Like a wind it sounded. Like a rush of violent wind. In the middle of the city, the sound came down and filled the houses. Impossible to ignore. Likely unwelcome, the sound came anyway. Divided tongues of fire appeared among the disciples, who had seen a lot but were surely terrified. In the midst of the city, accompanying the roaring wind of God’s breath which is sometimes whisper and sometimes whirlwind, divided tongues of flame rested on the disciples. They did not burn as fuel in a furnace, but as the ignition source for something new in the land. The wind fanned the tongues of flame, and the disciples gave off not smoke but words; words which became by God’s presence the Word. The wind capitalized the W.
Witness the grand arrival of the Advocate, the teacher, the comforter, the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus. She has been seen in fire before, a pillar of flame guiding the Israelites across the wind-parted Red Sea to freedom and before that as a burning bush calling Moses to go and lead them. A wind pushes things, perhaps topples them, but fire consumes and transforms, releases energy from fixed structures and sets it free. The Spirit, never tamed and never docile, may be wind, but may also be fire.
In the city there were Jewish people from all over, a—lets be sure to name it—wildly diverse community gathered at the center of Jewish life. The story of Jesus had been told, one presumes, in Aramaic, the language he and his disciples would have spoken, perhaps bleeding into the koine Greek and Latin of Palestine’s multivalent history. Yet when the fire came down and the disciples began to speak, their words were set free to be understood by people from all the lands. The words, as the Word, leapt over barriers and moved, guided, pushed these peoples toward transformation.
Some thought they were drunk, and who can blame them? But Peter, for once not needing to have things explained to him, recognized the flames and the wind, and reminded them of the bone-deep poetry of the prophet Joel:
In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
Words by this time already anciently embedded in the fabric of the Jewish world, a Hebraic promise of a more perfect union between God and God’s people. The flames call forth words, which are themselves nothing more than carefully shaped breath. Sons and daughters prophesying, young men telling of their visions and old men of their dreams and even the slaves speaking God’s truth. The Holy Spirit, an Advocate calling God’s people to advocate for God’s dream, summoning us with our very breath to proclaim what is good and true and just. The Spirit equips us to say in every realm that the kingdom of God is not a nation or a tribe, but something more like this polyglot collective sending rhizomes of story out from Jerusalem.
But one cannot speak without breath. No words come from windpipes with knees on them. To kneel on the throat and stop the breath, the ruach, the pneuma. To squelch the words that trouble tribal supremacies and interrogate imperial narratives. This has been the counter-strategy chosen by those in power against the Spirit’s every step. Pogroms, inquisitions and cleansings, and—more suitable for polite company—segregations and disenfranchisements. The broad scattering of words at the Pentecost is everywhere reined in and silenced by those with narrower imaginations. George Floyd’s neck, in this vast machinery, was just one more, a candle pinched out between calloused fingers, like so many others who had no video recording to remember their truth.
And yet George Floyd speaks. His words are heard and understood, and the crowds have come to help, to turn the whisper into a roaring wind. Make no mistake, the Holy Spirit moves in this anger, this defiant refusal to be silent. She moves as wind, giving breath to those who hold our society to the standard it claims to have set for itself, to its own now-ancient prophecies of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
And there are fires. I have preached about non-violence before, and I believe in it to my core. I am not here to compare the flames this week to the flames at Pentecost. But the fires in cities around the country should not be dismissed as thuggery or mob rule. They are eruptions of rage, signifying that centuries of enslavement, lynchings, terrorism, the torching of black towns, churches, and and homes by white people, segregation, and police violence have understandably eroded any trust that our society actually cares about George Floyd’s life. A society that segregates and controls people through violence cannot, with any integrity, demand peace in response. Nonviolence is a very difficult practice. Do not glorify the flames, do not praise them, do not let them obscure the thousands and thousands of peaceful protestors, but do not fail to understand where the flames come from. They will not bring peace, but they are responses in kind to a violent society. Flames out of our control frighten us, but they get our attention. The Spirit speaks in all of this.
I do not think I’m out on a limb here. Note the rest of Peter’s quotation from Joel. The Spirit sometimes reveals through terrifying means.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.
When the Spirit moved out in every direction from Jerusalem that day, she would never be contained. There will never be only one voice. There will never be only one narrative. There will never be only one perspective. The ability to control the message, to master the news-cycle, was lost from the drop. “But racism is illegal and the legal system should take care of it” will never be an adequate response to oppression that was legal for so long that the latecoming laws against it could hardly slow it down. Voices still speak truth from perspectives we resist, and the Spirit still calls us to hear, and to be transformed. The fires still burn.
She is then, only sometimes a comforter. The Holy Spirit unsettled the neat narrative of Jesus that a committee of a few disciples might have crafted. Christianity has never spoken with one voice. This is not a design flaw in our faith. It is the insistence that our proclamation of God’s movement should always strive to mirror the complexity of the world. And it is a persistent reminder that the Holy Spirit is not beholden to our convenience or to the status quo. A whisper, a shout, a breeze, tongues of flame, the Word moving in every direction: She is the call to a restless and complex prophesy. She is the breath, and She is the fire.