man, turned to him, smiled and answered: two pressed flowers and letter from my dearest friend Abdul.
What is in the Koran? What is in the true word of God that permeates Creation, that calls us to come out and be the full person that we were created to be – that true word, that speaks of all good and real things and holds and releases their meaning – to all people – to the great and the lowly – to the wise and the simple?
That is what the apostles enjoyed at Pentecost.
So the new beginning: leaving behind you what you don’t want or need and that stops you perceiving and enjoying; going into your valley of dry bones and experiencing for those bones a new birth in the great breath of God, that recreates you, revivifies and revitalises you, to enjoy the abundant life of the awareness of, of the being-in of, the Kingdom of God.
And it was a sound like a rushing wind. And a light, a beam that settled on each one’s face. And they spoke and everyone understood.