Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, M.O., on May 31 2009.
Whenever you read from the New Testament, you need to pay attention to what I call “the silent witnesses” of the Old Testament in the form of Hebrew voices clamoring for attention. Most stories in the Christian Scriptures need to be heard and understood by what we learn from the Hebrew Scriptures. Why? Jesus must be understood not as the creator of a new religion, but as the Jewish peasant teacher who lived and taught within the context of his Jewish faith. Early Christianity was branded by Jewish belief, soaked and immersed in its teachings, and as Christianity grew and matured, it stretched out beyond the confines of Jewish faith until it morphed into its own distinctiveness. Nevertheless, Christian scripture walks hand in hand with Jewish stories and teachings, each illuminating the other.
One of those voices was heard from Mt. Sinai where Moses was called to meet the God whose name was simply, “I am who I am.” The clarity of the moment was amplified by the appearance of God’s presence. It was a formative encounter that shaped them and gave them an identity and a mission, all characteristics true of Pentecost. In fact, the feast of the Pentecost originated from Jewish roots in the festival known as the Feast of Weeks that commemorated and celebrated the giving of the law at Sinai. That explains why there was such a large crowd in Jerusalem.
The second voice clamoring to be heard out of Jewish faith comes from Ezekiel … remember the valley of the dry bones? God’s Spirit came upon Ezekiel, who ministered in Israel in the time of the captivity and God led him far out of town to a valley where countless dry bones were scattered. We understand the bones to symbolize the desolation of Israel who were senselessly killed as others were deported from their land.
A government that doesn’t want us to see the realities of war prefers we have a more heroic understanding of war typically closely controls modern photographic images of war. But on occasion we see the images of countless bodies that have been stripped of clothes, stripped of their identities as men and women, and that become just a pile of bodies. They’re the victims of war and must be buried away from our view or we’ll lose our heart to wage war. Somehow we tolerate that kind of secrecy from those who control the efforts of war. “Out of sight, out of mind,” we reason.
But Ezekiel had a vision of the bodies. The bones in Ezekiel’s vision were Israel’s victims slaughtered by the conquering armies in order to exercise domination over the vanquished. This was the carnage of war and witnesses of the people’s suffering in exile. When the Lord asked Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” the prophet replied, “You are the one who knows.” One might translate that simply as “God knows,” emphasized with a shrug of the shoulders. Then the Lord called out, “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they might live.”
At the heart of this story swirls a world of images that interact with the meaning of Pentecost at a deep level. There are the fantastic signs of God’s invasion of life. There’s the wind and the sound of the wind, the upsetting of the normal order of things, the imagery of the flames sitting absurdly on the heads of everyone in the room, the power and energy overflowing out of the room showering upon the crowds of people below – all innocent to what was happening above them. The racket created by the 120 followers of Jesus gathered in that upper room became such a noise that they were like “a room full of bagpipes all going at once.”The story also reminds us that God did not create witnesses ex nihilo (out of nothing), but rather took that which was deflated and scared and breathed new life into it. If we accept that all this energy released at Pentecost is about the invisibility of the Spirit who is wind, who is breath, then a whole new world emerges in meaning. Let’s play with that imagery …
In our lifetimes a totally modern point of view has emerged in that for the first time in human history, we can see the world in its totality as a sphere, a planet spinning in space as it circles our sun … an insignificant part of an immense system of stars and galaxies that extend so far beyond our comprehension it makes our brains buzz. The images of the earth from the surface of the moon are breath-taking in that the earth is the blue-green planet whose colors jump in comparison to the silvery-gray tones of the moon’s dull surface. From space, one can see the glow of the veil of the protective atmosphere that separates the surface of the earth from the vacuum of space. In the atmosphere is all the air ever created for this planet. All the air that ever was cushions the earth from the rays of the sun and protects us from the harsh emptiness of space. When we breathe, every breath we take has been in the world since the creation. There is nothing new about it, just the same renewable air being shared over and over throughout the eons of time of the earth’s existence over the last 4.5 billion years.
Playfully, Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us: “The same ancient air just keeps recirculating, which means that every time any of us breathes we breath star dust left over from the creation of the earth. We breathe brontosaurus breath and pterodactyl breath. We breathe air that has circulated through the rain forests of Kenya and air that has turned yellow with sulphur over Mexico City. We breathe the same air that Plato breathed, and Mozart and Michelangelo, not to mention Hitler and Lizzie Borden. Every time we breathe, we take in what was once some baby’s first breath, or some dying person’s last.”
Recognize in the imagery of the air, ancient and renewed with every generation, and the universal nature of it. All of us are renewed and sustained by God’s gift of oxygen. None of us owns it or controls it. It is invisible and takes no notice of who uses it, as it is God’s gift to all of us. Likewise, in the church we don’t own the air we breathe any more than we own the good news of God’s love and acceptance of us. There’s no exceptionalism at work here, whether we’re talking about the air or God’s grace, as all God’s creatures are welcomed to it and blessed by it.
So we might ask, when Jesus took his last breath, what happened? Probably the same thing that has happened every time someone has died. The gospel writers are emphatic about what happened on the cross in the mid-afternoon in which he was crucified. “It is finished,” he said, and in the King James Version of the Bible it says, “and he bowed his head and gave up his ghost” (John 19:30, KJV). The ghost referred to by John was not a spook, but the word in the Greek, pneuma, usually translated as, “spirit.”
See how it all works together? Mighty wind, spirit, ghost, Holy Spirit, breath … the gospels tell us in his first post-resurrection appearance, “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:22 NASB). Barbara Brown Taylor toys with the imagery and suggests that Jesus’ last breath did not simply dissipate as so many last breaths do. Instead, she argues, it grew in strength, until it became a mighty wind, spinning and gaining in power like one of those modest storms that cross the Atlantic along hurricane alley until the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea turn them into a full blown hurricane capable of blowing off the roofs and destroying homes and disrupting the lives of everyone in its path. God doesn’t need to create out of nothingness to carry on because God has always taken old things and renewed them, re-invigorating them with the Spirit who puts new flesh on bleached bones bringing them back to life. The wind that blew back then blows today and when that which is dead comes back to life, witnesses rise up to tell their story. What was blown back to life in the upper room is the church and we are a part of that great story.
This spring marked the 103rd anniversary of the birth of the Pentecostal movement in America. It began April 9, 1906, in the house of a janitor named Edward Lee. A black Pentecostal preacher named William Seymour anointed him with oil (in biblical fashion) and the Spirit came upon him. Lee broke forth in ecstatic speech and said, quoting from our Scripture passage on the Day of Pentecost: “This is that!” That night Seymour began preaching and a revival broke free in a movement now called the Azusa Street Revival. Within days the crowds began to build and the people came. So many came they moved to a bigger building. Once a day couldn’t sustain them so they met three times a day. There were as many as 800 in the room with hundreds more outside peering into the windows, all of them trying to get as close to the action as they could. The revival went on for three years and people came from every race and class. All the nationalities were there and social groups high and low were involved. Gender lines were not recognized and women and men alike were called to preach and minister.
You see, when the Spirit breaks free of our boundaries and our superficial isms that only separate and divide God’s children, the Spirit can move freely like the wind and blow where it wishes bestowing enough power to put flesh on a pile of dry bones. Do you believe that?
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).