Pentecost: A Moment In The Life Of …

Posted: May 30, 2017 in Uncategorized

Pentecost A, 2017 John 7:37-39, Acts 2:1-4

Pentecost: A Moment In The Life Of …

In recent tradition there have been congregations celebrating Pentecost with drama that has wind and flames and a cacophony of languages! Many congregations today, especially those with children will be celebrating with balloons and flamboyant speech! Great drama will ensue! And many will claim it as the birthday party of the church! This is a clear suggestion that what ‘Pentecost’ is, is a script full of symbolism which just cannot be taken literally, whatever historical event may or may not lay behind this story.

The very different biblical stories of the first Pentecost experience, are told in the most expansive and descriptive ways imaginable and when we look them up we find first the story told by the accepted author of The Acts of the Apostles, who is called Luke. The story is dramatic in that we have a heavenly sounding like that of a rushing wind. We have descending fire, appearing as tongues of flame. We have patterns of transformed speech allowing everyone to hear what was being said in all kinds of languages. We have a moment of conversion resulting in thousands of people being added to a tiny community of faith.

Then we have the story told by the storyteller John, and this story is personal in that the Spirit of God is brooding in the hearts and minds of people. It broods over the face of waters in the story of creation. Another difference is that what storyteller Luke describes as happening over 50 days, storyteller John suggests it all happened on the same day! Here I think we have the challenge not to try and combine or debase them into some simple chronological event but to see them as different symbolism about the same event. Ever since the so-called first Pentecost, this day has been regarded as a birthing or pregnant moment in the life of the church and a day of celebration.

But, is there more to this symbolism? Just how important is it in communicating meaning? Rex Hunt suggests a way into this question by asking us to think back to our own Sunday School days. That is of course if you did go to Sunday school and recall if you can what you were taught about the Spirit of God. Can you remember what you were taught was the emblem of the Spirit of God. I can’t remember myself but many of you might remember the Spirit of God being like the dove, in fact, the dove of peace. If you had any ecumenical experience you might remember the Methodist Church having the dove in its emblem. If you had Australian experience you might recall the Uniting Church in Australia emblem, where the designers of the new churches emblem believing that this new church was a Pentecost church, included both the dove and the flames on their UCA emblem… (All done in the significant colours of red, white and black!) You might remember many church bulletins including the dove as the symbol for Pentecost… the “sweet heavenly dove” of the Holy Spirit.

About here I remember that my own family’s coat of arms has a white dove holding an olive branch in its beak standing on a green mound. The family motto being’ The Peace” We might also remember the rumour about a dove bearing an olive branch that flew back to old Noah on his Ark, signaling the good news of dry land after the great flood. We also read that the Spirit of God descends “like a dove” upon Jesus at his baptism, according to Luke’s gospel story.

A nice white dove suggests innocence, purity and peace and in medieval times they used to release hundreds of them in the cathedrals on Pentecost day. The story goes that they stopped that practice when the doves rained down on the congregation more than light and grace! Such action was contrary to the symbol where the dove is gentle, graceful, and seductive… Like most symbols it was limited and as the storyteller William Bausch said “It’s too sweet and sentimental and, finally, wrong’  (Bausch 1998:474).

Another legend has it that the Irish had it right when it came to Pentecost emblems. It has been claimed (and disputed) that in old Celtic traditions the Holy Spirit was not represented as a white dove – tame and pure – but by a wild goose. And here the story changes. Geese are not controllable.  They make a lot of noise and have a habit of biting those who try to contain them. Geese fly faster in a flock than on their own. And they make excellent ‘guard dogs’.

Ian Bradley, former lecturer in practical theology at St Andrew’s University in Scotland, might be historically accurate when he says he can’t find any evidence to substantiate such a tradition in Celtic folklore beyond the creative imagination of George Macleod of Iona fame… But maybe the Spirit of God is like a ‘wild goose’. It comes not in quiet conformity but demanding to be heard. Its song is not sweet to many. It drives people together, demanding they support and travel with one another. It shouts a truth many with power would rather not hear. And it often forces those on whom it rests to become noisy, passionate, and courageous people of the gospel.

Patricia de Jong of Berkeley College suggests that Paul did not have the benefit of Hallmark Cards, which thinks doves are just like love-birds, billing and cooing come Valentine’s Day.  But Paul knows for sure, that the sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit is love – not the love sold to us by Hollywood and the greetings card industry, but the love of God which is the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, binding an aggregate of different and unlikely people together, creating new community on new common ground in the Body of Christ”.

