Feast of Pentecost
Then the Lord God formed the human from the dust of the ground, and breathed into the human’s nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living being. (Gen 2:7)
Today is Pentecost, the fiftieth day following Easter. On this day, some reckon, the Church is born. Today, then, we wish Happy Birthday to the Church. Today the apostles receive the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. Guided by the Spirit, they will now go forward and preach the good news of the Risen Christ. Today the prophecy of John the Baptist is fulfilled in Jesus Christ: “I baptize you with[ water for repentance,” John proclaims, “but the one who comes after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit…and fire.” (Matt 3:11) Today the Holy Spirit arrives, borne on the power of the breath of life.
As a young man I was blessed with a mentor early in my career. My friend and boss John was a pathfinder who supported me in those early years. Later in life he was there for me as the path became rocky and the way ahead, uncertain. All who worked with him understood. John was always in charge. At the age of forty he was visited by a medical challenge requiring abdominal surgery. Emerging, but still within the cloud of general anesthesia, John overhears the anesthesiologist report to the surgeon: “I think we are losing him.” At that moment John, no longer in charge, felt a great surge of breath enter him. He was safe at home, back amongst us.
Breath of God
Our readings this morning are rich with the symbolism of the breath of life. The breath of God inspires life into all humankind. In the early words of Genesis, we are formed from the dust of the ground. Infused with the breath of God we receive the gift of life. God will not allow God’s name to be spoken in the Hebrew Scriptures. There is no need. In the Old Testament, God is called Yah-Weh. Yah-Weh. It is the sound we make as we breath in, then out…Yah-Weh. Yah-Weh. The breath of life sustains us from the moment we are granted that first gasp of oxygen at birth until we complete our journey on earth. It is our final expression as we exhale and yield our life at the moment of death.
Gathered together this morning, the disciples experience the transformational power of God. Recalling the baptism of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, the heavens are again torn apart. Like a violent wind, the power of God fills the house. Tongues of fire rest upon the disciples as they are baptized with Holy Spirit. Now filled with the Holy Spirit, they are equipped to speak all languages. In the allegory of multiple tongues they are empowered to go forward to testify the good news to all people, everywhere.
Transformational Power of God
The transformational power of God at Pentecost is so welcome to our weary world. We have been locked in a darkness of isolation, surrounded by fear and uncertainty. We have experienced the death of loved ones, family, friends. Separation denies us the community of friendship and love that sustains our sense of human identity. Where is God in our time of tragedy, we cry? How has God allowed the death of 600,000 here at home, and millions more, elsewhere in the world?
We have been locked in a state of exile for well over a year. Signs of new life blossom about us as heralds of Spring. Blossoms and tender new leaves are signs of hope. But we have lived in darkness for so long. Even as pandemic restrictions now ease, restoration seems still only a hope, not yet a reality.
God’s Power of Restoration
The prophet Ezekiel reveals God’s power of restoration. Ezekiel takes us into his mystic vision of dry bones. The Spirit of God lifts Ezekiel and transports him to a wide valley. He is deposited on a vast battlefield whose slain were left to decay where they fell.[i] Before him lies the nation of Israel forced into exile in Babylon, far from their native land. Behold the bones of thousands torn from their community, their religion, torn from their native land. Stripped of their identity as individuals and as a nation, for generations they lay in the state of social death.
The Lord leads Ezekiel around this vast scene of death. Ezekiel looks out over thousands of corpses spread as far as the eye can see. It is a legion of desiccated bones that have lain desolate for a long, long time.[ii] Once living humans they have been defiled, abandoned. No one is left to remember who they are.
God puts the question to Ezekiel: “Mortal, can these bones live?” On God’s command, Ezekiel calls out across the desolate landscape: “Hear the word of the Lord. The Lord will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” Then in slow motion, with noise and rattling, the countless bones rise and come together across the entire valley. And yet there is no life in them. They stand as enfleshed corpses, like a Zombie apocalypse.[iii] Now at God’s command, Ezekiel calls to the four winds. Speaking as the voice of God, he commands the breath of God to enter these once slain, now rejoined bodies. Recalling the words of Creation in Genesis, the breath life enters the vast multitude. Now, with the spirit of the Lord within them, they shall live and return to their native soil.
Today, God calls out to Ezekiel: Mortal, today you witness the bones of 21st century humanity. Weary of their long exile, they cry out: Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, we are cut off from life. Can these bones live? Now, with the blossoming of new life in Spring, on our Day of Pentecost, we too receive the breath of life as the Holy Spirit descends upon us. We too can know that the Lord has spoken. We too are reminded that the Lord has been with us, has spoken and sustained us.
The world we reenter is a new world. It will not be the same for us again in this generation. How shall we engage with the differences we must face? What have we learned that will sustain us in our new native land? How shall we earn the new life we are granted as we return from exile? We have experienced fear, confusion, uncertainty. Fear will not disappear. Many will continue to fear for their safety. Many will be reluctant to engage. How shall we give back for the blessings of life support we have received? How shall we give thanks for the live-saving power of vaccines so quickly developed? How shall we earn the grace of renewed live we have received?
How shall we earn gift of renewed life as we return from our exile? Recall the final words of the dying Captain Miller in the film Saving Private Ryan. Captain Miller, in offering the gift of his own life, presents Ryan with the gift of new life. In his final breath Miller commands Ryan: now, Earn It! Earn It! I offer you the life example of my friend and mentor, John. In retirement, during his final twenty years of life, John establishes a two hundred acre farm. Here he establishes and operates a rescue home for Border Collies. Until just a few weeks before his recent death in October, John gave new life to hundreds of abandoned and abused Border Collies. In turn, those Border Collies brought new life to the dozens of fresh air children that come each summer from broken families or disturbed urban homes. Here they receive their first responsibility in life, caring, nurturing and loving these formerly abandoned pups.
And so the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (Jn 3:8)
This is a sermon delivered to the congregation of Emmanuel Church, Newport, RI on May 23, 2021. I am indebted to the following for their insights into the lectionary: Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, The Book of Ezekiel, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VI, Abingdon Press, 1994; Lamar Williamson Jr, Preaching the Gospel of John, Westminster John Knox (2004); J. Ramsey Michaels, The Gospel of John, Eerdmans (2010);
and Dr. Carolyn Sharp, Professor of Homiletics, Yale Divinity School.
Roger C. Bullard, May 23, 2021
[i] Darr, p.1497
[ii] ibid, p.1499
[iii] Sharp, Feb 15, 2016, lecture on Ezekiel 21-48