Breath and Fire

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.


Spiritual Ascension

It’s hard to know what to do with the Ascension of Jesus. In front of his disciples, Jesus is raised into the air and carried away by a cloud. This happens forty days after Easter, and is the culmination of Jesus’ earthly incarnation. Just as he was, by the Holy Spirit, conceived within Mary and born a human, he is borne aloft by the Spirit and carried back up to God.

The “up” part is maybe the trouble. We no longer believe that the sky is a dome, an arrangement of concentric spheres on which hang the sun, moon and stars, and behind them of course, is heaven. We have looked beyond the dome with our telescopes, and have pierced it with our rockets, and, well, we didn’t find heaven up there. When 21st century minds think about things like this, we tend toward alternate dimensions, and strange realities described by string theory, not simply an elevator up into the sky.

And strange, too, that Jesus’ body went with him. We are dust, and to dust we shall return, but Jesus’ body, made of the same stuff as ours, the same dust, does not return to the soil. No bones will be found. There is no geological memory of Jesus. No remains. Only the story, told by those who gathered in that house in Jerusalem that day, and those who heard them, and those who heard them, and so on. Which is pretty good, but still, strange.

So I guess I’m saying that as a physical event, as a literal mechanical operation of God, you are forgiven if the Ascension does not speak to you. But reading it as a story that describes a spiritual movement might open it up a little bit.

So let’s look at how this ascension functions as a mirror image of Jesus’ arrival on earth. If this is the ascension, we might call his birth a con-descension, a descending with. It is, all this time later, still incredible to us that God would subject Godself to… well, to us. So God doesn’t merely send Jesus to teach us how to connect with God. The gesture is not merely a sending-forth, but in the ascension, Jesus is drawn back in. This life, given freely, as a gift, also loops back around to the sender.

But it is not a retraction. God is not taking Godself away from us. Think about the teachings these last few weeks, about Jesus going to his Father’s house, which has many rooms. Or about how Jesus will send an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to be God’s presence with us during his absence. God is teaching us something about God here.

If the sending, the con-descension of Jesus is a display of God’s love, of God’s forgiveness and desire for relationship with the world, then what does the Ascension show us? I would argue that it shows us God’s hospitality. For Jesus does not simply disappear, but gives us a path, a way to follow him. 

So the Ascension becomes a symbol of our welcome into the household of God. It is the final action of the incarnate Jesus, which is a notable status to occupy. And in his final act, he shows us the way to God. Now, of course, given the physics of the situation, it is not a literal path. It is a spiritual one. By practicing the life that Jesus teaches, we can participate in his ministry, and can follow him into fellowship with God. By practicing steadily and faithfully, we are inwardly transformed. We do not become Jesus per se. That’s a dangerous thing to suggest. But we become more like Jesus, and live lives more characterized by God’s presence.

The ascension takes on a new meaning if this is God’s way of showing us the way to God. Pretty much ever since it happened, people have been scandalized by the fact that Jesus was a human. When he was crucified, that would have meant God was suffering. It meant God was part of the cycles of violence and death that are so prevalent on the earth. If God has a body, and bodies eventually fail and decay, does that mean God fails and decays?

Here, then, is an answer. God does not decay, but returns. God is always, as with the ascension, returning to God, and also, in the Holy Spirit, returning to the world. This is the processual nature of God. God proceeds into and through the world and back to Godself, at every moment. The connection is always active. This constant procession, God’s receptivity and calling, means that God responds to the world, to each speck of it, at each moment. Every part of the universe gets the possibility for the next moment from this divine procession. The future opens up as the Spirit pulls the tangled threads of the world into a new form of order. Endings lead into another moment. Inasmuch as God returns even to the places where life falters, God’s procession into and through the world is at every moment a renewal. 

The cross looked like God’s ultimate failure, but the God who moves in and through all of creation summoned a next moment. The miracles of order on the edge of chaos, of planets condensing from clouds of gas and ever-more-complex life springing from primordial soup, these witness to the sacred movement, creativity, and calling of God’s procession. All of it is thoroughly sacred, constantly folded into relationship, exposing new potentialities and awakening new life. 

For all of this, the story of the Ascension does not stand as a testament to the structure of the cosmos. God, we find with growing confidence, is not found by going “up.” But the truth this story tells is not astrophysical. Just as the world was not created in one week a few thousand years ago, but that’s not the truth Genesis has to tell us. These stories are about how God relates to us. The Ascension shows us a God who not only sends Jesus to a world that frankly didn’t deserve him, as a gesture of grace and love. It shows us that same God, 33 years or so later, inviting us—all of us—home. It is done by the constant movement of God into the world, through the world, and back into Godself. This is how we are constantly folded into the divine household. By Jesus, and by the Holy Spirit, we are shown the way and welcomed home.