Pentecost in this symbol is not the nice presenting dove that has the character of a love bird, it is not the lovely aspiration, the symbol of all things sweet and nice. The wild goose is the symbol of an agitator, the whistle blower, the serendipitous challenger of the norm, it is the one who sticks around like a bad smell, it is the meals-on-wheels provider, the hospital visitor, the political protester, and those seeking to reform welfare and education and employment opportunities.

With this symbol it is not surprising, that as we gather to celebrate the coming of the Spirit of God at Pentecost, our biblical readings have nothing to do with the innocence and purity and peace, associated with the Spirit as dove. Our readings suggest that they “this Spirit is the living energy, the creative vitality that stirs the waves and whispers in the wind, that warms the sun and eroticizes the moon, that vibrates in the sounds of nature, begetting novelty in every realm of [the universe]”.  (O’Murchu 2005:96)

Another approach to this exploration of symbols and their communication is perhaps to take the line John D Caputo does in his book, ‘What Would Jesus Deconstruct?’ where he reminds us that over the ages the spiritual masters have described spiritual life as a journey, that to be religious is to be a searcher, one who lives in search of something as opposed to being satisfied with the reality that sits under our noses, content with the present. He reminds us that Bobby Kennedy used to say that; “there are those who look at things the way they are, and ask, why….. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not? Caputo says that Kennedy was speaking with a religious heart. That religious people are the people of the ‘why not?’ the people of the promise, of the hope against hope. They are people who restlessly search for something, for a certain sort of ‘transcendence, which means to be on the go, making the crossing, trying to get somewhere else. They are people on the Way, never content with where they are, always on the way. Paradoxically the annoying goose is more apt because a follower of Jesus is never satisfied with reality as it is always seeking to be find the real beyond the real.

The challenge then of these two symbols is to see that we are on a spiritual journey that we call a journey of faith and this means that when we think we know we have achieved we have put our lives on automatic pilot. We have become knowers who have taken ourselves out of the game. We have become travelers who can’t move without our four wheel drives and our air conditioned cars. We are the ones who only stay in five star hotels. We forget that Jesus is not the way unless we are lost nor is he the answer unless we have a question.

One of the things that I like about the people of St David’s is that you are like this symbol of the wild goose. You act as though the spirit of Pentecost is alive in this place! Not because you are kind, gentle and loving folk because you are definitely that, but because you are realists, ready to embrace new and different ways of worshipping and thinking theologically. Not because you are captured by the despair of age or the prospect of a decaying building but because live like there is more than one way of walking the way. In being more like geese you reflect the challenging and unique diversity of Creativity God in the world.

As we celebrate Pentecost let us celebrate the Spirit of play and wonder in this place. Let us care for one another, as we push old theological boundaries, and go about the life of this congregation. And let us continue to embrace the dreams and visions of the future which we believe makes this place both unique and important. This is a safe place for the different, the novel and the alternative. It is a place where one can set out for a shore that one can never reach, or be exposed to a secret one can never explore. As Caputo asks: “What is that if not a description of a proper path to God?”

Our circumstances what with an aging congregation and the challenge of our much loved and cherished building has not been real to us as the white dove of peace descending from above but rather as the wild goose pushing and pulling at the fabric of our lives and our assumptions. We could rest in nostalgia and our past, especially our last 10 years. We could also approach the realities of planning for a new beginning, only with our conclusions firmly ensconced in our plans. Our ideas of what a sacred building should be, what the future congregation will need and what we think should be preserved but in the end, we know that Pentecost is something more than a so-called past event, or a hope for the realization of what we think. It is the story of God’s continuing present-ness, God’s here and now-ness experienced again and again.“… The amazing story of Pentecost is of people coming to awareness through reflection on the life of Jesus and the realization that the same Spirit that moved in him moved in them.”  (Morwood 2003:84) The sweetness and light of the peaceful dove arriving with gentle touch is challenged by the wild goose that arrives with a boldness, agitating, disrupting and squawking challenge to change.

This Spirit is becoming incarnate in all of us. Incarnate as people dream dreams and see a vision of justice and compassion in the world. Incarnate in the everyday living as people engage with each other. There in that place, event, experience, is the Creativity God involving and engaging us.

Notes: Bausch, W. J. A World of Stories for Preachers and Teachers. Mystic. Twenty-Third Publications, 1998. Morwood, M. Praying a New Story. Melbourne. Spectrum, 2003. O’Murchu, D. Catching up with Jesus. A Gospel Story for our Time. New York. Crossroad Publishing, 2005.

Caputo J, D What Would Jesus Deconstruct, The Good News of Post-modernism for the Church Baker Academic Baker Publishing Group Grand Rapids 2007


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