GOSPEL: John 20:19-23
19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” (Read the whole passage)
“I can’t breathe”
If you have been paying attention to the news at all this week, you will know that this is a quote from George Floyd. George Floyd was killed by a police officer kneeling on his neck for 9 minutes as Mr. Floyd was being arrested by Minneapolis Police. The officers involved were fired and one has been charged with murder.
It is another incident to add to a long list of black men and other people of colour being killed in encounters with police. While at the same time our news has also been filled with images of white protestors congregating at state capitals, in masks and brandishing assault rifles who are allowed to “protest” without police engaging.
This past week protests have grown violent in Minneapolis and around the United States. Cities on fire and protesting crowds have been flooding our news feeds.
Breath, fire and crowds.
These are the images of Pentecost. Pentecost 2020.
Once again, we arrive at another significant church festival, and things aren’t the way they usually are supposed to be.
Pentecost at home and social distancing is a something we never imagined as a way to mark this moment… at least not until just a few weeks ago.
Like Lent, Holy Week and Easter this year, the Pandemic has imparted a certain authenticity to the moment. Lent required an unusual amount of sacrifice this year. Our Easter confinement to our homes was more like the original Easter than we ever imagined. And just last week, as the disciples wondered when things were going to go back to the good ol’ days, we too have been wondering when things might return to normal, or at least return and open up at all.
Today, the Easter story is now bringing that community of disciples to an important moment. A moment of transformation and change. All the preparing that Jesus has been doing, helping his followers for what comes next, for their life as an Easter community comes to fruition as the spirit pushes them out into the streets and through them proclaims the gospel to all the nations.
As we hear the Pentecost story each year, it is easy to get focused on the well known details of the story. It is easy to think that it is all about the disciples having tongues of fire landing on them (what is a tongue of fire anyways?), about going out into the streets and preaching in all different languages, about the accusation that they are drunk and finally the 3000 people that were baptized. Those details that lull us into thinking that Pentecost is all about the rapid expansion of the church, a model for faithful church planting and growing, a sign of the Holy Spirit’s blessing that good ministry is happening.
Yet, this year amidst lockdowns and quarantines, we cannot even offer up our merger reproductions of that Pentecost experience by gathering for our small neighbourhood outdoor worship services and BBQs that we usually celebrate with.
All the while, just down the road from Winnipeg in Minneapolis, the images of fire and crowds, protests and anger speak to another version of pentecost this year.
And they remind us of police involved shootings of indigenous people here in Winnipeg. We are forced to recognize that pandemic has locked down many things, but not the complicated (and often racist) relationship with police that people of colour have both in our country and just across the border to the south of us.
And so despite the lack of tongues of fire, speaking in different languages, and 3000 baptisms… despite not having our usual pentecost celebrations and observances… and with the unmistakable pentecost images flooding our news this week… we might be wondering what is the Spirit actually up to among us? What does Pentecost mean for us today in 2020?
In John’s gospel we are given a clue.
As the disciples are hiding out after the crucifixion, hiding in fear from the outside world, Jesus appears in their midst, speaking peace.
Nothing else is familiar in this moment, but peace – shalom – is something they know. The greeting of the faithful, the peace of God shared between the people of Israel in the synagogue, in the street, in homes, wherever they are – Shalom Aleichem.
And then Jesus breathes on them the spirit, the sign of life itself, the breath of God, breathed into Adam and Eve, now breathed again into them.
Peace and breath given by the Word of God.
The Word who was there in the beginning, speaking all of creation into existence.
The Word who became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.
The Word who rose from the dead on the 3rd day, transforming the life of creation itself, detaching us from death.
And now the Word whose breath came upon the disciples, and 7 weeks later, whose breath and fire drove the disciples out into the streets to proclaim the good news to all nations.
The Good News of resurrected life found in the Word of life.
This Word brought the disciples to the Pentecost moment.
