The following is a homily for the Feast of Pentecost, Year A. The readings can be found here.
For those who are still wondering if God has a sense of humor, I point you to today’s Gospel. Here we are on the first weekend open for public masses, in a world where we’re trying to get people to stay home, to social distance, to cover their mouths—and we get a Gospel criticizing those who stayed home in fear and Jesus straight up breathing on the disciples. As a preacher you just have to look at that and go… are you kidding me?
Luckily, there are other readings to talk about, and so we’re going to hold off on the Gospel for a second and focus on the image we’re given in the first reading. The passage from the Acts of the Apostles recounts the Pentecost event, describing it as something coming from the sky like a “strong driving wind.” If you look to most other English versions of the Bible, this phrase is translated as a “rush of a violent wind.” This is not some light summer breeze. You don’t feel this air on your face and go, “Oh, isn’t that refreshing. Isn’t that nice.” When I hear “strong driving wind” or “rush of a violent wind,” I think of my days in Chicago where the wind was so strong that it could literally knock you over. Walking to seminary each day in my habit, basically a human sail, I was afraid of being swept up sometimes, just blown away. For those here in the southeast, I think of the powerful hurricane winds that rush through our coasts each year. What a terrifying display of power, wind so strong that it can uproot full-grown trees, hurl debris through windows, even topple houses. Look to a city after a hurricane runs through and you will see what a “strong driving wind” can do, what a “rush of violent wind” can accomplish. Wind has the power to destroy.
But interestingly enough, it can also be absolutely life-giving as well. As much as the violent winds of a hurricane cause damage to property, they also churn up the deep waters of the ocean, infusing oxygen into the water and bringing nutrient-rich water to islands and coastal lands. They distribute warm water to colder regions and work to break up bacteria and red tide. Despite their violence, Hurricanes actually replenish dying ecosystems. Where life is stagnant, where things are dying, “strong driving winds” bring life.
A destructive, life-giving force. What a perfect description of the Pentecost event; what a wonderful image of the Holy Spirit.
On the one hand, the Spirit does come to destroy… injustice, that is; to break down all that acts against the Kingdom of God. Whenever God is angered in the Bible by oppression, idolatry, or murder, we hear that the winds are raging, that he has sent a scorching wind. The Egyptians were cast into the sea; the false prophets were killed by blowing fire; Jonah was caught in a violent storm; idols and temples to other gods were burned down. Like a hurricane, like a violent wind, the Spirit comes to his people to tear down what stands in the way of justice. Thus, those who were prophets, people filled with the Holy Spirit to speak on behalf of God, brought destruction with their words. Think about Isaiah and Amos, Hosea and Jeremiah. Were these men who asked nicely, who came in like a nice summer breeze, politely requesting that people change? No. They came to the people like a violent wind—“Stop abusing the poor! Stop putting your own people into slavery! Stop worshiping false idols… or you will be destroyed!” They condemned oppressors, cried out for justice. The Spirit, living in them, rolled in like a hurricane to tear down everything in its path.
But this same spirit, this violent wind, also came to bring life. In the very beginning, remember that it was the wind that separated the land from the sea to allow for life; after the flood of destruction, it was the wind that dried up the waters to make it livable again; it was the violent wind that parted the Red Sea, leading the Israelites from slavery to freedom; all throughout Scripture, it was the west wind that came from the sea, bringing moisture to the land, saving the people from famine. Just as a driving wind was sent by God to express his anger, so too, is one sent to accomplish his saving, life-giving work. Just like a hurricane, this strong driving wind churns up what is stagnant, awakens what is dormant, gives life to what is dying. It does not simply denounce injustice, it breathes life; it helps to build a just society. The Old Testament prophets didn’t just bring anger at injustice, they brought consolation for the oppressed, hope for the future, a reminder that God was with them always. This is the work of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is like a driving wind: he has the power to destroy and give life, all for the sake of the Kingdom.
This is the Spirit that Jesus breathes into his disciples at Pentecost, and the Spirit that lives in us. That violent wind, that strong driving wind, lives in you and in me because Jesus has anointed us with it. That violent wind is alive in our world, just as he was with the Old Testament prophets, because we are his hands and feet. As baptized Christians, those sent out on Christ’s mission, we are that driving wind; we are that rush of violent wind.
As a church, we must be a force of destruction against injustice, a people who tear down all that is against the kingdom of God. We stand against affronts to life like abortion and euthanasia; we demand justice in the face of oppression and poverty; we cry out like a violent wind, breathing out the spirit in the world when others have had their breath taken away. How utterly disgusting it is to see racism continue to rear its ugly head this week—a woman lying to the cops in an attempt to hurt a black man; a police officer killing a man in handcuffs, kneeling on his windpipe for 9 minutes while he choked “I can’t breathe.” How do you think the Holy Spirit, the breath of life, feels about someone taking another’s breath away? How do you think he feels about those who stood by and watched, refusing to speak up, to give their own breath? As a people in the Spirit, those who have been anointed at Pentecost, now is not the time to stay silent; now is not the time to keep our breath to ourselves—like a violent wind, we must cry out for justice, we must rush in and destroy all that is against the Kingdom.
But we must also work to bring life. Being a prophet, being anointed in the Spirit, being a violent wind in our world, means being a destructive force, yes, but it also means being a life-giving force as well. It means being that wind that brings the rain to dry land, life to those who hunger and thirst. It means churning up what is good and spreading it around, bringing warmth to those who are cold. Just like the Old Testament prophets, it means being a voice of hope, of consolation, of reconciliation. Look at our world today and we see so many disparate voices, so much division. The Holy Spirit is the one who brings together all of those languages, all of those people who cannot communicate, and makes them one people in peace.
Yes, I tell you, if we are anointed in the Spirit, if we are filled with what Christ has left us, if we want to build the kingdom of God in our midst, a warm summer breeze simply won’t do. The Spirit is a violent wind come to shake up this world, and we are his hands and feed. Rush out into the world, and don’t go quietly.