Enfolded by the Spirit

It’s the Spirit that we need these days. A lot of our usual guideposts and practices for connecting with God aren’t available during the quarantine. We’ve talked enough about the things we miss during social distancing, and I don’t need to rehash it. What Jesus is promising in today’s Gospel, though, is the spiritual presence of God after the physical presence of Jesus is over. The loss of Jesus’ company, of his bodily presence with his followers, is not the loss of God. There will be an Advocate, a helper, a Spirit of truth.

Spirit is not as beefy a word as they might have hoped for. In each of the ancient languages from which our Scriptures come, it means “breath, or wind”. Its poetry is undeniable, but likely the disciples were not pinning their hopes on poetry. People often feel that way about the Spirit. God moves subtly, soft as breath, folding the world into relationship like the wind curling autumn leaves into a momentary spiral. We get it in fits and bursts and not in the obvious, undeniable interventions we long for.

Jesus is not conjuring a third person of the Trinity here. No matter how in-spired he was, he is here referring to an already-ancient understanding of God as a hovering, windy presence, summoning order on the edge of chaos at the world’s beginning, and breathing life into dust to create life. The Spirit is God’s way of holding all of the creation in the hollow of God’s hand.

Jesus’ promise today is no compensation prize, then. It is the promise of a presence that cannot be stopped. The Spirit is far too slippery for anyone to nail down, much less arrest and crucify. It would have been the Spirit breathing life back into Jesus’ body on Easter. And the Spirit would move through authors in disparate communities in the decades after Easter, compelling them to write of God’s movement in Jesus. The Spirit moved through the church in the early years of imperial oppression, breathing on it like a flame kindled in tinder. And when the church was embraced by empire, the Spirit maintained an ornery presence, challenging institutional authority.

Our biblical vocabulary for the Spirit, in both Hebrew and Greek, is primarily feminine. Femininity, in classical philosophy, is more earthly, and less purely rational than masculinity, and so less privileged. If you think you hear relatively little about the Spirit, that might be part of it. Classical philosophy was confused in so many ways about the value of earthiness and of pure reason, and I don’t care to apologize for it there, but it’s also true that the Spirit didn’t follow the script written by the patriarchs. The Spirit can, as it would on the Pentecost, call forth divine wisdom from any person, regardless of their position in the church hierarchy. If you are trying to lead a well-organized global religion, the Spirit can cause a lot of trouble. The Spirit was disruptive long before disruption was a buzzword, breathing life into reformations, into subversive and beautiful faith that opened space for more and more people to realize God’s presence. 

And the Spirit is personal. She speaks to you where you are, and speaks to me where I am. Just as God is one and yet three, the Spirit’s calling is to the whole creation and uniquely also to each of us. The Spirit is going to be with you no matter what career field or graduate program or internship you pick, because her movement is fluid and faithful. In fact, the Spirit seems to continually nudge us toward a sort of creativity, a co-creativity with God that suggests that there is no straight and narrow path to follow so much as a field of creative and compassionate engagement with the world.

The Spirit liberates people. It is often said that no matter what people do to you, they cannot control your thinking. The Spirit has spoken to people in prisons and enslavement, in oppression, and in the midst of unimaginable suffering. She is called a comforter. There is real freedom in the experience of God. To know that your present circumstances, whatever they may be, are not what define you, is liberating. And to know that the Holy Spirit moves through you can bring forth the courage to speak, and to speak again. It can also—and should always—bring forth the courage to listen to those who speak from circumstances that are not our own.

The Spirit moves us toward a beauty that is not explicitly defined so much as sketched in very broad outline. She moves us toward a mutual thriving, toward a belovedness felt by one an all, toward a harmony or contrast that disregards homogenous sameness in favor of a chorus of differences making something broader and deeper by listening to the Spirit and one another and responding from the depth of our being, from the depth of our love. 

We are, then, not left orphaned. Not for a minute. Not in our bleakest loneliness, and not in our most numbing boredom. The Spirit is with us, and so then is the possibility of being part of something God today, right now. Circumstances change, and the canvas you paint on may shrink or grow, but you are called to paint nonetheless. You are called to seek the good, to practice mercy, and to embrace the beauty of creaturely life. That beauty is not always obvious. Life, even with the Spirit, is unclear and often painful. That sets us up to attend to remarkable resurrections each day, then, finding beauty amid the chaos, and brilliance in the doldrums.

Next week the story of Jesus’ life ends with his ascension to heaven. But the story of life is actually always beginning, each moment a tiny miracle sparked by the Spirit.