But Pentecost, this story central our identity as church, is not the destination.
Pentecost was not and is not the new thing.
Even as this community of disciples had gone from following Jesus for 3 years, to the experiences of Holy Week, and the re-orientation of Easter and resurrection, even as Jesus prepared them to be the new Easter community…
Pentecost was not the destination. Pentecost was temporary, a transitional space, a moment of disconnection. It was unlike anything they had experienced before, nothing like offering sacrifice in the temple, nothing like learning the Torah in the synagogue.
And Pentecost, big spirit filled gatherings, full of converts hearing the good news and being baptized… is neither what this Easter community would become.
Pentecost is a moment of disruption and disconnection. The moment that separated the disciples from the baggage they carried from before. The desire for the return of the Kingdom of Israel that they were still asking for just last week. From their desire for power and control, from their desire to shape and contort the spirit into their image.
Pentecost instead was making them leave the old things, the old ways behind.
And soon the early church became small communities of faith spread throughout the Empire, communities of 15 or 25 or 40 gathering around the Word and the shared meal of the Eucharist.
And yet through all of it, the thread that connected this new Easter community to the faith that birthed them, to the ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, to Pentecost and then to the early church… the thread that connected them was the Word.
The Word of God speaking from the beginning of time and still speaking to them now.
And just as this pandemic world is unfamiliar to us and we don’t know where we are going, it is plain to see the we are living in our own Pentecost moment. The Spirit is not necessarily showing us the new thing that we are about to become, Pandemic church is not our new future.
Instead, the spirit is stripping us of our baggage.
Stripping us our of attachment to the old ways that we believed being faithful was all about. Of our attachment to culture and traditions that may not be helping us anymore, stripping us of our attitudes and assumptions that contribute to prejudice, racism and white supremacy that allow for a world where Black Indigenous People of Colour can be killed in broad daylight with almost no consequence, even as they cry out, “I can’t breathe.”
Stripping us of all the things that we thought we so important about being church, with the hopes that we will discern again what is essential.
Yet, Pentecost is not our destination.
This moment is one of transition for us too, the way are as community in this pandemic world is not the new way are going to be forever.
But as we await the new thing that we will become, Jesus is still speaking peace to us.
Speaking peace in our homes, behind our locked doors, tying us to the thread of the Word that has been with us all along the way.
The Word that centred the Church from before the time it was the Church.
The Word that birthed faith in us, in well-traditioned church communities that knew how to be church in their time.
The Word whose resurrection and Easter story has been gathering us for generations, and will continue to gather us, even if it is in new ways.
The Word who breathes the spirit in us, even in our socially distanced Easter, even in our homes at Pentecost.
This Word is the constant all the way through, while the fires of Pentecost seem to be burning the rest of the world down around us.
This is Pandemic of 2020 is our Pentecost moment when we know everything is changing while we still don’t know what we are changing into.
But Pentecost this year is also the reminder that the Word of God has not left us, nor sent us into this new word alone.
Instead Jesus is coming again into our midst, speaking Peace to us, bringing us that familiar wind of the spirit, that familiar Word that gives us life.
4 thoughts on ““I can’t breathe” and the Fires of Pentecost”
Pentecost Greetings! Just a note to express my appreciation for your Pentecost sermon. Particularly appreciate connecting to the momentous world issues of these times. (too often, IMO, our churches fail to even mention what is going on in the world)
All the best,
Sig Arnesen, Lebanon, Pa.
Rev. Erik: As always, you provoke my thoughts to a new level. Thank you. I am thinking about the language issue in the Pentecost story. People could hear the Gospel message in their own language. Part of the problem of racism today is that white people and black people do not speak the same language. The language of protest is often misunderstood by my Caucasian race….we see it as violence, and the black race is trying desperately to get the white race to understand that they have been pushed to the edge; hence the sign in Minneapolis, “Can you hear us now?”
I pray for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to come again and make us one. We have a long way to go.
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