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A Tale of Wind and Flame -- Acts 2:1-21 (Pentecost Sunday)






In the broad sweep of Scripture, we meet the Spirit of God in the very beginning –  in Genesis 1, verse 2 –as the Spirit of God – the breath of God – a mighty wind – broods over the surface of the primordial waters. God’s breath – God’s spirit is there – moving – breathing – creating – in the very beginning.


Cole Arthur Riley, in her book This Here Flesh, tells the story like this:


Long, long ago, when all the earth was still as silence, the moon got all choked up on the beauty of the stars. She coughed and then wind was born. The wind rushed out with such a force she didn’t even know where she came from at all. She started roaming and searching, darting through trees and trying to wrap herself around anything she could find. No matter what she did, it was as if she was invisible. She wanted to rest in something, but no place would have her. Whenever she became really desperate, she would rend herself into cold and hot air and collide with herself. This, of course, made a tornado of her. So she would thrash through places with an ugliness, picking everything up and forcing it to be held by her, even if just for a little while.


Until one day, God was in the garden making something like their own image, and they saw her, and their heart went out to her. And so God inhaled a little bit of her and blew it right into the breast of the image. The wind went on searching and remains very lonely to this day – only every once in a while when she passes by a human or caresses a cheek on a summer day, the wind God put in you and me will stir and recognize herself for a moment. And those tiny moments of being seen, of being felt, collect like a hope in her, carrying her through her loneliness to this day.[1]


And then Cole Arthur Riley concludes: “We were made for belonging.”

        

When Pentecost morning dawns, there is still an ache in the world.[2] Those who have followed Jesus begin that Pentecost day in the loneliness of loss, yet again. They have lost Jesus to death once before, but on the third day there was Resurrection. And they’ve now experienced the Risen Christ, together again, walking dusty roads with Jesus, talking, learning, breaking bread.


But as the Book of Acts opens, Jesus leaves them again. Jesus ascends into heaven, with the cryptic instruction: “Wait here for the gift God has promised. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you – and you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.”

        

They see him go. They are left alone. And they wait.


On the day of Pentecost, they all gather in one place – together again in the loneliness of loss. And – suddenly – there is a sound like the blowing of a mighty wind from heaven, and it fills the whole house. And maybe, maybe, they remember the mighty wind in the creation story sweeping over all that is. Or maybe they’re too scared – maybe they’re too terrified to remember how God breathed God’s mighty breath into humanity – maybe they’re too bewildered even to remember, just a few days ago, when they experienced the warm breath of the Risen Christ, on their flesh. Here they are all together, as the house quakes and creaks, filled with the sound of a mighty wind from heaven.


There is a mighty wind. And there is a flame. Tongues as of fire descend upon each of them – everyone. And all of them – everyone – is filled with Holy Spirit – this holy breath – this mighty wind – as tongues of flame come and rest upon them. I wonder if they remembered all the times in Scripture when God’s presence is signified by flame. God speaks to Moses out of a burning bush. God leads the people through the wilderness in a pillar of fire. But what to make of a flame that comes and rests on each and all?

        

Until recently, when I would imagine this Pentecost moment – when I would picture it in my mind’s eye – I would see tongues of flame shooting down from heaven – like a terrifying blow torch. But then, one day last year, I googled “artwork for Pentecost” – and found this. The Pentecost story does say that the flame came to rest on each of them. Here it is in a painting from the Middle Ages:


Duccio di Buoninsegna


And, here it is painted on a fresco.



-- fresco from Aarhus Cathedral


These are just two of a number of paintings like this. I didn’t think much of it, except that it was a little odd. These flames perched on human heads, like a candle or a crown.

I didn’t think much of it, that is, until a few weeks ago: I was talking with Herman – we were talking about the Pentecost story – and he showed me this coin:





This coin has an image of the Emperor – Augustus Caesar. And then, there, right above his head, there is a star embraced by flame. Herman explained that this is called a supercephalicflame – super/above, cephalic/ head. On this coin, this supercephalic flame is an imperial claim of divinity, with something like it recounted in Virgil’s Aeneid – the flame is a sign of being crowned with divinity.[3]


         So we have this coin,



and we have Pentecost:




Justo González talks about the “levelling Spirit” of Pentecost – as everyone is included – everyone filled with the Spirit – the power of the day spread out to everyone.[4] What has been vertical – even the power of hierarchy – is made horizontal.


Yes. I don’t disagree with that.


But there’s more than that. There is a leveling, but there also is a lifting up. The Risen Christ has ascended into heaven. A mighty wind and tongues as of fire descend. And, those gathered at Pentecost are crowned with flame. They are raised up. They are enthroned with Christ.


They are. We are.


And looks what happens next: The world breaks open.


