Pentecost, 28 May 23
When I was a a student at Durham, up in the north of England, there was a path along the banks of the River Wear, going from Palace Green outside the Cathedral down to Framwellgate Bridge. It was covered by trees and it is without doubt the coldest place on earth! It was always windy there, that wind which pierces right through and is so unpleasant. Wind is also not great if you recall what happened to the three little pigs who hid in their house and along came the wolf who would warn them that he would huff and he would puff and he was going to blow their house down, which he did in two of the three cases. We will have seen on the TV perhaps, or possibly even experienced ourselves, the devastating effects of tornadoes or hurricanes.
We see an awareness of its destructive quality in the Scriptures too. A sultry east wind beats down on Jonah after his caster plant has withered and died meaning he is devoid of shelter and comfort. Jonah has taken to new lows and despairs: “It is better for me to die than to live,” he says (Jonah 4:6-8). The psalmist prays that God will bring down storm and tempest on his enemies: “As fire consumes the forest … so pursue them with your tempest and terrify them with your hurricane,” (Psalm 83:15). But Our Lord too experienced rough storms with His disciples on boats in the sea of Galilee (St Mark 4:35-41). Here the wind blows storms swiftly over the hillside and they appear from nowhere.
So, wind isn’t always good yet on this great Feast of Pentecost we hear God the Holy Spirit appearing and the disciples hearing “what sounded like a powerful wind” (Acts 2:2). We forget perhaps that God is indeed powerful and if He wanted to wipe out the whole world He could do so with the same ease with which He created everything. Some destructive power is good, be it removing buildings which are dilapidated or removing parts of our body which are infected or cancerous. We are to realise that we as members of the True Vine of our Lord Jesus Christ are to be pruned, i.e. have bits removed from us, so as to follow Christ more effectively. This may be the removal of material possessions from us, it might be attitudes or habits which lead us to be less pious, if might be friendships that lead us away from God. Things being removed, blown away, purged as in a refiner’s fire (Malachi 3:3) is a good thing. We should ask ourselves what needs to be scrapped from our own life?
The force and power of the wind is also a great thing. We saw this of old in the great sails of ships which were blown along the seas; even today along many coasts we see the wind blowing many a sail and indeed on beaches many a kite. As we seek to find renewable forms of energy we see great turbines generating electricity from wind, building on knowledge first used when windmills would grind corn so as to make flour. This strength too is seen in the Scriptures. With a wind does God blow back the waters of the flood in the days of Noah (Genesis 8:1) and thus does God also prepare a path through the waters of the Red Sea through which the people of God could pass to avoid Pharaoh’s wrath (Exodus 14:21).
Both these winds in the Old Testament are the same word in the original Hebrew as that which describes the breath of God or the Spirit of God creating, bringing peace to the waters of chaos: “the earth was a formless void,” we’re told in Genesis 1:2, “and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” This same creativity of the Spirit is reflected in our psalm we heard earlier, “You send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the earth.” With this same creativity does God mould us, my brother and sisters, chipping off bits of pride and sloth, but also equipping with His most beautiful and gracious Spirit, as we heard in our second reading: “There is a variety of gifts but always the same Spirit.” Let us consider then what we are capable of doing and what we are called to do will always lead us to grow closer to others if done under the sovereignty of God. What gifts do you have? How do you use them? Time, money, speech, prayer, fun, communication, strength, energy the list goes on. Have you laid them at the service of the Church or hoarded them lest you might be bruised? Let me know if you have a gift you want to offer for the building up of God’s people.
The Spirit cannot be boarded up. Indeed our Lord teaches Nicodemus this in St John 3. Nicodemus is tiptoeing in to a better relationship with our Lord and Jesus tells him he needs to be born again. This happens at Baptism, whether we remember it or not, in the same way that our natural birth is not any less a birth just because we cannot remember that. But the call to the Christian is also that each day we are to be born again. As the sun rises each day (a reminder of God’s indiscriminate love for His people and His habilitating grace) so we are given the chance to serve God. As Jesus teaches Nicodemus this, He says, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not where where it comes from or where it goes.” The Spirit’s activity in those who are born of Him is to be evident but ultimately there will also be a capricious element to it, meaning it will be unpredictable and not necessarily in nice neat patterns discernible to human wisdom.
Unpredictable and generous as God is doesn’t mean He is chaotic or that we can just make it up, as if anything goes. Those creation narratives remind us that the Spirit brings order where there was chaos, presence where there was nothingness and Paul reminds the Corinthians in the second reading we heard that the Spirit brings unity, not everyone doing their own thing. However, if we are to live up to our vocation to be a Spirit-filled Church we do have to be imaginative and creative. Simply thinking this is how things have always happened is not a reason not to change. We do this through giving new people opportunities to be involved, by making sure the needs of children are first and foremost, and by being a place where the poorest in society are indeed welcome and comfortable. We have to be willing to try new things, not throwing the baby out with the bath water but recognising there is no corner of the earth where the victory of the Good News of Jesus Christ ought not to be preached. Those disciples were not speaking in tongues on the first Pentecost, they were doing something they’d never done before in speaking the languages of all those foreigners who had gathered in Jerusalem and they were understood! It’s amazing.
God being merciful and our primary experience of God being His mercy which He shows to us, sinners that we are, means it will not surprise us that part of the Spirit’s activity in the Church is the forgiveness of sins. In our Gospel today we hear Jesus appear to the disciples and give them authority to be part of this divine ministry - “those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven.” This authority is given to bishops and priests today so that all God’s people can know liberation from their sins. This is the gift of making a Confession. The wind of the Spirit blows away the guilt and shame we feel and repristinates the image of God within us, first breathed within humanity who had been raised from the dust of the earth.
The Spirit having cleansed us, we are then to be caught up in the redeeming love of God. Recall that Elijah at the end of his life on earth is caught up in the whirlwind (II Kings 2:1). This same movement is to be the course of our own life with the Holy Spirit at work in us. He is like helium. Put air in a normal balloon and in an airless room and it will sink. Put helium in a balloon and watch it rise. We are to be like this ensuring we are filled with the Holy Spirit, filled with our Lord Jesus Christ through these gifts of the Mass and so we will find ourselves caught up more fully in the life of Heaven where Jesus reigns.
The power of the wind is great indeed. Greater far is the power of the Holy Spirit! To be handled with care because we don’t know where it will blow us next. To be received with gratitude and humility aware of the heavenly heights He would take us. We are to be aware of what we need to lose along the way, and be mindful of all we have received as we seek to be blown along by the Spirit of God who descended on this day on the Apostles and on Mary, Mother of the Church. Amen.