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Pentecost (Whit Sunday)

21 May 2020

Acts 2.1-21; Psalm 104.26-end; 1 Corinthians 12.3b-13; John 20.19-23

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ON THE day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is revealed in tongues of fire, resting on each disciple’s head. At the baptism of Christ, that same Spirit appeared in the form of a dove (Luke 3.22). Each of these manifestations reveals an aspect of the peace we know in Christ through the Holy Spirit.

The dove symbolises the peace and harmony into which the Spirit leads us. The tongues of fire speak of his refining power — reminding us that his peace and harmony are the product of a process which disturbs and challenges us; for, as the Spirit invites us to be reconciled to God through Christ, he demands that we be no longer reconciled to the values and idols of the world.

Commenting on the tongues of fire in Acts 2, St Cyril of Jerusalem says that the disciples “partook of fire, not of burning but of saving fire. This is a fire that consumes the thorns of sins but gives lustre to the soul.” He tells his hearers to welcome that refining and purifying flame that will “brighten yet more that precious possession of your souls, and give you grace, the same given then to the apostles”.

Our epistle holds together these themes of harmony and disturbance. Paul urges the Corinthians to cease their petty rivalries, and to recognise that the “manifestation of the Spirit” is always given “for the common good”. The Spirit baptises diverse peoples — whether “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free” — into one Body.

For the Corinthians to discover their unity in the Holy Spirit, the “thorns of sins” — and, in particular, the sin of pride — must be burned away by that same Spirit. Paul reminds the Corinthians that their spiritual powers and achievements are the fruit of the Spirit. As Maria Pascuzzi explains, there is a shift in his language to drive the point home. “Until this point in the argument of the Letter, Paul has spoken of ‘spiritual realities’ (pneumatika). Here in verse 4 he introduces the word ‘gifts’ (charismata) for the first time.

“By redefining authentic spiritual realities as ‘gifts’, Paul indirectly undermines Corinthian arrogance. No one has merited such gifts, and since each community member’s gift derives from the same source, none is inherently inferior to another” (New Collegeville Bible Commentary: 1 and 2 Corinthians).

The fire of the Spirit not only refines our individual hearts, burning away our vanity and selfishness: it also transforms our common life, in ways that disturb our hierarchies of status and wealth. Sarah Coakley observes that, from the fourth century onwards, the image of the Spirit as fire became less prominent in the Roman Empire — perhaps precisely because of these disturbing connotations.

“In general, after Nicaea (except in direct representations of Pentecost), that association of power and fire with the Holy Spirit was lost iconographically. Looking ahead, we may see that loss as significant: the more ‘cooing’ and self-effacing the dove as Spirit, the more danger of its . . . near redundancy (God, Sexuality and the Self: An essay ‘On the Trinity’).

However much we wish to evade or tame it, the power of the Holy Spirit is irrepressible. Selina Stone and Shermara Fletcher describe the origins of Pentecostalism in the Azusa Street Revival of 1906: “The Holy Spirit’s action converted individuals, formed a church whose common life ran counter to the racial and social segregation of the day, and challenged structural injustice in the wider society.” Those same marks of the Spirit are evident in the narrative of Acts, and echo down the centuries of the Church’s life in countless moments of individual and corporate renewal.

The disciples experience the Holy Spirit as a powerful, living presence. But his is not a power that keeps them out of struggle and conflict. Rather, he gives them peace in the midst of these tribulations. In our Gospel reading, Jesus both shares his peace with, and breathes his Spirit on, disciples who are in a locked room because they fear persecution. As the Spirit inspires them to preach to all nations, the persecution will intensify — now coming from Gentiles and Jews alike.

The words of the Veni, Sancte Spiritus capture these different facets of the presence of the Spirit. He comes “in toil refreshingly” and as “comfort in adversity”; and yet he also disturbs and refines our hearts — cleansing what is unclean, warming what is frozen, and guiding our steps when we go astray.

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