All of the sudden, we’re no longer in the house, but out in an open space – where people from all around the known world hear the sound – and come flowing in. And then, added to the sound of the mighty wind, there are voices – lots of voices speaking lots of languages – people speaking in languages not their own – and everyone hearing and understanding. With all this swirling around them, the people are amazed and bewildered – and they ask: What can this mean?

        

Margaret Atwood says it’s hard to make sense of a story when you are in the middle of it – while it’s unfolding. She says, “When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it.”[5] And maybe the folks here felt like that. Their world is swirling with a mighty wind, with tongues as of fire, with bewildering comprehension in what should be a cacophony of language and words. When you’re in the middle of the story it is but a confusion.

        

We know our own, often inexplicable, swirling world – with tornadoes and super-storms that give voice to climate unraveling and confront us with the damage we have done.[6] We know the confounding complexity of the systems we inhabit as we seek connection in a confining world. We see the inexplicable violence of the world in both new and age-old struggles that rattle on and on.

        

Margaret Atwood says, when you’re in the midst of a story it is but a confusion: What does this mean? But she goes on and says, “It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.”[7]

        

In the swirl of Pentecost, Peter steps in – and starts to make meaning of the story – this tale of wind and flame. “This is what God said. Remember? I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh on all people – of every race and gender and nation – your youth will have visions, your elders will dream dreams – there will be signs and wonders.” All this... is all that.

        

And because we’ve been reading ahead in the book of Acts these past 7 weeks, we know what flows out from all this. The connection they experience on the day of Pentecost becomes community – community that shares what they have and gives as anyone has need. They find the healing touch of Christ in their own outstretched hands, and as they continue to contend with what all this might mean – they experience the inexorable outward reach of the Spirit – this mighty wind – rippling out in ever-expanding circles of embrace.

        

This is a tale of wind and flame – a story of wind and flame that becomes flesh and bone before our very eyes and ears – one that we can touch and taste and experience in our very bodies. Where the day of Pentecost begins in the loneliness of loss and separation, in this mighty wind and crown of flame – we see connection – God and us – us and us. No separation – a leveling of power-over, a lifting up of all we are, and a radiating out so that no one is left out.

        

On that Day of Pentecost, they were all there together, and they experienced a mighty wind. And they started –in the confusion – to make meaning of it all. Maybe it was the wind that had hovered over the earth at creation, the wind that has sped around the earth ever since, bring breath to all that lives, carrying seeds that find their place in fertile soil, bringing more life, more air, more breath. Maybe it was a mistral or a scirocco, one of those spring or summer winds that comes in its own season to remind us of the turning of the Earth. Maybe it was the wind, the breath that God had breathed into creation into humankind, the image of God, or the breath Christ had breathed on the disciples huddled in that upper room, saying, “Peace be with you.” Maybe it was the breath of God – maybe it is the breath of God – as God draws near to whisper in our ear, “You are my beloved. Abide in me, and I will abide in you.”


On that day of Pentecost, they experience a mighty wind, and a flame kindles within them – a spark of divinity crowning them fully human – and they come to life – the body of Christ – the fullness of our humanity rising to greet and embrace and bless this new day.

        

When Cole Arthur Riley, tells the story of the mighty wind at creation, she concludes: “We are made for belonging.”


Yes, yes – in the swirl of Pentecost – that’s what we see – in the swirl of Pentecost


·      with its mighty wind, and tongues of flame, and symphony of language and understanding –


·      in the brooding Spirit and the warm breath of the Risen Christ –


·      in the sharing and generosity of community, the breaking of bread, the outstretched hand, the ever-expanding embrace –


·      in the longing for connection in a confining world, the longing for peace in a world of war, the longing for healing for every hurt –


·      in the breathing in and the breathing out –


·      in one body, in these bodies – in the swirl of all this –


this is what we see:


         We are made for belonging.

         We are made... for all this.



© 2024 Scott Clark

 


[1] Cole Arthur Riley, This Here Flesh (New York: Convergent Books, 2022), pp. 69-70.

[2] For general background on this text and the Book of Acts, see  Justo L. González, Acts (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001); Paul W. Walaskay, Acts (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998); Robert W. Wall, “The Acts of the Apostles,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. x (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2002); Michal Beth Dinkler, Commentary on Working Preacher at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/day-of-pentecost-2/commentary-on-acts-21-21-17

[3] This reading draws from conversations with Herman Waetjen, with deep gratitude.

[4] See González, pp.37-44.

[5] See Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace (London: Bloomsbury, 1996), p.298, quoted in Michal Beth Dinkler, Commentary on Working Preacher at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/day-of-pentecost-2/commentary-on-acts-21-21-17

[7] See Atwood, supra

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